Up on the high point of the crater, the view is almost directly down into the lava pit. The sun has just set, the blackness of the smoke becomes impenetrable to the eye. The pit to hell has come to life again, this time screaming with a devilish chorus, demons and ghouls in unison sing the song of the damned. And with that, the crater begins its terrible danse macabre all over again, this time shooting tonnes of molten debris upward, the sounds and sights melding into a spectacle of light and sound, giving just a glimpse of the dangers that lurk below. The dangers you face are real, this thing is completely unpredictable.
On Friday July 18 2014 I was fortunate enough to visit a live volcano on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, along with my partner Hayley, my brother Paul and his partner Sam. While the description above may overly verbose, it is difficult to describe the sheer magnitude and awe of the experience without lapsing into poetics. The volcano, Mount Yasur, is on the east side of the island, some hour and a half’s drive from the settlements on the west coast of Tanna. The island is home to one of six active volcanoes in the Collection of more than 80 islands that make up the country of Vanuatu, and one of the most consistently active and easily accessible of the six volcanoes. The road is treacherous, and can only be reached by four-wheel-drive, and having a guide for the journey is a must. The trip to the volcano from our lodgings at Tanna Lodge took an hour and a half, through mountains of trees and forests, over fords and dry river beds. The soil changed from white and sandy to black and ashen. From the lush jungles of Vanuatu, suddenly we emerged into what resembled a lunar landscape, all signs of life were gone, and we were standing at the base of the 400 metre monster, Mount Yasur.
While the highlight of the journey, as described above, is viewing the active volcano, the journey itself was in some ways scarier and seemingly more dangerous then standing on the edge of such a destructive force as an untamable pit of lava. It involved driving through dense jungle, where the road at times degrade to nothing but deep furrows in the black volcanic dirt. It also involved driving at 120kph across the barren ash plains below the volcano, hurtling headlong into the darkness with the headlights of the 4WD only illuminating a few metres in front of the vehicle. (At times like this you simply have to put your trust in your driver, and hope that he knows what he is doing.)
We arrived at the volcano shortly before the sun set. The 4WD was left below the lip of the crater, and we made our way up the path that led to the edge of the volcano, about a 100m walk. As we neared the lip, the sounds of the volcano were the first thing we noticed. A deep rumbling and crackling, sounding like huge stones being thrown against each other. Not much was visible at this stage, except smoke and the occasional lava rock being thrown up. For the real show, we’d have to wait until after dusk. This is not to say that what we were witnessing wasn’t spectacular. The ground grumbled, and as the light faded, our eyes (and cameras) were able to better make out the orange glow of the lava and the rocks that were being launched into the air. On a couple of occasions, a huge boom was heard, followed by a massive launching of white ash into the air, so powerful you could actually see the shockwave move across the crater, the displaced air fluttering through our clothing. One of these shockwaves was actually so powerful it literally knocked me off of my feet. (I should say, the shockwave hit me and I tripped over a rock, a combination of me being startled by the suddenness of the almighty bang and a bad placement of my feet while standing on the edge of the crevice.)
As mentioned above, a secondary vent was off to the side of the crater, occasionally spewing forth a black toxic smoke, filled with black sandy volcanic ash and smaller rocks. Before the wind shifted, the black ash came perilously close to engulfing us, but once it shifted properly, and after I had been knocked over, we decided to move around to the higher vantage point on the upper edge of the crater from which we could see much deeper into the main crater. Best to be upwind of the volcano than downwind, as the lava rocks only need a little help from the breeze to change their upward/downward trajectories into sideward trajectories. The sun was setting now, and the crater took on an eerie orange glow.
In this day of portable digital video technology, every person there was filming this spectacle. There was even a crew of three or four people who had a remote control drone, fitted with a GoPro camera, which they maneuvered around the ash cloud about 200 metres away. The footage they captured must have been amazing, being able to get right above the volcano and look straight down into it. But it was spectacular enough just sitting on the rim of the crater, as my video shows below.
