Thursday, May 15, 2008

May 14, 2008 - Port Resolution, Tanna, Vanuatu

I don't know,
I don't know,
I don't know where I'm a gonna go when the volcano blows.
- Jimmy Buffet

These past two nights we've had the most inherently risky experiences that we're likely to face on this trip. The island of Tanna is home to Mt. Yasur, an active volcano. As we approached the island yesterday, we could see grey clouds of smoke and ash rising from the rim of the volcano. About seven miles out, Sten saw a piece of lava launched into the sky. To see it at that distance, even through binoculars, it must have been huge. Of course, being adrenaline junkies and somewhat lacking in common sense, we were anxious to get a closer look.

Pulling into Port Resolution, Khulula hailed us on the radio to say that the truck was leaving in half an hour for tonight's trip to the volcano, and could we make it. Oh, yeah. We scrambled to get the anchor set, grab our cameras and pile into Khulula's dinghy for the trip to shore. At the Port Resolution Yacht Club, an open air, thatched roof building set in a garden on top of a bluff overlooking the bay, we met up with the other people heading to the volcano that night. 15 of us piled into the undersized pick-up truck that would take us to the volcano. I grabbed a seat in the extended cab, while Sten rode in the back with 9 others, sitting on narrow benches lining the perimeter of the truck bed. For those in the back, the truck ride proved to be just as dangerous as standing on the rim of the volcano.

The road to the volcano is a narrow, rutted affair, that bears a closer resemblance to a cow path than anything you would think of as a road in the States. To keep from falling out, Sten leaned forward and gripped the front edge of his bench seat. With brush encroaching on both sides, it was a challenge to find a way to hold on without getting your hands whipped by the passing foliage. The truck bucked and kicked its way along the road until it got to a steep section. After an aborted first attempt at climbing the hill, the overloaded truck rolled back to a stop at the base of the incline. For his second assault, the driver gunned the engine, attempting to use speed to make it up the hill. The bucking motion as the truck bounced from rut to rut, was like riding a mechanical bull. A French tourist sitting in the back left corner of the truck bed was ejected from the truck, but his leg was caught under the bench, so for a few moments, he hung over the back gate of the truck, flopping, until his leg slid out from under the bench and he crashed to the ground. Everyone in the back piled out to check on him. After making certain he was okay, they decided continue on foot until the road leveled off. As we waited for them at the top of the hill, we noticed the steam vents all around us and we heard the first booms of the volcano.

Once the road leveled out, everyone piled back into the truck bed, and we continued up to the car park. Rounding a bend in the road, a moonscape spread out before us. The car park was a grey ash field, cleared of the chunks of black lava that dotted the rest of the flat and up the hill to the rim. Standing in the car park I was looking around for fences, or warning signs, but the only warning was found on the sign for the Volcano Post, a mailbox where you can deposit pre-paid postcards, which are only available at the airport in Tanna and Port Vila. It warned that, "By entering the volcano site to post mail in the volcano post, you do so entirely at your own risk and Vanuatu [P]ost Limited with not be responsible for any loss, damage or injury arising from your posting of mail in the post box located on the volcano site . . . " and on and on. Seriously, how dangerous can it be to mail a post card? More importantly, if this is the warning on a mailbox in the car park, did we have any business going up to the rim? Clearly not! But with a boom that rocked our eardrums, the volcano called to us, and we ignored our preservation instincts and climbed up to the rim.

We'd seen pictures of the volcano, so we were expecting a light show, but nothing prepared us for the sound, or the impact of the explosions. We stood on the ridge, looking down into the crater. Below us was a lower rim, scattered with debris from recent explosions. The debris was recent enough to have not yet been buried by ash and some of it was still glowing. Below that was the center of the volcano. Every few minutes the volcano would erupt, spewing out grey-black clouds of smoke and molten red magma and lava. Each eruption was accompanied by a clap of sound that felt like a mini-sonic boom, as it bounced off of our ear drums and compressed our chests.

After about twenty minutes on the rim, our guide decided to give us a safety talk. The volcano has four levels of activity. Level 1 is the normal level of activity. The danger level is minimal, but there is always a risk that "a bomb may be ejected from the crater." When the activity has reached Level 2, bombs or slivers of lava are thrown up beyond the edge of the crater. During Level 3, last seen in 1994, ejected rocks may fly several hundred meters beyond the rim of the crater. During Level 3, access is restricted to the car park. If volcanic activity reaches Level 4, then access to the whole area is restricted and the locals evacuate.

