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A Life and Death Experience.

AUSTRALIA | Wednesday, 16 July 2008 | Views [753]



Flying in low over canopies of palm trees, it feels like I’m taking part in a WWII re-enactment I’ve seen so many times before. A steaming lush green I have not seen for a long time, due to the drought back home in Australia. It’s pouring down outside as it’s the middle of monsoon season, and I’m squashed into a rickety little plane with 8 passengers. 

We are headed to Tanna, one of Vanuatu’s 83 islands. Tanna is not a highly frequented tourist destination, but there is one particular experience that we have decided to embark on when we arrive. We’re off to visit Mt Yasur, a live volcano that took its’ last victims in 1994.

The flight itself is enough to keep your heart in your throat but arriving in Tanna, we set down on a grass airstrip in the middle of nowhere. As we get out of the plane, the locals appear out of the 6 foot high grass, to see who we are and if we are bringing them supplies from Port Villa, Vanuatu’s capital.

We are met by an old Land Cruiser that’s done as many kilometres as the Leyland Brothers, clambered in the back, and head off to our accommodation at Lekula Cove. We are given a little bamboo shack, with cements floors. The electricity is supplied via a myriad of extension leads and power packs. The bed is covered in a large mosquito net, the shower a recess in the cement with a drain. Luckily we are only here for one night, and not for the luxury. We are given a quick meal of juice and fruit, and place our orders for dinner on our return. Jumping back into the rear of the Land Cruiser we indulge in an hour and a half of holding onto the jesus handles, to avoid hitting our heads on the roof as we fly down the dirt roads riddled with potholes due to the torrential rain. We need to make it to the volcano before sunset. It was quite intimate in the back of the cruiser and we made friends with tour companions that had come over with us on the plane for the experience. Bouncing along the roads, the locals would emerge from the jungle brandishing machetes, looking for local produce for their dinner. They come out of nowhere and disappear into the green on the other side of the road, many waving as we pass.

Getting closer to the volcano, we speed across the flats, where the ash from the volcano has destroyed much of what was living. We get out briefly, and listen to Yasur rumble and spit. The ground is like corse, black sand. Our driver informs us they race horses out here, as it’s flat and dry. We proceed as far as we can go in the 4WD before legging the last incline on foot. The sun is about to set, and some locals try to sell us jewellery. We walk past the only letterbox at a volcano in the world. I think this is in case I want to send a postcard home, telling mum I love her. We reach the pinnacle of the volcano, and walk along the spine, looking into an abyss of molten lava. Our guide informs us that we’ll be fine so long as the wind doesn’t change direction, like it did back in ’94, spraying 4 tourists with molten lava.

We set up camp and wait for the sun to go down, the spectacle getting better every minute. The volcano gurgles and hisses and heat from the explosions throws you back like an atomic bomb. Sometimes she just hisses, and throws massive plumes of smoke and ash high into the sky, other times she showers the levels beneath us with lava, and we watch them drip and change from red to black. I have to admit, I did scream several times. Several other groups came and joined us with their guides, who threw rocks at each other, scaring each other, emphasising the reality of how quickly our situation could change, seeing the fright in their eyes before they realised it wasn’t lava.

With the sun well and truly down and hundreds of digital photos later, we head back down to our driver, using torches to navigate down the rocky descent. The driver has been sitting in the 4WD listening to a cassette tape.

Pummelling back to our quarters through the night, we see lanterns, randomly hanging by the side of the road. Our guide informs us that these are kava bars, but that there will be kava waiting for us on our return.

Upon our return, some of the men from a local village have come to dance for us and share their kava. We all sit around in the dark, watching them, their stamping and chanting echoing in the eerie silence. We share half coconuts of kava, a legal narcotic made from the kava plant, which grows in the waterways. It is pummelled and sifted into a fine powder, and mixed with water. It tastes like muddy water, hence the reason you need to skull it as quickly as possible. The effect is a body numbness, starting with your tongue. Traditionally only the men drink kava, but they seem happy to share it with tourists, due to it’s narcotic properties. We thank the men, who return to their village, as we return to the restaurant for our dinner. A couple of drinks from the bar, and a recap on our latest adventure, and we soon all head for bed.

Tanna is far from the tourist hub, the locals living in among the jungle, collecting their food and trading with neighbours. It’s amazingly quiet, if it weren’t for the dirt roads, you would think you were on a deserted island.

This 24hour adventure although rather costly was well worth the expense, an experience I will never forget.

Tags: mt yasur, tanna, vanuatu


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