On Top of the Volcano


 mount-yasur-horThe shabby yellow minivan I am sitting in is driving slowly in southward direction over a dusty dirt road that runs parallel to the sea. The Rasta-looking driver listens to a reggae version of Lionel Ritchie’s Hello on repeat. After listening to the song at least six times, he tells me that he can’t drive any further because his van is unable to cope with the difficult terrain. He rolls down his window and starts asking around for someone with a four-wheel drive who could take me further. Although there are not many people around, and certainly not many four-wheel drive owners, he quickly finds someone who is willing to take me to my destination.

I am on Tanna, one of the 82 islands that make up the country that was renamed Vanuatu after gaining independence in 1980. A small 18-seater plane just brought me to Tanna’s tiny Lenakel airport, which is located on the west coast of the island. My final destination is the other side of the island, where I will stay for the next five nights. Because it is a distance of no more than 20 kilometers, I expected it to be a short ride. However, there are no paved roads and it turned out to be a long and bumpy ride in the back of a fully loaded pickup truck.

The rough and uneven dirt road wends its way through dense rainforests. The entire island is covered with a layer of black volcanic ash that has been deposited by the volcano. Mount Yasur has been erupting almost continuously for more than 800 years. Because of this nearly continuous Strombolian and volcanic activity, the volcano has been called the lighthouse of the Pacific. Yasur, which is located in the southeastern part of the island, is a mostly unvegetated 361-metre high stratovolcano with a nearly circular 400-metre wide summit crater. It is one of the most active, with eruptions occurring several times per hour, as well as one of the most easily accessible volcanoes in the world.

tanna-islandA treehouse with a view

My accommodation on the island consists of a treehouse not far from Mount Yasur, owned by Fred, a friendly local who is well known on the island. I arrive there after dark, and can see the sky above the volcano light up orange as we drive over the moonlike ash plains that surround it and serve as a road for the occasional passing truck. The treehouse is hidden in thick forest, just high enough to be able to see the volcano through the foliage. I can hear its rumbling all day, and from my bed at night, I can see it shooting red burning lava high into the air.

The view on the other side is almost equally impressive. Several times a rainbow appears above the rainforest in the hills. Together with the deep black soil, large tree ferns, the sight and distant rumbling of the volcano, the swallows flying around and the chickens, scratching around the forest floor, this makes for a special, almost prehistoric feel.

volcano-vanuatuThe lighthouse of the Pacific

When I wake up after my first night in the treehouse, I immediately leave to explore the ash plains and to see the volcano from up close. It has a strange attraction for such an intrinsically dangerous natural phenomenon. From the treehouse it is a 30-minute walk to the foot of the volcano. Like many Ni-Vanuatu, I decide to walk around barefoot but my delicate feet have difficulty coping with the scorching hot black sand. As I wander around Mount Yasur’s ash plains, I look up every time I hear an eruption so that I can watch the following cloud of smoke arising from the top.

The big volcanic rocks that dot the ash plains indicate the magnitude of its more violent eruptions. Because I want to get a better view of the area, I decide to climb a bit higher up the base of the volcano. But I quickly find myself climbing higher and higher as I start to get more excited about the possibility of reaching the top. So excited that I am not climbing the volcano at a normal pace anymore. I am almost running up the volcano’s steep slope, or at least as fast as one can reasonably be expected to run up a live volcano. With every step, my bare feet sink deep into the loose sand and my legs start to cramp, forcing me to slow down.

