Thursday, May 03, 2007

Mount Yasur

Canberra and Port Vila, despite being capitals of their respective countries, have very little in common. For instance, on arrival at Canberra airport the cultural highlight is a glimpse of a well-known politician, before the automatic doors usher you out into the chilly night air. Arrive at Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, and you are likely to be greeted by a native band, and air thick with humidity. Making a return journey between the two is a discombobulating but exceedingly pleasurable experience, much like relaxing in a hot bath with the knowledge that you have to get out eventually.

Sarah and I were in Vanuatu to attend Nath and Susannah's wedding. Weddings are such an abnormal event in a way, so separate from daily life, that it makes sense to stage them somewhere unfamiliar, where perceptions are heightened and bodies relaxed. It was slightly surreal to be housed in bungalows on the beach, waves invading our dreams, then wander outside in the morning to see familiar faces there with you, as though you had escaped to where everyone had been hiding from you.

Susannah did an amazing job organising the wedding, with a designer's eye for detail. She did such a good job that Nath was left with almost nothing to do. Luckily he is a music nerd, so he carefully assembled a wedding play list on his iPod . The problem with technology these days is that it's small enough to fit in your pocket. The problem with bathers is that they have pockets. This sad co-incidence led to Nath taking his technology for a swim, and losing his iPod somewhere in the Pacific. What would a wedding be without a moment of crisis? They bring people closer together, and this case prompted a meeting of the guests portable music players, from which a new play list was scrounged.

The day of the wedding was gorgeous, the bride stunning to match, and the reception a lot of fun. The restaurant opened out onto a deserted white beach, palms framed in the moonlight, while music blared out and I tapped my foot while sucking on a fat stogie.

While most people drifted home after the wedding, Sarah and I decided to stay on for another couple of days in order to explore the island of Tanna, renowned for having one of the world's most accessible active volcanoes. It was a short plane trip away, but felt like a remarkably different place after the luxury of the resort. Our first clue that this was going to be a different level of comfort was when we settled down into our airport transfer, some wooden benches on the back of a truck, and headed for the other side of the island along a beautiful but bumpy dirt road. Unlike the built-up areas of Port Vila, here it was small villages carved into the lush jungle, chickens and cows roaming the verges of the road, and curious stares from strangers which broke into smiles and yells as we passed in a spray of dust. The truck also doubled as a bus, so a few school kids got a ride home with us, practising their English along the way. We shocked them by admitting that we only knew how to speak English compared to their choice of four – English, French, Bislama (the local pidgin), and any number of local dialects.

Our first glimpse of the volcano, Mount Yasur, came during the descent towards the sea on the other side of the island. It is not a big mountain but it makes up for this by spouting a cloud from its crater, an image that is both seductive and scary. Despite my conscious mind knowing that volcanoes can be dangerous, it seemed perfectly natural in this setting, like an old man puffing away at his pipe.

We stayed at Friendly Bungalows, which lived up to its name. Mary, the manager, greeted us enthusiastically after our long journey, explained in great detail the vagaries of flushing the toilet, and announced that dinner would be served at 7pm. Our bungalow was made entirely of whole lengths of bamboo, including the floor, with a straw roof. It looked like a house I would design, and I can't draw a straight line. It looked like a house one of the three little pigs might live in. We were the only people there, and had the black sand beach to ourselves, which with the sun going down made the sea look as black as ink. It was still inviting enough for a quick dip, but my stomach sensed that a slab of steak and yam was imminent.

The next day was volcano day. We were joined for our assault on the fiery beast by four other travellers who had come from the airport that day, and after only a brief respite were back in the truck having their bottoms pummelled by the combination of Tanna dirt roads and wooden benches. The benches were not fixed to the truck, and I don't exaggerate when I say that there were times I became airborne over a bump, with the bench coming along for the ride as well.

The first indication that we were not in a normal environment was when the truck emerged from the jungle and started speeding across the ash plain, an eerie landscape of darkness, patterned as though a liquid has washed over it. After days of being in dense vegetation the contrast was startling. Towering above the ash plain is Mount Yasur. You can't help but be conscious that it has caused all this destruction, and that you're about to be driven up it.

The truck goes faster on the smooth ash than the road. There is no path to follow other than the random tracks of vehicles that have crossed here previously. You just have to hang on and trust the driver. By way of a small detour we stopped at a John Frum village at the sinisterly named Sulphur Bay, where the village kids happily play football in the shadow of the volcano. We were taken down to a hot spring just behind the beach. The water is knee deep in an area twice the size of an olympic pool, it has pieces of charcoal floating in it, and a slimy ash bottom. It is quite warm, which would not usually be an attraction in Vanuatu, where I was constantly dripping sweat, but the clouds had closed in and a wind arisen, so it was pleasant to be lolling in this black lagoon while the waves crashed nearby and the volcano peacefully smoked.

By the time we exited the water the rain began to lash down. We huddled in the back of the truck, which now had a tarpaulin stretched over a metal frame to shelter us. We sped back over the ash plain, veered around the base of the volcano, and entered the jungle once more, this time heading up.

It's bad enough driving on a terrible dirt road in the rain, but when you're in the back of a truck with five other people, can't see where you're going, are heading up a near vertical incline, and the rear tyres start to spin and skid, a volcano seems like the least of your worries. All credit to the driver for getting us there safely. We only had to get out once when the truck felt as though it would tip over, and only then because we started banging on the back window in our eagerness to get out.

A sign that we were approaching the volcano was the white gas that rose from the ground in spurts, as though the earth wasn't enough to keep it inside any longer. We arrived at the volcano parking spot as the sun vanished below the horizon. It's a simple five minute walk to the crater, up a path strewn with black volcanic rock. As you near the rim a red glow suffuses the sky, and the cloud emitted by the volcano towers above you. At the top the lava is not visible initially, but as we moved along the rim to our right you could make out red molten rock at the base of the slope. If you had the misfortune to fall into this volcano, you would slide slowly down loose rock before finally falling in the glowing central pit.

Once we had all settled in the best vantage point it was quite dark. Everyone was quietly contemplative, when there issued forth a sound somewhere between a wave crashing on a pebbly beach, and ice cracking. Molten rock was flung into the air, hardening as it went, seemingly moving in slow motion, before landing with a soft patter on the ashy slope inside the crater. The newly disgorged rocks lay glowing in the crater before slowly dimming.

This expectoration of rock continued every five minutes or so. The rock was tossed in the air to our eye level, before falling short of landing on us. There was quite a crowd up there who found the big explosions hilarious, but Sarah and I tended to back away slowly. It was only later that we discovered that tourists are not allowed up there if the volcano is too active. It was definitely active enough for us. It was an amazing sight and feeling to be near something so powerful, a glimpse into the forces which lie beneath this thin mantle of rock which we call home.

View more (mainly wedding) photos here

1 comment:

Iqbal Khaldun said...

Yay another cool travel blog is born! :-D

Great photos, esp the volcano ones! Sounds like Vanuatu was good fun. Ah could use some vitamin-D action myself. They say London's about to have a very hot summer though...