Grit and Gas and Oh, A Volcano

(Tanna Island and Efate Island, Vanuatu)

June 2023

By the end of the first week in Port Vila, we had caught up on the most pressing jobs and were feeling ‘back to normal’ after our trip across from Australia. Next on our ‘To Do’ list, was to visit the island of Tanna and go to the top of the active volcano there. Visiting an active volcano is something I have wanted to do for years and finally, we were going to do it. To make the most efficient use of our time we decided to fly down to Tanna and stay overnight (the Island of Tanna is quite a ways south of Port Vila and we had heard that the anchorage is not good). This would allow us to visit the volcano just before nightfall so we could see it in the daytime but especially, could see it in action at night.  We would also only be gone for 24hrs so Taz should never notice.

While walking through the Tourist Trade Fair, on the waterfront (it was being held this week – how fortuitous) we found a local airline called Unity Airlines who offered a package of flight; accommodation, transfers and volcano tour. This was perfect for us so we booked immediately. The next day we were picked up from in front of the marina and headed to the airport to start our next adventure.

It’s been a long time since I’ve flown in a small, loud and windy 9 seater plane. 

The plane we flew in was ideal for inter-island hopping, being a small high wing (good ground clearance and downward visibility) with a very short take-off capability.  There was a small delay while a bunch of Chinese passengers from a film company argued with the owner of the airline about who they would allow to fly on ‘their’ plane. Eventually, Peter and I were on a plane (we didn’t care which one) for the one hour flight to Tanna.  It turns out the actors themselves didn’t mind that we were on ‘their’ flight either; taking our photos to giggle at on their Insta (but who am I to complain).

Flying over the islands it was hard not to notice the many bright blue roofs; a lot of the blue turned out to be storm tarpaulins erected post the recent cyclones.  But there were also many roofs actually painted blue and mauve (not colours we’d put on our roofs in Australia)! Where there is paint, walls or roof, it will be white or bright, there is no in between.  There are also poly water tanks in use everywhere.  They are from the Australian Aid given after Cyclone Pam (that was the big one that all the locals talked about in awed tones).

From the Tanna airport, we hopped in a van to take us to our accommodation at the Evergreen Resort. This is definitely not a Bali type resort, but there were clean beds, mosquito netting, hot water and simple but good food. The view is beautiful and they are working hard to keep the grounds and gardens neat and tidy, and repair the damage from cyclones and lack of maintenance during COVID. [The lack of tourists during COVID had been quite devastating to the local economies].  The staff were excellent and made sure we knew what time the volcano tour was and organised our orders for the evening meal (as we would not be back until 8:30pm).

Volcano ash-boarding sounds great, but I’m here for the evening tour.

The 4-wheel drive trip to the volcano was very scenic (much more so for those riding on bench seats in the rear tray).  During the 2 hours it took to get to the volcano we passed through villages and rainforest areas, and the road cut through more and more black sand as we progressed.  The first part of the trip was on bitumen roads, then the road became sand tracks and pretty slow going. We drove through many villages, passing youngsters playing chasey after school and sulky teens hanging around in peer groups and glaring at each other (children are the same the world over).

Every car stopped at this turn for this photo (very touristy I know).

Just before we reached the dirt section, we stopped at the top of a hill and there was the Yasur volcano in all its glory.  It was indeed impressive.

This is what the volcano actually looks like without the middle-aged tourists grinning in front of it.

Through the window in this picture, you can see the layers of ash cut away.

The road was cut through layers of igneous ash. Our driver, Joshua, complained that the track was getting more and more cut up all the time.  As we came closer the vegetation largely disappeared as we entered the area of the ash cone.  [Peter and I had a discussion about this paragraph, as I wanted to refer to a lesson in sedimentary deposits here, but Peter pointed out that the ash was igneous as it clearly came out of a volcano and you don’t get more igneous than that.  A spot of research really didn’t clear it up much; according to Geologists “the ash is igneous when it goes up and sedimentary when it goes down” (ref. WikiBooks – Volcanic Ash).  We called a stalemate, but it would still make a great lesson about the development of scientific terminology (so I win!)

This section was like driving through the set of the movie ‘Dune’.  For the last part of the trip, we circumnavigated the base of the volcano to the other side, which was still vegetated.

Standing at the base of the ash cone.  I loved the beautiful sharp ridge.  The term ash is a bit of a misnomer as it is made of fine black sand.  We were told that the local football team trains by running up and down this slope.  An Australian has also managed to ride a motor bike up the slope on the left, all the way to the top of the volcano.  AND this is where the ash-boarding takes place (although after seeing the texture of the sand that is spewed out, I’d be worried about abrading my skin away).

