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22 April 2014

Tanna, witness the Earth's fury at an active volcano exploding lava



What a country! 

Vanuatu is certainly a small yet incredibly rich and fascinating.

I was not even supposed to go there instead having planned to spend a week at a remote and privately owned island in Fiji owned by the boss of a person I had yet to met who contacted me via Couchsurfing. It would have surely been a great week but I ended up in Vanuatu because a friend raved about it. 

Map is Tanna Island

There are many things attracting people to the country: diving the large President's ship, land diving (the precedent of bungee jumping), active volcanos and the beauty of Port Vila ever so popular wit cruise ships. Unless you are kiwi or Aussie in which case you go there in search of affordable sunshine in the harsh winter months.

I definitively wanted to see Mount Yasur, the active volcano in the island of Tanna, a short flight from Port Vila, because it must be one of the few places on Earth where you can walk up to the rim of a truly active volcano and watch it spit lava continuously.

The volcano's activity level is constantly monitored and when it reaches level 2 no visitors are allowed to the rim but only to the car park, which is till dangerously close to the eruptions.

The volcano is only 400m above sea level and has an equal size diameter. It has been erupting non stop for the last 800 years and is not expected to stop.

The legend says that the glow of the volcano is what caught Captain Cook interest in the island.

When I was in Vanuatu the volcano was variably changing between Level 1 and 2 of activity. At Level 2 you are already not allowed up to the volcano. I vividly remember them telling me it was Level 2 yet we were alllowed up to the rim. Fret not, most of the times the volcano is between Levels 0 and 1.

Tours to the island and the volcano are organized daily by pretty much all hotels in the island. Accommodation is basic to say the least. I was staying at a 3* place which was kind of nice in front of the ocean slightly elevated.

The trip to the volcano may be quite long if you are staying on the other side of the island near the airport. Either way, you will have to cross the island whether it is to see the volcano or to reach your accommodation and that is probably guaranteed to be one of the worst journeys you will experience. 


The roads - imagine the 2-3h journey...

The island is pretty rainy and so roads are almost permanently wet and practically impassable. When you drive around you wonder how the cars even make it, then you realize that they get constantly stuck in the mud but drivers and guides have perfected the art of unlocking a car from the mud. It is the national sport in Tanna and it does feel like they enjoy the adrenaline and the challenge.

Your chosen tour, or the hotel you are staying at, will pick you up for the ride to the volcano. if like me, you stay close to the airport, the ride will be 2-3h long until the parking area.

The ride was quite interesting on its own. In my case I was sharing a 4x4 with an American family who had been there already and were taking their teenage children to see it from themselves. They were quite entertaining and pleasant people, posh in their own way, probably over dressed for the ocassion with expensive clothes that would later get ruined by the lava dust and volcanic residu we had to walk through to get to the top. 

We were sittiing in an open air truck-like car side ways in a relatively precarious fashion which got only complicated by the rain. The kids were definitively enjoying it. 


The volcano from the back side

After getting stuck in the mud a couple of times and hitting the roof of the car a few more we finally got to jump off and take some photos from the back of the volcano. By that time the landscape had completely changed into a Star Wars movie everything covered in volcanic ashes and looking exactly like what the Moon must look like (I imagine). The pictures are tellling of what the image and vegetation had turned into. The area is completely covered in ash and that has killed any possible vegetation.

Yasur was steaming in the background smoke coming out of its caldera like a hot soup.

Finally, the caldera!

The trip usually takes place in the afternoon so you get there before sunset and see the sun set behind the mountains and the day turn into night by which point you are so absolutely mesmerized by the two craters and the lava being thrown away that you do not realize that night has settled in. Make sure to go on the overnight tour so you see the vocano at night when it is most impressive.

And then, in the absolute darkness only interrupted by the ocassional flash, camera or torchlight you sit down, take a comfortable viewpoint and observe the lava and rocks in an incandescent red be thrown away while the volcano rumbles and trembles under your feet. And time stands still.

Lava explosion a constant exercise

When I was there the activity level was high so the volcano was continuously erupting, projecting lava coming all the way from the Earth's guts. Every minute or so a new explosion from both sides of the volcano lit the center in all hues from red to yellow and lava and rocks were thrown to the walls of the craters. 

One of many firework displays

Although this is the World's safest active volcano to visit avalanches and toxic gases do ocassionally come out of the crater. For example, when I was there at one point the wind switched and we had to run to the other side of the rim because ashes and toxic gases were sudddenly being sent our way making it impossible to breath. 

Infrequently, when the vocano's activity level hits 3-4 large lava bombs are expelled, sometimes even beyond the volcano's cone. This was the case at the end of 2013.

One of my favorite explosions

We spent a long time sitting there in the silence of the night only with the noises and coughing of the volcano for music, observing nature's fight with the environment, seeing Earth's fireworks show. The photos cannot make justice or even begin to convey the feeling of seeing such a natural phenomenon in real life.But have a look at my amateur video to see what the show entailed