On our first night at the volcano, the volcanic activity rated as a Level 1. However, the night before, a bomb had been ejected from the crater, flew over where we were standing, and landed on the edge of the dry lake bed below and behind us, setting fire to some brush. We were instructed to keep our eyes on the explosions and if a bomb came flying towards us to track it with our eyes before running off in circles like headless chickens. Our guide then told us about the most recent death on the rim. In 1995 a Japanese tourist was balancing her camera on her guide's shoulder, using him like a tripod. Neither was looking up. A molten lava rock tore through the guide and decapitated the tourist. What the heck were we doing up here?

When the sun set at 6:00, the pyrotechnic display really took off. I'll probably never be able to watch a fireworks display again without thinking about this night at Mt. Yasur. There were two separate eruption zones within the volcano, taking turns spewing red molten rock into the air from the glowing red center of the crater. Once they would blow, the whole scene seemed to shift into slow-motion, as the ash and brilliant red magma would float back down into the crater. If there was a long enough delay, the next explosion would be really big, producing a ball of flaming, rolling gas. During the big ones, we could feel the heat against our fronts as the wind cooled our backs, and we would be surrounded by a cloud of sulfurous gas.

At 6:30 we were herded back down to the trucks for the trip back to Port Resolution. As we drove down out of the volcano zone, the driver spotted a light in the trees marking a bush kava bar. The French guys piled out and Sten and I followed them into the bush. The bar was barely lit by embers glowing on the ground in front of the counter. I had to use a flashlight to dig around in my bag to find some vatu to pay for our kava. But we didn't have anything smaller than a 5,000 vatu note, which the barkeep couldn't change. Luckily, the Frenchies took pity on us and stood us a round. I hereby recant anything negative I've ever said about the French on this blog. Unlike the kava on Anatom, which was chewed, this stuff was ground. It wasn't nearly as powerful. I experienced a slight tingling of the lips, but that was it.

Back in the anchorage, Phoenix invited us all over to help finish off the Wahoo they caught en route from New Caledonia. To create enough seating for 9 around their salon table, they dragged out their huge spinnaker bag. It was like a giant bean bag, big enough for 3. It was an early night for all of us. Hugh summed it up best when he said that he was on sensory overload from all that we'd experienced the past few days.

Back on the boat, Sten and I couldn't stop talking about our experience at the volcano. We felt like we'd spent too much time trying to document it with photos and video, so we decided to go back a second time to just stand there and soak it all in.

At 4:00 this afternoon we, Phoenix, and two boats from the ICA rally, Interlude and Kaleva, were waiting at the Yacht Club for the truck to show up. Benefiting from our prior experience, this time we wore long pants instead of shorts, sneakers (the better to bolt) instead of flip flops, and hooded jackets to keep the dust off of our skin and hair. Interlude took my advice and brought goggles - the grit that got in my eyes last night turned my contacts into wet sandpaper.

This time our driver was much more careful and we arrived at the volcano without incident. Half way there, the heavens opened and released a tropical downpour - brief and intense. The rain abated as we approached the rim, but the clouds were hanging quite low. The night before our guide told us that the most dangerous conditions on the rim were foggy days, when you couldn't see which way the lava bombs were flying until they got too close to dodge. I was worried that we'd have to turn back, but the cloud layer stayed just above the roiling clouds of smoke billowing out of the crater. As we crested the rim, it was so much fun watching everyone else's reactions as they heard and felt their first eruptions.

Tonight all three eruption zones were pumping, and the lava was spewing much higher than last night. Unfortunately, the clouds of brownish black sulfurous smoke in the crater were much denser, and often we couldn't see the magma until it spewed above the clouds. Bombs were landing on the rim of the crater, about 75 meters to the right of where we were standing, where they would sit, glowing red against the dark grey ash as they cooled. When the volcano blew, I would stand stock still, holding my breath, silently watching the bombs fly, judging their trajectory. When they landed I'd exhale with a "holy crap." Sten would grab whoever was closest to him (me, Patty or Giff, it didn't matter), prepared to drag them away with him. The first time he grabbed me he pulled me off balance, as I had been standing on a lava rock, looking down into the crater. Admonishing me with a, "I don't want to have to explain to your parents how I survived and you didn't," he pulled me back from the edge.

When the volcano went quiet for more than a few minutes, a palatable sense of fear built up in the crowd. The longer the volcano held it's breath the more violent the exhale. Towards the end of the evening, one of the eruptions was so powerful that we felt like we were standing in the blast radius of an exploding bomb as we were hit by a tremendous pressure wave. The continuous blast chucked up immense gobs of liquid rock, superheated gas, smoke and flame that can only be described as hell-fire. Our being up there was absolutely the riskiest thing we've ever done. And we'd do it again in a heartbeat.

On the way back, Patty and I asked our driver what the activity level was tonight. He said that it was approaching Level 2. I don't want to be up there when it reaches Level 2. Actually, yeah I do. Dinking across the anchorage back to our boats we could see the red glow in the sky above the volcano, calling to us to take our chances and come back for another viewing.

No comments: