Lush tropical forest, white sand beaches, a warm and benign climate and a myriad of lovely boutique resorts graciously nestled in dream locations, have combined to turn Vanuatu into a main tourism destination.
But Vanuatu has so much more. Vanuatu is indeed, unique -with a capital U. Its ancient culture is still alive and well, with villages practising their kastom rituals as they did a thousand years ago. Ceremonies in which people clothed in grass and feathers wildly stamp the ground, villages made of bamboo and natangora, jungle that has not been grown in a pot… There are an abundance of spectacles in these islands, which are not ‘staged’ for the benefit of the tourist.
Perhaps even more spectacular yet, under Vanuatu’s soil, a battle of tensions is being fought, as pressure builds and finds release, a young land still breathing fire. Vanuatu is teaming with active volcanos, every one of them different, mesmerising, dangerous and beautiful.
For those unfamiliar with Vanuatu’s volcanic world, Mount Yasur in Tanna is the only name that may come to mind. Yasur has been active for a long time, and with its beauty, dramatic lava bombs blowing high up into the air and easy access, has taken much of the volcanic spotlight and the tourism dollar.
Of late, the country has seen two newcomers jumping onto the scene and diverting some attention away from Yasur; Marum and Benbow, located on the island of Ambrym. As with Yasur, both of these volcanos are spectacular, with their lakes bubbling glowing red-hot lava, perfectly visible from the top of their crater. Unlike Yasur (reachable by 4WD to the bottom and an easy short trek to the crater), Marum and Benbow require a full day trek through the jungle, followed by a long walk across the volcanic ash plane to reach the crater. Once there, be prepared to bear witness to the power of Mother Nature.
Vanuatu’s volcanic underworld is prolific. It has active volcanos on nine different islands and many more dormant and extinct volcanos. The exact number of volcanoes is impossible to tell, as they lie hidden in the jungle and under the ocean. Vanuatu sits on the ‘Ring of Fire’ around the rim of the Pacific tectonic plate, one of the planet’s most active zones; most of Vanuatu’s islands are the result of volcanic activity in the last few million years.
We are standing right now, on moving ground and the earth below you is being pushed, lifted and generally shaken. Although Yasur, Marum and Benbow have been active for a while, they are generally stable, bubbling and spewing rocks away, releasing tension in a generally orderly fashion.
There are other active volcanos however, that behave in a more temperamental and unpredictable fashion. It was not very long ago that Manaro Vui, in Ambae, decided it was time to shake things a little. The biggest active volcano in Vanuatu, its summit has two concentric calderas, the smaller one containing three lakes. The volcano had ferocious eruptions around 420 years ago and again 300 and 120 years ago. Because of the lakes in its caldera, and the chemical reactions that could occur between water and magma, Manaro Vui is considered the most dangerous of Vanuatu’s volcanos. Back in 2005, the volcano surprised us with smoke coming from its crater. Small eruptions ensued with a change in the colour of the water in the lake in 2006 and further small eruptions in 2011. At present, activity remains constant although stable and the alert is level one.
Volcanoes are no doubt, unpredictable and dormant volcanoes can awaken at any time. This was the case of Mont-Garet, in Gaua, in the Banks Islands, which in 1962 decided to wake up after a long period of inactivity and at the end of 2009 made its voice heard with more violent eruptions. The ocean turned red and people from neighbouring islands had to be evacuated. It destroyed many food gardens and the people from the Banks are still suffering the repercussions of a relatively small-scale eruption.
Other currently active volcanoes in Vanuatu are Lopevi, on the inhabited island of Lopevi and Suretamatai, in Vanuatu Lava, Banks.
Vanuatu also has a number of active submarine volcanoes with currently four of then known. One of then is Mount Gemini, which last erupted in 1977. The submarine volcano Kuwae which last erupted in 1973, is responsible for splitting, back in 1453, what once was the big island of Karua, into the current islands of Epi and Tongoa.
With so much activity on the volcano front, is there anybody really watching and trying to keep us safe? This is the job of the Vanuatu Geohazards division, part of the Vanuatu Meteo and Geohazards Department; the first and only centre in the Pacific that integrates weather, tsunamis, volcanoes and earthquake departments under the same roof, with a tight exchange and sharing of real-time information between all divisions. Since 2006, the department has received the attention and funding it deserves, with new equipment and a team of dedicated experts whose job is, firstly, to keep the population safe by early detection of any geo hazards and secondly, to gather information and continue further research.
At present, the department is incorporating a new earthquake and tsunami detection system that records sea level variations and will incorporate sirens and other alert systems in case of tsunami. The centre monitors all of Vanuatu’s active volcanoes, with live webcams and stations in six of them. “Before 2011, Vanuatu did not have monitoring stations at the site of the volcanoes. So the only data we had was that compiled by research teams while visiting specific volcanoes under different research programs. Hence data was patchy at best and none-existent at worst,” explains Esline Garaebiti, manager of Vanuatu Geohazards division. With a BSc in vulcanology and geology, and not one, but two Masters in geology of land management, seismology, earthquake engineering and disaster mitigation, this strong woman surely knows her field. As one of the most highly educated women in the country, Esline is also a fantastic role model for young girls and an example of what one can accomplish regardless of gender.
The potential disastrous consequences of the Ambae eruption in 2005, prompted a change in legislation and more funds being directed to the modernisation of the Geohazards division. With funding from New Zealand Aid as well as the help of the French Embassy, New Caledonian Government, GEF and GFDRR (Global Fund for Disaster Risk Reduction), the Geohazards division installed its first live webcam and monitoring station in 2012. Now, the division has webcams and stations on the main active volcanoes, Marum, Benbow, Yasur, Lopevi, Manaro, Mount Garet and Suretanatai. The set up looks impressive, with screens showing live images of the volcanoes and graphics depicting real life data. Sylvain Todman, Geohazards division’s technical adviser since 2008, shows me around the screens, pointing out what each thing means. From tiny seismic movements to a range of weather information happening Pacific-wide, it is high-tech no doubt and the department is proud to be at the leading edge of geo hazards reporting data in the Pacific.
The stations not only serve to quickly alert of any emergency that could eventuate but also, the data collected will allow the division to study the behaviour of volcanoes and better predict in the future, the scale and risk of any volcanic activity. One of the challenges that the centre has undertaken in the last decade is convincing villages to follow the centres’ advice in case of an event. Until not long ago, villagers living close to volcanoes relied only on their own visual knowledge and experience of the volcano to make any decision pertinent to when and if they should evacuate an area. Visual information, although informative, is of course, not as accurate as the data that the centre now receives. Convincing villages and chiefs to, for example, move away under the advice of the department, before they see any significant change, has taken some work. During the past decade, Esline has travelled to these areas frequently, holding meetings with villagers and their chiefs, to explain the role of the centre. As a scientist and a woman, persuading chiefs was challenging to say the least. With time however, she and her team have managed to win the confidence of the villages that live ‘under the volcanos’. Vanuatu’s volcanoes, at once dangerous and beautiful, will continue to mystify and mesmerise us all, forever reminding us that we never really were the earth’s masters.