We arrived at the village on the green side of the volcano, that serves as the base for the tours.  There were many other people also visiting, and there was another delay as the guides worked out how to get everyone into the trucks for the trip to the top. We were given a quick briefing that included the information that the level of activity on the volcano is rated from 1 to 5, and you can only go up to the main caldera on levels 1 and 2, and that today was a level 2 (tick that box).  After signing the obligatory release form (lots of ticks, but I really don’t think they mean anything useful) we all piled into various cars and headed up a steep track to a point about 100m below the top of the volcano.

As we drove up, we passed steam coming out of vents on the side of the road to remind us that this was not a drill.  [In all seriousness, our Kiwi friends back in Australia were very concerned (White Island was uppermost in their minds) and it is worth mentioning that these activities can and do go badly wrong.  Our friend Terry had been instructed to let someone know about Taz locked on the boat, if he didn’t hear from us the next day].

We gathered at the base of some steps for a short safety introduction from our guide, which was essentially to do as you are told and don’t wander off.  Tramping up the steep track to the top I realised just how much aerobic fitness I had lost in the last few weeks.  There, right in front of us, was the main crater (400m across and nearly circular). The immediate impressions were of the sulphur fumes and the huge rumbles in the ground. By now it was late afternoon and the glow from the magma below was becoming brighter. The other thing we immediately noticed was the constant rain of sand from material thrown up by the volcano.   

As if seeing glowing magma thrown into the air wasn’t impressive enough, the most memorable thing about this visit was the sound.  It was the deep rumbling bass that you only really feel in a movie theatre for certain scenes in ‘Lord of the Rings’, and it did feel like there was something awakening from the Depths of the Earth. The subsonics that you could feel just added to the whole thing; this was big and wild and if it decided to get grumpy, we were cactus.

Over the next 2 hours we went to various view-points around the top of the volcano.  Frequently the volcano would give a belch and magma would be thrown up hundreds of feet, glowing bright red and very spectacular, and accompanied by appropriate ooh and aahs from the crowd. At one point the ridge sprouted a number of obviously human built rock cairns – those things are everywhere.

Peter did keep harping on at me for being too close, and in truth the wooden fencing erected at one point was definitely more suggestive than structurally useful.  If you did slip, there was no coming back, as it was sand all the way down to the hot stuff.  This became even more important as night fell and you needed to be extra careful where you placed your feet.

By now we were covered in fresh, black sand that rained down on us, and the sinus’ were well cleared from the sulphur gas.  On our way back down to the car park we were passed by many young locals walking up the track to the top; I guess it was the equivalent of a date at the movies?

Advice for visiting a volcano:

Take a mask or wear a scarf, for covering your nose and mouth if the wind changes (else you will spend a deal of time holding your collar over your mouth).  Some people took dive masks/goggles to cover their eyes, but I didn’t find that too much of a problem.

Don’t bother washing your hair for the day or wear a hat/beanie.

Take a wind breaker or jacket (it’s jolly cold at night along the rim of the volcano).

Wear walking shoes (the walk back to the cars in the dark could claim a toe or two). I haven’t worn my hiking boots for 2 years and found out, painfully, that my feet have grown/slumped/spread, from my non-shod lifestyle on the boat.

Take a torch (the trail back to the car park is not lit and the guides seemed to assume that you’ll remember where you went).

By 8:30pm we were back at the resort and after a quick meal, spent some time in the shower scrubbing all the volcanic sand out of our hair.  So glad our resort had hot water (although it was a bit of a case of all or nothing regarding the temperature).  The high school kids we met up at the volcano were staying in the village at the base and had no water at all!  After a pleasant night’s sleep and an early breakfast, it was back on the plane and we were back in Port Vila by lunch time. 

Peter was not impressed that I had ‘flogged’ a rock from the volcano.  Did he seriously think I would not take a sample for my rock collection????  I informed him that a) it is continually making new ones and b) I had methodically checked at the information centre for any signage saying you couldn’t take samples.  The indemnity thingy we signed was just about it being absolutely your problem if you fell in, there was nothing about picking up a keepsake. 

Mind you we all took fresh volcanic sand home in our hair anyway. 

Overall, Peter and I agreed this was an experience of a lifetime that we would strongly recommend.  But with the caveat that if you go, you need to recognise that this is a live volcano and there are real risks attached (especially in a remote and under-funded area).   It is not like going to a natural attraction in Australia where there are actual guard rails and signs and etc. etc.  This is definitely a ‘Darwin Awards’ opportunity, but boy, we would not have missed it for anything.

A rather unusual marina sunset photo (I promise it is not touched up).  Maybe we’ll get some rain tonight (we didn’t).

The following day was a contrast of shopping experiences. 

Here’s me with my local lettuces strung up on canes.

