Gazing into the Mouth of Hell

Gazing into the Mouth of Hell

A fiery night eruption at Mt Yasur Volcano - Tanna Island, Vanuatu

A fiery night eruption at Mt Yasur Volcano – Tanna Island, Vanuatu

The afternoon arrival at Tanna Island’s modest airport commenced a quest that was as astonishing as it was exhilarating – a journey to view Mount Yasur, claimed to be the world’s second most active volcano with its constant Strombolian eruptions. The off-road vehicle drove along the deeply potholed and creviced road that caused all occupants to rattle around as we bumped and bounced our way to the island’s east side. We travelled across the mountains that scar the middle of Tanna, and we climbed into the smothering fog that obscured everything else from sight. By the time we descended into the valley, night had surrounded us, and the vehicle’s dull headlights barely illuminated the road, so the scenery comprised of fleeting images of trees encroaching onto the narrow thoroughfare.
Suddenly, the landscape dramatically changed from a definite path to an undefined grey emptiness, for we had entered Mount Yasur’s ash plain. The car glided along this portion, as the fuscous ground melded with the ebony sky as if we were floating in an unearthly void. Peering through the window, I could discern the faint red glow of Mount Yasur high above – but my visit would be delayed until the next day. Ten minutes later, we returned to the terrestrial terrain and finally arrived at my accommodation, after an atmospheric two-hour journey that seemed to take me to the edge of the world and beyond.

In cloudy and windy conditions the following afternoon, I proceeded to Mount Yasur. Prior to the summit, we stopped on the metres-deep ash plain. The unworldly feeling from the previous evening was confirmed as a fierce gale carried blankets of black sand across the bleak expanse. This was an inhospitable landscape where nothing grew, and nothing moved except the shifting sands and ash clouds that rolled into the sky from the gushing and unseen Mount Yasur crater.

After bumping along another poor road replete with fissures spraying vapour clouds, we arrived at Mount Yasur’s car park, a mere 200-metre walk to the viewing area. Mount Yasur has five activity levels – from 0 (low) to 4 (extreme); it was currently on level 2, the highest that still allows access to the crater’s rim. The volcano was currently very active, for a few days prior viewing was closed, and earlier in the week an elderly couple walking in the car park barely avoided a catastrophe when a lava bomb landed only metres from them.

I scuttled up the bleak landscape covered with hardened volcanic rock, and upon reaching the summit was greeted by a scene lifted directly from the pages of Dante’s [i]Inferno[/i]. A massive caldera more than 400 metres across commanded my attention, and its steep sides led my eye directly to the maw that angrily spat its lethal load. There were two discernible vents with different characteristics. The very active narrow left vent sounded like the roaring engine of a military aircraft, whereas the broader and more sedate right vent sounded akin to a train loudly racing rapidly back and forth through a tunnel. Regardless of their noise or appearance, they shared an ability to spew forth gargantuan tumbling clouds that obscured the sky.

I strolled to a higher point than sat dizzyingly above the volcano’s base and was able to gaze directly down into the vents (but not the lava pools) that lay no more than 150 metres distant. At this height, a cyclonic wind blew with such ferocity from behind me that it threatened to carry any unfastened objects into the abyss, so I packed away my hat otherwise it would surely have been lost.

A thunderous crack split the air, and enormous lava bombs were catapulted hundreds of metres into the sky before thudding back to the ground. Every few minutes, this performance was repeated, but not too intimidating, and I was commenting to two fellow Australians  I had met at Port Vila that though impressive, Yasur had not moved me as yet. No sooner had these words escaped my mouth, then the ground shook, and a stupendous explosion heralded the appearance of an imposing volume of lava bombs. Many of those gathered shied backwards as they nervously regarded the flying lava. So this was Yasur’s response to my mocking utterance.

As sunset approached, an official informed everyone that Yasur was becoming dangerous and that observers must be prepared to move quickly. Upon hearing this, a number of visitors decided to leave the mountain immediately, and every massive explosion after that thinned the ranks even more. However, I remained, confident that the cold cyclonic wind blowing away from me would carry any lava bombs further from my position.

