Walking the caldera Mount Yasur, Vanuatu.

As published in Starts at 60 on 26 July 2019

Vanuatu is an amazing archipelago of 83 lush islands situated 1,900 kilometres to the north-east of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. It is a mere 3-hour flight or two weeks on a yacht — the choice is yours. We chose the latter and fully intended to sail into Port Resolution on Tanna Island where James Cook landed in 1774. Alas, the wind gods were not in our favour and we ended up checking into Port Vila, 220km to the north — whoops! Port Vila is very nice, and we had a wonderful time there, but it lacks an active, fire-breathing volcano.

Mount Yasur on Tanna Island is arguably the most accessible active volcano in the world. You can stand on the edge of the caldera and stare into the evil eye of Hades, or so we were told. Since I’d never seen a volcano, I really wanted to go to Tanna. We were faced with two choices. Either sail against a prevailing wind and sea for two days or catch the regular flight from Port Vila to Tanna. Yes, you guessed it, we opted for the flight. Okay, it was a bit pricey, but so worth every cent.

Air Vanuatu and Air Taxi Vanuatu operate daily flights from Port Vila to Tanna taking in the volcano tour with an overnight stop. We chose to fly Air Taxi because they fly directly over the volcano located on the south-east of Tanna and their aircraft are high-wing, to ensure the best views (and photos) of the sights below.

Like excited schoolchildren, we eagerly boarded our 10-seater Islander twin-engine aircraft. First impressions were that this little plane had the build quality of a 1951 Morris Minor and was shaped eerily like a stretched coffin with wings. Cripes! What are we doing? Fortunately, Dave, our Kiwi pilot, was very competent and quickly put us at ease. The aircraft is designed for short take-off and landing and is ideal for Vanuatu, he advised. Di scored the jockey seat beside the pilot on the return trip and hasn’t stopped raving about what an incredible experience that was (no, she did not fiddle with the instruments).

The spectacular view of Mount Yasur from the air.

Only 1 hour from Port Vila and we were flying over Mount Yasur and getting spectacular bird’s eye views of the large crater and constant smoke plume, before landing at Tanna airport. We were met at the airport by our driver who took us first to check in at our accommodation at Evergreen Resort, then onto the volcano via a 1.5-hour bumpy four-wheel drive ride across the island on unsealed roads.

Our first glimpse of the volcano, as the sunset, was across the vast moonscape like ash plains stretching for miles on the leeward side of Mount Yasur. The route to the volcano is via the ash plains — no signposts, no lights; which is why you don’t self-drive to the volcano. At the base of the mountain, we were entertained by the local Yakel tribe who still follow a traditional lifestyle. They performed an island welcome dance with a song in French and English and invited visitors to join in — such great fun! Next came the obligatory safety talk, which can be distilled to two key messages. First, “Don’t turn your back on the volcano” (lest you get squashed by a flying rock) and second, “Don’t fall in”! Pretty simple stuff, but quite refreshing compared to our risk-averse society.

The Mount Yasur Welcome Dance being performed by the local tribe.

The final ascent to the base camp was a 15-minute 4WD climb up the steaming, rumbling mountain bouncing around like kids in the tray of a twin-cab ute. If you have a dodgy back, they will let you ride in the cabin. From the base camp, it is just a short climb to the rim of the caldera. If you can manage three flights of stairs, then this is an easy climb.

To see the erupting volcano, up close, is both mesmerising and breathtaking. Each eruption commences with a blinding white flash accompanied by a shock wave immediately followed by a deep rumble. The monster is awakened and spews fiery magma and blazing lava bombs the size of small cars high into the air. We were spellbound by the spectacle and the energy rippled through our bodies with every eruption. This is an experience that we will never forget.

The tour guides took us to three vantage points offering different perspectives of the volcano, but the best spot was kept till last when we stood on the southern rim of the caldera and peered into the ‘Fires of Hell’. It’s easy to see where the idea of Hades came from as we were treated to one eruption after the other for over two hours, each becoming subsequently larger until we wondered where it would all end.

Looking into the evil eye of Hades, Mount Yasur.

Mount Yasur is most spectacular at night when the eruptions illuminate the sky and draw you deeper into their spell. That is when you get the best photographs and that is why you really do need to do the overnight tour. Finally, it was time to go and our guides ushered us back to the base camp where you can post a card (buy it at the ticket box) or send a letter from the world’s only post box on an active volcano.

At no time did we feel unsafe even though we were often showered with small flakes of ash. The volcanic activity is constantly monitored on a scale of four and tours are not permitted for anything other than levels 1 and 2.

Our top travel tips

Bring cash as credit cards are not yet accepted

Bring a camera tripod to capture that perfect Mount Yasur eruption shot

Pack some warm clothing and a cap as it can get a bit chilly at the crater rim and you will get sprinkled with ash, so anything white is not a good idea

Pack sneakers or other closed shoes; no open shoes or thongs (or high heels!) It is a live volcano.

Listen to advice from the tour staff, but don’t forget your sense of adventure. The experience was an exciting, mesmerising, and awesome spectacle in every sense of the word.

If this is not on your “Bucket List” then you need a bigger bucket! If you come to Vanuatu and don’t see this, you will have really missed out!!

You are never too old for adventure!

Story by Geoff East
Photography by Di East

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