Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Port Resolution & Mt. Yasur

Tanna, Vanuatu
August 24 - 29, 2006

We sailed around from the Evergreen mooring balls to Port Resolution on a beautifully clear day.  We were against the wind and the seas were a bit uncomfortable, but Port Resolution was a must, as it provided easy access to Tanna's active volcano, Mt Yasur.  It didn't take long before we spotted plumes of smoke emerging from the volcano's crater.  It was easy to spot the big blows from the huge amounts of smoke that drifted upwards.  We had heard that many people hear the rumblings and/or see the glow from Mt Yasur even in Port Resolution, but that first night we didn't see or hear anything.

We decided to hike from Port Resolution to Mt Yasur and arranged for a truck ride back.  We had heard that the trucks tended to get up there a bit late and we wanted plenty of time to explore and take photos (optimally you want to arrive during late afternoon and stay until after dark so that you witness the volcano in both the day and night).  Plus it just feels more 'proper' to hike up a volcano than to be driven!  We were told it would take us about 2-1/2 to 3 hours, and that most of the walk was pretty easy, with just the last 20 minutes or so being difficult.  If one drives (four wheel drive being necessary), you can get right up to the base of the volcano, which then leaves you with an easy 5-10 minute walk up to the rim.  The walk was mostly uneventful, although attractive, as we eased our way along a dirt road surrounded by lush green flora.  Along the way we stopped near Shark's Bay to view a bungalow being built high up in a Banyan tree.  About half way to the volcano we heard our first rumble; it was a low deep growl that raised goose bumps of excitement on my skin ... I couldn't wait to see what came with that rumble!  While I was excited at the chance to see an active volcano, I have to admit I was preparing myself to be disappointed.  We had heard SO many glowing reports about the volcano, I figured there was no way it could live up to my extra high expectations.  And while we had read about the dangers (including the three deaths to date), both in the guidebooks and on a few signs prior to entering the volcano's territory, I truly was thinking Just how dangerous could it be if  thousands of tourist visit it each year?  How naive I was on both accounts, our adventure on top of Mt Yasur turned out to be an adrenaline junkies dream; both life threatening and gripping.  In addition, its power and brilliant light show easily exceeded my expectations.

By the time we entered the road that led up to Mt Yasur, its grumbling had turned to roaring and provided consistent background noise.  Our anticipation was ever increasing.  After already walking a good 2-1/2 hours the steep and rocky incline up proved difficult and took us about 45 minutes.  Every time the road turned I would anxiously peer around hopeful that at any minute Mt Yasur would come into view.  At last a barren ash covered field spotted with old lava rocks lay before me.  And now we could easily see the plumes of smoke that accompanied each roar.  Steam escaped from a number of vents and we could feel the warmth through the red and grey ashy dirt.

Just before heading up to the rim, we stopped at the "Volcano Post".  The world's only post station on an active volcano!  Okay, a bit cheesy in the tourist department, but how could we resist mailing a few post cards (unfortunately we had forgotten our address book when we flew out to Tanna, so our mailing list was a bit short).  We didn't stay long, as we could now see the lava debris shooting skywards from within the volcano's crater, and like kids in a toy store, we had to see it NOW!  I almost felt as though if we didn't get up there right away, then at that very moment Mt Yasur would go dormant and we would miss our one and only chance!

None of us were prepared for just how loud and heart-stopping the BANG of the eruptions would be; every time at least one, if not all, of us jumped.  We rushed up to the edge of the volcano and peered down into a huge crater, where existed yet another crater, where all the action was occurring.  At first we joked about not being close enough, but it didn't take long before we realized that we were plenty close after all.  We were so amazed and stunned not only by the noise, but also the huge amount of debris that was flying out of the inner crater's mouth that we hadn't even managed to get out our camera gear.  Chris & John (boys being boys) were harassing each other about their skittish jumps each time the volcano went off.  KABAM!!! And Chris jumped back has John laughed and just as John was antagonizing him KABANG, another huge blast sent John jumping back and Chris laughing.  The four of us stood looking into the crater, still goggling over the smoke, lava rock, and noise that emerged from the volcano when grrrRRRRR KaaAAABAAAM.  And with that huge blast it went something like this among the four of us:

Wow look at that!    
That one's huge ... oh my.    
Oh my GOD it's coming this way.    

The four of us split into a mad frenzied confusion.  Okay some kept their heads;  John stood still and looked up tracking the huge lava ball that was now heading right for us.  Chris moved, but still looked upwards, ensuring he was moving away from the potential landing spot of the magma rock.

MJ and I were a little less successful with our survival instincts.  MJ went into such a panic that both laughing and running she peed her pants.  Afterwards she couldn't remember if she had looked up or not.  I, in one of my less intelligent moments, just plain out ran ... laughing, screaming, and shouting Where do I go? Where do I go? over and over.  I didn't run very far, because in my panicked state I seemed to only be able to go left and right, as if dodging bullets.  With each frantic turn came the only thought able to cross my silly mind Where do I go? (to which no one ever did answer!!!)

