Chapter 2 

Tanna 

“Crikey! She’s gonna blow! I’m outta here,” Jack shouted.

“Chill, dude. She’s just growling a little,” said Oscar. “A rumble here and there. Wait until the sun goes down and Yassie’ll put on a show like Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve, but with a little more oomph.”

Jack shuffled closer to the edge of the rim, a squat lad with straw hair cascading down his cheeks. Fading sunlight illuminated his copious freckles as his animated eyes darted about. Jack folded his legs slowly and resumed his cross-legged position next to his girlfriend Michelle, beaming his perpetual grin, like someone holding a dirty secret. 

“I didn’t know you were so easily spooked,” remarked Michelle. “The last people died here over ten years ago and that’s just fate. When your times up, there’s nothing you can do about it.” 

Oscar stood near Rachel, a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He edged closer to the precipice, waving his arms skyward, seemingly goading the volcano to do its worst. Accompanied by strains of Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond soaring from a nearby boombox, Oscar swayed his lanky frame from side to side, eagerly anticipating the next display. 

Rachel leaned over to grab the bottle, took a swig and then chuckled, “Fate Micky? That sounds like the spiritual ni-Van side coming forth. The tourists who died in the 90s were simply standing in the wrong place at the wrong time as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, let’s hope Yassie gets cranky and puts on a good show.”

Several groups of visitors were gathered around the bowl area, just two hundred metres above the spewing mouth of Mount Yasur on the island of Tanna. The sound and light show below reverberated and flashed furiously like a colossal Vulcan candle. A few minutes rumbling gave way to a violent blast, followed by showering splats of scarlet lava.

Mount Yasur is a majestic sight. Rising three hundred and sixty metres from the surrounding sea, it has a circular crater some four hundred metres across. Classed as a stratovolcano, Mount Yasur derives its energy from the eastward moving Indo-Australian plate subducting under the westward Pacific Plate, and has been erupting constantly for hundreds of years.

As the sun retreated below the horizon, the red and yellow hues slowly gave way to a blanket of darkness, save the sharp sliver of the moon which complemented the pink smoke wafting from the volcano in the breeze. Some of the tourists drifted away with their tour guides.

“Silly buggers’ll miss the best of Yassie,” Oscar muttered. “Like leaving a footie game before the underdog scores three times in the last quarter. Boom boom boom!”

Intensified rumbling underfoot, accompanied by barely discernable shock waves through the air, led to more red-hot lava splattering violently from the crater. Meanwhile the bourbon was readily passed around as the group watched enthralled by the sporadic explosions not far below.

“Whoa,” yelped Rachel as a few chunks of lava flew into the air and landed not far way. “That was a little too close for comfort, guys.”

“Ah yes, Yassie is putting on a show for the faithful,” said Jack.

After another twenty minutes of rumbling, lava bombs and dazzling fireworks, the group of friends from Port Vila, strolled down the cone to their four wheel drive and carefully made their way back along the washed out, muddy road. The vehicle heaved one way then the other as Jack skilfully negotiated the deep ruts and gullies formed by the recent monsoon rains. Once on level ground he steadied the vehicle and they all gazed back to the top of the mighty volcano where pink plumes whirled in the light breeze.

“Hey, Oscar. Do you reckon that’s how Captain Cook saw it?” Jack suggested after swigging the last of the Jack Daniels.

“Expect so. Apparently he sighted pink smoke out at sea and came in for a closer look. Reckon he said, ’Hullo, I’m James. James Cook. Is this some kind of celebration underway here, or perhaps a high tea?’ Lucky man Tanna didn’t have a go at him. Not like the Hawai'ians who savagely inflicted the mortal dents on Cook a few years later. Poor bastard, clubbed to death because they presumed he was some god revisiting their shores at the wrong time.”

“So, when did whitey first settle around here?” chimed in Michelle. “Were they plantation types or missionaries?”

“I was chatting about that with Solomon before dinner last night,” said Jack. “A Presbyterian missionary from Victoria, Reverend John Paton, settled here with his family in 1858. He didn’t fear the cannibals ‘cos he had God on his side. But Rev. Paton wasn’t tolerated for too long, and the family was chased off the island four years later. They moved their mission to Aneityum, just over there,” Jack said pointing to an island in the south, “and Paton lived to a ripe old age. See, Oscar, leave the piss alone and you’ll live longer.” 

“Yeah, let me think about that. Nah, not worth it!”

“Well, I’m not sure those preachers did the right thing with their fire and brimstone ranting,” Rachel interjected rather indignantly. “I mean, what entitled them to preach their guilt message to people who had practised their customs for centuries. Besides all that hocus-pocus just made them ripe for something like John Frum. Now that’s wild.”

