Climbing Facts  

Country   Vanuatu
Maximum Elevation   1877 metres (6158 feet)
Vertical Elevation   1877 metres (sea to summit)
Total distance   12km one-way (7.45miles)
92km total one-way (57m)
Hiking time   3-5 days (2.5 days hiking)
Location   Espiritu Santo
Difficulty   Hard
Climbed   November 2008

Climbing Tabwemasana

November 2008

If you've stumbled across this page, you're one of three people:
1. You're some sort of researcher, environmentalist or phd student and have decided for some crazy reason to explore the highlands of Vanuatu. If this is you, good luck. Make sure you pack a raincoat and ensure you take plenty of photos.

2. You're a travel guide and instead of climbing Tabwemasana, you've decided to find some insane person who has and use their info. If this is you, go ahead, hope you find what you're looking for and try and point people away from climbing. This is hard work.

3. You're a completely insane and like me figured climbing Vanuatu's highest mountain would be fun. YEAH!!! DO IT!!! Just be prepared for one heck of a climb uuuuuup!

In any event, I've created these pages to provide some insight into what is required to climb this mountain. If you get to the top, it's certainly worth it. Just getting up the mountain is a feat in itself, the views I'm sure are awesome (I had clouds so had to make do with my imagination). Anyways, hope you enjoy what I've created. Feel free to leave any thoughts or comments on the contacts page.

The Mountain

Tabwemasana is located on the isolated west coast of Espiritu Santo, and at 1877 metres (6,158 feet) is one of the highest mountains in the Pacific. In local language, Tabwemasana means mountain of two peaks and folk lore believes that the two peaks (male and female) come together in an embrace at night.

| DAY 1 |

Luganville to Tasiriki

Distance: 3 hours
Cost: 10,000VUV
My starting point for this adventure was Luganville, the capital of Santo which I had flown into just a few days earlier with my girlfriend Tiana. Air Vanuatu flies a number of direct and connecting flights throughout the week. I had come via Sydney and had already spent my first day doing preliminary research on what would be involved in my upcoming trek. Advice had ranged from it's as easy as just turning up to there is absolutely no way you can climb this mountain in less than two weeks. Having climbed mountains in other remote parts of the world I had come to learn that any advice given should always be considered with some caution especially when being given by those who had never actually visited, yet alone climbed the peak. What I was quickly learning was that very, very few people actually get to the summit. Infact, on average only three to four people make the journey each year.

Yet I was undeterred and had organised a truck to take me the two hours along a dirt road from Luganville to Tasiriki on the south-west coast of Santo. Tasiriki is at the end of the road. Literally. The road simply ends at Tasiriki and goes no further. The entire west coast of Santo is serviced by speed boats which leave Tasiriki every few days and run up and down the coast. We were scheduled to leave at 2pm on the following day, giving me plenty of time to buy a few provisions from the local supermarket; biscuits, a few chocolate bars and a couple of cans of tinned fruit. Being new in Vanuatu, I was yet to learn to make the adjustment to Vanuatu time and it was not until 3.30pm the following day that we actually left Loganville. But we were on our way.

The road from Loganville to Tasiriki is pretty spectacular, not so much because of the countryside in which the road winds, but rather the 4WD condition of the road. It felt as though we spent about as much time in foot deep water as we did bumping up and down through the holes and ruts in the road. Our driver only had two things to say the entire journey. The first was to continuously tell us that we had almost reached Tasiriki. This despite the fact that he had never actually been there. This became obvious with the second thing he kept saying. That being that this trip would be the first and last time that he would ever drive along this road. This is a rough and bumpy ride. However 2.5 hours and several river crossing later we finally arrived at Tasiriki, although now too late to continue our onward journey to Kerepua (the village on the West Coast which would serve as our launching pad to Tabwemasana).

Tasiriki

Cost: 1,500VUV pp night
We spent the night at the simple but pleasant Tasiriki guesthouse and enjoyed some unusual local cuisine (Magi noodles, spinach and meat (we weren't sure whether it was tuna or beef...I'm not sure such a good sign). We were also to learn that we were just the 36th and 37th guests to stay at the guesthouse this year. We certainly were working our way off the beaten track.

