It took a lot of trips to see a lot of volcanoes before I found the one that delivered. I drove right up to the crater rim of Masaya in Nicaragua and all I got was some smoke that smelled like a stink-bomb. For three nights running, I sat up all night on the balcony of the Arenal Observatory Lodge in Costa Rica and only saw a few orange lava bombs roll down its flanks. I travelled down Ecuador‘s Avenue of the Volcanoes but it rained nonstop in dry season; I got the sound but not the light show. When staying on Tanna, one of Vanuatu’s outlying islands, I was urged to visit the world’s most accessible active volcano, understandably my expectations were low.
First glimpse of Yasur Volcano
The first glimpses of Yasur volcano, I have to say, weren’t anything to write home about. Seen across a vast ash plain from a distant hilltop lookout, it looked to be inactive and I resigned myself to another failed quest. As the pick-up truck neared the lower slopes of the volcano, it loomed large and impressive, a huge grey pile of dirt in the midst of lush tropical vegetation. But, disappointingly, even up close, my suspicions seemed to be confirmed: it was inert.
Off to post a letter
We skirted round to the far side of Yasur volcano following a rough track hacked out of dense bush, the driver expertly skirting the worst of the ruts and potholes that no one had seen fit to fix. As we began to climb, the track in the bottom of a deep and narrow gulley, I became aware of a thin white mist seeping from the sides. These wisps of smoke were the first signs we were on to something approaching activity. Eventually, the truck reached Yasur’s makeshift car park just short of the “Vanuatu Post” box (collection times dependent on activity levels, I expect).
The first explosion
Just a few hundred metres short of the summit, we continued on foot up some gravelly steps towards the top. As I turned my back on Yasur volcano for a souvenir photo, a terrifyingly loud bang lifted me off my feet – but in surprise, not by the force of the explosion. My guide teased as I recovered my composure and we set off again.
Eruptions almost guaranteed
At the Yasur volcano summit, there was action aplenty. For the next ninety minutes, as the sun set behind a double crater, we were treated to a regular succession of eruptions. I was told it was like this pretty much every night, though if the eruption of Yasur volcano was graded a three (out of four) people weren’t allowed to the crater rim. Tonight was a two. Clouds of charcoal grey ash rose high into the sky, their plumes scattering on the wind to grow the volcano a little more. The small group of tourists reacted in different ways; a couple of French guys had brought a guitar and played an impromptu concert, a middle-aged woman took fright at the first bang and retreated to the car park.
A fireworks display from Mother Nature
As dusk approached, the rocks within these explosions glowed, first orange and then a deep blood red, better than any fireworks display I’d ever seen. With every boom, my heart beat louder in my chest. Just one larger lava bomb ejected in just the wrong direction could kill me. I was rooted to the spot, not out of fear but out of awe. Night fell. My guide was insistent now that we should descend. I turned away from the crater and faced the blackness. Now I really was scared – I’d forgotten my torch.