Today is Sunday August 22 (Vanuatu time) and we are gently cruising back to Port Vila, our latest adventure coming to a close. We have visited every island in southern Vanuatu except Futuna which has no suitable anchorage – Efate, Erromango, Aniwa, Tanna, and Aneityum. Our next trip in October/November will focus on the northern part of the chain.
It is a beautiful balmy day with blue skies, puffy white clouds, gentle swells and we are bobbing along downwind at 9-10 knots – occasionally surfing down the waves up to 11’s or more. In rougher weather a few weeks past AVATAR approached 15 knots in downwind surfing conditions. Today we are trying hard not to fall asleep on our respective watches. Tomorrow we’ll rent a car in Port Vila and take an island tour of Efate; next day will be devoted to laundry, housekeeping and packing; the following day our flight out of Vanuatu departs at 7 a.m. so we’ll be waking up early! Home in Tucson the night of August 25 (Arizona time).
Back to the past – August 10
Finally volcano expedition day! Our same driver Darwa and the same battered red truck are to be our transportation to Mt. Yasur. In general Darwa prefers to leave at 4:30 pm from Port Resolution’s village, returning about 8:30 pm which allows for a great night show. We asked for an earlier departure time to give us time to evaluate the lay of the land before dark, make some decisions about where to set up the camera (on a tripod) etc. but we were warned by the other yachties that no matter how agreeable a driver might seem about adjusting the departure time, somehow it does’t actually happen.
We spent the morning leisurely exploring Irukow Village – a traditional village but with some extra amenities to accommodate visiting boaters – a yacht club with bungalows for overnight stays, an elementary school with some 150 students, at least one church but probably more, a “coffee shop” (this would be a thatched hut with dirt floor, interior walls draped with swaths of colorful tropical fabric, and a picnic table down the center – coffee was served with 2 store bought cookies and a banana), a “restaurant” (a larger thatched hut, similar description), a store with sea shells and handwoven baskets, garden produce and one overpriced dinghy anchor.
We ate lunch in the restaurant and made plans to return for dinner post-volcano. Our triangular eco-friendly disposable plates were woven from pandanus leaves and slung with a hammock of banana leaf to support the food with bougainvillea blossoms tucked into the corners. The menu was a smorgasbord of island recipes featuring omelets but we pre-ordered chicken curry for dinner and learned later from the villagers that our hostess Leah spent the afternoon scrambling to come up with a rooster suitable for the pot!
The village circles an open grassy knoll overlooking both the sea the the harbor. The houses are mostly thatched huts, well kept and landscaped, edged with tropical plants including poinsettias higher than our heads, seashells and the occasional figurine carved from tree fern trunks. Dirt pathways are raked to spotlessness. Ladies in flowered Mother Hubbard dresses lounge under the shade trees weaving more homemade baskets; children and skittish island dogs are in abundance as are chickens and chicks, pigs and piglets. Driving down the main road to Lenakel we passed village after village of similar description, all inviting and attractive, nestled in the rain forest. Locals walk along the road with loads slung over the shoulders, going to or coming from their garden plots, harvesting food for their meals.
The Vanuatu people (correct term: Ni Vanuatu) are courteous and polite. Even in the market there is no sales pitch, just a pleasant ‘hello’. Merchandise is available for sale, take it or leave it, no bargaining. Everyone introduces themselves with a handshake – ‘hello, my name is David (or Peter, Joseph, Ben, Donald, Sarah, Leah, Priscilla)” – the missionaries have left their mark. Sometimes a modest request – could we charge a cellphone (lots of cellphones in these otherwise somewhat primitive environments), do we have a bit of rope to repair an outboard motor’s starter cord, could we spare some diesel for the community truck, could Rod maybe repair the misbehaving community generator (diagnosis: fuel filter had never been changed in all the years they owned it)??? And in trade, would we like something from their gardens – papayas, bananas, coconuts, oranges, kumara, tomatoes?
We field a barrage of miscellaneous and sometimes misinformed questions: was Elvis Presley’s body ever found, who shot Michael Jackson, what do we think of President Obama, are we millionaires (this last prompted by the misconception that sailboats are powered by wind for free but power boats need lots of expensive diesel fuel, also the conviction that everyone in the USA is a millionaire)????
Finally the day passed and it was time to go – we did manage to leave at 4 pm, a triumph although we had requested 2:30! This time the passenger load was light – just our crew of 3 plus a village teenager excited to visit the volcano for only the 2nd time in his life. As a result Darwa was able to offer a lift to some of the passers-by including a portly, barefoot, beamingly toothless old woman who must have been hauling at least 70 pounds of something in a bulging bulbous bag slung over her shoulder.
There was an entrance fee to the volcano and a line of four or five other vehicles bearing tourists from Lenakel. Single file we all drove up a steep winding roadway edged by steam vents, then the road disappeared and we emerged onto a moonscape of sloping fields of ash, the bleak barren shoulder of the volcano itself. Mt. Yasur is less than 400 meters high and cars can drive to within 150 meters of the rim – it’s an easy climb to the top, the most accessible live volcano in the world. The crater is some 300 meters across and 100 meters deep, with three interior vents at the bottom taking turns spitting up showers of molten rocks and smoke and occasional boulders the size of small trucks. There are gradations of volcanic activity, with a 3 or a 4 being more severe and worthy of caution – but nowhere did we see an indication of the current level. However we did hear via the yachting grapevine that Yasur was relatively quiet at the moment.
By daylight the volcano was sufficiently impressive, coughing up thick writhing clouds of sulphurous smoke and ash, molten lava bombs and the occasional gigantic boulder from out of its depths and up over our heads. Direct contact with a lava bomb would disintegrate you. A molten pebble would melt a hole through your flesh. One tourist has been killed, others severely singed. Dull red sparks were visible in the depths if you looked hard enough. Sulphurous fumes made our eyes sting and throat burn. And from deep within emanated a continuous threatening cacophony of furious grumbling and growling, roaring and clanking, enough to elicit visions of a dragon complaining deep in its lair. The southern Tannese once believed that all the universe originated from Mt. Yasur’s gaping, complaining, belching, fiery mouth.
The wind was blowing a good 30 or more knots in disconcerting gusts that made me stagger – not a good feeling as one peers over the edge into an inferno. Fortunately our extra half hour gave us time to check out all viewpoints – right, center and left – and Rod directed us towards the highest ridge to the left, upwind of the smoky fumes and with a spectacular view down Yasur’s throat. I experimented with a few lenses, then mounted one camera on a tripod and hand held a second. With the gusting winds we never dared take a hand off tripod and camera for a moment. I had studied up on techniques for shooting 4th of July fireworks and applied them to my settings – manual mode, f/11, exposure 2-4 seconds. A little tweaking and it seemed to work.
As the sun went down, the fiery heart of the constantly erupting volcano materialized out of the smoke and ash. Rod and I were pretty stoked but Mike opted to retreat to a safer distance and abandoned the two of us to our quest for a cool photo or two. Finally Rod and I called it quits and headed back down the cone in the pitch dark, the last tourists off the crater – picking our way down in the dark with black night sky above, sloping black sand footing below. Fortunately we had LED flashlights to help guide our footsteps down the treacherous barren shoulder back to the safety of the fenced walkway, parking lot, and our battered mini pickup.
I skipped riding in the truck bed on the ride home and opted to ride in the cab, worn out by the adrenalin of the night. Darwa dropped us off at the Leah’s restaurant where she was waiting (napping in the kitchen) with our chicken curry and we had a festive dinner (BYOB – several!) on lopsided picnic tables, illuminated by flashlights, as we celebrated our adventure and survival thereof!