Andrew Versus the Volcano, By Captain Andrew

by Andrew Godfrey in

Joe:  “…and then I’ll be staying on a tiny island. I don’t know if I will be living in a hut, or what.”

Luggage salesman: “very exciting…as a luggage problem.”

— Joe Versus the Volcano

I can’t remember where my life goal to see a volcano came from. I can’t be sure whether it came after the sail-around-the-world idea or if it is just one of those things that every little boy would want to see. Obscure as the formation of the idea is, it is one of the large drivers for the circumnavigation and to Vanuatu, specifically.  As soon as we started looking at sailing routes, I bought Leslie a large coffee table travel book with a one page summary of every country in the world.  On the page depicting Vanuatu is a picture of lava shooting from Mount Yasur.  I thought to myself, “if you want to see a volcano, this would certainly be a good one”.  It became one of the non-negotiable pin-drops on our list of destinations.

Getting to Tanna via sail boat is, of course, always easier said than done.  First, the port is not one of the allowable ports to check into Vanuatu.  You must secure advanced permission from customs to be allowed to land there (and not be fined and thrown in jail).  I did not learn this until a day or so before I needed to leave Fiji.  Luckily, our friends on UnWind secured permission and when I emailed their contact he came back quickly with the permission I needed.  Next, the weather.  While not a terrible forecast, it was not really the best.  Strong wind, then no wind, then strong possibly upwind, then strong downwind, and large waves all the while from a storm near New Zealand.  The one extra kicker was a current that was running North at 25% of the speed I was trying to get South.  I was having nightmares of the Galapagos trip all over again.  This trip was only 4 days though, so I had enough fuel to use the motor more liberally.  We spent 30 of the 96 hours we sailed with the engine running and the sails up to give us a little more kick into the adverse current.  The last 24 hours of the trip were some of the largest waves we have seen to date and proportionately large wind to accompany them.  Not necessarily dangerous, but well into the scary category. As we were nearing Port Resolution I was getting ready to cancel landing, and spend another 24 hours going North to a different island because the waves were so large.  Honestly, this is the worst passage since Galapagos.

Fortunately, the harbor was well sheltered and we were able to get in and get the anchor down securely in the black volcanic sand.  The weather was clear and despite being exhausted we decided to take the volcano tour that same evening rather than chance a cloudy or rainy day the next day.  Arrangements were made and we were to meet at 3PM at the “yacht club” (think thatch hut with flags in it).  We hop in some nice trucks and take the 45 minute ride to the volcano welcome area.  As we pull into the parking area I am a little worried this is something that was hyped up in the international tour books.  But then, a thunderous “BOOM!” from the volcano a couple miles away reassures me this is legitimate.

The tour of the volcano starts with a welcoming ceremony where you sit in little tribes based on your country:  New Zealand, Australia, USA, etc…  The guide explains that Yasser is their word for God and that volcanoes are associated with magic power.  The chief is presented with kava, he does a speech asking the volcano to not kill his profitable tourists and a dance is done for the same purpose.  At the end, the dancers give everyone a flower necklace as additional protection.  Between some additional loud noise from the mountain and all the things being done to ask the volcano not to kill us I am becoming excited, or is it nervous… 

Not to worry, though, as I brought my personal tiki’s with me as some extra protection.

Back into the 4WD trucks and we start the drive up to the short walking path to the edge of the volcano.  But this is not a boring drive by any means.  This is a dirt road in a jungle that justifies the 4WD trucks and the volcano throws in its touch with sulfurous steam billowing out of the road.  When we arrive, everyone dons coats for warmth as it is evening and we will be standing on the crest of a windy, mountain edge.  We hike a short set of stairs and arrive, not just near the volcano, but on the bottom lip of its open mouth.

The crater is massive, I have a couple pictures showing some people on the far edge of the volcano as scale, this was big.  

People on our side of the volcano...

People on our side of the volcano...

Teeny-tiny people alllll the way over on the other side of the edge.  Can you see them?

Teeny-tiny people alllll the way over on the other side of the edge.  Can you see them?

We stood on the edge for less than a minute before Mt. Yasur throws its first batch of molten rock hundreds of feet in the air.  Blobs the size of Volkswagon buses glow a brilliant orange,  accelerate into the sky, slow, then turn around again to fall back into the crater.  Blasts of smoke and gas roll and billow behind the busses.  The lava has a sticky, liquid consistency and you can see the blobs string out as it flies thru the air.  One explosion is so large that I can see the shock wave coming at me before the sound arrives. 

We were told in the safety portion not to run from the explosions, but some of the explosions shake the ground beneath your feet and knock the air from your lungs.  There were a couple that made me wonder if I should be running.  And all this was with the volcano at a level 2 on a 5 point scale, nearly sedentary.  I don’t think I would want to be anywhere near here if it were 3 or above if this is a 2.

I have a fear of hyping things up in my mind. I can build something up to the point that reality just cannot match and I end up disappointed.  I spent the last decade anticipating the moment I would stand on the edge of Mount Yasur.  I built it up enough that it easily could have been a disappointment, but in the end, no.  Mount Yasur is a work of art on nature’s part.  There is no possible way to be disappointed in this experience.  I spent the evening oscillating between wanting to cry in happiness and laugh in terror.  This is truly a bucket list experience and was worth the 85 nights at sea I have spent to get here.