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Exploring The Islands of Vanuatu by Paddleboard

Exploring The Islands of Vanuatu by Paddleboard

Starboard Team Riders, Bart de Zwart and Trevor Tunnington, explore the beautiful islands of Vanuatu in the remote South Pacific Ocean – just off the west coast of Fiji – on stand up paddle boards. This is an amazing & inspiring story of adventure, friendship, and a sustainable way of life.

The expedition evolved from Bart’s fond memories of sailing through the islands with his family back in 2007 – a journey that made Bart fall in love with the people, nature and culture of the islands. The Dutch expedition paddler gives us an account of his travels through the island which he did with fellow Starboard paddler, Trevor Tunnington.


“Another loud explosion, we looked at each other with a mix of excitement and worry. It made us wonder what we would see up there. We were walking towards Mt Yasur on Tanna, one of the few very active volcanos which were considered ‘relatively safe’ to view up close. It was still a two-hour walk but the noises this volcano made were already loud and frightening.
While we were walking I thought of how we got here: I sailed the islands of Vanuatu in 2007 with my wife and daughter and we had very fond memories of the people, nature and the culture. So, the expectations were high. But what we found, made us fall in love with the people and gave us a rare insight view of their unique way of life.


For this SUP expedition, I had asked Starboard Teammate, Trevor Tunnington, to come along. He didn’t need much convincing and was immediately on board. Trevor answered without hesitation, “A SUP expedition, to one of the most friendly but also most dangerous nations [in terms of national disasters] on earth! What is there not to like?”


We would travel light; two Starboard inflatables paddle boards (Touring 14’ x 30” and iGO 11’2 x 32”), easily foldable 3-piece paddles, a tent, sleeping mats, an emergency ration of food & water and some basic navigation gear. We opted to take an iGO deluxe double chamber for the safety aspect as the additional chamber makes crossing safer when we are far out at sea.


Vanuatu consists of 13 main islands and many small ones, making it an ideal place to paddle and explore on stand up paddle boards. Due to its remoteness, Vanuatu is also one of the least visited countries in the world, and apart from the main island, the islands’ the villagers rarely see tourists.

The day after arriving, we took a short island hop flight from the mainland to the island of Tanna on a tiny plane. Looking over the shoulder of the pilot, we could see the island appear on the horizon, black volcanic rock juxtaposed by white sandy beaches. Once on the ground, we found a guy with a 4×4 who was willing to take us to Port Resolution, a village on the opposite side of the island. After a 2-hour drive on barely manageable & muddy roads, we arrived at our destination.

It is customary in every village in Vanuatu to first go to the villages’ chief and ask for his permission to visit and stay in the village. Normally you always arrive with a gift, so did we. We had brought T-shirts, lycras and hats, which were very much appreciated. After a discussion with the chief, he gave us permission to stay offered a great spot to put up our tent on a cliff overlooking the beautiful bay.


We had a swim at the deserted white coral sand beach on the other side of the village before starting our long walk to the active volcano, Mt Yasur. I couldn’t help but think to myself that this is the Tiki Life feeling.

Hiking up the slopes of the mountain, the thunder like explosions got louder and louder, we soon found ourselves in front of the entrance to the volcano. After a brief ceremony and some instructions not to jump over the crater’s edge, we went to the rim for a closer look. A light sulphur smell greeted us when we got close to the edge. We then saw smoke and deeper down, the lava boiling at the bottom of the crater. We were standing there watching this spectacle when suddenly we got hit by a pressure wave caused by a loud explosion from deep within the volcano, which threw up the lava hundreds of meters into the air – a lot higher than we were standing. The first reaction of our little group of people was to duck down and run for cover. This was so freaking awesome and trilling at the same time.


The lava explosions kept coming every 5 minutes or so – and so we stayed on the rim into the evening as it got darker and s the light diminished so the spectacle got even more impressive. After a few hours at the volcano, we made our way down and fortunately found a ride on the back of a 4×4 to our tent, saving us the 2.5-hour walk back.


