September 2011

Part Four


Mt. Yasur Volcano

Tanna, Vanuatu








September 24, 2011


"During the night and all the next day the volcano made a terrible noise throwing up prodigious columns of smoak (sic) and fire at every eruption; at one time great stones were seen high in the air." These words were written by Capt. Cook about Mt. Yasur 237 years ago.  Indeed,  Mt. Yasur has been actively spewing ash, gas, molten lava and red hot rocks high into the sky for at least 800 years.



Mt. Yasur is a brilliant point on the Rim of Fire.  It is caused by the eastward moving Indo-Australian Plate sliding under the western moving Pacific Plate. Like the bright beacon we saw sailing past the Aeolian Islands of Italy three years ago, Mt. Yasur also produces Strombolian eruptions.  We seem to be drawn to active volcanos, but as with passing Montserrat, Tenaya usually ends up covered in ash.



As we plodded along the rutted dirt road that led back to Port Resolution from his village in the shadow of the belching beast, Kelson told us the story of Mt. Yasur, the story his father had told him as a small boy.



In the beginning there was only Matiktiki.  He was a great hunter and fisherman. Naweng came along and became his wife.  They lived on the highest point of land, Mt. Melon, and were very happy.  After a while they decided to have a child.  Matiktiki said "I would like to have a son" and Naweng said "I would like to have a daughter." 

They had a son and named him Yasur.  Matiktiki taught Yasur to hunt and fish and he became very good at it.  When Yasur was 15 years old he asked his father if he could go hunting alone.  Matiktiki said yes and Yasur began to look for animals.  He traveled all over Mt. Melon with his bow and arrow and finally spotted a big bird.  He fired an arrow and thought he hit it. 

He went to the place where it should have fallen, in some wild cane.  He did not see it, but out of the wild cane came two women.  They were Mownga and Sapai and the place became known as Pang Niwing.  The women wanted to go home with Yasur.  He was not at all sure about that, but the women persisted.  He returned to his father's house with the women.  His father greeted them and told Yasur that he was a man now and must go build his own house with his two wives. 

They move to the bottom of the mountain and Yasur built a nice house.  One day Yasur went out hunting for meat for dinner.  He told his wives to prepare laplap.  While his wives were preparing laplap they needed water and left to get some.  Yasur returned home with the meat but his wives were not there and the laplap was not ready.

He got very angry.  He was very hungry.  He got so mad that he turned himself into a pig.  When his wives returned they found a large pig sitting by the laplap.  They began to club it.  Yasur, the pig, exploded and created a cave in the mountain.  This cave is now called Napang Kasawa.

At the end of the cave is a large lava tube.  Yasur's spirit took the spirits of his wives, which were killed in the explosion, through the underground lava tube towards the shore where they made a new home.  The home became Mt. Yasur.  The three fiery cauldrons in the crater are Yasur, Mownga and Sapai.



Pigs have always been important to the people of Vanuatu.  They still are.  The number and size of a man's pigs determine his wealth.  Yasur was important and therefore able to become a large pig.  Pigs are very welcome food, but expensive.  The wives clubbed the pig because that is how pigs are killed here.  A few swift blows between the eyes bring death quickly.



The guide book published by the local tourism council says this about Mt. Yasur:  Wilst Yasur is considered very safe and is constantly monitored, it is a live volcano.  There are no hand or safety rails.  On some occasions, generally after particularly wet seasons, the very lip of the main vent is closed to the public as lava rocks bigger than large automobiles spurt higher than the rim and may fall in unexpected places. Right. Clearly we are out of our minds to consider visiting such a place. 






We joined a few other yachties and a French backpacking couple for a bouncy 45 minute ride through the bush.  At one point on the way up the mountain our 4WD truck couldn't gain traction so we got out and walked up a steep, rutted section.  It was not quite dusk. Steam rose eerily from the side of the road while warm, moist air mixed with ash hung heavily as we trudged upward. Grandfather, as the locals call the volcano, sounded voraciously hungry, his rotund belly rumbling every few minutes. Eventually we rounded a bend to find the truck waiting for us.  It deposited us a mere 5 minute walk below the rim.



Awesome. Amazing. Unworldly. Frightening. Majestic.  Ethereal. Mystical.  Mount Yasur is truly spectacular!  He rumbles nearly constantly but when he begins to roar look out.  Or rather, up.  A concussion wave of gas precludes a huge dark, cloud of ash boiling up from the bowels of the earth which gives way to incandescent lava and burning projectiles exploding ferociously skyward.



It is the most incredible thing we have ever seen!  We were utterly agog. To be able to walk along the rim and peer over the steep lip to see two or three separate cauldrons of burning magma is absolutely astounding. 

As the sun set, Mt. Yasur's natural fireworks show grew even more intense.  Clouds obscured the light of the moon and their moisture captured and held the red glow of eruptions.  Once the sky was completely black we were completely mesmerized.  Each blast is different in intensity which adds to the nervous excitement.

Click here to see video of eruptions



Levels of activity range from 0-4. 0 is low activity, 1 is normal activity and access right up to the crater rim is allowed.  2 is moderate to high activity where lava bombs may blast past the rim.  Access to the rim is closed and you must view from the parking lot.  3 signals severe activity, lava bombs are ejected up to hundreds of meters above and beyond the rim. That happened as recently as 2 months ago.  The summit zone is closed.  4 means a major eruption.  All access is closed.  Anchored in Pt. Resolution is not a good place to be!



Visiting the volcano is the main reason yachties stop in Tanna. That, and to clear into the country. Trips to the volcano are arranged through Stanley.   The driver's fee is reasonable but it is not cheap to enter the park in which Mt. Yasur lies.  In all, it costs about 5,000 vatu ($60) per person for transport and admission.  But, you are delivered to within 150 meters of the rim of a very active volcano!

We did not balk at paying the entrance fee. It is one of the few ways the people of Tanna can collect money.  The Entawi Company is comprised of representatives from each region of the island and administers the money which is all kept on Tanna.  The money is used for emergencies such as to get food and supplies delivered from Pt. Vila and to help people rebuild after cyclones. 

Wear warm clothes if you visit the volcano as it gets quite chilly up on the rim once the sun goes down. Ash gets everywhere so if you have a good camera you may want to use your rain protector.


Go to September 2011 Part Five - Market Day


Photo Gallery: Vanuatu People

Photo Gallery: Vanuatu Children



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