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