Mount Yasur – Why would you visit an active volcano?
I was writing this article when a Volcano exploded in New Zealand, killing tourists and their guides and leaving more severely injured. It seemed like it was not the right time to publish this story.
Then I started hearing some of the reaction in the tabloid media, and it changed my view. Some people were suggesting that “adventure tourism” should be banned. That is an unbalanced over-reaction coming from a lack of knowledge and a failure to understand risk, human behaviour, and the reasons behind the horrifying incident.
So I decided to publish a different point of view.
I studied geophysics and planetary physics at university, simply because I heard it was “about earthquakes and volcanoes and stuff”. Yes. Sign me up. Sadly I wasn’t that great at being a conscientious student, and I graduated during a massive recession in the geophysics industry so I never made a career out of it.
The fascination remains, so when I was devouring guide books planning my Pacific Islands trip, the words “active volcano” was all it took. Seeing Mount Yasur had to be my top priority for visiting Vanuatu.
It turned out to be one of the highlights of my two months travelling through the Pacific.
Here’s a little video of the journey to Tanna Island, and in the second half the nighttime spectacle of eruptions and flying lava bombs at Mount Yasur in the dark.
Getting to Tanna Island
You have to work a bit to get there. After flying from Fiji into Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila:
and overnighting at the Holiday Inn resort:
the next day had me back to the airport to hop onto a very small aircraft for the 40 minute flight to Tanna. So small that I had to resist the urge to reach out and fiddle with the controls in the cockpit, and got to watch and listen to the pilots at work:
Getting to Mount Yasur
The real fun starts when you land. We hopped into a four-wheel drive pick-up truck and left the tiny Whitegrass airport to begin the 90 minute drive across the island to Mount Yasur.
Tanna is tiny, so the only chance to pick up supplies is as you leave Lenakel town. The town’s main market is at the also tiny ferry “port”.
The start of the journey is on reasonable roads but as you get higher into the mountains the surfaces deteriorates and eventually disappears into bumpy dirt roads that would be very difficult and slow-going, if not impassable, after heavy rains in the wet season.
The ubiquitous pick-up trucks transport locals who look quite casual hanging off the back as the truck bounces all over the place, and at times you hear them singing and cheering.
It looks very uncomfortable and dangerous but from the noises they’re making they must be having a whale of a time.
For a better idea of the scale, click on the image above to enlarge it and look for the truck parked on the bottom of the slopes.
When the rainforest thins out you see the wide-open plains of black volcanic ash surrounding the western side of the volcano.
Apart from a few palm trees and strips of lush greenery around the main channels where the wet season rains flow, it’s a desolate place like the surface of the moon or Mars, partly because the ash is less fertile and partly because it is alternately washed away by the rains and replenished with fresh ash raining down from the crater.
When the pick-up clears the last of the rainforest and the view opens out, Mount Yasur dominates the horizon. Yasur means Old Man, and this old man is an angry one, permanently steaming and rumbling.
It’s a landscape entirely unlike any other place I’ve been.
Volcano Island Paradise
On the eastern side of the volcano, the jungle reappears and there’s an even more challenging ride up to my accommodation at Volcano Island Paradise. It’s a pretty little place, but incredibly basic.
The only electricity is from a car battery recharged with a solar panel, so you have enough to recharge your phone but that’s about all. The bathroom facilities are gross, and if you didn’t pick up some bottled water back at Lenakel then you’ve had it.
But who cares about that? Look at the view!
This is the best view of the volcano you’ll get from any of the local accommodation options, and the best thing to do is pull a chair onto the decking, crack open a can of Tusker, the local beer, and watch the clouds of smoke gently rolling into the sky.
After a while you hear distant thunder and scan the horizon for storms that might ruin your evening visit to the crater. More thunder. And again, but you can’t see anything that looks like a storm coming.
Then you catch a flash of movement near the volcano out of the corner of your eye, and some seconds later there’s the thunder again. And now you’re starting to catch on. You watch more closely.