| DAY 2 |

Tasirki to Kerepua

Distance: 2.5 hours
Cost: 13,000VUV
At 5am the following morning we were woken by Jean Murray, the village nurse, who was to take us up the coast to Kerepua. Aboard the medical boat we made good time up the coast, passing a number of coastal villages, each located on their own beach. As we pulled into one of these beaches a number of villagers quickly descended upon us and led us through a small clove of trees and into the village of Kerepua. We were to take a seat below a splendid mango tree and quickly a small crowd of villagers and children surrounded us. Eldar, the village spokesman soon introduced himself, a smile beaming across his face, and said that he would organise guides to take us Tabwemasana. But first we were to eat. From a steaming pot smouldering over a fire, Eldar slopped a few yams and taro into a tin bowl. A second dip into the pot revealed an assortment of fish chunks. I think I ended up with the torso. I could see Tiana's face squirm as she realised that there was not just one tin bowl, but rather two and we were each to be served our own culinary delight. Finally, one last spoonful into the pot and a watery fishy broth was poured over our meal. Yum Yum, I thought, as I wondered how I was going to stomach a bowl that was now overflowing with an assortment of yam, taro and fish. Tiana was quick to point out that she had only just eaten breakfast and hence would share my bowl with her. Darn it. She beat me to it, I thought. I think she put her spoon into the bowl, touched it against her lips and would eat no more. I on the hand managed a few scrapes of the yam, before I too could eat no more. I have never eaten yam before, so I'm not sure how it is supposed to taste, however what was now in my mouth, tasted like fish flavoured cardboard. Certainly not a recipe I would be taking home.

As I wondered how much more of my yam I was supposed to eat and whether I was also supposed to eat the fish parts, our guides turned up. Whoa! There they stood before us, wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and each carrying a machete. And that's it! Nothing else! No shoes, no water, no food. Infact had someone told me that they were simply the first two guys walking past our hut and hence were selected, I would have believed them. However this was not the case. Eldar informed us that Wilson was infact his son and his friend Sam would also be joining us. Although only about 5 foot 3 inches tall and aged 18 and 15, these two boys were about to give us a lesson in how to climb a mountain. As we stumbled over rocks and boulders, gorged ourselves with what little food we had and drunk litre upon litre of water, Wilson and Sam nimbly danced up the mountainside, forever patiently waiting for us regain our breath and catch up.

Kerepua to River exit

Distance: 2.5 hours
Cost: 1,500VUV per guide per day
Our first 2.5 hours would be spent walking up a wide rocky river valley, the river meandering between smooth boulders, providing welcome relief as we crossed it at least ten times. Although walking with wet shoes was not so fun. As we rounded the umpteenth bend, Wilson suddenly stopped, pointed toward the scrub alongside the river and announced that this is where we were to begin our journey up the mountain. And boy oh boy, up was certainly the word of choice. For the next three hours we did nothing but climb up and up and up. The path was steep, rocky and undefined. On numerous occasions I was certain we had strayed off the trail, until suddenly with a few hacks and slashes of the machete Wilson would reveal a faint trail leading into the undergrowth before us.

River exit to campsite

Distance: 2.5 hours
Fortunately the constantly changing vegetation provided some reprieve to the burning sensation in our legs. We passed from temperate forests on the lower slopes, through rain forest and jungle higher up, bamboo forests and thick razor grass. But forever we just kept on going up. Finally, after what seemed an eternity the track changed direction and briefly we headed back down again. But this welcome descent was short lived. We could hear the sound of water in the distance and soon enough the boys stopped and announced that this is where we were to spend the night. A small flat area big enough for a few tents with a creek running a few minutes further down the hillside.

Campsite

As I hammered in the last peg of our tent, I realised that I did infact still feel quite fresh. Although the last few hours up the mountain had been hard, they had been bearable. I was looking forward to tomorrow's final push up the mountain. While Tiana and I settled in for a night in our tent, a box of biscuits and cheese our only dinner, Wilson and Sam laboured outside as they built themselves a crude hut, logs lashed together with vines, ferns laid out on the dirt forming a bed. Soon we were fast asleep, the sound of the running creek nearby and the constant chatter of the night providing a wonderful background.

| DAY 3 |

Campsite to Summit

Distance: 5.5 hours
Cost: 1,000VUV per person to summit
At 5am we were up again. Or rather I was up. Tiana had already decided the previous day that she would climb no further, the ardour of the previous day too much to repeat all over again. Sam would be keeping a watch over her for the day, a little unfortunate for him, as he had yet to reach the summit. Unlike Wilson, who would lead me on his 11th ascent of the mountain. So at 5.30am we were off. I had dumped my large pack, and instead carried a daypack with little more than a few chocolate bars and half our water (one two litre bottle).

We followed the creek upstream for a short while before crossing over. I managed to place my foot right in the middle of the creek, meaning I would again climb with wet shoes. Not so bad I guess, as my shoes had hardly dried out the previous night. We then started climbing again. Just like yesterday I thought, already dreading the rest of the day. We soon climbed into thick razor grass. Over two metres high, it was hard going as Wilson cut and slashed a track through the almost impenetrable barrier. Occasionally I could see through the grass to a sudden and long drop on either side of the trail. We were climbing up a steep ridge slowly working our way up the slope.