It really is difficult to imagine just how big the explosions were, how high the lava went, the size of the rocks being projected outward, and the weightiness of these rocks as they landed around the crater’s edges. The dangers of the volcano are very real; just one look around at the crater’s edge and the amounts of ash and rock deposited served as a real reminder that sometimes, if the conditions are right, the volcano is capable of shooting rocks and lava well beyond the perceived safety of the crater’s rim. Some of these rocks were the size of couches. Some were the size of a minibus.
In the dim evening light, our sensitivity to the crashes and booms waned somewhat, and our mood shifted from trepidatious caution to a kind of giant fireside reverie. Staring into the volcano, the only light around, was like sitting at the side of a huge bonfire, watching it boil away, reminding us occasionally that it was in fact a volcano by exploding with a fierce expulsion of magma and molten rock. At this point, most cameras were lowered, and we sat and watched as the volcano did its thing. Finally, our guide told us it was time to leave, to which we answered “One more, one more!”, just as children do when watching fireworks.
And we weren’t disappointed. As if understanding us, the volcano flew into action giving us the best display of sound and lava and rock we had seen, huge molten snakes of magma twisting high up into the sky like slow motion streamers.
Vanuatu is perched on the western edge of the so called “Ring of Fire“, a region of unstable plate tectonics that circles the Pacific Ocean, from California and South America on the east, to Japan and the South Pacific islands on the west. Vanuatu’s unstable position is apparent to all who live there, and no part of the island group is immune from the dangers that lurk below. Only days before we arrived, the capital city of Port Vila was shaken by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, with surprisingly no casualties and no accompanying tsunami warning. And this is commonplace, with 27 earthquakes being reported from the region in the past 12 months. But volcanic and seismic activity like this is relatively small compared to the magnitude of some of the other recent activities elsewhere on earth.
Take for example the sudden and devastating explosion of Mount St Helens in 1980 which killed 58 people and dislodged 1 cubic kilometer of earth instantly, or the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland which halted air traffic in Europe and threatened to engulf the whole region in ash. Not to mention the huge cataclysmic 1883 explosion on the island of Krakatoa in Indonesia, or the devastation following the eruption of the largest recorded eruption in history, that of Mount Tambora in 1816, dislodging 80 cubic kilometers of ash and soil into the atmosphere. But perhaps the most chilling of seismic and volcanic activity is the case of Yellowstone National Park.
The Yellowstone caldera measures 55km by 72km in area and is an active volcano head. Some predict that if this were to explode that it would wipe out all life on earth, covering the planet in a dense cloud of gas and smoke, and choking the planet’s biosphere. The book “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy takes place in a fictional setting after an unknown holocaust, inspired among other things by the possible explosion of the Yellowstone caldera, and not necessarily as popular belief would have it, after a nuclear war. His book presents a bleak future for what a post Yellowstone era might look like, and what is perhaps most worrying about this is that the Yellowstone caldera will one day explode. Who knows how far into the future this is, but when it happens, it will be devastating.
What the visit to Yasur volcano conjures most powerfully, apart from imagining the birthplaces of myths and religions, is that we as earthbound citizens sit on the outside of a volatile molten planet, constantly shifting and readjusting. The planet cares not for us, and it is not capable of such a thing, for the planet does what it does whether we like it or not. If the pressures within build to the right levels in the right areas, and when the next big explosion happens, there is no asking for forgiveness from the planet.
Here’s a short video I took at Yasur when we visited (the really good bit is at around 30 seconds).
Watching a volcano in action is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It inspired belief in gods long before the anthropomorphised gods of today were invented, gods of the earth, angry with wrath at the misdoings of the small humans below. It’s no wonder, in times when plate tectonics and geological discoveries were unknown, that the people of this island named this mountain Yasur, the home of the gods. I am fortunate to have been able to visit and appreciate the beauty and terror that lies just under the earth’s fragile crust. It is something that I think, given the chance, every person should see. It certainly was a trip of a lifetime for me, and gives my tiny existence on this planet a sense of proportion.
All photos and videos in the post are Copyright Martin S Pribble under Creative Commons Licensing.
View the longer video here.