Every now and then I sit down on the warm, obsidian-coloured volcanic ash for a couple of minutes to catch my breath, rest my legs and enjoy the spectacular view. A pickup truck driving over the ash plains below me looks so small that I can barely see it. I can see Sulphur Bay on the horizon and its plumes of smoke rising above the villages. It was from Sulphur Bay that Captain James Cook witnessed the glowing light of Mount Yasur in 1774, which allegedly drew him to the island, making him the first European to set foot on Tanna.

tanna-volcanoTriumph and fear

The final part of the climb proves to be the trickiest. As I climb higher, the wind gets stronger, which causes both my camera and me to be sandblasted by very fine volcanic ash. Because the straight and narrow ridge that I am using to navigate my way up the volcano fades towards the top, I don’t have a clear route to follow anymore. Where the surface of the volcano’s hillside before consisted of loose sand, it now becomes much more compact, making it difficult to get a grip on the volcano’s steepening slope. I contemplate going back down, thinking that this last stretch might turn out to be too big of an obstacle to overcome.

But I decide to continue, because the allure of the volcano is simply too great and the anticipation of what I will find at its top too big. When I finally reach the top after about an hour and a half, a feeling of great triumph and euphoria mixed with fear takes hold of me. Fear because I am not entirely sure how safe my position is – I am standing on the edge of the crater of an active volcano. All I have to base my judgment of safety on is the confirmation from a young boy I met on the ash plains just minutes before I decided to start my climb. He was on his way home from school, carrying a big machete with him. Seeing someone approach you with a huge knife might be a bit of a hostile sight at first, but once you are greeted with a big smile the feeling quickly disappears. It was later that I realized that the big machete is called ‘a bush knife’ and it is the tool used for anything and everything, from opening a coconut to digging a hole in the sand. Children often carry them to school, leaving them at the entrance.

yahulThe boy told me that it would be safe enough to climb the volcano from this side instead of the less adventurous ‘normal’ way on the other side. From the other side, it is possible to walk up the volcano over a zigzag path or even drive up almost to the top with a four-wheel drive and it is that way that most tours approach it.

As I try to judge the safety of my position, I remember the stories Fred told me over dinner the night before about the volcano’s activity levels. There is a warning system in place that rates the volcano’s activity from 0 to 4. If the activity level is rated lower than 2, the crater can be approached safely. When the activity level is rated 3 or higher, approaching the crater is extremely dangerous and therefore banned, as volcanic rocks can be ejected up to hundreds of metres outside the crater. During level 4 activity, vast areas around the volcano are affected. It is then impossible to get close to the volcano or to drive over the volcano’s ash plains.

As I am standing there on the volcano’s edge, looking into the lava-spewing crater, I am not so sure anymore how safe this actually is. The eruptions are incredibly loud and the countless pieces of lava are flying so high into the air that it does not seem unlikely that one could land right where I am standing. I look up to keep track of one huge piece of lava that seems to plunge unpleasantly close to me. Standing there, all alone, witnessing one of the most breathtaking, and at the same time frightening natural phenomena on this planet, was the highlight of my visit to Vanuatu and the most exhilarating experience of my life thus far. Unforgettable.

Story and photography by Bart Brouwer.

Luxury on the Volcano
If you would like to add luxury to your adventure check out:
white-grass-ocean-resort-and-spaWest Coast: White Grass Ocean Resort and Spa. Located only five minutes from the airport, right on the coast, White Grass Ocean Resort has the only diving center on the island. Add diving and a touch of luxury to your holiday, go kayaking or snorkeling and enjoy a massage after in their lovely new spa. Sublime. www.whitegrasstanna.com.
Ph: +678 30010. E: info@whitegrasstanna.com.
friendly-beach-tannaEast Coast: Friendly Beach. Luxury meets island-style in this lovely boutique accommodation. Located right on a stunning beach, just a very short drive away from the volcano and close to Port Resolution and the hot springs, you will hear the volcano rumble in the distance as you relax on the beach. Enjoy seclusion, pampering, cocktails on the beach and fine cuisine at this outstanding resort. www.friendlybeachvanuatu.com. Ph+678 26856. E: res@friendlybeachvanuatu.com.
Other Tanna Highlights: Port Resolution, John Frum Village, Hot Springs of Sulphur Bay, Blue Cave, Giant Banyan Tree, and more. For more accommodation options, local bungalows and things to do, visit vanuatutravel.info.