Waking up at 2:30am is never easy, but this time we had a solid reason for it. We climbed down the long staircase from our treehouse accommodation and walked in the darkness down the path and across the road to the entrance of the Mount Yasur volcano. We waited outside the small office for the pick-up truck that would bring us to the top. Clouds moved across the night sky above us, being illuminated in parts by the red glow of the volcano and the white of the moon. Every 5 minutes or so, we heard the distant rumble of the volcano as it spewed as yet unseen lava, ash and smoke into the air.
Eventually the pick-up truck arrived and ten bumpy minutes later we were at the path that leads up the last part of the volcano. We began to climb to the top. The explosions became louder now. There were five of us in total, including our guide. We reached one of the viewing spots after clambering up the sand-like volcanic ash. Now each explosion was a deafening roar as massive pieces of lava shot high into the air in front of us. Although the areas around the rim of the crater are monitored to make sure they are reasonably safe for tourists, I couldn’t help but think that we would not be allowed to be this close to an active volcano in many other countries.
Nevertheless, the explosions of lava were a truly astonishing sight. They were one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed. Being there in the dark with only a few other people made it all the more astounding.
We then continued around the volcano to a place where we could see the ash sloping down in front of us all the way to the crater with its bubbling lava. From there, it was like looking into hell! Scary, but not in the sense of any immediate danger. More of a primal fear that is hard to explain. Part of me wanted to run, but another part couldn’t look away. I saw the power of our planet in a way that I never had before and it had a profound impact on my thoughts. As humans, we often feel that we control the world, shaped as it is by our cities, farms and infrastructure. Staring into the fiery abyss, this seemed less true than ever. I contemplated how habitable our planet really was.
We waited on the volcano, mesmerised, until sunrise. I tried my best to capture what I was seeing in photos and videos, but I’m not sure that the experience of being there and seeing it in person, especially for the first time, can really be conveyed adequately.
Our second volcano visit
Our second visit to Mount Yasur volcano was for the sunset later the same day. There is also a daytime trip but everyone said not to go on that one as the volcano is much more spectacular when it is dark. The evening trips are when people come from all over the island, so it can get very busy. There were ninety one people instead of five. The entire process was also a lot more convoluted. It required checking in, watching some traditional dancing and then being sorted into the different trucks. Overall, it was a lot less enjoyable. The volcano was still incredible, but we were limited as to which viewing points we could go to with such a large group. The large group of tourists made it feel a little more like a visit to a theme park and a lot less of the contemplative and profound experience it had been in the morning. We were also on the volcano for less time and didn’t stay for too long after it got dark, when the volcano is at its most spectacular.
If possible, you should definitely make the effort to stay near the volcano and visit early in the morning. I also recommend wearing long sleeves, trousers and closed shoes for the visit. A scarf, sarong or similar to wrap around your face is also a good idea as the smoke and ash can be coming directly towards you depending on the direction of the wind.
Where we stayed
As I mentioned above, we stayed directly opposite the entrance to the volcano. We spent two nights at Yasur View Lodge. There are lots of places to stay near the volcano, but none are as close as Yasur View Lodge. It is literally opposite the entrance to Mount Yasur volcano. We stayed in a treehouse, which had a great view of the volcano and a nice breeze during the warm nights. One thing to make sure you bring if staying here is plenty of insect repellent. Thomas and his staff do their best to keep the bugs away but the reality is that the place is in the middle of the jungle and it is ultimately an impossible task. There are mosquito nets for during the night though so don’t be too concerned.
As there are no major shops nearby it is best to bring some water and any other drinks you might need with you from Lenakel. You can usually pick them up on the way from the airport. Meals will be provided, although only breakfast was included in our booking. Lunch and dinner were extra. The meals are homely and tasted pretty good, but don’t expect anything too gourmet.
Our accommodation at Yasur View Lodge cost us 7,000 Vatu per night for two people (roughly A$90/US$63/€55 as of January 2019). Dinners were 1,000 Vatu each and lunch cost 700 Vatu each. Our transfer to and from the other side of the island where the airport is located cost us 2,500 Vatu per person per trip. For the standard of accommodation and meals on offer, the prices are quite high so it’s worth keeping that in mind if planning a trip to Tanna. Having said that, it is an incredible place to visit.
The Mount Yasur volcano entrance fee is 9,570 Vatu (A$117/US$84/€74) for the first trip (keep your ticket if going again!). The second trip costs 6,500 Vatu (A$80/US$57/€50) and the third is free. Unfortunately if you do decide to go a fourth time the price will go back up to the original price.
Other things to do in the Mount Yasur area
The Yasur View Lodge were also be able to organise extra trips in between breathtaking volcano visits. We went to the hot springs and also to a local reenactment of a traditional village.
The hot springs were actually a shallow hot river that flows into the sea at Sulphur Bay. It was nice to be able to go between the hot river and the cool sea. There is also a massive beach there.
The traditional village tour was interesting and only a short walk away from Yasur View Lodge. Some of the locals, mainly kids, dressed in traditional clothing and demonstrated some traditional fighting and dancing. A few days later we visited Yakel village in a different part of the island. The villagers in Yakel actually live in a traditional manner and so I would recommend doing that instead.
If you are in the Mount Yasur area on a Friday night it is possible to witness the weekly celebrations of the fascinating John Frum Cargo Cult in one of the local villages.
Other things to do around Tanna
As I mentioned above we visited Yakel village, a very traditional village deep in the jungle and accessible only by following a long and rough unpaved road. This village is one of many on Tanna where the mostly self-sufficient villagers have eschewed almost all elements of a modern western lifestyle. It is an interesting insight into the traditional lifestyle of the people of Tanna. This village is actually kind of famous as it is where the film Tanna was filmed. Some of the local villagers starred in the film. All of the men in the village wear a traditional penis sheath called a namba. The women wear grass skirts. The villagers live in traditional huts and treehouses, while pigs and chickens wander freely around the village.
Back on the other side of the island, near the airport, we stayed at Rocky Ridge Bungalows. It is in a beautiful setting overlooking the sea. Right in front of Rocky Ridge there is a great blue hole for snorkelling. It’s definitely better if you have reef shoes though, as it can be hard to get out to it otherwise. Tom and Margaret at Rocky Ridge can also organise plenty of tours. We went with Tom to the Yakel Village, but they also organise snorkelling trips and boat tours along the coast. A trip from there to the Blue Cave was recommended by some fellow travellers but we didn’t have time.
Getting to Tanna
Most likely you will have flown into Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. From there, Air Vanuatu make the 40 minute flight to Tanna up to three times a day. Their flight schedules can be found here.