Yasur and Marum volcanoes: Volcanic campsite … 5am at the volcano … At the crater’s edge … Dawn eruptions … The plume … Evening explosions … Lava trails … Tourists on the edge … Air Vanuatu … Approaching Efate … The jungles of Ambrym … Marum … Ulei airport … Volcanoes of Vanuatu video
Vanuatu had been high on my list of places to go for a really long time so I was incredibly excited to finally go there. What I wanted to see was volcanic activity, and so after an early flight from New Zealand to Port Vila, I flew on to Tanna, to go and see Yasur volcano.
The flight to Tanna was short, and it was a hot sunny day when I landed. I met Thomas, the owner of the place I'd booked to stay, which was on the other side of the island from the airport, and we set off on the drive there.
While we were on the way, the weather began to turn. It got cloudy and cold, and soon there were spots of rain. After an hour or so, a torrential downpour started. We made slow progress on the terrible road across the island, and eventually night fell. As the weather began to clear, we suddenly we turned off the road, and drove onto the ash plain which surrounds the volcano to take a short cut. In the dark I saw the looming cone of the volcano looking incredibly nearby, with a bright red glow coming from the top.
We arrived at Thomas's place in the night, and I set up my tent. We were about 45 minutes walk from the crater's edge of the volcano. The sky glowed red as the clouds reflected the light of the lava, and I could hear the roar of the explosions throughout the quiet night.
I'd started to feel a bit ill on the journey across the island, and whatever it was got suddenly really bad just after we arrived at the campsite. I was shaking and dizzy as I set up my tent, and I felt like death. Lucky my tent only takes 5 minutes to put up otherwise I might not have managed it. I crawled inside and slept. But I was here to see the volcano, and Thomas said he'd drive me up to the crater at 4am so that I could see it in the night time. So I got up at 3.45am, and fortunately the strange illness was passing. I was still not feeling good but was at least capable of standing.
So we drove up to the crater, and then Thomas led the way up the path to the crater's edge, and around the rim to a good viewpoint. Then he headed back down and left me alone with the volcano.
It was a mind-blowing place to be. The volcano was unbelievably loud, in the silence of the night, and roared constantly. Within a few minutes there was the first large explosion, and it was breathtaking. The earth shook, the crater roared and glowing boulders shot high into the air.
I spent three hours on the crater's edge and I had the place to myself. In the night, the volcano felt incredibly close and huge, as the lava lit up the steam rising from the crater floor. As day came, the glow faded into the light, and after the sun rose, the volcano seemed much tamer. I'd got used to the violence of the large explosions and stopped wondering if I should panic and run when they happened.
I wanted to stay all day and it was very hard to leave. By 7am it was already getting hot, and I was running low on water, but I kept on waiting for the next explosion. The strange illness had completely passed, and I could enjoy the activity without worrying about the possibility of falling unconscious into the crater.
After the heavy rain of the previous night, there was a lot of steam coming from the volcano. During the night it was lit up by the lava below, but after daybreak, the glow was too faint to see. Occasional changes of wind sent the plume towards me, engulfing me in sulphurous fumes.
I headed down from the crater at about 7.15am and I was back at the campsite by 8am. I slept for most of the day, finally shaking off the mystery illness, and in the afternoon I walked back up the path to spend some more time watching the very insides of the Earth spewing out. As night fell, the deep red glow of the lava came out again.
After an explosion which showered the area around the crater with lava bombs, the larger ones shattered into pieces when they landed and then rolled back down into the crater.
In the morning I'd had the volcano to myself. In the evening, all the tourists on Tanna converged on the crater's edge to enjoy the show. About 75 people were on the volcano this evening, and it made for a very different atmosphere. I was glad I'd had the place to myself in the morning. I was also glad that I'd got used to how the volcano is already. The first large explosion triggered brief panic among the tourists, but I was nonchalant. Quickly, everyone got used to it, and later explosions didn't have the same effect.
Late in the night it began to rain again. I left the roaring volcano behind, and headed back down to the campsite.
Early the next morning Thomas gave me a lift back across the island to the airport. I'd come here in quite a large plane but for the flight back to Vila, the plane was a tiny colourful Twin Otter with space for 10 people including two pilots.
It was a nice flight back. The rain had stopped and the skies were clear, and as we approached Efate Island and Port Vila, the sea was stunningly blue. Small reefs off the shore looked inviting, but I was not here for a beach holiday. I had another volcano to go to.
I got a flight to Ambrym, a much less visited island than Tanna. I could see even from the plane as we descended into Ulei that Ambrym was way more remote, with impenetrable jungle covering the whole of the island as far as I could see. Ulei airport was just a clearing in the jungle, and I got a truck from there to the village of Endu, about an hour away, where I could get a guide to show me the way up to Ambrym's volcano.
The hike up to the top of Marum volcano was a whole different experience to the short walk to Yasur. It involved 1000m of climbing through thick forest, and it took us about three hours to get to the edge of the ash plains. My guide, Solomon, told me about the fastest people he'd ever gone up with, and told me that a German woman was the record holder. He wouldn't tell me exactly how fast she'd gone, so I guess I didn't match her time, but three hours was pretty good going anyway. Another hour or so took us to the East Camp, and it was another 45 minutes to the crater's edge.
It was cold and forbidding up there, and the summit was in thick cloud when we got there. Visibility was just a few metres. Somewhere unseen far below was a lava lake but it was looking like I might not see it. Solomon was pessimistic. In the murk I could see a large collection of tents close to the crater's edge. They turned out to be a New Zealand documentary crew who had camped there for a couple of weeks to be sure of seeing the lava lake.
We waited in the cold and the rain, and we got lucky. The clouds began to thin out, and I caught a glimpse of deep red down in the crater. Then suddenly, just for a few minutes, the weather cleared completely and I got to see one of the most extraordinary things I've ever seen. To see molten rock frothing and boiling like tomato soup was something unbelievable.
The clouds came back in, and although we waited an hour longer to see if they would clear again, they didn't, so we headed back to the camp. I got up early the next morning to see if it was worth going again, but it wasn't, so we headed back down to the village of Endu.
In the morning I got a truck to Ulei. Normally there are two trucks, but one of them had gone off the road the previous day and was out of action. It happened that there was a large group of tourists needing to get back to the airport, so some 20 people crowded into and onto the truck. Luckily it went slowly on the rough jungle tracks, and for me clinging onto the outside, the risk of actually falling off was low.
At the airport, a BBC documentary crew was arriving on the island, so I guess Marum volcano will be appearing on British television before too long. It was strange to see a TV presenter with a very familiar face here in this wild place on the other side of the planet.