The next morning we inflated our boards and paddled for a few hours around the island to the next village, Ipikel. On the way, we came across something straight out of a scene of a BBC Planet Earth series – a shark feeding frenzy! About 5 sharks were hunting a school of tunas out at sea. We saw water splashing and fins coming out of the water. We paddling towards it for a closer look and before you know it, we were right in it. A few sharks were pushing them close together and the others were happily biting at any tuna coming their way. I pushed my camera underwater, hoping that the sharks would not mistake it for a tuna, to get shot of the action beneath the surface. We continued our paddle along the coast to Ipikel and as we got closer we noticed someone was waving to us, guiding us to a safe landing spot through the beach break. It turned out to be Chief William. A crowd quickly gathered around us as we pulled our boards and gear on the beach. They were as excited to see us, as we were to see them.


If there is one thing you take away from traveling in Vanuatu it is the way the Vanuatu people live. The contrast to the way the Western World lives couldn’t be more different. Chief William and his adopted son, also named William, showed us around their village and explained a lot of the ways of their culture. In the village, they don’t use money. They grow everything they need on their land, use natural building materials and manage to have a culture without currency – only trading if required.
They have a lot of time for each other and themselves – no one is in a hurry or is stressed. Everyone is friendly, helpful and seems very content. It is a simple but also a happy, rewarding life.


That evening we were invited to drink Kava with the men of the village. It is a ceremony they do almost every night in a special area of the village. Pacific cultures traditionally use the Kava drink during rituals and social gatherings, and only men are invited. The way they make the Kava is also very ‘special’. They take a mouth full of ‘kava’ root, chew on it for about 15 minutes, then, with a lot of noise, they jiggle it from the back of their throat and spit it out on a leaf. They then put a little of the gathered mush in a piece of cloth, pour water over it and wring out the cloth in a coconut shell, extracting a yellow milky liquid which is highly sedative. I drank only a little, which immediately numbed my lips and mouth. Trevor drank the entire bowl and seemed to enjoy the feeling, me, on the other hand, not so much.

The following day we were woken up by the pigs running around our tent, which we had put up right in front of the chief’s hut. After a fried fish for breakfast the chief had caught fresh that morning, we packed up our gear and took off and had a great downwinder to Waisisi.


We were once again greeted by a local villager as we were pulling in. At first, he looked bewildered and then became curious. He calls his fellow villagers and they all come out with the chief in front to see what has just arrived. The chief “John” was very friendly and showed us a great place to put up our tent. He told us that most of the bay was ‘Tabu’ – one was forbidden to go swim and fish. This is a ritual the chiefs hold every year to give the fish in the bay time to lay their eggs. Nobody knows exactly when the Tabu period is over and everyone can go fish again. There are no set dates as the chiefs from the surrounding villages sit in a hut on the beach discussing all day for days on end when the fishing season can reopen. The villagers told us it is mostly a couple of weeks before the chiefs decide with a ceremony that fishing season is on again.

However, all the kids in the village and us were allowed to swim on one side of the bay where the waves broke on the reef. We decided it was a good idea to take the kids out on our stand up boards. It turned out to be a high light for them as well as for us. The whole village went wild when one of them tried to paddle into the waves and fell off – everyone was laughing joyfully.


In the afternoon some of the kids asked us if we liked to go with to get coconuts. We walked up into the jungle and a few of the kids climbed up the 50ft tall palm trees, barefoot and fearless. We had even more respect for their skills a couple of days later when we tried climbing the palms ourselves but failed miserably. The kids here walk to school every day, about 1.5 hours trek each way. And again, nobody seemed to complain, rather the opposite, they all seem genuinely happy. Our last night on Tanna we shared a meal with the chief and his wife, sitting on the ground as is custom.

For the second part of our trip, we flew to Ambrym. Our 12-passenger plane landed on a tiny grass airstrip. A short walk through the forest brought us to the volcanic lava rock beach where we inflated up our boards. Ambrym is another volcanic island, but after flowing for 10 years, the lava flow recently stopped. Although it has stopped flowing on the surface you can still hear the powerful rumbling underneath the surface.
Apart from the constant threat of the volcano, the inhabitants endure frequent earthquakes and cyclones. Only 5 years ago a category 5 Cyclone hit the island and destroyed everything. Although some residents now rebuild with concrete blocks, most simply head into the forest and build their huts back in a short time with the natural resources they gather.


I had just read that we are consuming 1.7 times what the earth is capable of restoring annually. In Vanuatu, clearly, most people don’t take more from the earth than it gives ~ and because they only use natural resources directly from their back yard they don’t have any waste or garbage! We didn’t see any plastic or waste other than what is washed up on the beaches from their plastic consuming neighbours from afar, like China or the Philippines.


