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Sunday, September 22, 2002

September 23, 2002-TANNA AND THE VOLCANO

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Tanna and the Volcano

As we stood on the rim of Yasur, the volcano on Tanna Island in Vanuatu, casually pondering the smoking crater floor Yasur decided to shake us out of our complacency. Somewhere deep under the three steaming vents on the crater floor, three hundred yards from where we stood, an explosion occurred. It shook the earth and it roared. Its shock wave hit us in the chest and we felt it in our insides. We wanted to run away, but we could not move quickly enough. Then results of this explosion roared out of the vents and into the sky in front of our eyes: giant spouts of hot gases and molten lava shooting high over our heads, then lazily floating down onto the sides of the volcano and landing with clearly audible thuds. We were stunned.

This was more than we’d bargained for, but this was Tanna Island.

Two days before this we’d arrived on our sailboat Wings in Port Resolution, on Tanna Island’s east side, its most protected anchorage. But we had not sailed here for a good anchorage: we’d come to see the volcano. The day we arrived we were aware of the volcano’s presence just over the hill; it was making sounds. A cruiser from another yacht in the anchorage came over to welcome us. She said, “Yes, that’s Yassur, its very exciting." We looked at each other. Yes, this was going to be exciting. We just didn’t know how exciting.

Click here to see more photos from Port Resolution and Tanna Island.

The next day the volcano was talking loudly all day, as the natives say, with a voice that started like the rumble of surf, then grew to a roar like a jetliner on take-off, and then smoke and ash would roil up into sight over the hill next to the bay. In five seconds it was over, nothing left but a fading mushroom cloud. The word reached the village, and they passed it on to the cruisers anchored around the bay, that the geologists in Vila had raised the volcano’s activity level to four, and maybe it wasn’t a safe day to climb to the top and peer over the rim into the crater. We quietly cancelled our plans to do just that; we’d go on another day when the level was slightly lower.

wingssail image-fredrick roswold
Looming volcano

Meanwhile, even without the volcano’s ominous presence, Port Resolution had an air of primordial about it. On the hillside above the anchorage steam rose lazily from vents in the jungle, and around the bay there were cracks in the rocks where boiling water shot out like from an over-filled tea pot. On the beach local people were cooking vegetables in natural pools and further down towards the water’s edge, where it is cool enough, they were doing their laundry.

Port Resolution is remote and life here is primitive for the villages in the area, but this might be changing. The Vanuatu government now allows yachts to check into or out of Tanna, making Port Resolution an easier place to visit. Before, when formalities had to occur in Port Vila, it was a tough beat to weather to get here, and only the hardy came. Now there are boats coming and going every day. The villages have been quick to capitalize on the new opportunities that all of the visiting yachts present. One thing they do is organize tours to the volcano.

When, a couple of days later, the volcano had quieted down from its previous level, we asked at the village if a visit that night was possible. They said it was. At 5:00 PM a beefy 4WD Mitsubishi pick-up arrived for us and seven yachties piled into the back for an expedition. After a stop to pay for admittance to the area to a village near the volcano’s base, the driver shifted to 4WD low and ground up the hill to the ash field where he parked. “You walk from here”, he said, “too dangerous for me.” We looked up at the rim of the volcano. It seemed quiet, but maybe he knew something that we didn’t. With some trepidation we got out of the truck and started to walk up the hill over the same kind of black sand found on beaches all over Vanuatu. It was a short climb up and then we were on the rim of the crater of the volcano. We were just standing there when the eruption occurred.

After that first eruption some of those watching quietly returned to the truck where the driver and our “guide” waited. The rest couldn’t get enough, watching spellbound as the volcano roared again and again. Hot lava soared skyward and fell on the rim east of where we stood. Some of these molten rocks were as big and garbage cans and they made the ground shake and the sand hiss when they landed, but they were landing well clear of the watching cruisers, so people stayed where they were a little longer before the last of us finally wandered back down to the waiting truck, and piled in for the return trip to the shore of Port Resolution and back to our boats, our minds filled with images of fireworks better than any fourth of July, and memories which we will be a long time forgetting. The adventure on the rim Yassur, on Tanna Island, was really a highlight of our cruise in the South Pacific.

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Tanna

Click here to see more photos from Port Resolution and Tanna Island

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