Fireworks on the other Side of the World – The Yasur volcano on Tanna/Vanuatu

Passing the Immigration and getting one’s passport checked is actually the same everywhere in the world: a more or less bored grumpy officers stamp the ink seal uninterestedly into one’s travel document. The welcome at the doorstep of the island republic of Vanuatu is different. Friendliness is the most normal thing in the world and the Chief can also acclaim you with an “Ey man, you got a really nice watch!” – Being located eastern of Australia and well over 16.000km far away from European homeland, the Vanuatu archipelago is home of one of the most active and magic fire mountains in the world: the Yasur.

The Pacific Ring of Fire – about 70% of all active volcanoes worldwide are located in that area, lining up like pearls on a string and reaching from New Zealand to Chile. Among the ring volcanoes some of the most dangerous, but at the same time also most interesting fire mountains can be found. The pictures of the recently erupted underwater volcano near Tonga emphasize, that the South Seas sometimes aren’t that peaceful as it often seems. The volcano-made Vanuatu archipelago is one of those paradisiacal spots whose existence results from volcanism solely. It is right in the thick of things.

Attracted by the lava’s shine, James Cook landed on the Vanuatu island of Tanna back in 1774. Even from far distance he could spot Yasur’s red glow reflecting in the clouds. The volcano is a prime example of all things called Strombolian activity and is actually putting the original name giver (Stromboli) in the shade. Having a crater rim height of only 361m, Mount Yasur doesn’t seem to be a giant. Though, the mountain’s motto definitely is “small, but nasty”, as the volcano has the potential to kill the island’s entire life at any time indeed.

For amateur tank drivers Tanna’s interior roads would surely be pure enjoyment. The ride from the airfield to the island’s southern end (~30km) can sometimes last up to 2-3 hours. Having arrived Tanna on own initiative, John, Coreena and her father took me with them. Already the ride was an adventure. To the detriment of uncle John, Coreena’s old father heavily flirted with the throttle while riding on pretty badly eroded bumpy roads. From time to time John’s loud “UH!” shouts cut in on Coreena’s constant gaggle, as chuckhole-caused the jeep railing jammed into his manhood. However, good old John didn’t change his sitting position…

In addition to weather-beaten paths the river at the volcano’s bottom is another hurdle not to be sneezed at. Promptly it invited us to some rescue work from being stuck in ash mud. The rainy season 2008/2009 must have been a pretty wet one. The floods even rubbed away the small waterfall. The area at Yasur’s bottom, where the river is making its way to the Pacific Ocean, used to be a giant lake retained by a dam of ash. In 2004/05 that dam burst and the devastating flood made its way towards the ocean. The Chief fortunately noticed that danger and evacuated on village located in the waters line of fire.

One of the best places to stay is Kelson’s Jungle Oasis. To travellers his cute jungle paradise is offering a tree house and several cosy bungalows. There’s even running water, coming from a source in the mountains. Watching the lava glow in the clouds from a tree house with no electricity, while being embraced by warm candle light and South Seas’ crystal clear starry sky, is one of the most romantic experiences you can ever have. No traffic jam, no bustle, no Kill Bill ring tones. Being located only a 30-45 minutes walk away, you can literally sleep next to the volcano. At night you hear its eruptions as rumbling in the distance. From time to time there’s a little ash fall and you can feel small earthquakes making the spoon in your coffee cup shake. Wherever you’re about to sleep, shortly after rainy season one of the most important utensils is a mosquito net. With surgical precision those small beasts find exactly those spots on your skin, which got only one instead of two drops of insect repellent. No fear, Malaria is not a big issue on Vanuatu, but those bites are itching bloodily…

Hiking up for the first time, the volcano didn’t let me come close to the crater. Although being only 361m tall, its ash slopes are literally the definition of steep. It is like hiking up a desert dune, you do two steps ahead and slip one back again. A perfect, and even more perfect when the parching central star joins forces with the 20kg burden on your back called photo equipment… Hence the hot fissure that surprisingly appeared on the north-eastern crater rim was a quite opportune reason to climb down again. Easily the heat permeated the thick soles of special hiking boots and made me dance. However, there are easier ways to reach the crater as there’s a road to the volcano branching off shortly after passing Kelson’s oasis…

