When someone says “air taxi”, I have a mental image of some kind of private jet. Think again – how about a 1974 Cessna, which just squeezes in me and my five travelling companions, and one young, very professional, Kiwi pilot. The good news is I get the co-pilot’s seat. We are doing a quick overnight hop from Port Vila to the island of Tanna in Vanuatu – the home of Mt Yasur, the world’s most accessible volcano. It is a very active volcano and can be relied upon to put on a fiery nightly show. One side of the volcanic crater has collapsed into a neighbouring hilltop, allowing drive up access to about 200m from the rim – possibly the shortest walk to the top of a volcano anywhere.
We head off about 3pm to get to the volcano by sunset – four of us plus a local driver in a good four wheel drive. I start to get a sense of what might be coming when the driver tells us it will take 2 hours to get there, 17 km’s away. That’s an awfully slow trip! The road is notorious. For most is it’s length it is a dirt track. The problem is the island soil is basically volcanic ash, which the road is also built on, so the ‘dirt’ collapses easily, leaving deep ruts and tracks, huge potholes, and collapsed sections of road. There are a lot of tourist vehicles every day, and no money for road building. And that’s before it rains. I am here at the end of the rainy season, meaning it has been raining heavily for part of each day. And as we set off the rain starts again, a torrential downpour. So add mud, flooded roads, sliding and getting bogged down to the list.
The locals are certainly resourceful. They know the spots on the road where vehicles most often get either bogged or roll. So they gather there and wait, in case some tourists want to pay to get their help to get their vehicle out. Torrential rain doesn’t stop them, they just fashion umbrellas out of large tree leaves.
It’s a white knuckle ride like no other I’ve been on. The vehicle bumps, bounces, skids, stops and starts forcefully and continually. We brace, we hang on to anything we can get a grip on, and I hit the roof and door with my head a lot – hard. But our driver is good, we feel bruised but not unsafe. We also feel very wet – the only way we can stop the front windscreen fogging over (not something we want to add to the list of dangers) is by leaving our side windows down all the way – and the rain pours in. We get to a lookout spot where there is usually a great view of the volcano but no point in stopping, we are in the cloud, visibility is about two metres.
We finally emerge out of the hills and rainforest onto the volcanic plain around Mt Yasur, a huge smooth curve of black ash. We still can’t see the volcano for the rainclouds, but a few minutes later the clouds start to lift and we finally see Mt Yasur. We are only a kilometre or so away now, we are approaching the highest side of the volcanic wall and need to circumnavigate around the base of the volcano to get up into the collapsed lower side.
But there is a problem. The tiny creek which the vehicles normally cross as they traverse the volcanic plain, well all this torrential rain has turned it into a much larger raging river. We can’t safely cross. Indeed there are two vehicles that crossed earlier which now cannot get back out until the rain stops and the river drops again. Our driver mentions how, three weeks previously, facing a similar river, a truck driver decided he could make it through – the current caught him and rolled his truck three times over. We have no desire to try.
It’s fair to say that I hadn’t come prepared on this trip. I had come on a last minute whim, without raincoat or tripod, to try and photograph an active volcano at night in the rain. The rain hasn’t stopped at all, but we are all so wet from the drive that we don’t care anymore.
I hear a loud “boom” and feel it shake through my body at the same time. Mt Yasur has woken up for the evening show. Even though we are in the lee of the highest part of the crater wall, which will block a lot of the view, we decide to stick around for a while and see what happens. In the last of the dusk, big pillows of steam and dust come billowing out from each “boom”, some whitish, some yellow, some dark grey. And as the sky turns black I start to see the first reddish glow of lava. At first its just a reflection on the underside of the steam clouds, but then we start to see showers of bright red lava been thrown many hundreds of metres into the air. And all the while the “booms” continued to physically pulse through my body.
It’s exciting – for a minute we talk about how amazing it would be to be on the crater rim, to be right up close with all this, how disappointed we all are that we are stuck a kilometre away. Then there is the biggest “boom” so far, like a massive thunderclap two inches from my eardrums, and lava spurts out so high that it falls over to the outside of the crater. And suddenly I am thinking that if I was on the rim, I’d be pretty scared by now.
Our driver tells us the volcano has been more active than usual for the last week, and so no-one is allowed closer than the car park at the moment (even if they can get across the river) because a week ago some lava rocks landed within two metres of some people on the rim. It’s getting more dangerous. Maybe, soaked to the skin and a kilometre away, is not so bad after all. As I have no tripod, I am hand holding my very wet camera against the top of the car door (fervently hoping the wet won’t permanently destroy it), so at best my photos are vague silhouettes with a large blur of red, no nice distinct drops of lava spray to be had. But they will always remind me of the experience!
Now it’s time to make the two hour trek back again. The conditions are worse, it’s pitch black, the rain has washed away more parts of the track and is gushing alongside much of the road, we slip and slide seemingly out of control more often. In many parts we are reduced to inching along a centre strip, both side of the road collapsed into a three or four foot drop into a raging torrent within centimetres of our tyres, or over the edge of a steep slope. I am grateful that I can’t see the worst of it through the rain. We mask the fear by telling silly stories and belly laughing all the way home to our cosy little rooms at Tanna Evergreen – our driver concludes that Aussie women are very loud and a little bit crazy – he may be right. I am lucky, my camera dries out and still works. I start thinking maybe I’ll come back another time, in the dry season, and try again (once I’ve forgotten the bruising!)