Travel

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Mt Yasur Volcano – Vanuatu

grey Mt Yasur Volcano   Vanuatu

Air Taxi – Vanuatu

 

Mt Yasur Volcano on the island of Tanna is one of the world’s most reliably active and easy to access volcanos. Following a short hop in a single engine aircraft (piloted by a chap who looks just out of school) you take a two hour four wheel drive trip that ends within fifty metres of the lava. On the way in, Eddie our driver stops on a vast plain of black ash that leads to the conical volcano. I start to get disappointed, thinking that this is as close to the action as we are getting. After we’ve all had a chance to soak up this surreal landscape we are urged back to the four wheel drive and bundle out of the truck sometime later, right near the smoking top.

 

 

The flight to Tanna Island

A concerned looking guide takes control of our huddle and tells us that, as Mt Yasur’s activity is a high two out of five, we will not be climbing to the top today. As if on cue the volcano makes an unnerving boom and throws a baby-sized lump of lava towards us. The wind is coming our way, and this is also a bad thing as the smoke is blown into our field of view and obscuring any more volcano babies that may try to land on our heads. We all readily agree that safety should be the main priority so we all grab our cameras and busy ourselves with taking photos.

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Mt Yasur ash fields

grey Mt Yasur Volcano   Vanuatu

Mt Yasur from a distance

At one point I wander off to take a leak. With my back turned to Mt Yasur I go about my business but am expecting a smack on the back of the neck … this is how they all die in the movies.

The guide bolts up to the top to check conditions. Once there, he starts frantically waving us all up. I start to think that this may be just part of the show but Kevin, a quietly spoken Aussie who was here yesterday, assures me otherwise.

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Mt Yasur eruption

“Five minutes,” the guide shouts. “Five minutes only, then we go…”

At the top I am sure to hold Jette’s hand (not solely for her benefit) as the volcano booms and sends powerful shockwaves through us. Occasionally a few bits of lava land too close for comfort but none as big as the initial baby. Volcanos are unpredictable and hugely intimidating. They’ll go quiet, hissing and humming like one of Willy Wonka’s chocolate machines, then BOOM! A huge plume of lava lurches into view.

grey Mt Yasur Volcano   Vanuatu

Volcanic eruption

I discover that you can ready for a photo by watching for shockwaves through the smoke. The sonic boom of these impossible explosions warps the smoke and you can clearly see a quiet shockwave pass through the smoke like a ghost just before the boom. Light travels faster than sound. This only gives you half a second or so to brace for the boom though.

 

 Mt Yasur erupting (and wife cursing!)

The activity seems to be picking up and our guide hurries us in the dark down the stairs and to the relative safety of the trucks.

Just as we are turning to go, the volcano gives us one final farewell. The biggest one yet.

A bright bulb of lava comes into view as the sound reaches us, making us all catch our breath.

Those tourist office people were right. Seriously, if you only do one thing in Vanuatu.

 

SCUBA diving Vanuatu at Tranquility Island

 

grey SCUBA diving Vanuatu at Tranquility Island

Welcome to Tranquility Island

grey SCUBA diving Vanuatu at Tranquility Island

Weather coconut

SCUBA diving in Vanuatu! I am jittery-excited! Our short, energetic dive-master Claudia turns her attention to me, “So when was your last dive Ben?”

You know when you should lie but don’t. 

Hesitation, “Umm, three years ago in Thailand.”

“Oh, and you’ve only done a few dives total right? Well, I think you should skip the first dive and do a refresher with me.”

“That’s cool, I can keep Jette company on her test dive.”