Most islands and villages have no electricity but interestingly there are a few cell phone towers. We did see more and more huts with a small solar panel for one light at night or to charge a phone. They use rain or river water to drink and cook.


After spending a night on a deserted beach along the coast we wake up only to realise that one of our full water bags had a leak and was now empty, leaving us without water. The temperatures and humidity in Vanuatu are high – and so is our usage of water. After a couple of hours paddling, we explore the land where I saw a river on the map. Unfortunately, the river was dried out and we had to continue to the next village with a bigger river to find water. By the time we got there, we were very thirsty. Fortunately, everywhere we went we met people that are genuinely friendly and try to help us.
An older woman sitting under a tree in a small village gives us water and feels we also need some bananas. We eagerly bite into the fruit and fill up our stomach with water – life can be so simple!


That evening we camped near a village on the North East point of Ambrym after once again getting permission from the local chief. Once settled in, we gathered some fruits for dinner and then went for a paddle with some kids in the waves. At some point, Trevor came racing into the beach. For a moment Trevor thought he saw a saltwater crocodile which does roam the northern part of Vanuatu and is very dangerous but this turned out to be a Dugong, a large friendly seagrass eating mammal.


The following morning, we make the crossing to the next island, the famous Pentecoste. In the Southern part of this island, they practice Vine Jumping, the origin of modern-day bungee jumping, and something which became very famous with thrill-seekers the world over. Every year in the months of May and June, for as long as locals can remember, the young men get a chance to prove their bravery. Instead of bungee, here they use vines out of the forest and construct a rickety wooden tower from which to jump, built from small trees. This makes the whole tower very flexible and is one reason why most jumpers survive the jump. Trevor and I talked to Samuel and many people in the next village we visited. Although they are very proud, they all admit, it is very scary to do.


Trevor and I had many conversations about their way of life compared to ours During the hours we paddled between the villages. It seemed that the people on most islands live with another rhythm. They sit under the trees for hours and discuss life, love and death. Kids have a lot of time play and they play without toys and love the water. Our kids in the western world could learn so much from them.

On these last two islands, we can see that for some villages it is hard and complicated to keep the old ways and traditions. There are so many outer influences coming tourists, smartphones and returning citizens who have worked in Australia and come home with some money. Even in the most basic villages, with no electricity, no cars, no-money economy, there were always one or two phones owned by the younger men and they all knew what Facebook was. It will be hard to stop Vanuatu from slowly changing and modernizing. The Chinese are buying up a lot of lands which worries the locals and although most try to resist, some will break, go for the money and change their lives forever. I am just afraid it will not always change for the better.


We spent our last night close to the ‘airport’ only a tiny house next to the runway makes the’ airport terminal’. To get to the beach we need to run back and forth over the runway. With only two flights a week, we couldn’t risk missing a flight. Just then, we found out that our flight to the main island is going to be 4 hours later, which would suck because we would miss our flight back home by 20 minutes. That would mean a 4-day delay for missing my successive connecting flights. Trevor’s mom – back in Australia – helps out and calls the head office and convinces Air Fiji to wait for us if we get there in time. In the morning the plane passed by on its way up to other small islands before it returned on the way back to pick us and a few other passengers up. This gave us the chance to talk to the pilots. We told them that we would be super grateful if they could come on time or even come a little early so we could make our flights. And they did come early, a whole 30 minutes. We arrived 5 minutes before our official flight time. With a little run and help of the ground crew, we got to our next flight and took off right away & on time. That was my fastest connection ever!

Once in Fiji, before Trevor and I headed our separate ways home, we concluded that Vanuatu is a very special place. We saw some spectacular sites but what mostly touched us were the people. With no exception, young or old, chief or fisherman, rich or poor, every single person was friendly, kind and very generous with the little things they have. We can all learn a lot from them.

Go on an adventure and explore the world by SUP!”


~ Bart and Trevor



Words: Bart de Zwart | Pictures: Trevor Tunnington

Chris Couve

View all posts by Chris Couve

Chris is a Digital Marketing Specialist based out of Ballito, South Africa and also an avid Stand-Up Paddle racer. When he's not working or competing he also teaches SUP and educates communities about sustainability & environmental awareness. Also known for making an epic cup of coffee!

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