As the sun descended and darkness consumed the island, the lava glowed more brightly and beautifully. Another explosion coincided with a temporarily stilling of the wind, and a breath of heat, tinged with a sulphuric odour, brushed my face. Unfortunately, it began to rain, and the vicious wind carried the rain droplets horizontally – so those who remained now faced fire and flame in front, wind and rain behind – as nature unleashed every fury it could muster.

Nature’s potency escalated as the angry, spitting Yasur trembled and erupted more violently, and the cold wind and rain intensified accordingly – this was indeed a living manifestation of Dante’s creation. The rain transformed into a horizontal deluge and it was the straw that broke this camel’s back. So I, along with the vast majority of the dozen left on the mountain, made a hasty retreat toward the car park and our respective accommodation.

A spectacular eruption at Mt Yasur Volcano - Tanna Island, Vanuatu

A spectacular eruption at Mt Yasur Volcano – Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Undeterred, I returned days later, and with finer conditions on offer decided to spend four hours on Yasur instead of two. I arrived at 15:00 and was the first person on the mountain. For the next hour, I sat in solitude with a gentle, fresh breeze on my back. The volcano was not as active, but the viewing conditions were perfect. I carefully listened and partially understood Yasur’s different sounds and mood, even to the point of predicting some explosions.
At one point, the breeze stopped, and the caldera gradually filled with smoke, so that eventually the whole crater was concealed beneath the haze of a volcanic cloud that had me coughing in response. This incident identified the biggest danger of visiting Yasur, as with either calm conditions or a wind blowing towards the observer; it prevents the sighting of any projectiles. Visitors are advised that if a lava bomb flies above them, to remain motionless and watch its passage, as it is better to safely move when one knows the landing spot of the enemy. However, in the current conditions, this strategy is useless, so I was reduced to anxiously looking upwards for the sight of a lava bomb suddenly emerging from the smoke above my head. Thankfully, this dangerous scenario only lasted a couple of minutes.

After my extended period of isolation, a Belgium chap arrived, and after a brief discussion about his country’s chocolates, we witnessed a truly incredible sight. A massive concave sound wave shimmered from the base of the crater and rapidly sliced through the clouds, barely disturbing them as it passed. We both gasped in amazement, and I grabbed my belongings in preparation for a quick departure, as smaller versions of these waves on my previous visit precipitated large eruptions. A few seconds later, the resultant explosion arrived, and a gentle plop of lava bombs barely lifted into view – a disappointing squib.

I was again honoured to watch the skies darken, and the lava correspondingly increases in brightness. The eruptions were less frequent tonight, but equally spectacular. An active volcano is a visceral experience that kindles every sense – one can hear the roaring vents, smell the sulphur, taste the air, feel the trembling ground, and see a display without peer.

Slowly all other visitors who arrived after me departed, and finally, I (along with Paul, my accommodation’s tour guide) were the final two people remaining. While gazing at the carpet of blissful stars hanging above, I stated my intention to return to the lodging at 1900. Then, with only one minute to departure, Yasur rewarded my patience in being the first to arrive and the last the leave.

The booming and distinctive train in the tunnel sound echoed from the right vent, as this usually sedate aperture shot a multitude of glowing lava bombs high into the sky. Just as their ascent slowed at the peak of their climb, the left vent’s jet engine roared and with an enormous crack, burst into life, painting Yasur’s left side with dozens of more lava bombs that lifted hundreds of metres. This was the first time I witnessed both vents erupting simultaneously, and the entire scene was decorated with multitudinous speckles of iridescent lava. It was a breathtakingly spectacular conclusion as Yasur bestowed its newest devotee with the perfect farewell.

For the remainder of the evening, I vacillated between a state of awe and animation from an adventure that ranks within the ten best experiences of my entire travels. I have often been silenced by the beauty of nature, but this is the first time I had been muted by its power.

September 2012