How to fail to reach an active volcano and still have an adventure!

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.

getting very wet
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.

the raging torrent from nowhere
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.

boom boom - now belching steam and smoke
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!
Mt Yasur spewing steam and lava

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!)

How to enjoy an active volcano.

I cling to our little rubber dinghy as the guide times the waves, and gunning the outboard, noses it straight into the rocks directly below a couple of iron stakes and a ladder bolted into the rocks. “Go, go, go” yells the guide, but the woman at the front doesn’t speak English and takes a few seconds to realize what she is supposed to do. As we all repeat “go, go”, she leaps up for the iron pole on top of the rock, sticks her foot on the bottom rung, swings and up she goes.

One more follows, then the guide yells “Sit, sit”, and we all stop sliding forward, and I grab the ropes and hold on as another wave breaks and sends our dinghy spinning around into the rocks. “Go, go”, and up we go again, and this time we all make it ashore before the next wave comes through. It crashes over the rocks where are we are standing, sending us scrambling over more rocks and a couple of steel gangways until we reach the island proper. Adrenalin still surging, I look around and realize, I am now standing on NZ’s most active volcano (and this is a country with a lot of volcanos!)


White Island – New Zealand’s most active volcano

I have just arrived at White Island, a one and a half hour comfortable boat ride from Whakatane, NZ. That includes stopping to watch pods of bottle nose dolphins playing, and more unusually, a pod of orcas as well. I look around at one of the most inhospitable landscapes I have ever seen. I am inside the perfectly curved walls of a conical volcano, but one where a whole side of that cone has previously been blasted away.

The volcano’s floor and walls are a swirl of greys and whites and yellows, seemingly consisting of only ash, sulphur and rock. The yellow is very concentrated close to any steam vents, craters or mud pools. The gap in the side of the wall of the volcano makes it easy (after the initial rock landing, there’s no pier or harbour here), to walk right into the core of the volcano.

White Island last erupted ten years ago. The guide explains how NZ has a classification scale for volcanic activity, where 0 is dormant, 1 is “activity”, e.g. the steam vents, and 5 is a catastrophic eruption occurring right now. “Both White Island and Ruapehu are rated a 1 right now” he says, “and they are the highest rated sites, the most active”. “Phew” I think, “that seems nice and safe”. “Just before White Island erupted ten years ago, it was rated a 2, and we had a tour group on the island a few hours beforehand, it’s almost impossible to predict” adds the guide. I suddenly feel a whole lot less safe.

A lolly a day keeps the volcano away

I am equipped with a hard hat (in case of an eruption and/or rock avalanche from the walls) and a gas mask. I have never used a gas mask in my life, and yet somehow it seems familiar – too many movies? As well as the sulphur smell so familiar from Rotorua, there are some seriously acidic vapours here as well.

However I quickly discover that the guide’s tip, to suck on hard candy, was much more effective that the gas masks. The lolly means that I have a constant flow of saliva going down my throat, which stops the acid wind irritating it. But every now and then a wind gust catches our group out and we are all coughing and spluttering for a minute until the wind changes again.


White Island, Dangerous?

We walk further into the crater, to the main steam vent visible from the sea. It is not only shooting thick plumes of steam some dozens of metres into the air, it is making a huge, loud noise, rumbling and hissing – it sounds so much like a Hollywood soundtrack of an eruption that I cant stop nervously glancing at it over my shoulder as we move on.

Nearby is a large, and very fast growing crater – this one is growing so fast it is undermining the earth surface. It’s the only crater or vent that we are banned from getting even remotely close to, confirming that it is the real deal in terms of possible danger.

And heading towards the towering back wall, we reach the main crater, a huge bright green acidic sulphurous lake, some hundreds of meters in diameter. At the rear is the largest steam vent, shooting steam up to the crater rim and beyond. I am feeling grateful that the breeze is blowing it all away from us at this stage.


On the walk back to the open end of the crater, with the guide’s blessing, I do a taste test on some of the water streams running through this barren landscape. Like the steam, it is acidic, but won’t kill you, at least in a day! Someone claims it tastes like lemons (I suspect they were still sucking on a lolly), but to me it tasted of bitter minerals and rusty pipes, not pleasant but not undrinkable.

Back at the open end of the crater, we explore the severely decayed remnants of old buildings and machinery left over from mining many decades ago. The boat crew get us off the island again in a bit over a hour, quicker than usual.

Today is forecast to be an extreme low tide event and they want us off before the tide goes out too far, as the jump down from the metal ladder to the rubber dinghies may be too risky. I am feeling so invigorated by the adrenalin bursts so far that I am disappointed that we are going to miss out on that extra excitement.

White island white water bonus ending.

The trip back to shore is in beautiful sunshine, unlike the dark and stormy skies on the way out, and we all sit chattering animatedly about our exciting volcano experience. And then as we are close to land and approaching the river mouth, we hear that there is one more bit of excitement in store for us – a special bonus only once every few years.

The extreme low tide means the boat can’t get into the river mouth and back to dock as it will run aground in the shallow water. So we are going to be shuttled in, in small groups, in our trusty rubber dinghy, through the surf and into the river mouth. So I get my final adrenalin buzz after all– dinghy wave surfing my way home.