Standing on the Rim!
We’d heard all the hype from other cruisers. We’d seen the overwhelming 5-star ratings on Trip Advisor. We’d read about this tour in guidebooks and novels. Now it was our turn. Us versus the volcano. This tour has been on our bucket list since we first learned of it’s existence.
We anchored in Port Resolution, with the red glow of the volcano visible in the night sky just over the mountains surrounding the bay. Steam vents billowed along the rocky walls lining the shore. All of these signs were small preludes to a sight I will never forget.
Arrangements were made in typical island telegraph fashion - Stanley sent a messenger out in a dugout outrigger canoe to confirm our plans, then sister of so-and-so told brother of Stanley that two more folks would be joining us. Go here, pay there, cash only, meet up here. Back and forth went the relayed messages and instructions until finally, an hour after our planned departure, we piled into a pick up truck and were off.
Darren, our driver, was careful and slow over the huge boulders that jutted out of the dirt road. And I shuttered, imagining how the stones had landed here in the first place. The ride was short, though, only about 20 minutes. We reached the volcano park entrance where a thatched roofed ticket booth stood, reminiscent of the booths marking the entrance to the US National Parks. We paid our small fortune - $75000 Vatu pp (approx $75 US) and were led to an outdoor seating area where probably 60-70 tourists from all over the world were waiting. The crowd was a huge surprise for all of us, as we were expecting a more personal tour in such a remote spot. I guess the chiefs have realized the economic opportunities that Mt. Yasur offers! Men, women, and children in custom attire stomped and chanted in the way of the Ni-Vanuatu ‘kastom’. A chief was presented with a gift of kava on behalf of the group, and in turn he gave us his blessing to ascend the mountain.
Before setting off, the guides strongly emphasized two points. First, that our safety was their **top priority**. And second, if you see magma come over the rim, don’t run. Keep your eyes on it, so you can watch where it falls. No helmets or fireproof umbrellas were handed out. No waivers were signed. Just that little tidbit of life-saving advice. Watch the magma. Ah, feeling safer already. C’mon kids, let’s go stand on the rim of an active volcano!!
Darren skidded up the ash plain that lay at the base of the walkway and we piled out. Single file, we walked up a steep concrete path all the way to the rim. I pointed out the volcanic ring plain of tephra (solid material of all sizes ejected explosively from a volcano) reminding the kids of what we’d studied earlier that week.
As we got to the top, I was amazed at the size of the crater - nearly a thousand feet across. And 300 feet below us a cauldron of fiery steam and smoke swirled and spat, the lively red glow a stark contrast to the dark, desolate walls rising around it.
My mind couldn’t take it all in. The wind whistled across the barren, black terrain, competing with the hot, heaving breaths of the brewing volcano beneath us. The sun was still setting over the opposite rim, offering light enough to see the layered, rugged geology along the crater walls and the fumaroles (plumes of steam escaping from vents along the sides). We’d learned about Stratovolcanoes in our homeschooling, and this up close and personal view allowed our learning to come to life in a crazy -’am I really here doing this?’- sort of way.
When researching Vanuatu, I’d read an account of this exact experience in J. Marteen Troost’s book Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu. In the book he compares the sounds of the volcano to a “sloshing ocean encased within a chamber of stone” - a perfect analogy. Even Mark’s mom said it sounded like waves crashing on shore.
The volcano sighed and sputtered, releasing even more steam. Like teetering on the edge of the magma-filled pressure cooker. Just as Michael was explaining to me how the center glow intensified when it was getting ready to erupt, a rumbling blast shot from the depths that shook my body from the inside out. I seriously think my heart skipped a few beats. It was like being blasted by a hundred bass speakers turned up to full volume. I’m sure our hair was blown back with the force, and a few eyelashes singed.
After that, Elizabeth was D-O-N-E done. She pulled her bandana up over her nose and mouth, put on her sunglasses and hood, and insisted that she was going back to the truck. I couldn’t blame her for being freaked out, this was as terrifying as it was awesome. But I didn’t want her to miss out on this either. I wrestled a water bottle and snack from our backpack and somehow convinced her to stay. (This is not a conversation I ever imagined I’d have with my 10-year old, mind you. “Please, overcome your fears of glowing magma landing on your head so that we can experience this together as a family! I don’t want to do this without you! Goonies never say ‘die’!) Yeah, shining parenting moment, for sure. And just to be totally clear, the balls of fiery magma were falling a good ways away from us, not getting near the rim at all. I know, volcanoes are unpredictable canons of fury, but let’s just not think about that right now, okay? This was once in a lifetime!
I couldn’t get enough of it. To feel firsthand the raw power of the earth’s core and wonder at how these volcanoes have literally spewed out islands of the Pacific on which we’ve tread. I envisioned tribes of grass-skirted, body-painted natives stomping and chanting to their gods of local legend. Stories came to mind of Captain Cook being beckoned by the red glow of Mt. Yasur years ago and anchoring his boat in the very bay where our boat now sat, naming it Port Resolution, after his own ship. While here, he wrote, “The volcano threw up vast quantities of fire and Smoak, the flames were seen to ascend above the hill between us and it, the night before it did the same and made a noise like thunder or the blowing up of mines at every eruption which happened every four or five minutes.”
We were allowed an hour or two to take it all in before I heard the whir of the tour guides’ wind-up flashlights and the call of their five-minute warnings. The scene was so unbelievable, that I hadn’t stopped snapping photos the entire time. Finally, though, I put down my camera in order to relish the last few moments in this magical place. I reached for Mark’s hand, and we stood there gazing into the fiery depths, both of us transfixed. It was amazing to be here, on the rim of an erupting volcano, together. Once in a lifetime.