Finally we broke through the grass and for the first time the entire trip, we were now in a clearing. At the apex of small hill, I could see the valley from which we had ascended. Before me stood another ridge which we were to scale, and behind this, still along way in the distance, I spotted Tabwemasana for the first time. Just as I'd read, two giant peaks stretched toward the sky. Higher than any surrounding mountain, I shuddered. Not only was the peak still a long way off, but the upper slopes looked incredibly steep. "How much further" I asked Wilson. "Just over that first ridge, then we start climbing Tabwemasana" he responded. "Well lets go", I said as we crossed the clearing and dropped back into a temperate forest.

The following few hours become abit of a blur. I remember we spent some time on relatively flat ground, before another steep climb up the first ridge. The track had been completely washed out by an avalanche in some areas. I remember constantly running low on water and just when I thought I'd gulped the last of my supplies, we would cross a small creek and Wilson would refill my bottle. I kept cursing that I should have brought both bottles. Tiana now had our second bottle of water, which she probably needed, however I was drinking water at an alarming rate. Litre upon litre were quenching my unending thirst. I kept asking Wilson whether each water refill would be our last and he kept assuring me that we could still fill our water further on.

Campsite to old village

Distance: 1.5 hours
Several hours later having dropped back down into the valley we followed a number of small (dry) water courses, trampled our way through several more patches of thick grass and even passed though a small forest of coconut trees. As we were pushing our way through yet another clump of ferns, my eyes always darting around trying to find the track which didn't seem to exist, Wilson suddenly stopped. "Our old village" he said as he pointed toward a few bamboo poles lashed together hidden in the undergrowth. "Holy moly" I thought. These guys used to live up here. Not only was it one heck of a climb to get up here, but now that we were here, I wondered how an entire village of people could eek out a living in this inhospitable place. It was only in 1978 that the entire village moved down from the mountain and onto the coast. Most of the other mountain villages had done the same. I guess even the villagers had decided that it was easier to live on the coast than up on the mountain. "Unbelievable" I muttered, which brought a rare smile to Wilsons face.

Another ten minutes of walking and we crossed another fast flowing creek. It was here that the villagers would have filled and carried water back to the village. As I too refilled my water bottle I asked Wilson how much further we had to go. "Quarter of the way" he said. "Not too bad" I thought. However, what was to follow could quite well be the hardest hike I have ever done.

Old village to summit

The next few hours consisted of more of the same. Unbelievably steep climbing mixed with areas of relative flat, as well as the occasional descent. But generally everything was just up and getting steeper and steeper. I remember passing a tiny trickle of water snaking it's way through some loose boulders. It was here that Wilson announced that there would be no more water beyond this point. He offered to refill my water bottle (again almost empty) which I gladly accepted. I collapsed into the mud. My legs and arms were covered in tiny cuts, my shirt was soaking with perspiration. I was hungry. I was thirsty. As I pondered my pathetic situation, Wilson bounded back up the path. His dry skin revealed he was yet to break a sweat. I couldn't see any signs of cuts or scratches on his dark skin and I hadn't yet seen him drink anything. "Are you tired" I asked. "No" was his simple response. We sat for a few moments, he forever patient as I regained my breath and composure. "Ok let's keep going".

As we again started to climb I figured we were now on the actual final ridge leading to the summit. This was confirmed when I asked Wilson and somewhere deep inside I felt a sense of satisfaction. How much further could it now be, I thought. I was soon to find out. The path became increasingly steep. And when I say steep, I was now using my hands in many places to help pull myself up the wet and muddy track. I noticed that there were few rocks or stones. The entire mountain seemed to be made of dirt and vegetation, clinging together and stretching skyward. As we climbed higher I could finally see through and over the trees to surrounding mountains and far away through a haze I could see the ocean. However these surroundings provided another more frightening view. The ridge on which we climbed, was exactly that. A razor thin ridge dropping sharply away on either side. Our path, no more than a metre wide, was somewhat protected by an array of ferns, scrubs and small trees. However through the gaps in the foliage, I could see the mountain dropping away steeply, on both sides of the track! And when I say dropping away, I could not see the bottom. I certainly did not want to be falling here. As I grabbed tree roots, clumps of grass or anything else which seemed to provide a handhold, I only hoped that my handhold would hold my weight. Each time a root broke, the grass pulled out of the mountainside or I lost my footing, my heart pushed out through my chest as I stared down into the abyss. The steeper we climbed, the slower I became. I was now using my feet, my knees, my hands and my elbows to provide as many points of contact to the mountain as I could. On more than one occasion, I gave serious thought to turning back. How much higher did I really need to go? What was I trying to achieve? Who was going to care if I got to the summit or not? But each time such thoughts crossed my mind, I simply pushed them aside and struggled on. Surely but slowly we inched higher and higher. Clouds rolled in hiding all but the back of Wilson a few metres in front of me as he continued to cut a path for me.