We are on Tranquility island, a large, slightly detached island in the northern reaches of Efate. Jette, a keen snorkeler, is going to do her first dive to see if she likes it enough to do the course and I had planned to do two reef dives. I am somewhat comforted with the focus on safety here. Last time I went SCUBA diving in Thailand it was only my third dive after completing my certification. We went straight down to 35 meters (15 meters deeper than I should at this level) and into a sunken boat where we pulled ourselves through tight spaces. My qualification is for an open diver. That means I need open water above my head and shouldn’t be bumping tanks around inside boats or caves. That experience was rather intense, but I loved it!

grey SCUBA diving Vanuatu at Tranquility Island

Tranquility Island Dive Resort

As the others set off for the reef Claudia starts enthusiastically gathering tanks, regulators and other gear for Jette and I. Soon we are kitted up, waist deep off the beach. I can tell that Jette is not entirely comfortable with the equipment but she gives it a good go. We kneel down underwater so that J can practice breathing through the regulators.

Sadly, the waves trying to flip her over, the mask fogging up and the weird, asthmatic feel of regulator breathing increases Jette’s discomfort to the point where she decides to give up and try again elsewhere. Maybe in a pool. We watch Jette waddle off up the beach. Normally Jette moves with a rather feline grace but, under the weight of all her SCUBA gear, she is now waddling. It looks hilarious. Looking up the beach I see the Turtle sanctuary is doing a release. Maybe we will see one.

grey SCUBA diving Vanuatu at Tranquility Island

Lost turtle

 

With my skills proven Claudia and I decide to try a small reef dive near the resort. As we descend slowly to 15 meters I am amazed at the wealth of sea life surrounding us. Claudia proves to be an attentive and comforting dive buddy, unlike the Thai chap who often left me stranded as he disappeared to chase fish. We dive past WWII antisubmarine bouys like rusting aquariums they are filled with tiny Nemos and other fish. Then we spot a lonely looking turtle. We swim over to check his tag and realize that this little chap is one of the guys that was just released. He sits on a rock looking rather confused and, no doubt, wondering where all his friends have gone…

Suddenly I feel bubbles all over my torso and my buoyancy feels wrong. I get Claudia’s attention (thankfully not hard) and lift my arms so she can check me. The purge button on my spare regulator has stuck on and is letting air out. A quick fiddle with the regulator thankfully fixes the problem and we wind our way up and back to the beach.

grey SCUBA diving Vanuatu at Tranquility Island

Ben SCUBA diving

Following an amazing barbecue I leave Jette to happily go about exploring with her trusty snorkel and jump into the boat for another dive. I am buddied up with a lovely, chatty school teacher who, like me, is happy to go slow and take in the sights. We dive down to 20 meters right into a veritable Atlantis. Big fish, small fish, turtles, coral, Clown Fish hiding in anemone and the occasional sea horse make the 50 minute dive feel like five. I was sorry to have forgotten the waterproof backing for my Go-pro and sad to leave when my buddy signaled that she was low on air, time to go up. It was amazing how far we traveled underwater, right back to the resort.

If you read the word ‘resort’ and think swim up bars and mini golf, I should clarify. The Tranquility Dive resort is a few bamboo buildings hidden under tall trees right on the beach. They have a cold water shower, a toilet, and a rusted barbecue. Real Robinson Crusoe stuff. It is perfect, not to mention that they run the Turtle sanctuary and so earn their stripes as an eco-lodge.

I am not surprised when Jette starts planning another try at SCUBA diving on our return boat trip to Efate. The girl is stubborn, in a good way. Just another reason I married her!

 

grey SCUBA diving Vanuatu at Tranquility Island

Boat on Vanuatu

grey SCUBA diving Vanuatu at Tranquility Island

Wife on boat on Vanuatu

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Tranquility Island

grey SCUBA diving Vanuatu at Tranquility Island

Vanuatu beach

 

 

Vanuatu – Poppy’s on the lagoon

grey Vanuatu   Poppys on the lagoon

Girl paddling canoe in lagoon

You know those really small regional towns? The ones cut in half by highways going somewhere good? The towns with a pub (maybe), a petrol station and a few aged folk sitting on balconies, suspiciously watching cars go by. I am currently riding my motorbike home from one of these towns in regional Victoria, Australia. Having spent the last two and a half weeks casting medicines upon the unsuspecting locals of Avoca, currently a few thoughts are rattling through my mind:

What a bunch of friendly folk! Why the hell do I ride a motorbike in winter? Will feeling return to my legs? What time was that flight? Stop daydreaming and look out for kangaroos you fool. Jette would kill me if I crashed the night before our honeymoon!

