We are 10 miles North of Tanna, en route to Port Villa and the capital city of Vanuatu, Port Villa. As Tanna slips over the stern of Khulula, I am compelled to tell of our experience with Yasur, the mighty volcano of Tanna!!
Words by Ryan
Lat: 19 degrees 07.01 minutes S
Long: 169 degrees 09.5 minutes E
The volcanic ash and brittle volcanic rocks tinkle and tumble down beneath our feet as we scramble for the rim of the volcano. The trade winds tear at our clothing and blow the ash up in puffs as we continue to climb, trying to ignore the rumblings beneath our feet. There is a growing sense of excitement (and a base feeling of unease) as we near the top and bear witness to a mighty bellow from the depths of the earth as Yasur, the mighty volcano of Tanna launches rocks from the depths of the earth.
The windward lip of the volcano is apparently the “safe” side, a “safe” haven where tourists can bear witness to this awesome power of nature. I have never seen anything so incredible and raw in my entire life. On the extremely rough road up to the volcano base I was wondering if this spectacle was perhaps just another super safe tourist adventure, complete with a far off viewing platform and maybe some billowing smoke. I was completely unprepared for the power and raw fury that was happening a little (or MUCH) to close for comfort!
30 minutes into our journey along the crater rim, our guide “Silly guy Charlie” took the opportunity to give us our safety talk. Um, should we perhaps not have had this BEFORE gazing onto the very fires of Mordor? In a very jovial manner, Charlie explained that in the event of an eruption, DO NOT RUN! Check, that would have been my first impulse without question. OK, how come? Running by its very nature would have you with your back to the volcano at the very moment that it is hurling molten rocks and magma willy nilly over the crater rim. Charlie continued to explain that there were two types of rocks: The first type is the low-flying, high-velocity rocks that can be heard even against the wind. Apparently, this first kind of hazard has “kilt” a Japanese tourist up here a couple of years back, via decapitation. Nice. The second type of airborne hazard is the rocks that Yasur lobs over our heads. “Be very careful not to just look the rocks coming straight”, cautioned our guide, “because then a rock will come down straight on your head” He demonstrates with a chopping motion over Hugh’s head. Apparently the best defense in the event of an eruption (which is happening every 5 minutes or so) is to face the volcano and watch for rocks coming from two directions, and keep your ears open for the sound of high-velocity molten missiles. Never before have you seen a group of people watch a volcano so closely.
Sometime later we met an American tourist who was camped at the base of the hill, back where we left the trucks. Apparently the night before Yasur had emitted a mighty bellow and hurled rocks to within 50 feet of his tent. He awoke to small brushfires around his tent as the molten rocks smoldered into the undergrowth. Err, this was last night? Yep, last night. Interesting. Volcano attentiveness ratcheted up another notch.
Between eruptions, aka Yasur’s bowel movements, there is a period of quiet. In these quiet moments Yasur is sleeping and gathering his strength for the next eruption – generally the longer the quiet period, the larger the eruption. Thus, the visitors welcome each blast with the ooh’s and ahh’s of the magnificence of the event, but also with the relief of having a not-too-long quiet period!
Gazing into the crater was incredible. As darkness fell, one would get a few seconds warning of each blast as the volcanic cones would begins to glow. This glow would gather strength and begin to filter light onto the interior walls. The lake of fire begins to bubble and the rumblings begin, first a small barely audible noise, and growing into a full, earthquake style, earth moving and bone jarring shaking. I remember marveling that the crater walls were still standing after such consistent shaking… As the shaking builds, you anticipate what is coming, something has gotta give…. SHEBLAM!!!!! Yasur erupts with a mighty BANG’s and BOOM’s, spraying brilliant orange molten lava high up into the sky. In the lower sections the lava is sprayed around in sheets, almost as if some subterranean child is throwing a tantrum in their molten bathtub. Then comes the smoke, along with the fire, pumping out of the depths, and chugging up into the heavens in giant mushrooms…
As the silence settles in once again, your ear tunes back into the whistling of the wind, and a more delicate sound emerging from the crater depths. All the molten projectiles have landed and begun to solidify and, yielding to gravity, they begin to slide down the steep ashy slopes within the crater, back to from whence they came. The visual accompaniment to this sound is that of increasingly dim orange orbs sliding and tinkling down a jet black slope, and disappearing back into the lake below…
We got some fantastic pictures, and almost KO’d the camera with all the volcanic dust being blown around. Absolutely, 100% worth it – this is an experience I will never forget.
Three hours after dark it was time to leave, those with headlights leading those without, slipping and sliding down the pitch black slope, backlit by the fiery plumes above. Back in the trucks I remembered the story of the American volcano camper and spotted his tent a few hundred meters further away from where we stood. I shudder when thinking of the eruption that would land a pyroclast this far from the rim, and thank Yasur for not busting one of those out when we were up there.
The adventure was not over. Sitting in the open back of our pickup truck on the way home, tropical wind whipping through our hair as the headlights illuminate our jungle road ahead, Charlie begins to recount the legend of Yasur. A born storyteller, Charlie “Silly Person”, had us completely riveted for the 45 minutes home. We were a part of the lucky ones, one of the lucky tours that happened to get a guide from the tribe of the volcano, the caretakers of the legend of the volcano. Earlier that day he had eluded to a story of the Banyan tree and why the male Banyan tree housed evil spirits in its sinewy trunk, while the female did not. We asked him to tell us. He declined apologetically, explaining that in their local “Kustom” and in their land of black magic and traditional beliefs, it is not a story for him to tell. There was one other man in the village who is charged as the caretaker of the story of the Banyan Tree, and only he was permitted to tell it. While others may have heard this story, then can never repeat it, under pain of death. Charlie explained that if he repeated it, the tribe elders would sit with him around the Banyan tree, drink Kava, admonish him in silence, and then probably kill him to appease the spirits.
Charley “Silly Person” is the caretaker of the legend of the volcano, and only he can recount it. I suppose it is one way to preserve the details of the legend and not allow it to get broken-telephoned. It is a fantastic tale, beyond logic, but filled with awesome characters and noble happenings. Out of respect for Charlie and the Kustom of Vanuatu, I could never recount this story, and will leave it to the imagination. I can say, however, that listening to Charlie’s sonorous, broken English, as we hold onto the back of an open pick-up as it whistles through the dark tropical forests of Tanna, the telling of the legend of Yasur the mighty volcano, is one that is firmly embedded in our memories for eternity.