Vanuatu: Find you inner volcano

Vanuatu is a unique spot on a map of the South Pacific Ocean. In 2006 it was voted by British ‘The happiest place on Earth’, according to their ‘Happy Planet index’. It consists of 83 islands that make up the Y-shaped chain and offers a diverse range of scenery.There are sandy beaches, crystal clear blue waters, coral atolls, harbour cities, but most travellers don’t come for any of that. They come for fascinating active volcanos which are spread all over the islands. The most alluring island is Tanna with Mt Yasur – the most accessible active volcano in the world. But Tanna is not the only boiling attraction Vanuatu has to offer, Ambrym — another island has active lava lakes (!), Ambae has the most voluminous volcano, Lopeyi is the most beautifully shaped volcano and has periodic eruptions too, Mt Garet on Gaua Island is one of the world’s most colourful and scenic one. The variety of exciting options can be overwhelming.

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Port Vila, the bustling  capital of Vanuatu, is a perfect destination itself, but many treat it as a stopover to the other islands. Sadly, also for me Port Vila was more of a transit place, however the amazing people I met, made my short stay very special. Although Vila is under strong French influence, it didn’t loose its local, South Pacific touch. It is an interesting, culturally rich place, which deserves a separate note. The time will come to pay Vila the proper tribute. There are several options to see an active volcano in Tanna. First one is to book a flight with Air Vanuatu – a national carrier which flies around the country. If you fly with them internationally, they’ll offer you 20% off on domestic connections. Be quick though, the popular flights fill up quickly, so it’s better to book well in advance! Choosing that options gives you much more freedom and much more time to explore the island. If I had had more time, I would have definitely chosen that. Unfortunately my schedule was pretty tight, so I had to give up on my freedom and chose whatever suited best in that particular situation. A second option is an organised tour which takes you for one-day or two-day trip to Tanna. No matter how busy your schedule is you cannot settle for one day only. It will be a disaster (I really believe so) and you will miss the whole beauty of the volcano performance. There are two companies operating tours to Tanna: Air Taxi and Unity Airlines. The price of both is roughly the same (around 500 Australian dollars for overnight tour). I took the first one and was very happy with my decision but not from the beginning.

The booking process with Air Taxi went smooth and pleasant. They asked me few details about my weigh, luggage weight, any dietary preferences, accommodation upgrades, credit card etc. All set and done. The big day arrived and I happily showed up at the airport. Then a little nightmare started. First with the payment, they didn’t accept my US dollars so I had to run like headless chicken to find exchange point or ATM machine. Luckily I managed to solve it pretty fast. Then they asked me to pay an extra money for a provincial departure tax of VT200 — normal procedure after check-in at each domestic airport in Vanuatu. I wish I had local money with me, I didn’t. Again I managed to solve it somehow. At that point I was tired but happy: checked-in and with a departure tax receipt in my hand. But I didn’t  know the worst was yet to come. I arrived at the airport quite early and I didn’t know with whom I was about to share my journey with. Honestly, I was happy to share it with anyone, so when I saw the family of five heading my direction I wasn’t worried at all. Well, I should’ve been. The family started the check-in process. One by one they showed their passports and stepped into the scale. Checking the weight of passengers is a normal process as the company operates with the tiny Cessna 207 aircraft, which has low, limited payload. That’s why we also had to e-mail our weight details in advance. I saw something wasn’t right, the pilot showed up and his face expression wasn’t very promising nor happy. Then, of course, he started heading my direction and the drama began. Active volcano I was so happy to see, well.. I experienced it within myself first. In the booking e-mail the family of five lied about their weight – each and every one of them decided to cut about 10 kilograms of their weight! They were huge in size, tripe XXXL each I guess, so maybe to them 10kg was nothing but to the pilot of Air Taxi it was everything. Their extra 50 kg was basically me, so the process of off-loading me has already began. I couldn’t postpone my tour, it was just out of question, I had so many non-flexible plans afterwards —  I just couldn’t allow that to happen. I was going out of my way to make this trip happen, and Duncan – our Air Taxi pilot — was trying really hard as well. He squeezed me in somehow, only because the luck was on my side. I took the tour thanks to the excellent weather conditions, which allowed Duncan to loosen up a bit the weight restrictions. The family didn’t feel sorry at all, which made me explode inside even more.

The flight to Tanna takes about 45 minutes and is rather uneventful. If you fly with Air Taxi, they add an extra scenic flight over Mt Yasur, which takes place on top of decent into the island.  This is when the true adventure starts. It’s best to sit at the right-hand side of the small Cessna, as the pilot makes a strong right U-turn over the volcano. The view is really interesting and puts the whole scenery in perspective. After landing in Tanna, we were quickly checked in the Evergreen resort and after one hour there was a pick up for a ride to Mt Yasur volcano. Although we were sitting in comfortable cars, the journey was pretty rough. The road conditions are rather poor so two hour drive felt quite long and really bumpy. During that time the scenery was slowly changing, from the lush greenery to moonscape, desert-like, raw landscape covered with ash, dirt and mud. Mt Yasur is the most well-known volcano of Vanuatu. It has worldwide reputation as a very accessible and beautiful one with a huge erupting energy. It’s true, climbing up to the crater rim is a piece of cake and takes maximum 15 minutes. What happens next is just incredible. Mt Yasur is constantly active, for the safety of tourists local authorities has created levels to restrict people’s access. I’ve visited the island during level one, when Mt Yasur was at normal low-risk activity and the access to the crater was allowed. We arrived early evening, sunset time, which allowed us to experience the difference between day and nigh performance. You have to be there at night. This is the time when you experience it at the maximum. The contrast between a total, absolute darkness and bright, yellow and orange colours of lava is totally mind-blowing. An active volcano is a thrilling and awe-inspiring natural phenomena and Mt Yasur is a perfect example of it. You can hear (you really hear!) the lava rumbling there. It sounds like the sea, like a lap of wave. But you know that bubbling sound is nothing like the sea at all. Once we climbed to the rim we were treated with a magnificent fireworks display. But the fireworks are not constant. The explosions vary from small and gentle to loud, violent and truly spectacular. During my visit the big explosion was happening every 10 minutes. It wasn’t very often but it put the level of suspension very high and doubled the excitement. Believe me, when the vast explosion finally happened the ground was shaking under my feet, the sound travelled to every cell of my body and my heart was filled with all kind of sensational emotions. Dream came true in every possible way.

I wish I could have stayed overnight at the volcano site – I hadn’t known before that camping there was possible. Now I know and I would choose that option without any hesitation. Falling asleep to the sound of lava explosions — how incredible is that? Instead I came back to the Evergreen resort where I really got a special treatment from the management team. As I was pretty lonely (no, I didn’t fancy spending time with the overweighed family, who gave me so much trouble earlier that day), I happily accepted the dinner invitation from Duncan (our pilot) and his two friends. They all turned out to be true gentlemen and they made my evening very interesting: full of inspiring stories about life, traveling, love and human nature in general. While I was eating my most delicious coconut, curry fish, they were sharing their knowledge with me. All the things they said: ’marry your best friend, not your lover’, ‘never look back’, ‘men will never change’ – they are all still somewhere deep in my heart making a short trip to Tanna even more unforgettable. Coming soon: Vanuatu: 10 top tips how to see an active volcano best!

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