Wednesday 28 April 2010

Vanuatu: erupting volcanoes are scary, Mt. Yasur puts on a show

I didn't need much convincing to go to Vanuatu, but when Em told me you can go to the top of an active volcano, I was sold.  Ambrym's 2 day walk taking in the Benbow and Marum craters was out because the volcano was too active.  So we flew to the southern island of Tanna, to take in Mt. Yasur: one of the world's most active volcanoes.  Yasur has been erupting more or less continuously for the past 800 years and is known as the "Lighthouse of the Pacific".  Jeff Probst stood on the crater rim to introduce Survivor Vanuatu.

We boarded the Friendly Bungalows party ute at the White Grass airport and rocked out for the 1.5 hour 4WD trip towards the volcano.  A Kiwi couple staying at the bungalows told us how they thought they would have to sleep in a nearby village when rain made a hill in the road an impassable mudslide the week before we arrived. Friendly Bungalows was amazing - basic bungalows built on a remote beach, and Mary who runs the place lived up to the name by being one of the friendliest people we met in Vanuatu.  The food was...interesting.  Due to the remoteness of the village, you pretty much eat what they can grow.  I've never had choko quiche before...

After hanging out on the beach for a while we headed up to the volcano at 4pm, on an even worse road (I have it on good authority that it is much better than it used to be but you could still film an awesome 4WD commercial there).  We raced across an ash plain, forded a river, forked out some cash to the village that 'owns' the volcano, and walked to the crater rim.

We had these conversations with locals:

Greg: The volcano is on [an activity level of] two, right?
Guide:  Mmm....yes, almost three.  I think three next week.
Greg: When do you stop taking people?
Guide: Four
Greg: When was the last time it was 4?
Guide: 1996...the Japanese tourists died.

Em: It's safe right?
Mary: Mmm...mostly safe.  Is a little bit dangerous.

Turns out standing on the rim of an active volcano is really scary.  Ash poured out continuously, and molten lava bombs (tephra) exploded out, preceded by ominous rumbling and cracking.  I couldn't get that video of Mt. St. Helens erupting in 1980 out of my head.

The only saving grace was that the wind was really strong and blowing the ash and lava bombs away from us.  If the wind had changed I probably would have run away.  Because the activity level was at 3, we didn't go right up to the highest viewpoint where you can look down into the lava lakes.  I was plenty happy with our position because rocks were landing about 100m away.  Once the sun went down the eruptions looked amazing (and a lot like fireworks).  I found myself wishing for a big one....but not too big.

Update: As promised, Yasur went to Vanuatu Volcano Alert Level three on the 27th of May, described as:
Large eruption, danger in specific areas within parts of Volcanic Hazards Map Red and Yellow Zones.
Yasur volcano is currently undergoing moderate to large eruption with strong explosions ejecting volcanic bombs reaching the view points for visitors and the parking area with the significant ash fall in the villages nearby. High risk of volcanic projections remains in the red color Zone and threats of ash fall in parts of the yellow color zone that are exposed to trade winds (see hazards map).

1 comment:

Yoram Yasur said...

Spectacular! This place is amazing! Simply unique!

by: Yoram Yasur