KAPLOP! The large piece of magma thundered to the ground ... having traveled just over our heads, and landing less than 15 feet from where we had all been standing barely moments before!  Full of adrenaline and still just a bit overwhelmed with a range of emotions from shock and panic to giddiness, we all turned to stare at this foreign object that had just hurled itself towards us.  It was as if we were looking at an alien; staring wide-eyed and not daring to approach.  Of course the cameras came out immediately, it was a must that we get pictures of "our lava rock", but it still took a minute or two for the shock to subside enough for any of us to actually go near the rock.  Once we had gained our wits we continued to laugh in amazement (and a bit of relief), and as the initial shock waned, Chris and John got to poking and playing with the over-heated piece of magma.  Flames immediately emerged when Chris pushed a stick into the soft brightly glowing rock.  He created a 'coconut face' by poking three holes into the lava rock, all of which fire spewed out of.

We had arrived on the rim alone, but now a few tourist were showing up, and we excitedly told them our story and showed them "our" lava rock.  We also decided that perhaps we weren't standing in the best spot and moved a bit over on the rim, to what we hoped was a safer location.  Both MJ and I were also lectured on the appropriate lava avoidance procedure (basically look up and wait to see where the debris is going to fall before moving --- do not just run blindly!).  I guess it wasn't one of those facts of life we needed to learn growing up!  Still, with each ear-splitting eruption it took huge amounts of will power to not turn and run.  More than once I felt my head attempt to recede much like a turtle's into his shell, and after the 'our lava rock experience' my knees continued to tremor, right up until we were sitting back in the car park.  I was scared, enthralled, overjoyed, and overwhelmed.  I couldn't stop laughing, smiling, or shaking!  It is no wonder that volcanoes are held as magical, spiritual places among natives.  It is yet another example of just how powerful nature is and how much respect mother earth deserves.

As the sun set the show only became more spectacular.  With the fading light, the magma that shot from within the crater now glowed a glorious red.  It was the most brilliant fireworks display I've ever seen.  Although Lonely Planet mentioned three erupting sections within the volcanic crater, we could only distinguish between two of them.  One seemed to growl and moan before ejecting a small amount of magma with an earth shattering bang that sent everyone shrinking back from the rim ... it made up in noise what it lacked in display.  The other ejected tremendous amounts of glowing magma high into the air, with a large amount landing on the inside of the outer crater (just below the rim where we stood).  Both let forth huge amounts of smoke; sometimes brown and dense, other times light and grayish, and often accompanied by an intense sulphurous odor.

While I could've stood in awe and watched the show all night, it was also a bit stressful ... I was never relaxed, my heart rate was up, and with each loud explosion I'm sure I gained a few new white hairs.  More often than not the BAMs and BANGs of the eruptions would shake the ground beneath us, reminding us of just how much force was used in expelling the large amounts of magma from within.

Periodically Chris went to check on "our" lava rock, reporting back over and over that yes, it was indeed still wicked hot!  Heat be damned, he and John still managed to break off a chunk ... now there's a souvenir!

Finally, around 6:30pm we made our way down to the car park.  Our ride was late so we sat in the back of another truck waiting, and watching the glow and intermittent explosions from above.  We finally were calm enough to eat a snack (how silly to think we'd be able to 'picnic' up on the rim!).  We still talked continuously about our experience and the amazing power of the volcano, chatting away as if we hadn't all been up there together!  Just as we were getting ready to leave a huge earth shattering burst sent a brilliant display of red magma into the air, catapulting a gigantic piece way beyond the rim, where we could easily see its glow even from the car park!

Earlier we had learned that the current activity level of the volcano was classified as a "2".  During levels 1 and 2 tourist are allowed up to the rim.  At level 3 you are only allowed up to the car park (at the base of the volcano), and at levels 4 & 5 you are not allowed up the road at all.  As we drove away, viewing the pulsing red piece of magma we all laughed at the idea of visiting an active volcano (at any level) in the States ... as if!  Here there were no rules, no security or guides directing you, no rails to retain you, you are truly at your own risk!  Between safety paranoia and law suits, such an attraction would never be 'allowed' in America.

Much like the hike up, the truck ride was an adventure in its own.  First our ride never showed, but luckily another truck had a bit of room to spare.  The truck struggled down, dropping into huge crater-like potholes on the tight, narrow dirt path (road is really too strong of a word for what we traveled over).  Once on the slightly larger road, our speed increased throwing back huge puffs of dust and bouncing us all over the wooden benches of the open pickup.  Once again we were covered in dirt and dust and exhausted from an extremely great time!  After a cold beer at the Port Resolution Yacht Club (to toast our survival of flying lava), we took the dinghy back to Island Sonata, this night we could clearly see a splendid red glow emerging from just over the trees.

Back on Island Sonata the adrenaline still coursed through us and we endlessly chattered away as we reviewed our photographs and video.  It was easy to laugh and joke since "our" lava rock missed us all, but it was daunting to think of just how dangerous it was up there!  And we had to laugh at the group we rode back with, as they all wore hard hats, as if that would help at all if hit by flying lava.  If the force of the flying rock alone didn't kill you, it would only be a matter of seconds before the extreme heat vaporized both the hard hat and ... well no need to get gross, you get the point.

As I attempted to drift off to sleep that night I was continuously awakened by the sound (in my dream) of Mt Yasur erupting, and my brain telling me to look up look up, don't close your eyes or it'll land on you!  I would open my eyes to discover all was safe as I was in bed and sleeping was okay, but no matter how much I tried to relax into sleep, it took hours to finally let go.  Still the next morning I would've gone back in a heart beat if we'd had the time!

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