“I dunno,” said Jack, “I don’t think anyone’s ever been killed over John Frum. And cargo cults make a lot of sense. Just say, if you’d heard about a bounty of booty simply dropping from the sky and someone suggested it could happen again, you might just try appeasing the gods. Love how the islanders fashioned replica radios and things outta bamboo and coconuts and stuff to invoke the heavenly goods to appear. Perhaps the likelihood of John Frum performing is a bit more real than the Second Coming, eh?”

“There was more to those guys than the Second Coming and their fire and brimstone,” said Michelle glancing at Jack and Rachel in turn. “They did some remarkable things here, especially in education and introducing trades, along with wiping out cannibalism which was part of the local culture for eons. And when I was at school, most of the nuns were really nice.”

Just then the vehicle lurched to the right and slammed into a tree lying across part of the dirt track.

“Shit, where did that come from?” Jack exclaimed.

“John Frum, I guess,” said Oscar. “Maybe not so ridiculous after all. Any damage?”

“I don’t think so,” Jack replied as he carefully drove over the stump and ploughed onward. “Reckon the hire car mob won’t notice another little ding on the beast.”  

The group was quiet for the remainder of the drive back to their cabins at Happy Bungalows, holding their thoughts as they rumbled through the lush coconut groves. There was little moonlight and it was now well and truly dark. A few locals gathered around in little groups by the roadside or under dimly lit shelters and waved or shouted ‘hello!’ as if they were the first visitors to have ever passed through. Some of the men lingered at the occasional nakamal, or kava bar identified by the ubiquitous red lantern.

The menfolk drink kava at the end of the day throughout the islands, congregating in small groups as the sun goes down. In the two main towns of Port Vila and Santo, women might join them. Kava is prepared from a pepper shrub piper methysticum. The tubers were traditionally chewed and spat out by pre-pubescent boys until it became a mixture of pulp and saliva. These days it is ground mechanically and the brew is squeezed through coconut fibre and diluted with water. It tastes bloody terrible – just as you would expect from a mulched-up  pepper root drink. Nevertheless, people are drawn to its fairly harmless buzz that leaves the lips delightfully numb. Maybe that’s why they speak so softly at the nakamal. 

As they passed through the few villages, coconut scented smoke wafted from small kitchen fires blending with the scent of the dark moist volcanic soil. The open friendliness of the locals, the earthy aromas and the tropical landscape all invoked a sense of paradise as they turned off the road and jolted down the even rougher track to Happy Bungalows.

Olsem wanem olgeta,” shouted Mary their host as they parked in the tidy patch of coral gravel. Mary was the manager of the small backpacker resort of thatched huts nestled by the sea.

Nambawan,” greeted Oscar, “The trip back sure worked up an appetite. Hope you got plenty kakae for some hungry tourists.”

“Of course,” Mary chuckled. “You think we would let you starve? Ha ha!”

Mary wore a green and white floral mother-hubbard style frock, as did most women on the islands. She was short and dark with large round eyes and a mass of jet-black curly hair. With stout strong legs, Mary looked as though she could clamber up and down Mount Yasur all day long.

Her son, Solomon wandered out to greet the arrivals, sporting a broad loutish grin and clutching a bottle of chilled Tusker beer. On holiday from his hospitality studies in Port Vila, he was relaxed and dressed comfortably in faded jeans and a ratty old green and yellow T- shirt.

“So how about a fresh lobster or yufala want some of that steak again?” he asked. 

“As long as you’ve got some cold beers, I’ll have whatever you’re having,” Jack replied with his big grin.

“Hey, make up your mind,” said Rachel, “I’ll have, lobster please. What about you, Oscar?”

“Lobster any day.”

“Steak for me,” said Michelle, as she leant against the thatched hut. “Never been big on lobster. Ils sont horribles!”

Of ni-Vanuatu mother and French father, Michelle had acquired the finest features of each, with dark brown, straight shoulder length hair and an impish Melanesian manner. Her inquisitive brown eyes and small nose complemented her generous lips and dimpled cheeks. Tanned, slim and of medium height, Michelle held the bearing of someone comfortable and contained wherever she found herself.

“Alright,” said Solomon, “two lobsters, one steak and half a dozen Tuskers for Jack.”

“Mifala wantem lobster too, friend blong mi, mo likem beer first up,Jack said with a cheeky grin.

After a thirst quenching ale, the couples retreated to their respective huts while their meals were prepared. The cabins were sparsely furnished with a low set double bed beneath a mosquito net canopy, shoulder high bamboo shelving and a small low bamboo table. The quaint bathroom featured a coral floor, bamboo walls and even hot water. The coral floor allowed water from the basin and shower to seep through and drain down to the beach, while the toilet was plumbed into an on-site septic system.

