Up close and personal with a volcano
As soon as I arrived in Port Vila, everyone I spoke to mentioned that I simply had to visit Santo the first chance I had, so naturally I was focusing on getting there. However, three months later, my first opportunity to leave Efate, didn’t take me north to Santo, it instead took me south to Tanna.
After three months living in Vanuatu, I’d heard a little bit about Tanna such as Mount Yasur, the destruction that Cyclone Pam caused and the warrior like nature of the people who live there, but even as I stepped on the flight with my two companions, I still didn’t really know what to expect.
After a very short flight (quicker than flying Wellington to Auckland) we arrived at White Grass Airport on the west coast of the Island. From there, it was a quick five minute drive north to White Grass Resort.
On arrival, we were met by two wonderful and smiling hosts who offered us a much needed ice cold drink of juice, and after filling out the necessary paperwork, were each shown to our individual bure’s (I managed to snare the one right at the front that had a hammock outside it). After doing a wee bit of exploring we sat down to lunch and had a quick chat with the manager. She explained that while there was a little bit of damage, the resort managed to open within three weeks after Pam; about the same time as commercial flights resumed.
After lunch, we prepared ourselves for what was to be the highlight of the trip – going to climb and stand at the edge of the world’s most accessible volcano – Mount Yasur.
Standing 361m high above sea level, it is located near Sulphur Bay, southeast of the taller Mount Tukosmera. It has a largely unvegetated pyroclastic cone with a nearly circular summit crater 400m in diameter. It is a stratovolcano, caused by the eastward-moving Indo-Australian Plate being subducted under the westward-moving Pacific Plate. It has been erupting nearly continuously for over 800 years, although it can usually be approached safely. Its eruptions, which often occur several times an hour, are classified as Strombolian or Vulcanian. (Thanks Wikipedia!).
Setting off at 2pm, we settled in for what was to be a two and a half drive through Tanna. After driving through White Grass which was a straight road with greenery on either side of us for as far as the eye could see, we ended up stopping about half an hour in to be ‘welcomed’ by a local children’s choir. After being listening to a number of beautiful and passionate songs, we were each presented with flowers and giving blessing to visit the volcano.
Jumping back into the truck we continued on our way, driving over every type of road imaginable – gravel, dirt, mud, concrete – everything but asphalt. We passed wild horses, cows, villages and farms, dodged potholes, chickens and pigs and eventually made our way up a hill to one of the most spectacular scenes I’d ever seen.
At the top of Mount Loanialu we stopped for a photo opportunity of the distant volcano, black sand surf beaches and Sulphur Bay.
After the brief stop, we made our way down the hill on a road appropriately called ‘Snake Road’ by the locals as our driver Sammy informed us. This was the most relaxing part of the trip as we were actually driving on concrete and could give our sore bottoms and backs a much needed break!
Continuing on, passing through more villages and farms, all the while waving at the families and children, I noticed the scenery gradually change. The biggest clue we were getting close was that the dirt on the side of the road started to look more like ash. We turned a corner and Sammy started explaining that we were about to go from being on earth to being on the moon. Being a little confused by this, we drove over a rise and suddenly realised what he meant.
I thought the view from the top of Mount Loanialu was amazing, but this blew that out of the water. If there wasn’t a volcano ahead of us, blue skies above us, and the fact that we could breathe, I would have thought that we had actually arrived on the moon. (I had to ask Sammy to reverse and do this whole reveal again so I could capture it on video as none of us had our camera’s ready!)
Sammy wound his way over the rocks and we got out to take more photos. Seeing the rocks with bits of vegetation growing and a sulphate lake and a volcano in the background, the inner geek in me could almost see dinosaurs wandering around. Here we could see Mount Yasur in it’s glory, start smelling the sulfur, hear the eruptions and see the smoke coming out of the top.
(Now, if you ever see someone get on a tour with three camera’s and a tripod, I’d recommend getting another truck, as more than likely, at every photo shoot they will want to take time-lapse photos with each camera and make you an hour late to the volcano. Needless to say that was a little frustrating.)
Nevertheless, we continued on over ash, doing a little bit of four wheel driving as we did so. Wayne, the activities manager at the resort, had mentioned that this is one of the best places in the world to do driving like this and it was easy to see why.
After we finally arrived at the volcano, one of my companions had decided to do the most touristy thing there was, and post himself a postcard at the worlds only post office box located on a volcano. I can now say that I’ve been to the worlds only underwater post off box and the worlds only volcanic post office box.
From here, it was only a quick 10 minute walk up to the crater’s edge. The timing of the tour ensures you get to see the best of everything. You arrive at the volcano whilst it is still light, so to experience the sun setting and the change in colours, and then you stay after sunset to view the show at night as the molten lava lights up the sky.
And what a show it was. You first see a glow coming from the crater, you hear a rumble and then the lava comes shooting out. The volcano was erupting once every 10 minutes and you’re standing right on the rim being able to experience it all.
It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and, I’m sorry Mount Ruapehu, I’ll never be able to look at you in the same way. If you ever visit Vanuatu, and I insist you do, a trip down to Tanna to see Mount Yasur in all it’s glory is a must – you’ll never be able to get such easy to access to an active volcano anywhere.
After night fell, it was time to leave. Now, how the drivers knew where to go to get back to the main road while they’re driving over an ash plain with no visible signposts, I have no idea. While driving over this, we essentially got into a drag race with another driver which was an experience in itself; driving at high speeds in the dark next to an erupting volcano.
After another two hour drive in the dark at high speed, we arrived back at White Grass, had a quick shower to remove the ash, and sat down to enjoy a well earned organic Vanuatu beef steak with a green peppercorn sauce, accompanied by potato mash and braised vegetables, and of course, a Tusker beer.
A couple of tips for the tour:
- If you’re not given one, take a bottle of water – you’re probably going to get ash in your mouth
- Take some snacks. It’s a six plus hour tour so you will get hungry even if you’ve had a massive lunch
- Take some toilet paper! There are no toilets between the resort and the volcano, so if you need to go, you’ll be squatting on the side of the road
- Make sure you wrap up warmly. Even though you’re leaving at 2pm and it’s nice and warm, the wind is strong and the temperature drops when you’re at the top of the volcano.