An old flame

Barry Oliver re­turns to Tanna Is­land in Van­u­atu for a hot date

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

AN en­counter with Ya­sur, the ac­tive vol­cano on Tanna, one of Van­u­atu’s 83 is­lands, is not eas­ily for­got­ten. My mem­o­ries of a 1998 visit are of an an­gry mon­ster belch­ing red-hot rocks ac­com­pa­nied by suitably ter­ri­fy­ing ex­plo­sions. We could walk right up to the edge to stare into the core of molten lava, imag­in­ing with a shud­der what would hap­pen if we lost our foot­ing, not a safety rail in sight or any­one in uni­form to or­der us to get back.

But in 10 years Tanna has changed. The lo­cals have em­braced tourism, and the ac­com­mo­da­tion, al­though still not five-star, has gone up-mar­ket (along with the prices). I imag­ine a trip to the fiery Ya­sur this time will be a much tamer prospect, with fences to keep vis­i­tors from dan­ger and nu­mer­ous rules and reg­u­la­tions to stop them harm­ing them­selves.

One thing that hasn’t al­tered is the road. Track may be a bet­ter de­scrip­tion (only a short stretch is sealed). Ya­sur is a two-hour dirt drive from our ac­com­mo­da­tion at the White Grass Ocean Re­sort, which has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion since our pre­vi­ous stay. The re­vamped is­land-style bu­res have en­suites, there’s a new beach­front restau­rant with eye-pop­ping views and ac­tiv­i­ties in­clude a nine-hole pitch and putt golf course, volleyball and snorkelling.

I re­mem­ber my pre­vi­ous trip to Ya­sur as a bumpy, if ex­hil­a­rat­ing, ride. This time it’s no dif­fer­ent as we bounce along, sit­ting on an im­pro­vised open-air bench seat at the back of a ute. Chil­dren still wave ex­cit­edly and call as we pass through vil­lages. Pot­holes re­main a con­stant haz­ard; in some stretches the track turns to mud that threat­ens to bring our out­ing to a pre­ma­ture halt. The vil­lage life still is fas­ci­nat­ing — wan­der­ing men with ma­chetes, fam­i­lies col­lect­ing fire­wood or food, all greet­ing us with shy smiles — and we stop on a plateau, the same spot as last time, for a dis­tant view of fear­some Ya­sur.

It doesn’t look any friend­lier, with thick smoke curl­ing into the sky. The vol­cano has been erupt­ing for more than 400 years and, even from this dis­tance, sev­eral kilo­me­tres away, we hear its an­gry rum­ble. It’s rain­ing a fine, grey ash that cov­ers the ground like snow and lands on our clothes. (White is not a good choice but I don’t make that mis­take this time.)

We’re again dropped off about 150m from the top and there are the same prim­i­tive toi­lets that were there in 1998, still without a door. Torches are handed out — dusk is the best time for view­ing — and we join a rib­bon of vis­i­tors snaking their way to the top. Al­most ev­ery minute there’s a nerve-jan­gling ex­plo­sion and a cho­rus of ex­cla­ma­tions from the as­sem­bled crowd.

Our driver, Sam, warns us not to run, no mat­ter what, but to keep an eye out for any­thing danger­ous head­ing our way. The other rule is to tell him if we go back to the ute, oth­er­wise he’ll be or­gan­is­ing a search party.

That’s the safety talk: no fences and no one in charge. Just a bunch of tourists watch­ing Ya­sur blow its top. Some, perched right on the edge, pose for pic­tures, wait­ing for burn­ing de­bris to fill the sky be­hind them.

Most of the guides cum driv­ers are sit­ting in a hud­dle talk­ing, their backs turned to Ya­sur’s an­tics. They’ve seen it all be­fore.

At this point, I re­alise that ab­so­lutely noth­ing has changed in the past decade, from the trip and the vil­lages to the vol­cano. If any­thing, Ya­sur is even more spec­tac­u­lar. (To­day it’s rated grade three on a scale of one to five.) It’s pro­moted as one of the world’s safest ac­tive vol­ca­noes. It’s cer­tainly one of the most ac­ces­si­ble.

Sur­pris­ingly, it has claimed just three lives, all be­fore my first visit. The vic­tims were hit by fly­ing de­bris. No one has fallen in. Maybe Ya­sur’s bark is worse than its bite af­ter all. www.van­u­atu­tourism.com www.white­grass­van­u­atu.com.vu

An­gry rum­ble: Ya­sur

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