There’s a sudden faint ripple that flashes up through the clouds above the crater like someone just blew a giant smoke ring, gone in half a second. The rumble hits your ears a few seconds later.
It’s not thunder you’ve been hearing, it’s the volcano.
The bigger explosions are a sudden release of pressure from deep down inside the crater and that makes a shock wave of pressure that blows upwards through the smoke stack, and just like lightning it’s a few seconds before the thunder reaches you.
Mount Yasur tour
Come late afternoon and I take a trek through the jungle with the guesthouse owner’s son leading the way. He tells me about the 90 minute walk he does to get to the nearest school every morning, and again to return every afternoon.
Take away the mobile phone and the pick-up truck and this part of Tanna is as far away from a modern European’s lifestyle as you can get. Well, apart from the beer.
From the volcano visitor centre you get to experience the kind white-knuckle ride in the back of a pick-up that you watched the locals enjoying earlier, on a very rough trail up to the crater rim.
In contrast to the western ash plains, the route up Mount Yasur to the crater rim from the visitor centre goes through the thick rainforest, until you reach a clearing near the very top.
There’s a post box for the Vanuatu Volcano post and a short, steep walk through scattered fragments of volcanic bombs up to the rim.
The crater is 300 metres wide and 100 metres deep.
You can smell the sulphur but it’s not strong. The biggest sensation is that whooshing pressure wave that precedes each blast of lava.
You feel it in your skin even before you see the thin ring of pressure rippling upwards through the smoke at an incredible speed, immediately followed by the roaring sounds of the explosion.
Mount Yasur eruptions
When the lava bombs sail into view it seems so slow. The shockwave takes a millisecond, but the bombs carve graceful arcs through the sky seemingly in slow motion because they’re bigger and further away than it looks.
They’re going higher than it seems, and so rising and falling faster than your brain will let you believe. Without a background to give scale your brain fools you into thinking it must be smaller and closer and moving more slowly.
You feel it through the ground too. Nature can be fierce and volcanoes are near the top of the list when it comes to demonstrations of fury and power.
For photographers, Mount Yasur will either be a delight or a frustrating challenge.
The light fades rapidly and the red glow is much more obvious in darkness, so you need a tripod to get a sharp picture, or a long exposure to turn the brief fireworks into beautiful long light trails.
During my visit it was very, very windy, cold, with relentless rain. Frozen fingers, shivering hands, and hunching over to keep the camera dry does not deliver the best photos.
Because the activity level is high, we’re not allowed to the best vantage point because it’s in the firing line of the lava bombs. The activity isn’t string enough to put on much of a show in the areas we can see.
It’s initially quite a let down, and when the cold wind and rain suddenly starts, it’s quite miserable.
Mount Yasur at night
Patience is needed. A it starts getting darker the red glow from the unseen lava down in the crater starts to illuminate the clouds of smoke and steam.
Darker still and the previously unimpressive dark blobs of lava that are periodically launched are transformed into blistering fireballs that streak through the sky and get you all excited again.
Once it’s properly dark those explosions are spectacular, though still intermittent, and the silhouettes of people against the red clouds is striking.
The first hour through dusk was a let down that had everyone grumbling with discontent, and of course when it’s time to leave the light show it at its very best and nobody wants to go.
The difficult journey was a good little adventure, much more interesting that way.
The accommodation is bare bones but it’s an insight into the local way of life. The entrance fee is a rip-off but it’s a one-off that you’ll probably never get to do again. The limited access is frustrating, but it means everyone is safe and people can continue to experience it.
At the end of it all, the sight of those bright red lava bombs slowly arcing through the darkness will stick with you.
Here’s the second half of the full video with just the volcano visit. Watch to the end for the best eruptions.
Read our review of Volcano Island Paradise if you’re looking for a place to stay.
See our full guide to visiting Mount Yasur if you want to plan your trip.
We also have a review of Holiday Inn Resort Vanuatu and a guide to taking a road trip on Vanuatu.