Summit

For a brief moment the clouds cleared and I could see the sister peak of Tabwemasana. While I could still not see my own goal, I could now judge how much further I had to go by looking at how high we were compared the second peak. It seemed forever we climbed onward, yet felt we had gained no height. But finally, after my fear had long since drained away, the track suddenly flattened out and as we rounded a small tree, I could see we could climb no higher. Wilson sat down against this small tree, while I slumped down next to him. "Tabwemasana" he announced. He seemed to enjoy making these one word statements. I didn't care. We had made it. We had climbed to the highest point in Vanuatu. The clouds blocked out any view, a gentle breeze providing some respite to my steaming body. Like most of the other mountains I had climbed previously, the summit itself is somewhat an anticlimax. The difficulty of the climb is rarely rewarded by some spectacular summit. The top of this mountain probably looks the same as the top of any mountain in Vanuatu. But of course, this was no ordinary mountain. It was the highest mountain for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. I was sitting higher than anyone else in all of Vanuatu. I was satisfied. I was content.

Summit to campsite

Distance: 5.5 hours
I shook Wilson's hand and then, as we'd arrived, we stood and were off again. The climb back down wasn't quite as bad as I'd thought. Well at least the steepness anyway. I had these fears, that given the difficulty climbing up where I could at least see where I was putting my hands, it was going to be even worse going down, where I couldn't see where I was putting my hands. However it was the lack of any handholds which finally broke me. What absolutely shattered me on the way down was simply the distance. I had given everything I had just to get up the mountain. Now, as we climbed down, it just seemed to go on forever. I couldn't make out landmarks indicating how much further we still had to go, and when I could make out something I remembered on the way up, I couldn't remember how much further we still had to go anyway. Everything just looked the same. I had long since given up asking Wilson. I felt like a fool asking him how much further. Ultimately, we had exactly the same distance to cover as on the way up. And we would reach our camp when we reached it. But BOY OH BOY!!! It was taking forever. By the time we reached the clearing on which I'd first spotted Tabwemasana, I was completely spent. I blindly followed Wilson in front of me, stumbling and tripping as I trudged onward. The climb back through the razor grass was terrible. My cuts were now stinging as sweat covered my entire body. Wilson, also in a rush to get back to camp, was no longer clearing the ground in front of me. Although a path had been cleared earlier that morning, much of the grass had sprung back into place. I too exhausted to care, just pushed my way through the grass. I could now feel cuts on my face. On more than one occasion I had to call Wilson to slow down, as he disappeared behind the next tree or fern.

Campsite

Yet we eventually made it. Eleven hours after setting off that morning, we (or at least I) stumbled back into camp. I remember seeing Sam sitting up in a tree looking down at me. I would have thought this somewhat amusing were I not so exhausted. As much as I just wanted to collapse and sleep, I was now completely out of water. I pulled off my now soaking shoes and put on some thongs and walked to the nearby creek. I slipped on the way down, a deep gash opening up on the sole of my foot. "Damn it", I thought. Yet another wound to remind me of my trip. As I slowly walked back to the tent, the world suddenly spun before my eyes as I realised I might very well faint with exhaustion. I paused for a moment, before continuing on and then yes, finally crawled into the tent. Although my thirst was now satisfied, my hunger was not. I had not eaten since 5am that morning and the amount of energy I'd burned and salts I'd lost through perspiration, I was craving for some food. I opened a tin of pineapple and quickly drunk the juice and then proceeded to eat the nine slices of pineapple. I then lay back on the ground, and prepared to fall into a deep and restful sleep. If only I were so lucky.

