As well as lots of travelling in New Zealand during my summer break I’ve also visited 2 Pacific island nations for a chance to experience some different cultures, scenery and attempt to get a tan. I achieved the first 2 of those objectives but unfortunately I failed to get an impressive tan and ended up finishing my trip red with sunburn rather than bronzed!
First up on my itinerary was Vanuatu. It wouldn’t surprise me if you aren’t familiar with Vanuatu as a country, from the UK it seems like a very distant and remote country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, from New Zealand it’s only a 3 hour flight making it much easier to visit. It’s made up of a group of 82 islands of volcanic origin. The main reason I wanted to visit Vanuatu was to go to Mount Yasur, which is one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world. As a geology student the chance to visit whilst I’m in this part of the world was too good to resist! I spent just under a week in Vanuatu, with 3 days in Port Vila (Vanuatu’s Capital City) and 3 days on Tanna Island where Mount Yasur is located.
Whilst on Tanna I stayed in a treehouse right at the foot of the volcano, giving me a chance to experience the volcano at all hours of day and night. There’s something very surreal about hearing the rumbling of a volcano and watching glowing hot bombs being thrown from the crater whilst eating dinner. The volcano is about a 2 hour drive from the island’s airport which added to the anticipation of seeing it for the first time. Rounding the corner and catching the first glimpse of the volcano and the plume of ash rising above it for the first time was very exciting and the volcano became bigger and more imposing as we got closer and closer until it was towering above. The trip up to the summit brought even more excitement, as I joined the crowds of other eager tourists who weren’t put off by the pouring rain (it’s Vanuatu’s rainy season at the moment, which as I discovered means frequent sudden downpours) and we were loaded into pickup trucks and driven up to very bumpy track to a car park just a 5 minute walk from the top. As I climbed the steps to the edge of the crater the rumbling coming from inside was much louder than from the bottom, with powerful bursts every couple of minutes as new ash and lava bombs were ejected into the air. Standing on the edge of the crater and watching the lava below being violently ejected and fragmented along with plumes of ash and gases was an absolutely incredible experience, but it got so much better as darkness fell and what our guides described as the “natural fireworks” began. Under the cover of darkness, the bombs ejected from the volcano glow orange and create an impressive spectacle as they are thrown from vents demonstrating the sheer power of the volcano. Sometimes they are thrown from the crater floor to higher than the edge of the crater (300m above the floor) and could be seen from where I was staying down below.
…and by night
The next day I awoke to what I thought was rain, but on closer inspection it was actually volcanic ash. The wind direction had changed overnight sending the ash plume towards my accommodation showering the buildings and plants with a fine covering of rock particles from the volcano. That afternoon I went up the volcano again, however the different wind direction meant that we viewed it from a different viewpoint. The volcano was also more active than the previous day with larger amounts of ash and gas billowing out of the crater, leading to an entirely different experience and giving a reminder that the volcano is a natural force which can’t be controlled.
Standing on the edge of an active volcano may sound like a pretty dangerous thing to do, but the volcano is monitored and closed if there are signs of increased activity. Also, all visitors have to be accompanied by local guides to keep them safe. Occasionally the volcano does have larger eruptions. My host, Thomas, told me about an eruption in 2008 when hot rocks were thrown from the vent setting fire to the forests where the local people go hunting for wild pigs. However, the local people don’t seem too perturbed living with an active volcano on their doorstep. It’s just something that’s always been there for them and provides them with fertile soil for growing and opportunities to make money through tourism.
Whilst the volcano was the stand-out highlight of my trip to Vanuatu, I also found it fascinating to witness and learn about the culture and how it differs from in western countries. Life is much simpler with people living in the village where they grew up, but I was especially surprised with how happy everyone seemed with their lives which are free from most of the stresses of the modern world.
Next up on the itinerary for my trip was Fiji, but more on that in my next blog post!