No Pictures, perhaps later (perhaps video as well, but that will be later still). My camera’s uplink cord has mysteriously vanished… and by mysteriously I mean that I’m 98% certain my flatmates accidentally packed it up and hauled it off to Malekula. As a result Google Image Search will have to do you until they come back or I find an alternative method of uploading pictures.
So, volcano. The first volcano. Yes, I did see lava. No, it was not as dramatic as in most of the Google image searches you will find. No, I did not get any pictures of the lava (sorry, it was very erratic and my camera didn’t really pick it up even when it did occur). Yes, it was terrifying, but also awe-inspiring and beautiful. And I am very, very grateful that I got a chance to see this. I know that I am incredibly lucky just to have the opportunity to come to this place in the first place, to have the money to take this side trip, and I am exceptionally lucky after all of that to have met some very kind people when things didn’t go exactly as planned.
And the weather, very, very, very lucky with the weather.
Actually, I feel like I’ve got some kind of good luck gnome sitting on my shoulder. Hopefully he will continue sitting there.
(or perhaps it’s a bad luck gnome and they’re having an epic battle, you decide)
What follows is pretty much direct transcription from my travel diary. Some names have been changed:
Dec. 25, 2011
Christmas day. I am sitting on a yellow lawn chair in a half-finished thatch-roofed restaurant. Since the wall across from me is not complete I have a direct view across the bungalow’s carefully landscaped garden and the untamed jungle beyond to the black, desolate slopes of Mt. Yasur.
It is day, but the summit of the mountain still glows faintly red against the cloud cover and the ever-present smoke (white sulfur, black and grey ash) blowing northwards from the crater’s rim. The clouds shift, never revealing the entirety of the mountain. It is a dark hump against a pale, bright sky.
Every so often the volcano rumbles, a reminder, if any is needed, that it is still there, that the Earth is churning a mere 30-minute walk from where I sit. The sound is akin to thunder but deeper. It has
sonorous quality that creeps into your bones and you know instinctively that the source is not the sky, that the danger is not above, but below. It is the sound of gas escaping, of magma splashing, of rocks being thrown free and then swallowed again by the greedy earth.
I am at Tanna Melanesian Bungalows. It’s not where I was supposed to end up. In fact, I’m having to pay double as a result and will be having words with the tour operator back in Vila, but for the moment at least, I am at peace. For this I am glad. Things could have gone a lot worse yesterday at
Dec. 24, 2011
Since my French roommates have left for Malekula (presumably taking my camera cord with them), Mathew, the land lord, asked if I would be alright sharing the flat with some New Caledonian who are down for Christmas. They are very nice people, though I still feel slightly awkward. I spend most of Dec. 23rd watching whatever videos I can dig up on my laptop.
Christmas eve rolls around and I’m packed and ready to go. I get a mini bus to the airport and, pleasant surprise of pleasant surprises, the driver charges me significantly less than the usually airport fee. I get off at the wrong terminal, walk to the correct terminal, check-in, spend a long time waiting around a very hot and crowded building. I chat with two clueless Australian backpackers who were apparently completely unaware that their plane ticket is useless if they don’t pay the 200 Vatu provincial departure tax.
I meet my travel agent in the airport. She gives me an envelope to pass on to my guide/driver Mr. Jacob at the airport. From the size of it I assume it is a Christmas card. Though whatever it is I think it
probably has money in it.
The plane ride starts nicely enough. It isn’t a long flight – 35 minutes – enough time to get half way through the tourist magazine stuffed into the seat pouch and have a drink of complimentary mango
juice (I love the magazine, it informs you that sleeping in the aircraft’s emergency exist aisle is not allowed). Then, the descent, the flight attendants hand out hard candies to suck on to help with
the pressure change. Then the plane drops out from under us.
Okay, we hit a cloud, or an air pocket, or something, but we were three minutes from landing at the time and those three minutes were terrifying as the airplane rocked from side to side and dove
steeply. Looking out the window you could see the island, but it wasn’t close, the ocean however, very close. Upsettingly close. And getting closer.
People started laughing, that nervous, “Oh god we’re going to die aren’t we?” laugh that proceeds screaming. I was two seats from the front of the plane and realized from the angle of descent that I didn’t have the slightest chance.
The stewardess started strapping into her seat at the front of the aisle and assuming the crash position. Outside, rocks, water, pavement, palm trees –
Thump, crash, shaking, a sense of speed, and then the gradual realization that we had in fact made a safe landing and were all still alive. Everyone applauded the pilot and wished Merry Christmas to the
pale looking attendants on the way off the plane.
Once in the airport I was met by Mr. Jacob, a friendly barefoot man with a broken backpack and six children ranging from five to twelve. Everything seemed good until the realization dawned that Mr. Jacob didn’t have a truck. Mr. Jacob and his children had been brought to the
airport to meet me and then their driver buggered off.
I never did find out where the hell the driver went, but he has a lot to answer for.
The clueless Australians hadn’t booked transport, they just grabbed a lift with the first bungalow to offer then a spot. Maybe not so clueless after all, they drove off and I waited. And waited.
Another plane arrived, and with it two French tourists. This couple, Guy and Nancy, were destined for Tanna Banian Paradise Tree House. They didn’t even get a guide showing up to greet them. Nothing. Nada. Nor could they raise them on the phone (my phone actually). We all sat in the hot parking
lot and got increasingly damp as it began to rain. We were pestered by various staff from resorts and bungalows near the airport who had caught wind of our situation and were trying to entice us to come stay at their places.
I wielded my voucher at them. I had already paid for accommodations; I wouldn’t pay again! They shock their heads sadly and told me that there was no way I, or the French couple, would make it to our
bungalows. It was nearly night, it was raining, the roads were bad and all of the trucks from the East side of the Island had already left. None of the cars left near the airport on the West side could make
Then we got lucky. A nice man named Philip happened to be at the airport picking up a package. He promised to find us a way to our beds. First, he got us a ride into town (at the time I had no idea what was going on, only that people were speaking rapid-fire Bislama and my guide was motioning for me to get into a very rusty looking truck).
Lenakel is a small, dusty little town with a few run down general shops and a gas station with a hand-cranked pump. We spent at least four hours sitting under the awning of the largest shop, watching the rain and listening to Christmas music. Mr. Jacob’s children played a strange version of air hockey with an old lithium battery (one of those tiny round ones) using a wooden counter for their rink. It got dark. We waited.
Philip had a ride into town (his brother’s son’s something something), but he was one person, we were, well… myself, the two French tourists, Mr. Jacob, Mr. Jacob’s children (also his wife and father showed up at some point?) and Philip. So, 13 at least, though it seemed like more than that. We had to wait for the truck (a green Toyota land rover) to go and come back. And go and come back.
Eventually we got in. the driver went so fast, too fast, through the pitch dark. They’d told us (me and Nancy) to get inside the cab and we’d done so before realizing that this meant that the children were
going into the back of the truck. I felt sick as we turned down twisting, bumping, half wash-out roads in the pitch dark. At one point we sped around a switch back and there was a terrible sense of space
on one side, though in the darkness there was no way of knowing what that meant.
(later, making the trip back in daylight to the airport, I discovered that this was in fact a mountain we zoomed down. That it was a sheer drop if the truck had missed any of the hairpin turns. That there was
absolutely no room to pull over if another truck had come zooming up the opposite direction in the dark)
I kept thinking –
“Keep the children safe, keep them safe, oh god, keep them safe”
I kept thinking –
“It’s raining, my bag is getting wet.”
I kept thinking –
“I’m glad I’m inside the cab.”
Nancy said –
“We’re more valuable than the children because we’re tourists, because we’re white, because we bring money, and it makes you hate the world doesn’t it?”
The truck stopped suddenly.
“The road is too bad, it’s too dark,” the driver announced. “From here you walk.”
So we walked. Philip ran along ahead, though I don’t know how he ran, the road was so dark and broken and he had no light. He had a phone.
“One small walk,” he promised. “No more. I will find another truck.”
We walked for at least half an hour through mud half way up my calf. We had only two or three lights for twelve people. There were giant holes in the road. People-sized holes. It was slippery I kept falling. Mr. Jacob held me so tight to keep me stumbling off a cliff that I’ve got bruises around my upper arm. He held his son with his other hand. I held my LCD headlamp
It was totally dark. “A moonless night,” Nancy kept saying. Not only was it raining fairly heavily, but their was ash blowing down from the volcano. My light is fairly powerful. On a good, clear night it can give 50 feet visibility – on this night it barely lit the ground half a meter ahead.
We walked. We fell. Eventually we stopped and waited for what felt like hours but was probably only a few minutes.
“I’ve found the shelter,” someone said. A light flickered and I realized that their was a road side market stand less than two meters away. It had been utterly invisible in the dark.
Guy and Jacob started making a fire. Guy, Nancy told me, was a diving instructor. His regular breathing as he tried to coax the wet grass to burn reminded me of undersea explorers, of blacksmith
bellows, of dragons. He looked primeval, crouched over the flame, sweat trickling down his brow. I turned off my torch to conserve power.
The world contracted. There was the fire. There were cigarettes, small glowing embers floating in the dark. There was the dark. The rest of the world did not exist. I understood, suddenly, the importance of
fire, the fear of the night.
I shared some biscuits with the children. Christmas eve. Christmas morning. In the far distance I could hear the sounds of celebration. There was a village nearby, maybe five minutes walk away, but in the
Philip left to ask after transport in the village.
We waited, sitting on damp bags and leaning against high, market tables. Every so often we would see headlights drift down the road, reminders that we weren’t completely alone in the world.
Eventually, a truck came for us. It was the driver from the Tree House who was supposed to pick up Guy and Nancy ten hours ago but never bothered to show up or call. After some arguing we get the smallest of the pikinini into the cab of the truck. I end up with Mr. Jacob’s five year old son slumped across my lap like a sack of flour. He seemed to be sleeping, except his legs wound around my knee and grip so tightly that it nearly cut off circulation to my foot.
We go forward. It is bumpy. Very, very, very bumpy.
The driver announces that we are leaving the road and entering the desert area around the volcano. He rolls up his window against the ash. I try to roll up mine, but the mechanism is broken and it only slips further down. The rain and the wind slam in against us. I wish I could get my towel to put over the kid, but it’s in the back of the truck and probably wet and useless anyway.
It’s so dark. There’s no way of telling the difference between the desert and the jungle, except that now there are no tree branches, no stalks of over-grown grass whipping against the side of the truck. I
see the volcano then and I know that we must be close because it is massive and clear and black against black.
It is silhouetted against its own glow. The red is diffused through the ash cloud and the rain. Aside from the tiny circle cast by the truck’s headlights it is the only light, the only visible scenery.
The truck stops suddenly. The headlights turn up. In front of us is a modest sized river, moving fast. The banks are steep. The mountain is directly in front of us. It roars.
Philip and the driver borrow my flashlight. They wade back and forth across the river talking fast. I do not know if it was Bislama or their native language. Philip took a shovel and started digging at the bank making a place for the truck to go down. He crosses the river and stands on the far shore with my light outstretch like a beacon. One little little house, and behind him is Mt. Yasur, the giant lighthouse of the Pacific.
Then the truck barreled forward, faster than I was expecting, very fast. The crossing didn’t take long, but was still long enough for me to fear us getting stuck here in a river, at the base of an active volcano, in a storm. Huh, when did this become part of my life?
The driver will only take us to the Tree House Bungalow (because that is his employer). I ask Mr. Jacob how far a walk it is to his bungalow.
“Fifteen minutes,” he assures me.
“Really?” I ask.
“More like twenty, maybe half an hour,” he admits.
I continue waiting.
“To the village,” he says slowly. “After that it is up a hill to the bungalow.”
“It’s one in the morning,” says Nancy. “Nearly two, you cannot walk there. You must stay with us.”
Mr. Jacob nods. He takes his son from my lap. I don’t know where they go. I hope that, freed from the obligation of getting me to the bungalow, that they don’t have as far to go, that they can stay with friends. They vanish into the night.
I stay at the treetops place. We don’t stay in the treetop. That room has already been filled (over-filled). Nancy and Guy are furious. We are offered a light dinner of instant coffee and bread (no spread).
I don’t have either. I’m not hungry. There is a giant (GIANT) spider on the wall. It gets brushed away and we are assured that it isn’t dangerous. Vanuatu doesn’t have any poisonous spiders, but I don’t want it near me even so.
Thankfully the spider doesn’t try anything while I’m sleeping (nor do we get rats, which had been a concern), but the volcano growls all through the night. For the first time I am afraid. I realize that the management at this bungalow doesn’t care in the slightest about its clients. Should the old man erupt no one will come and warn us (heck, we had to badger to find out where the outhouse was).
I wonder why I’m here. What series of coincidences and decisions brought me to this place? I wanted an adventure. There were glossy pictures of an erupting volcano. How cool is that? Edgy, cool, not
safe (but safe enough). Lying here I remember that this volcano is a tourist attraction, but it is not tame. I have been enticed by adventure, but adventures are generally more fun the day after when they have stopped being adventures and started being stories.
The volcano grumbles. The Earth vibrates. Somewhere, a rooster crows.
Dec. 25, 2011
In the morning the bungalow tries to charge each of us 1000 vatu for our evening “tea” (approx. 12$ Canadian). Not impressed.
In the morning Mr. Jacob comes. He leads the French couple to Philip’s bungalow. I ask if the bungalow Mr. Jacob works for has found its driver yet. He admits that it has not. I tell him that I am worried about getting back to the airport if I stay with him and he is understanding.
I know that the driver buggering off isn’t my fault. Philip tells me that Mr. Jacob shouldn’t have brought his children to the airport at all – that it is nothing short of moronic to bring young children down that road during bad weather. Still, if I hadn’t paid my money and come here, would this have happened? Would they have spent their Christmas eve huddled in some roadside shelter, curled up in the mud near the fire? I hope that their Christmas day is better.
Fast-forward a bit, Dec. 26, 2011.
As a consolation for the weather being awful, Philip and his wife show us the magic leaves trick. They stack some leaves, one on top of the other, no weaving, no glue, then Philip lifts his wife using these leaves. After, he pulled them apart. Maybe it was friction or some natural property of the leaves, but it sure seemed like magic to me. *mumble mumble somebody* says that thing about significantly advanced technology, but I think it’s probably true about significantly simple technology as well.
After all, why does a lever work? There are the laws of physics, but why do they work? Why does any of it work?
When Philip tries to pick me up with the leaves the magic failed and I crashed to the floor. Maybe I weigh too much, maybe I should eat less simboro, maybe I don’t believe in fairies. Maybe the leaves just hate me.
Guy and Nancy want to hike up the volcano, but Philip tells them to save their money since they
wodn’t see anything with the clouds. They leave boxing day morning (family day here. I had to explain that boxing day doesn’t mean actual boxing, as in the sport, but boxing as in boxes. The person I explained this to laughed and said that she’d never really believed that we all punch each other the day after Christmas)..
I see a kingfisher. It is brilliant blue and gorgeous. I attempt to take pictures. Fail. My mother loves kingfishers and will be sad that the pictures are so awful.
More French tourists arrive (From New Caledonia). The weather clears. We hike up to the volcano (I wear flip-flops because my “sports shoes” are still soggy and caked in mud from the previous night. This proved to be a less than wise decision). We have no guide, but the way is clearly marked. The ground is rocky and steep. We pass places where the road has washed away entirely. We pass places where the road has split down the center leaving crevasses big enough to swallow a man up to his chest
(I know this because one of the French tourists got down into the crack to prove it… actually, all three of them did, and I took a picture).
We continue our ascent. The view across the bush is stunning. We reach the desert area surrounding the volcano. I am disappointed. From the ride last night through the dark I had expected a vast wasteland. I had expected Mt. Doom and Mordor. Instead there is a short distance between the volcano and the jungle which is inhabited only by ash, lava bombs and dry, straggling grass. Also, weirdly, a butterfly. The mountain booms. It is deceptively short (only 361 m). I remind myself that things don’t have to be impressive to kill you.
There are volcanic vents alongside the path now. They let loose constant jets of warm steam and sulfur. The smell isn’t rotten eggs like I’d believed it would be. It’s more… round, if that makes sense?
It’s familiar, like hospital lobbies and pancakes. It encourages you to breath deep, inquisitive, and then it turns into a knife stabbing the back of your throat.
(Later, back in Vila, I smell car exhaust and think of the volcano. I cannot say if this is a better comparison without having both side by side, and I think if ever there is a traffic jam by an active volcano then there are far larger problems at hand than forming an exact description of the smell of volcanic gasses)
Whatever the smell is, it’s probably not to good for the lungs. The French tourists start smoking. I supposed it can’t hurt them more…
The final path up the volcano to the summit has a sign at the bottom warning you to “Think Safety”. Yes, safety. Because this is safe. Thinking safety would be turning around and running for our lives.
Thinking safety would be not climbing an active volcano. Thinking safety would not be “Go klosap long Mt.Yasur!” (as the sign by the park entrance calls it).
We climb. The path is stone with different designs etched into it which I recognize as sandroing patterns. There are wooden posts that I grab to haul myself up. The mountain side is littered with lava bombs of various sizes ranging from baseball to refrigerator. Ash falls and sticks to my sweat damp skin, it gets in my hair, in my mouth. I forgot my face scarf. Stupid. I use my money belt instead.
Up top, it’s too cloudy. Too much ash. The French tourists set out along the path to the crater. I refuse. If anything flies out of the mountain, how will they see it in the smoke? Chicken I may be, but
it’s a bloody volcano, I think I’m justified. They go a meter away, two meters, gone. They come back shortly after saying that it was too hard to breath.
We go halfway down the mountain to wait. Later, after nearly two hours sitting on the mountain breathing fumes I decide that this is dangerous and not altogether bright. I start down alone. It starts
raining, confirming my decision. The vents on the path seem more active than before, but I don’t know if that’s my imagination or not. All of my instincts are screaming RUN AWAY VOLCANO!
But it’s strangely magnetic and I can’t leave. I can’t descend all the way. I hover in the jungle, taking shelter and watching the volcano puff away between a frame of palm leaves and tree ferns. Suddenly, the rain stops and the wind picks up, blowing the smoke off the summit. The mountain roars. I hear someone yell –
And I start forward hesitantly. Has one of the French tourists fallen in? Or are they watching the show? I hear happy whooping and decide it’s the second. I run up the mountain (madness, madness, going up a volcano for the third time what the hell? But I’ll regret this forever if I don’t)
The path to the crater is clear.
I read a lot about Mt. Yasur before coming here. All of the trip reviews were very repetitive about the fact that there is no safety rail. There is no safety rail. There is no volcano post box either which I was sad about (I’d brought my address book and everything) but no safety rail. None. Get as close as you dare to a sheer drop to instant crispification. Bear in mind that there are high winds to deal with and
that the ground isn’t exactly… stable. It trembles. It’s warm. It’s cold. It’s a bit hard to breath. You can look straight down at these massive vents releasing huge amount of ash and gas.
The lava isn’t overly impressive. You can’t really see it during the day. It’s not like the pictures. It doesn’t have to be impressive to kill you. I am sufficiently impressed. It starts to rain again and we all decide to go back to the bungalow.
The French guy keeps scream-signing that “VANUATU IS THE UNTOUCHED PARADISE!!!!!!!!” which I’m assuming is a slogan off some ad they saw before coming here. I really wish he’d stop. Half-way down the path my cell rings –
Standing side of a volcano and I’ve just got a text message informing me that I can text such and such number for a chance to win such and such. I’m not sure if this is brilliant, if it breaks the magic, or if it’s just so random it makes everything ten times better.
Later, the rain ends and I’m sitting in the restaurant watching the mountain. It’s framed by blue sky and fluffy white clouds. A rainbow forms. One end is in a cloud, the other seems to vanish into the crater itself.
Still later, it is night. Dinner is delicious. Then it is very quiet. The candles go out and there are more stars than I’ve seem in a long time. Strange constellations that are bright enough to set up their own small halos. There is still no moon. Only stars and the volcano, a dark shape framed against the pin-pricks of light.
It glows red. It rumbles. It sends jets of lava shooting up to greet the sky.
Every star, every world, this world, how many places are there like this? How many people are watching those stars, this mountain, any mountain. How is everything so… everything?
And then I try to reduce it by taking pictures, but my camera isn’t up to the challenge (it shows only black with a faint red smudge).
So I just sit and watch. Somewhere people are singing hymns and the music drifts to us over the jungle. Insects, night birds, volcano, and people singing about the majesty of creation.
and that’s that. I left the next day. It was fairly unremarkable. The flight was certainly a lot smoother. I came down with an awful cold/flu thing which I’m assuming is directly related to the Christmas
eve walk. When driving from the bungalow to the airport we passed a small, wooden structure by the side of the road. I didn’t get a picture, we were going too fast. Philip asked me if I remembered it.
“Yes,” I said, “I think I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
And the plot thickens!
I caught the booking agent and told her what happened, complete with receipts and phone numbers. She immediately agreed that shouldn’t happen and promised a refund of all extra expenses.
I also learned that the man with the six children who met me at the airport was NOT Mr. Jacob as I believed. Because Mr. Jacob is a peacecorps volunteer and not local. The man who met me at the airport spoke Bislama nomo and had no shoes. Also, Mr. Jacob was evidently getting paid for transporting tourists to and from the airport, which I’m pretty sure is against peace corps rules (unless that money was being given back to the site?)
The bungalow where I was supposed to be staying is a community development project and I feel like crap for having to tell the tour agent what happened because now she won’t be sending more tourists
there. I emphasized to the booking agent that I never actually saw the bungalow and it may well be the nicest place in the world, also that the man who met me at the airport was friendly and genuine, and basically that they shouldn’t be blacklisted on account of some foreign driver who buggered off and abandoned everyone.
Though, I very much hope that Mr. Jacob did just bugger off. That he didn’t flip his truck over a cliff or something equally horrible. I’d rather believe all that trouble happened due to someone being an incompetent arsehole than… yeah.
Actually, I hope he just got a flat tire somewhere. Then nobody’s hurt and no one’s to blame… but everyone still has to deal with the consequences. Except me, because it was just a vacation.
That’s Tanna. Well, some of it. I’d hoped to see a lot more, but that wasn’t happening (though I’m very glad that I brought the vatu for doing more, otherwise I would have been in trouble). It is beautiful, the mangoes are delicious, and what happened to me is hardly typical so I don’t think you have to worry about getting stranded at the airport, stranded in the jungle, etc. (just make sure you book direct with a locally owed bungalow and don’t go through a booking agent like I did). All you have to worry about is going up to see the volcano and falling in…
No safety rail. I cannot emphasize that enough.
(As a side note, hundreds upon hundred of people go to see Mount Yasur every year and, to my knowledge, only three have fallen in. Falling in, in this context, means they deliberately climbed INSIDE the volcano and were then hit by flying rocks. Statistically speaking, driving, flying, crossing the road in Port Vila – practically everything is potentially more life-threatening than the volcano. Still, take a care and don’t sit with your legs dangling over the edge. All will be fine.)