And here is Peter with a plethora of choice at the Au Marche Numbatu (turn right outside the marina and it’s a 10 minute walk up the hill).  This is the much nicer supermarket than the one I referred to in the previous blog.  That one, opposite the open markets, is serviceable but this one is a Supermarket!  Don’t go shopping around lunch time because a) the surrounding shops are closed for lunch and b) everyone is at the super marche buying their lunch and groceries, so it was very busy.  As in Europe, you can buy alcohol with your groceries (just not on the weekend after 11am Saturday).  Again, the mini buses are invaluable for getting the supplies back to the boat.

This supermarket also stocks imported NZ dairy and veggies, Australian fruit, has Sara Lea frozen desserts in the freezer and Peter found his coffee bags.  Prices are slightly more expensive than Australia.  The exception is the fruit and vege, which are just plain expensive, and the quality is variable (so check before you get it bagged and priced).  But there is the full range of everything including Taz’ cat food and Peters Lurpak butter (seriously expensive).

We thought we should do a local tour, so booked for some kayaking and visiting a waterfall.   It took about 40 mins to get to where these areas were and gave us a good look at the countryside of Efate (the island that Port Vila is on). Again, the villages tended to be pretty basic but generally neat.  There is always something burning somewhere; piles of rubbish, raked leaves etc. so the air can be quite smoky.  We saw lots of plantations of various sorts, along with plenty of topography as we travelled inland.

In the morning we went for a gentle kayak up the end of these Falls.  Then a kayak back down stream for some swimming and swinging off a rope into the river.  The temperature difference when you fall off the swing rope into the water takes you by surprise, as it is the opposite of what we’d expect (in an Australian dam it is the cold water lurking underneath the top that will cause you problems).  Here the warm salt water creeps under the cold fresh water so you fall through cold and into a really comfortable warm.

The afternoon started with a baguette for lunch before swimming at the cascades waterfall.  I love the bread in any of the old French Colonies.  The water here was so cold that it took your breath away.

I’ve just come out from sitting behind the waterfall (there is a little grotto with a ledge behind the curtain of water).  The current is very strong, but fortunately it carries you down to a calmer area where the ladder is located for getting out.

The last item on this tour was a visit to a Nakamal.  It seems every village has a Nakamal it is the equivalent of the local pub, only it serves kava.  The Nakamal we went to was obviously set up for tourists, the locals attended for a drink and chat around 5pm.  The locals were happy to chat and when they found out we were Australians would almost always mention someone from their family who was in Australia or New Zealand working.  It was clear that the worker programs that take groups of locals to Australia and New Zealand to do agricultural work,fruit picking mostly, was quite important as a source of income. It will be interesting to see if this is the same out in the more remote areas of Vanuatu.

Peter had been watching the weather and confirmed that Monday the 3rd July was looking good for leaving the marina and heading north.  So, we arranged with Roslyn to get fuel on the Monday morning and then we could leave straight from the fuel dock. We have really enjoyed our stay in Port Vila.  We will be back for at least a week when we get ready to leave Vanuatu for New Caledonia, but for now we were nervously excited about the next phase of exploration into the more remote areas of the islands of Vanuatu.

Taz Talks:

Me and Betty (the Barramundi) took good care of the boat while they were traipsing up volcanos.

Research Ravings:

Mount Yasur is a volcano on Tanna Island, Vanuatu.  It rises 361 m (1,184 ft) high above sea level on the coast near the aptly named Sulphur Bay. It is a typical (and beautifully sculptured, I think) pyroclastic cone with a nearly circular summit crater 400 m in diameter.  It is a Stratovolcano that results from the earth’s tectonic plates, the crust bits that float over the molten inside of the planet, bumping into each other and tussling about who slides under or over the other (Subduction Zones; the Pacific Rim is all about these zones, which is why the Pacific Rim is full of volcanos and earthquakes). Mount Yasur has been erupting pretty much continuously for hundreds of years.

The activity level for the volcano is determined by the Vanuatu Geo-Hazards Observatory.  There are 5 levels;

Level 0 – Normal [called a hill by normal people]

Level 1 – Signs of Volcanic Unrest [a rumble, cough or steamy patch]

Level 2 – Major Unrest [that’s what we saw; it did appear to be unrestful]

Level 3 – Minor Eruption [minor unless you are in the way – last happened in the 1990s]

Level 4 – Moderate Eruption [the Island of Ambae has been evacuated a few times recently because their volcano likes the number 4]. 

Level 5 – Very Large Eruption [The underwater volcanos off Epi Island made boating and flying in the area impossible in February 2023.  But I’m not sure if that would be classed as a 4 or 5 – I can’t find the list of criteria for the levels].

Banner photo: The rim of Yasur Volcano

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Wow Suz, that volcano adventure sounds absolutely incredible! I’m very happy no Darwin Awards were given out.

    1. You and me both Alana. And it was indeed definitely worth waiting for.

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