the Old Man: The Vanuatu Volcano
by Joseph Gelfer
When Paul Theroux, in his
The Happy Isles of Oceania, travelled through the
Southern Vanuatu island of Tanna it was to escape
the capital's tameness and seemingly the locals' unexpected
habit of being 'pleasant and not at all rapacious'.
Unperturbed by acts of random goodwill most visitors
visit Tanna for another reason - the volcano.
Tanna's volcano, Mount Yasur, is touted as being one
of the world's most accessible active volcanoes, enabling
the tourist to drive within a five or ten minute walk
of its brim. Such a chance is irresistible to extreme
armchair travellers such as myself, so I too followed
in the steps of the master and hopped on a Vanair
Dash 8, landing less than half an hour later at Tanna's
delightfully tiny 'international' airport.
I was armed with some inside knowledge. The night
before I was due to leave for Tanna I met a pleasant
local lawyer called Tom at a kava bar where we discussed
my plans. He said to me, 'If there is a big spurt
of lava do not be tempted to run away. Instead…,'
he looks to the sky and identifies an imaginary lump
of molten lava, follows its projection through the
air towards his person and does what can only be described
as a Michael Jackson moonwalk to the left to indicate
the calm avoidance of catastrophe, '…if you run, you
will not see it coming.' It was with this strategy
in mind that I climbed into the back of a 4WD headed
for Mount Yasur. Already in the vehicle were Bob and
Claire - an Australian couple who proceeded to look
at each other with increasingly nervous smiles for
the duration of the drive, somewhat undermining my
Despite being only 361 meters high, Yasur makes its
presence felt over a surprisingly wide area of Tanna's
dense interior. It's not that you see the mount itself,
but the fallout of black, powdery, ash that builds
up along the sides of the dusty roads like snowdrifts
in negative, numerous miles before you reach the base.
The ash seems to penetrate, settling on every flat
surface and between every bush and tree until finally
all life succumbs to the inevitable suffocation in
the form of the ash plain.
The ash plain sits like a vast grey mote around the
base of Yasur. The 4WD is suddenly spat out on to
it and follows threadlike tyre tracks across its lunarscape,
charred tree stumps poking out of the grey from time
to time, rocks thrown unusually far on one of Yasur's
particularly active days. We park next to the remnants
of what was once a fruit stall. It is collapsed, blackened,
a vast pile of barbecued coconut husks; this is the
part of the movie where the psychic member of the
expedition team turns to their colleagues and says
with notable gravity, 'something destructive has happened
And indeed there does seem something quite ominous
about our short ascent to the brim. Our barefoot guide
walks slowly in front with his hands behind his back
as if leading a funeral procession, the ash is littered
everywhere with countless black volcanic rocks of
all sizes from pebbles to boulders. A path of precise
proportions has been cleared through this fallen debris
and the cleared rocks have been constructed into a
small tidy wall, sometimes a foot high, lining the
path, directing us towards the smoking brim. The absence
of colour and the increasing wind give the whole place
a lonely dreamlike character, a dream one would probably
rather wake from than dwell in.
I pound up the slope behind our guide, Bob and Claire
behind me. Having reached the top of the slope and
moved along the edge of the brim I look back and see
Bob trying to coax Claire on. She has reached the
point where she can see over into the mouth of the
volcano and has stopped, petrified, in her tracks.
She encourages Bob to continue who trudges up and
stands beside me. We attempt to look casual, staring
at the rupture in the earth's surface, nodding contentedly
to each other as if on the top of a gentle hill in
the Sussex Downs, admiring the view.
'Yeah,' says Bob, 'there's some pretty serious wind
'Yeah,' I say, 'it's a bit fresh.' The truth is it's
howling, the guide has his head tucked in his shirt
and we're all planting our feet firmly into the ash
in the hope that it'll stop us being blown over the
edge. Lower down Claire seems to be attempting to
streamline herself against the wind whilst looking
as if she's undertaking some calming mantra.
'It is most unfortunate,' says our guide, 'that the
volcano is quite quiet today.' All three of us look
at each other and laugh.
The guide informs us that in the local tongue 'Yasur'
means 'old man' and that naming is quite apt. The
volcano breathes and wheezes slowly like some septuagenarian
who smokes forty a-day. Slow, deep, breaths resonate
around the bowl of the crater, spitting lava instead
of phlegm. Every now and again an almighty chest-clearing
cough sees vast clouds of smoke belched out of the
firey centre, rumbling beneath our feet.
Later that night at another kava bar, so dark I can't
see the faces of the people I'm talking to, I'm asked
about my day's activities.
'Oh, I went up Yasur today.'
'Really? How was it?'
'Good, a bit quiet…'
We all nod silently, expertly, tired of watching volcanoes
that spit only small jets of lava into the air.
All contents copyright ©2005 Pology
Magazine. Unauthorized use of any content is strictly