David Attenborough and the Tanna Island cargo cult
In a fascinating documentary from 1960, David Attenborough visits Tanna and encounters the John Frum cargo cult. Below is a video with some clips from the original programme, showing what Mount Yasur looked like in 1960.
The full episode is available at the internet archive.
Is it safe to visit Mount Yasur?
See our full report on the safety of Mount Yasur visits.
Back to the New Zealand situation. Looking back on my visit to Mount Yasur, it’s surprising how much you want to disobey the guides instructions and go to take a look over the edge and peer into a bubbling pool of red hot lava.
You have no thought of risk, no concern. You just want to get a better view and you say surely it’s safe, no lava has gone that way while we’ve been here. They should let us go over there.
At the time, everyone was moaning and complaining about not being allowed closer, and I was with them. In light of the events in New Zealand I realise how cavalier everyone was towards the risk. Without controls, everyone would have walked right up to the edge to get a good look, with no thought of risk.
The thing is that all of us visitors don’t have an awareness of the risk and don’t have the familiarity with the crater to know how suddenly and unexpectedly the blasts can change direction and ferocity and turn a previously calm viewing area into a death zone of raining half-ton boiling boulders. They’re called lava bombs for good reason.
I realise now how much discipline it takes from the guides to resist all those people asking to get closer, to say no, when there’s nobody there to check on them, and the moaning and complaining is endless and insistent.
They don’t just have the discipline to say no, they say that if anyone tries to ignore the instructions and march off into the forbidden zone then the burly guides and drivers will run after you and bring you down and end the visit for the entire group.
It’s an awesome natural spectacle like an immense waterfall or a huge canyon, and just like a waterfall or a canyon you want to see it, want to get closer, want to experience it.
The closer you get the more you can smell it, the more you can hear it, the more you feel the pressure waves that ripple up into the sky. You get drawn in. It’s a natural instinct to want to see it, to feel it. Some people find it almost impossible to resist touching paintwork when they see a “Wet paint” sign. It’s human.
You look and listen and feel, and you want more, and you forget any risk. Just like the way sitting in a car at 70mph feels entirely calm and safe and easy, but turns to alarm and panic when something suddenly goes wrong, wandering around the top of a volcanic crater rim feels entirely safe.
Maybe this is why some people get out of their cars to take selfies in a safari park with wild lions 10 metres away. They have no understanding of how wild animals behave, no awareness of the incredible risk they are taking, and they feel safe in their cars watching these beasts calmly sleeping in the grass.
They don’t understand the terrific speed and immense strength of a wild cat, until it’s too late.
Understanding the way an active volcano behaves requires specialist knowledge. Monitoring and measuring and assessing the activity and predicting behaviour requires expensive equipment and expertise. Understanding what the risks are and what might go wrong at a specific site requires familiarity.
Tourists coming to visit have none of these things. Should visiting an active volcano be banned? Absolutely not. Should it be tightly regulated and only possible with expert guides who are controlled and authorised by specialists with the appropriate scientific know-how? Absolutely yes.
Do the staff at Mount Yasur have that expertise? Well, I’m not so sure. But they’re following instructions and those instructions have some reasoning behind them, and at least they were enforcing their own rules.
Is it acceptable for a private tour operator take a tour group to visit an active volcano when the geologists have advised that it is unsafe to visit? No. Is that the fault of the tourists? No. Is it a failure of regulation? Yes. Is that what happened in New Zealand? It seems so, yes.
A lack of inspection and control and rigorous penalties for violating regulations that would have stopped tour operators choosing to take a risk in order to get paid.
At Mount Yasur, you’re not allowed to get close if the activity is high, as judged by people with the expertise to know. In New Zealand, that expertise was ignored by the tour operators who should know better, at the expense of tourists who most likely thought that what they were doing wouldn’t be allowed if it was that dangerous.* Long-exposure eruption photo credit – Rolfcosar [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons