Ahhh, The South Pacific; White sand beaches, crystal clear waters, spectacular reefs, and sun-filled days that melt into each other….. right? The mysterious island of Tanna lies about 500 miles SW of Fiji and has definitely eluded this stereotype. This unique island is in the Tafea Province of southern Vanuatu and is shrouded with magic, prophets, cults, and the greatest show on earth- volcanic eruptions.
Mt. Yasur rises from Tanna’s South East corner to a height of 361 meters. This peak is an extremely active volcano and is famous for being the most easily accessible active volcano in the world. In fact, 4WD vehicles can get to within 100 meters of the crater rim. Because of this, tourists and volcanologists from all over the world travel here to witness the raw power of Mother Nature, some unfortunately losing their lives in the process. The total number of deaths directly caused by the volcano ranges from 20-30 depending on what you read and who you ask. In 1995 two tourists didn’t listen to the village guide when he told them the volcano was too active and dangerous to get close. They proceeded up the ridge and were killed. One was decapitated by a lava rock and the other had a molten projectile shoot straight through her chest. Another incident occurred more recently involving a tourist, again disregarding the warnings of the locals. He apparently climbed up to the rim and found himself in the path of a tiny rock, the size of a pebble, rocket into his calf and melt a gigantic hole in his leg. The obvious thing to do is listen to the locals and respect the volcano.
As we sailed from Anatom to Tanna, Mt. Yasur’s orange glow could be seen about 10 miles out. Brian had the morning watch and woke me up around 4 a.m. to check it out. Every 20 minutes the glow would intensify followed by a deep rumbling sound. Even from this far out from the island it was amazing to see and hear the power of the volcano. As the sun began to rise, the orange glow began to disappear. We pulled Delos into Port Resolution, dropped the hook and got some rest.
From our anchorage in Port Resolution the volcano can be reached after a 4 wheel drive adventure that takes an hour and a half or a walk that, depending on who you talk to, can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 5 hours. After two days of hearing the massive eruptions and seeing lava shoot into the sky it was time for us to get closer and look into the volcano from the crater rim. With a strange look of nervousness and excitement on our faces we piled into the back of a locals truck. Their were 12 of us in total, 3 or 4 locals, 5 of us from Delos and a few other travelers. We bounced around in the truck bed, ever so often having to get out and walk the tougher parts of the track to not only keep from being tossed out but to get some weight out of the overloaded truck.
We finally got to the “gate” at the base of the volcano. Parked under a bamboo roof joining two huts on either side is where we spent the next 20 minutes. For those of you from tourist land, this gate was something like an island version of the gates you stop at to pay before entering a theme park parking area. Sorting out money and tickets proved to be a tough process for 12 people. At 3,350 Vatu (Vanuatan currency) each and our green ticket/receipt in our hand, we proceeded to zig-zag our way up the face of the volcano. Constant rumblings grew louder and louder and our faces grew anxious.
Local with a large calculator to add fees for 12 people…
Safety poster on Mt. Yasur
Steam vents near the volcano on the side of the track
Once we couldn’t drive any further the driver parked the truck. We all jumped out and fled up a broken path of ash and rock, all while the volcano was getting louder and more violent over the ridge in front of us. As we reached the rim, the sun began to say goodbye and settled beyond the horizon. All of a sudden the creature came to life. The sound and feeling is so hard to describe. It was like a bomb had gone off right in front of us. First you see molten earth being shot into the sky, followed by a deafening boom then a pressure wave that hits your chest and ear drums with such force that you actually take a step backwards. This eruption we walked up on might have been the biggest of the night, shooting lava 200 meters towards the stars, causing a fireworks show that impressed us beyond belief. “F**K YEA! THAT WAS AWESOME!!” is all Paul could say while fist pumping and cock thrusting towards the beast.
Paul’s “F**k yeah” sequence
We walked around the rim to get a better view of the 3 vents that were battling each other and taking turns ejaculating hot molten goo into the sky. Every 10-20 minutes two of the vents would erupt in unison.
The show went on as the moon began to glow. We immediately started looking for an adult section, away from the children spectators, where we could all get naked for some Check-out-my-cheeks photos. Why get naked one might ask? Well, why not? Random South Pacific Island with a very active volcano seems like a great place to be naked with nature. When in Rome…So, away we walked. Past the families, past the tourist in bright safety vest, and past the photographers with tri-pod set ups worth more then a car. It was a bit cold out and lets just say it wasn’t conducive to blood flow to certain parts of the body, but we bared through it and stood naked waiting for the next big eruption. Brian, Paul and I were the first to strip. A few camera flashes from further up the rim were directed at us for a moment not the volcano. Then BOOM! An eruption occurred as if the volcano was saying “hey, you’re here to see me not some strange naked people”. After a few big eruptions we clothed our selves and took over camera duty. Now it was Josje and Karins turn to be at one with the volcano. Karin was a bit hesitant at first but all Josje had to say was “f**k man, you’re on a volcano. When else are you going to be able to do this”. I may sound perverted, probably because I am, but there is something quiet sexy about a naked women, let alone two, in front of an erupting volcano. I’m sure one of us made a very mature comment like “maybe you two should hold each other to keep warm”. After a few minutes, molten rocks were thrown at the moon once again. Naked pictures were now complete so we put our clothes back on and just sat there, mesmerized with our jaws wide open, as the sky grew darker and the lava brighter. Camp fires have nothing on the power of flowing lava to make you zone out. In all we spent about 3 hours on the volcano although it felt like 20 minutes.
The people of Tanna live by the Volcano. It is their life force. They depend on it to tell them when to plant. They pray to it and have the highest respect for it. The fertile volcanic soil is ideal for growing anything from Marijuana and kava to peanuts and sweet potatoes. And yes they grow it all. Brian read that one person spending four hours a week gardening was enough to support an entire family. On other islands it might take 4-5 hours a day to yield the same crops. I was told that Vanuatu has the strongest kava in the world. Of Vanuatu, Tanna has the strongest. And of Tanna, Sulfur bay
(the bay of the John Frum Movement at the base of the volcano) has the strongest. This is all a direct bi product of the Volcano.
Not only does the volcano provide food it provides spirituality for the villages. You can feel the magic and energy anytime you step foot on land. It just seems to fit that there are cults, prophets and spirits surrounding the volcano. There are stories that involve spirits living underneath the volcano and even chosen villagers who can magically walk into its pits. Throughout our stay in the John Frum village we were given a tiny glimpse into just how much the volcano plays a key role in there lives. Most of the kastom relating to the volcano is undisclosed and only known by the kastom chief of the village and maybe a few others. It started out with little comments from some of the elders about the power of the volcano. We would ask questions but it seemed they were holding on to their kastom and didn’t want us knowing too much. As we spent more and more time with them secrets started coming out and we were told to “read between the lines”. By the end of our stay they trusted us and took us in as one of their own. We were lucky enough to take the first step towards understanding the volcano as they do. The kastom chief, with the help of the village school teacher, drew up a diagram of the volcano, and the basis for their prayer (sacrifice) process. The information was so secretive that most of the villagers don’t even know. To give us this diagram and explain it to us we even had to walk a couple hundred yards away from the village so nobody would see the hand off and induction. We swore to not tell or show anyone, and have to respect that. What we learned there is just the tip of their belief system and we were told that when we return they will let us in on a bit more…