There were a couple of lights, the obligatory mosquito coils and some candles for when the generator was turned off. A small balcony with two cane chairs completed the modest little hut. Outside, the crescent moon glowed only faintly through wispy clouds and waves lapped gently on the beach. The gentle crash on the reef some eighty metres offshore melded into a soothing ocean rhythm, which offset the steady growl of the generator near the kitchen.

“Yes, this is a happy place,” murmured Rachel reclining on the bed after a lukewarm shower.

Tall and lithe with fine athletic limbs, Rachel inherited her father’s strong facial features of large blue eyes, big nose with a few freckles on her fair skin and tresses of long dark hair. She had grown up in Fulham, West London and studied nursing. Her parents separated just as she was completing her degree and her few years at Hammersmith Hospital were not happy ones as she struggled to deal with the divorce. Following a low period of drug abuse, Rachel realised she must change her lifestyle. She’d been living with her father in Port Vila for just over two years and worked at Port Vila hospital as Duty Matron. Rachel enjoyed the expatriate lifestyle with the delightful ni-Van people and the wild tropical landscape. 

“Yeah, it ain’t bad. I like this place,” Oscar agreed as he joined her on the bed, still wet from his shower. “Makes me feel good, like more toey than a Roman sandal.”

“Anyone might think you’re only interested in the sex,” Rachel teased and Oscar laughed. “What’s so funny?”

“Aw nothing. Just the first time I’ve ever heard ‘only’ and ‘sex’ used in the same sentence.” 

“Is that your idea of foreplay?” she joked, before pouncing on top of him, pinning his hands to the pillow.

Long dark hair swayed through the air as she wrestled him playfully.

“I’ll teach you to mess around with me, young man,” and she straddled him before sensually licking the remaining droplets from his torso. The ocean lapping on the nearby reef muted their furtive sighs and whispers.

Later the four friends gathered for dinner with Mary and Solomon in the dining hut.

“Not many people here tonight,” Jack said. “Did you scare ‘em all away, Solomon?”

“No, man. We’re nearly full. Yufala eating late tonight. Kakae’s ready and we have the Tuskers on ice”.

Mary appeared with the food while Solomon grabbed the beers, and the six of them tucked into a feast.

“Hey, Solomon, can you tell us more about the John Frum movement. Do you know much about the origins?” Jack enquired as he juggled his beer in one hand and a lobster claw in the other.

“Well you gotta remember my forefathers didn’t take well to religion. Chased ‘em off the island a few times, but them missionaries kept coming back. Now we have Catholic and Presbyterian missions all over the place. The Catholics teach French, the Presbyterians English but sometime in the 1930s a local fella began promising the people a new age of prosperity with a bounty of modern western goods. We believe he had seen these as a sailor overseas and thought the Americans would help to rid them of the plantation owners and the missionaries once and for all.”

“If they got rid of the plantation owners, I wouldn’t exist!” chimed in Michelle. “And where did the name John Frum come from, anyway?”

“During the war, locals built these very small air strips in readiness for the U.S. planes, so people say the name was short for John from America,” said Solomon. “They carved headphones from wood and talked to imaginary pilots. They lit signal fires and once built a life size airplane out of straw. In the 1950s the leader of the movement organised parades where people painted their faces and wore T-A USA on their T-shirts, which stood for Tanna Army. The parade still takes place every year on February 15th, when John Frum Day is officially observed throughout the island.”

“No shit,” said Jack ”I didn’t know about the T-A USA bit.”

“Oh yeah, it was big alright,” continued Solomon. “In the late 1970s the John Frum movement had its own political party and at one time they attempted to break away from the rest of Vanuatu. Prince Philip is now revered as a divine being, and a brother to the original John Frum, by some followers. Maybe they think he’ll make the next delivery of goods. Not sure what’s gonna happen when he kicks the bucket. Maybe Bill Gates will become the next brother!”

Phee-ew,” whistled Oscar. “At least they’d have a better chance of getting money outta Bill,” he said after taking a swig of his Tusker ale. 

“Mary, this lobster’s fantastic,” Rachel commended in her West London accent. “Maybe we should stay another day. What do you say guys?”

“Nah, gotta get back to work and aren’t you rostered tomorrow?” replied Oscar while Jack noisily picked at another piece of lobster claw.

The group chatted about their plans for the following day, where an early start was required to catch the first of two daily flights to Port Vila.

“We’ll be back, mes amis,” said Michelle. “This place is so lovely and the food is delicious.”

They retired to bed. Solomon turned off the generator and everyone settled into a peaceful sleep, lulled by the gentle percussive lap of the waves, until he roosters roused them at dawn.