 28 hours later

I wake in Vanuatu in an unfamiliar bed. Like a dopey koala I follow Jette down to reception to plan our week. Jette has this freakish ability to shake off any length of commute faster than a politician forgets election promises. I let her do the talking as I sit there drooling, laughing randomly and generally needing caffeination.

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Relaxing at Poppy’s on the Lagoon

We have decided to stay at Poppy’s on the Lagoon. My second impression of Poppy’s is that I could easily spend the whole time sitting next to the pool, reading and relaxing. My first impression was at 4am last night. That involved thoughts of bed then wishing that the rooster would shut the hell up. Our accommodation is a short ten minute walk, past the prison and down a hill, into town. Poppy’s is set amongst lush tropical gardens and faces a quiet lagoon. Maybe this is a sign that we are getting older but we never once considered staying in town near the ‘action‘, nor do we want to set foot in the Adult pool. I’ve seen the internet movies…

Jette and I wanted to have some time together before I go to Nepal for six weeks and she returns to Denmark to visit family and friends. As such we don’t want to spend the whole time running around trying to do everything. To that end we just book an overnight trip to see Mt Yasur (active volcano) and a day SCUBA diving on Tranquility Island. Tranquility Island … I’d visit there on the name alone.

grey Vanuatu   Poppys on the lagoon grey Vanuatu   Poppys on the lagoon
grey Vanuatu   Poppys on the lagoon grey Vanuatu   Poppys on the lagoon

Between a few days sitting on the beach and exploring town we rent a Quad bike and buzz off to see the blue lagoon. Interesting fact: The first movie I saw with boobs in it was called The Blue Lagoon. I had high expectations of this place. The main island of Vanuatu, called Efate, is bristling with blue lagoons where fresh meets salt water. We are assured that this one, is the Blue Lagoon. After a few frights involving me forgetting to drive on the right-hand side we make it safely to the lagoon. There is no one else here so I switch into my swimming shorts under a tree and dive right in. The visibility is amazing, even without goggles. Clear, warm, inviting water and my wife in a bikini = happy days! The lagoon is surrounded by lush jungle and rimmed by white sand. It is truly a scene taken from a postcard. We find a rope swing attached to a tall tropical tree and start swinging gleefully. Soon about eight other holiday makers show up and join in the fun.

The boys try to climb higher and higher in the tree before swinging. I may have started that game. You know when you get an idea, immediately think this will go wrong, but then do it anyway.

Yeah, that.

One time I swing my legs above my head and latch them onto the rope as I swoop over the lagoon. At the top of my arc I let go with my legs but my hands stay attached. The initial idea was to be facing down as I released my feet and to do a graceful dive into the water. The reality was that when my hands also slipped I hit the water from about 3 meters high flat on my side.

WHACK!

I bob to the surface with a surprised grimace and decide that It would be safer risking my life on the roads. Time to go.

Feeling like we have been on holidays for months we arrive back at Poppy’s to get an early night ready for a day of SCUBA diving.

Adventure Underwear – stick your phone in your pants and smile

This week leading up to the big climb I was planning to write about the importance and logistics of getting to the start of the mountain in a healthy state. My plans changed, however, when an unassuming chap named Nigel emailed and kindly offered to show me his underpants, Adventure underpants no less!

Those of you who regularly read my blog know that I have no intention of monetizing this site and that the only sponsored post I have ever done was when Red Balloon offered me a free skydive last January, an offer too good to refuse…but when a a bloke offers to show me his undies.

grey Adventure Underwear   stick your phone in your pants and smileTo give you some background on this Nigel character, he is a chemist who loves to travel. Being a safety conscious soul, as he was preparing to explore South America he sewed a small pocket into his underpants to safely store some of his valuables. I imagine he spent a fair bit of time flashing his pocketed jocks to passersby as he returned home with a lot of people urging him to market the idea. Which he did. Nigel quit his job and threw himself into the world of underwear design, his labors resulting in the Adventure Underwear brand. This is a brand in the making and the 23rd of July is the official kick-starter launch. Nigel and his team are trying to raise enough interest through kick-starter to really fire off their band and I wish them all the best.

