At midday we were picked up by one of the ubiquitous minibuses and drove out to the airport, there to check in with Air Taxi Vanuatu, who were going to fly us to Tanna to see the volcano, Mount Yasur. We picked up more passengers on the way – Anne-Marie from France, and Paul and Michelle from Melbourne. As is normal for small planes, we and our luggage were weighed so that we could be arranged on the plane to maximum advantage. Paul and I were seated in the middle, Nicola took the jump seat next to Lisa, our pilot, and the other ladies sat in the back. Presumably if Paul & I had sat at the back she woudn’t have been able to get the nose down!
Take-off formalities are basic, so after paying our departure tax (200VT each) we walked out onto the tarmac. Before boarding, we were handed a lifejacket each, which was strapped around the waist, and instructed in the use of the emergency exit door (pull the handle up to the position marked “Unlocked”). Tricky stuff. After Lisa had finished her pre-flight checks we were up and away.
We flew past Erromango and then, when we reached Tanna, we flew around the volcano in both directions so everyone could get pictures from the air. Steam and smoke was issuing forth, but in daylight there’s not much to see. You can’t fly directly over the crater as the temperature will probably cook you.
We landed at Tanna airstrip and then took a 4x4 along the bumpy road to Tanna Lodge, about half an hour’s drive away. The roads are not tarmaced, so driving along them is more of a challenge, as the drivers try to find the least bumpy and holey piece of road to drive along. Driving on the right is more of a suggestion than a rule, and only really comes into play when you meet someone coming the other way. We drove through the financial centre and the commercial district – i.e. a few shops in huts, the Post Office and National Bank branch, which also has an ATM.
A quick stop at Tanna Lodge, including a change of clothing to something a bit warmer for night-time on a mountainside, and we were off again. In places the road was being upgraded to concrete, funded by overseas development agencies, but the rest of the way it was rocky road. Frequently the smoothest patch of road was with one wheel in the ditch by the side of the road. However the driver clearly knew what he was doing- presumably he does this trip on a daily basis. As we neared the volcano, the road turned to ash, and was if anything, even bumpier. Finally we reached the volcanic ash plain, which was almost completely smooth, although there was a stream to navigate at one point.
Near the top of the crater, the driver stopped. From here on in, it’s shanks' pony. There was a concrete track to begin with, up tot the rim of the volcano itself. Then you basically just follow the footprints of everyone who’s gone there before you. No safety rope, no signs, no “health’n’safety gone mad” at all. Just try not to fall in.
At first, we could hear the eruptions and see an orange glow. The sun was going down at this point, so it was getting darker. As we walked further round the crater, we could see the eruptions when they happened. Unfortunately the wind was also blowing in that direction, so to get the best photos you had to stand in a cloud of sulphur dioxide gas. Anyone who’s done science will know that when you mix sulphur dioxide with water (such as found in eyes, nose and throat) it becomes sulphuric acid, which is not a nice thing to have in your eyes, nose and throat. Indeed, before we left there was an Australian lady who’d had to seek medical treatment for her eyes on return to Port Vila due to over-exposure to the fumes. We were mindful of the fact that when we went to White Island, we’d been issued with gas masks for this very eventuality.
We weren’t able to stay long in the gas cloud, and our plan to completely circumnavigate the crate looked like a no-no as most of it would have been through the gas. So we retraced our steps. As we were doing so there was an enormous bang and a huge gout of lava was thrown in the air. Did I have my camera ready? I did not.
We met our guide again and he gave us a torch for the descent down the hill. Paul and Michelle had stayed longer at the top, so we waited for them before driving back the way we had come, in the dark and with a bit of rain starting.
We made it back to Tanna Lodge at around 7:30pm. We’d pre-ordered dinner before we left, so that was on its way, and I washed the taste of sulphuric acid from my mouth with a cold Tusker. Followed by another.
We has adventures!