No sooner had I closed my eyes, before I felt the first gurgle and grumble in my stomach. While I ignored these first outbursts, very soon my stomach was playing a symphony of angst. I hoped this would soon pass, but the longer I lay still the more it became apparent that I was soon about to be violently ill. With not the first expletive of the day, I crawled back out of the tent and dropped down to my knees behind a nearby tree. Sure enough, backup came the pineapple I had so recently eaten. Shortly after I was back in the tent, this time ready to sleep. But again, my stomach would not let go without a fight. Infact, for the rest of the night until 4am, I made hourly visits to surrounding trees and fertilised the plants. I'm not quite sure why I was so sick. However, I put the most likely cause as having lost so much liquid during the day (I had drunk about eight litres of water during the hike), having not replaced any of the salts leeching from my body and then suddenly overloading myself with sugar, was simply too much for my body to handle. While I can rationalise these thoughts now, at the time, this was sheer misery. By the time the sun finally rose the next morning, I was completely exhausted. I hardly slept the night before, the aches and pains were now starting to kick in and we still had half a mountain to descend.

Ever so slowly I packed away our gear and this time asked Wilson and Sam to carry it for us. I was left carrying the lightest of loads and felt guilty that we were now asking our guides to carry all our gear which they had not had the pleasure to use. But like always, they were uncomplaining and immediately loaded themselves up with our stuff.

| DAY 3 |

Campsite to Kerepua

Distance: 7 hours
Again we were off. Down and down we climbed. Three hours later we reached the river valley, where I immediately stripped off to my underwear and submerged myself in the creek. I could feel the water energising and cooling my body. I could have stayed where I was for hours, but was now hoping that we might be able to get all the way back to Luganville in one day. It was only 9am and we now only had the river valley to descend. Yet as the sun slowly warmed the sky, we increasingly stopped at river crossings to cool ourselves down. The river descent seemed endless as each bend only presented itself with yet another bend further onward. Slowly a villager would appear fishing, then another, then another. We were getting closer, but as always still felt so far away.

Kerepua to Tasiriki

Distance: 4 hours
Cost: 9,000VUV
As we passed under the first big mango tree I knew we had made it. Just a few minutes later and were back in Kerepua. Eldar came to welcome us and we even managed a few jokes about how fit both Wilson and Sam were versus our now seemingly ragged and unprepared bodies. Eldar now confirmed our wish and said that he could organise a boat back to Tasiriki in the afternoon. The next one and half hours as we waited took forever. But finally, we climbed into a small speedboat and headed southward. It was now 2.30pm and we were experiencing the full fury of the midday sun. I crawled under a small canopy at the front of the boat, beads of sweat rolling down my arms, while Tiana unfortunately had to sit in the boat and bear the brunt of the sun. For three and half hours we puttered down the coastline, my interest no longer in viewing the beautiful coastline. My only thoughts now being to reach Loganville.

At about 6pm our boat pulled up onto the beach of Tasiriki. The only driver in the village informed us that he could not leave until the following day. We were stuck for one more day in the wilderness. Although,Tasiriki was not quite so bad. At least we had a bed, electricity and running water. We awoke at 5am the next morning, ready to go. However, being a Sunday we were now subject to a force that even we could have no influence over. Our driver informed us that he had to attend his village for religious festivities and could not pick us up until 3pm that afternoon. Again, we were left to wait. In the scorching sun, we lay on the concrete floor of our hut, under a tin roof which radiated the heat downwards. We poured buckets of water over our bodies to keep cool.

| DAY 4 |

Tasiriki to Luganville

Distance: 3 hours
Cost: 8,000VUV
At 3pm, I walked down to the driver's hut only to learn that he was still at his village and would not be returning until 5.30pm. I could wait no longer. "There must be another truck in this village" I asked, a definite hint of frustration now in my voice. When I realised that another truck had been in the village the entire day, I was ready to explode. When I was told that this truck wasn't offered to us because we'd already made an agreement with the other driver, I did finally lose my temper. We could have left at anytime during the day and now at almost 4pm, we were to learn that a truck had been here the entire time. I hurried over to our new driver to get ready to take us. Apparently our original driver was now on his way back and although still an hour away, there was now a debate as to whether they should take us or we should wait for our first driver. Finally, my persuasion and vented annoyance won the day, and we climbed aboard the 4WD and headed away.

Three hours later we pulled up in front of our hotel and collapsed on a soft bed. After a brief shower and meal, Tiana and I were sound asleep. I had done it. I had set out to climb the highest mountain in Vanuatu and against all odds, I had managed this feat. Never again I swore. Yet as I write this story, I have open web pages of other mountains in the Pacific ready to be climbed. I'm a sucker for punishment.

Climb Summary

Location Time required
Luganville to Tisiriki 3-4 hours 4WD
Tisiriki to Kerepua 3-4 hours speedboat
Kerepua to River-Exit 2.5 hours walking
River Exit to Campsite 3 hours walking
Campsite to Summit 5-6 hours
Summit to Campsite 5-6 hours
Campsite to River 3 hours
River to Kerepua 4 hours

Photos