Let’s face it, money belts are dorky and uncomfortable. Money belts are easy to forget. However, most people wear underpants. You will have to take my word here as all attempts at verifying this statement resulted in guards chasing me out of the shopping mall.

As I said above, my history of reviewing stuff is limited to thoughtfully saying, “Nice coffee” or gleefully yelling “Free camping, winner!” I am winging it so please bear with me here. To use a completely inappropriate metaphor I will break this down into bite sized pieces.

grey Adventure Underwear   stick your phone in your pants and smileIdea

I think caching your valuables next to your most prized possession is a brilliant idea. When I was in Rio I stuck some money and a small map to my chest with a wound dressing as I figured that it would be a dedicated thief that searches inside scabby wounds for valuables. This worked, but, having a small pocket inside my underpants would have been much easier on my (only) chest hair when I retrieved my money later that night.
Both pockets in Adventure Underwear are waterproof to 60 meters. This is great for you water sports enthusiasts. no more leaving your keys under the wheel arch while surfing. The Adventure Underwear team are working on a females range so stay tuned.

grey Adventure Underwear   stick your phone in your pants and smile

 

Sadly Nigel thought I was joking when I suggested he make a special ‘Brown-series’ for really scary adventure.

 

Comfort

Usually you put your undies on in the morning and don’t think about them much after that. This would be the ideal situation for Adventure Underwear. When I first put mine on I noticed the plastic pocket (which is inside a merino pocket for comfort) being, well plasticy against my skin. This was not a huge issue as after five minutes or so I had all but forgotten they were there.
I wore them with my passport in a pocket for a whole day. I could feel that it was resting snugly against my thigh, this was not a nuisance. It would be somewhat comforting while traveling I imagine. The merino they use is the super fine type not that itchy-grandma-knitted-jumper stuff your parents made you wear as a kid.

Quality

I am ashamed to admit this, but my record for wearing a single pair of underpants is just over a week. One pair, no changing. Whilst on the summit attempt of Manaslu my priorities were elsewhere, I also forgot my toothbrush but I would rather not talk about this. It would have greatly aided the comfort of both myself and my tent mates if I had worn a pair of merino undies on this climb. Merino wool is the best fabric for both wicking away moisture and stopping body odours.

The seams are a flat, non-rubbing type, great for active people. Where the plastic security pocket attaches the stitching is starting to come a bit loose but I am assured that the second generation will have this fixed by attaching the plastic pocket with velcro rather than stitched. This will allow you to take out the plastic and just use the merino outer pocket if waterproofing is not needed.
The plastic pockets are 100% recyclable, they contain no BPA’s or bad chemicals and the FDA have given them a ‘food safe rating.’    Just in case you want to stuff a snickers bar down there…

Conclusion

I have never been a big fan of money belts but hate that feeling of paranoia when I just want to relax and enjoy exploring.

I will be wearing my adventure undies (sadly not available in brown, hint, hint Nigel) both in Katmandu and when I climb Ama Dablam this October and am sure that my valuables (and tent-buddies) will thank me for it!

For updates on Adventure Underwear through Twitter go here: @AdvntrUnderwear and through Facebook go here: www.facebook.com/adventureunderwear

Disclaimer:

While this is my first proper product review I have been approached by various companies in the past but have passed on their offer. The reason is that I only want to review products which may be of interest (and useful) to my readers. The fact that I got free undies has in no way affected what I have written. If they were terrible I would tell you so. promise.