At the bottom of the volcano you don’t hear much of its activity. On top of the crater that’s completely different; you instantly hear the lava sizzling, frizzling and boiling. Most impressive and unforgettable is the “teamwork” of Earth’s forces. First you feel a small but bloodcurdling earthquake in your bones and bowels. Only a split of a second later you perceive the explosion shock wave on your chest and hear its ear-shattering thunder. Glowing rocks get tossed through the air like artillery shells; coming towards you, lapilli and lava bombs even whistle like a cannonade. Also unforgettable is the metallic-glassy crackling noise when the ejecta tumbles back into the vent. While your face is getting an ash dust peeling, you notice the smell of burnt ash and devilish sulphur in the air. Well, you can even taste a volcano… It’s truly an experience for all senses! But when the dusk sets in, the whole scenery metamorphoses from terrifying into just being captivating and fascinating. Thousands of red bullets are painting their trajectory against the dark night sky.

Sitting alone and hypnotised on the crater rim, you become one with the volcano and having the ultimate force at your feet, you discover the miracle of creation in Yasur’s soul. There is no stronger power on Earth. It created life, keeps our life conditions balanced, but is able to destroy everything entirely at any time.

Other of Vanuatu’s volcanoes are not less dangerous. For example the caldera on Ambrym Island is the remaining evidence of one of the ten heaviest eruptions ever happened. Technically seen the entire island is a giant shield volcano, having two active vents, Marum and Benbow, in its centre. Back in the 1990s the latter one even had a briskly boiling lava lake in its crater, like the one at Nyiragongo.

The regularity of Yasur’s eruptions are resulting from magma containing lots of gas. While the gas is ascending to the surface, it is getting compressed by the liquid magma. In the moment the gas bubble reaches the surface, it immediately expands/bursts, easily taking away lava chunks weighting 60-70kg. David, an Englishman living on Tanna, reported about heavy eruptions tossing car-sized lava chunks over the crater rim. Yasur’s activity is categorized in four levels:

  • 1 – Normal activity within the crater area
  • 2 – Stronger activity exceeding the crater rim
  • 3 – Massive eruptions, ejecta falls down in a radius of up to 6km
  • 4 – Catastrophic eruptions devastating the entire island; pyroclastic flows possible

No matter if active or only slumbering, hiking and climbing volcanoes means risk, and even danger to your life! In particular the easily accessible Yasur invites to care less and already claimed lives; even when being accompanied by the local “guides”. Walking around on flip-flops and heading straight into the ash/gas cloud, that is truly something that only all-inclusive-tourists can have in mind… The intensity of every of its eruption can be significantly different from the previous one. For safety on volcanoes I have collected some non-committal advices and experiences:

  • First get a feeling for the eruptions, their intensity and rhythm.
  • Analyse the volcano’s ejection direction. Usually it remains constant for a longer period. Statistically seen the opposite direction is quieter and can be an important refuge.
  • Watch every eruption, mavericks can always turn up.
  • Hot ash and gas clouds are light as a feather and can be blown with the wind easily. Hence pay attention to wind direction!
  • Always look where erupted material is coming down. In case of volcanic material seeming to hit you, just step aside, never run away uncontrolledly.
  • Never wear sneakers or flip-flops!
  • Depending on the eruption intensity wear a helmet.
  • Not infrequently craters are instable formations and volcanoes are often subject to mini earthquakes, whose power is strong enough to make an entire crater wall slide down.
  • Never bloody give yourself Dutch courage…!
  • PS: Wearing earplugs is never wrong :-)

People taking these rules to heart and putting safety first, will experience a mighty, incomparable wonder of nature – the Creation. This article is dedicated to the great people of Tanna. Thank you Kelson, Joyce and Coreena. Thank you David for the lovely talk on the ride back to the airfield. Thanks Yasur for letting me sit on your shoulder and experience the unbridled force of the Earth. Official Website of Vanuatu Tourism Department In detail info about Tanna
Further information about Tafea islands Kelson’s Jungle Oasis Further Vanuatu Tourist Information

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