 

Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley – my first Himalayan climb

grey Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley   my first Himalayan climb

This week’s adventure is a flashback to 2010 when I tackled Pokalde in the Khumbu (Everest) valley, my first Himalayan mountain climb. Our goal was this relatively small mountain just off the Everest trail, compared with the monsters that surrounded us, it was nothing more than a pimple. Pokalde is commonly used as an acclimatisation peak for Everest climbers and trekkers alike:

grey Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley   my first Himalayan climbI feel terribly alive after my recent cold bucket shower outside on the snow. With my increasingly hirsute face tingling, we set off and leave the porters to load the yaks. As we walk the visibility is virtually nil and the British members of our group are busily filling the air with disgruntled comments. I am content to just follow the fresh footprints ahead of me. Trudging along with my hood pulled tight and my eyes on the ground I pick up my revere from yesterday afternoon, ‘Great idea to contact the BBC when I return, they will need a Sir David Attenborough replacement for sure. Sir Benny Rabbit-Burrow, sounds great.

grey Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley   my first Himalayan climb
I am no biologist but I have the voice, ‘Here we see a group of common idiots walking through the snow to sleep in draughty canvas structures, they eat dried fruits and berries and share a communal toilet hole.’ Easy.

Half an hour after setting off we turn left up a valley where the yaks and porters pass us. Watching them disappear I feel relief as always to see my pack securely on the side of a beast. By the time us low altitude dwellers trudge into base camp our sherpas have set up all the tents and greet us smiling with hot tea with biscuits. This is a very civilised way to trek, I start to wonder how I ever managed without porters and sherpas alone in the wilds of Tasmania.

grey Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley   my first Himalayan climb

grey Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley   my first Himalayan climbThat night is our first proper cold one. In the morning Kevin the tall Irish man with the quiet smile says that he recorded around minus fifteen overnight. I wear my thermal long johns, fleece pants, polypropylene gloves, merino top and thermal sleeping bag liner inside my very warm sleeping bag and still shiver throughout, at one stage I considered spooning Andy for warmth but that would be like cuddling a fridge.

We are roused when the young cook shoves tea through the tent’s entrance and we set about getting fed and ready to tackle our first Himalayan mountain. Getting ready at altitude, even the relatively low altitude here, is hard work. We are at a place where rolling over in your sleeping bag sends you gasping for air for ten minutes. High altitude doubles the time it takes to pull on plastic boots, affix crampons and don climbing harnesses. We hit the mountain at about 5:15am and climb. We climb a lovely sharp little snow slope which is good fun, but then climbing becomes a sustained haul across an uninspiring scree up to a final section of exposed rock. A few members of the team turn back early which does not bode well for the upcoming challenge of Island Peak, or Imje Tse as it is known locally. I am unsure if it is happiness, fear or cold, but my eyes well up as I dig my unwieldy plastic boots into a slight crack in the rock, pull myself onto that tiny summit and look around.

grey Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley   my first Himalayan climbgrey Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley   my first Himalayan climbAs I am busy clambering over rocks the sun has been unveiling an amazing view for our little intrepid group. What I see painted in front of me in shades of grey with some pink steals away all words. I am clipped into a safety sling with my jaw agape and just stare down the Khumbu Valley. The six of us perch on a precarious little summit ledge and celebrate while soaking up this expansive view with careful back slapping all round.

On the descent I do my first ever single rope abseil with about five hundred meters of exposure below my bum. Due to my inexperience and clumsy gloves I end up slipping and falling into a fellow climber’s lap where she greets me with a giggling, warm hug. Our leader Andy spots my poor form, ‘Hey Ben, have you abseiled alone before?’

‘No mate, never without a second person belaying me from above anyway. She’ll be right.’

 

Not for the last time, I get into trouble for not telling him something like this.On the way down the long snow slope towards base camp I really lose energy and start getting a terrible headache, fighting off a desperate desire to just sit down and sleep I make it back to camp and into my sleeping bag for a quick rest. I fully understand now what ‘proper’ climbers mean when they say that the top is only half way. The adrenaline of a summit wears off leaving behind a breathtaking fatigue and nausea. Having completed our first ascent before lunch we enjoy a lazy afternoon squinting at small camera screens and comparing photos…I could get hooked on this climbing business.

grey Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley   my first Himalayan climb

 

grey Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley   my first Himalayan climb grey Pokalde in the Khumbu Valley   my first Himalayan climb

 

 

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This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

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