Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Under the Volcano

We had vacillated between sailing to Vanuatu or just continuing straight to New Caledonia, but the night before our departure Meryl read a stirring blog description of s/v Georgia's visit to Tanna and the hook was set. As you read in the previous blog, our passage between Fiji and Vanuatu was not without drama, but we were happy as the mountains of Tanna Island peaked out from the clouds early in the morning and we made our way into the safety of Port Resolution Bay.

Earlier visitors to Vanuatu also had their doubts, and the reason the islands weren't easily converted to Christianity is because the Vanuatuan's had a habit of eating the missionaries. We heard the last known act of cannibalism in Vanuatu was in the early 1960s, not that long ago. We had no plans of proselytizing so we felt we'd be relatively safe.

Port Resolution was first visited by Captain James Cook and named after his ship.
The entrance into Port Resolution has not changed much since Captain James Cook arrived in 1774. We rounded the corner of the bay and found about 10 sailboats bobbing at anchor, the result of a light swell that rounded the corner of the otherwise well-protected bay. Only a few grass-roofed structures could be spotted in the entire bay.

Cruisers go to Tanna Island for two reasons: to climb an active 1,184 ft. volcano named Mt. Yasur, and to learn more about the infamous John Frum Cargo Cults.

The eclectic Port Resolution Yacht Club main dining room.
Since Port Vila on Efate is the only official port of entry, we had to make prior arrangements with Vanuatu Customs/Immigration to meet us at Port Resolution (named after Captain Cook's vessel) to clear in. Another cruiser offered us a ride into the Port Resolution Yacht Club (don't get too excited, it's just a rudimentary thatched-roofed hut) to meet the Customs officials. Two other boats were also there and we split the cost four ways to cover the costs for the Customs officials to drive two hours from their offices in Lenakel on the other side of the island.

We met Stanley, who runs the "Yacht Club," and his cousin Wherry (the local Chief's son) who are the "go-to" guys that arrange things on Tanna. You have to remember there is just the Yacht Club, some backpacker cottages, and a small village. No stores, no infrastructure, no nothing at Port Resolution. If you don't have Vatu money you have to endure the four-hour, bone-jarring ride into and back from Lenakel.
Merriam, the local teacher, gives us a tour of Ireupuow village.

This little girl was determined to beat her brother to the top of the tree.
We made arrangements with Stanley to go up the volcano in two days and then wandered down the road to the local village, Ireupuow, where we met Merriam, the village's school teacher. She was nice enough to give us a tour of the village, including the school, two rudimentary churches, and a beautiful white sand beach. She showed us a house being constructed by a group of Australian students and mentioned someone wanted to build some sort of resort on the island. We promised Merriam a bundle of school supplies for the kids, a bag of reading glasses, and some very high tech line to build the younger kids a swing.

Back at the Yacht Club we met three French girls from New Caledonia and asked them if they wanted to join us and visit a John Frum village the following day, Friday. If you have read James Mitchner's Tales of the South Pacific you know about John Frum and cargo cults. Tanna Island is the homebase for Cargo Cults in Vanuatu. The short version of the story is US Marines/Army landed in Vanuatu during World War II, bringing with them huge amounts of vehicles, supplies, food, and constructing towns almost overnight. The Yanks were very friendly and open to the locals, something they had not experienced from the Europeans. The Vanuatuans were also impressed by how blacks and whites worked side by side in the Marines, and the fairness with which the multi-racial American troops treated each other.

After the war, cargo cults developed worshiping a fictionalized American called "John Frum" (which people think is an aberration of "Hi, I'm John from America"). They believed if they honored the Americans they would return with their mountains of cargo. Sulphur Bay, where we attended the John Frum dancing, is the epicenter for the Cargo Cults in Vanuatu. Many villagers believe John Frum and his followers live in the nearby volcano. As part of the Cargo Cult culture, men wear Army jackets with American flags on the shoulder, Red Crosses can be seen on the buildings, men sometimes march with wooden rifles, and somewhere the John Frum followers even built an airfield with wooden airplanes to entice the Americans to return.

The booms from the nearby volcano serve to magnify the surreal vibe of the John Frum village.
Our visit, after a bumpy ride halfway up the volcano and down the other side to Sulphur Bay, was somewhat anticlimactic. On each Friday the various cargo cult villagers assemble in Sulphur Bay village for singing and dancing. The problem was each village group gathered under a thatched roof hut in a tight circle with their guitars and sang what sounded to us like a very repetitive series of songs, the lyrics of which I assumed was to entice the Americans to return.

As each subsequent group sat down to sing, the songs all had them same tenor and rhythm.


Well, we were Americans and we had returned, but no one paid us any attention. What was interesting is the village is situated right next to the volcano and sudden booms resonating from the crater scared the pants off of us numerous times. You could see the red glow of the volcano pulsating right behind the village. It was a very surreal experience for us.

The next day at 3:00 pm we met Assam, our 4x4 truck driver, for the 45-minute ride to the base of the volcano. As mentioned, we have only experienced roads this bad during our safari in East Africa. The truck litteraly crept along as its suspenion performed feats of magic climbing over washed out sections of the road and tipping to precarious degrees of balance.

Meryl receives the traditional flower greeting from one of the Vanuatuan hostesses.
We arrived at the Volcano Welcome Center around 4:00 pm, paid our US$97.00 entrance fee and gathered in an open area organised by country flags (so they could handle the various languages). There were intrepid tourists from Australia, France, China, and other countries waiting to ascend one of the few accessible active volcanos in the world. Following a local dance asking the God's for a safe visit, and a short briefing, we climbed into 4x4 trucks for the 20-minute ride up to the volcano. Emerging from the tropical jungle we drove across a barren ash plain to the assembly area high on the shoulder of the volcano. Here we were assigned our guides or "safety officers" and given instructions on how to evacuate in case the volcano erupted, including the famous "don't run, just look up and watch where the molten blobs of lava are going to land and don't stand at that spot when they do." Despite that sage advice a tourist was once killed by flying debris many years ago.
It was only a short hike up a white bordered stairway to the first viewing level.
The guides got our full attention when explaining what to do if a large molten piece of lava is headed your way.


 We began a 10-minute hike along a white stairway up to the first level (with the guide frequently asking Meryl and I if we were OK. We were probably the oldest people there). From the first level you could just make out the orange glow from the crater, but it was not as dramatic since it was still daylight out. We then turned to the left and began a 20-minute hike along the ridge where we got enticing glimpses of molten red lava flying into the sky.

As you can see, there's not much between you and the precipitous drop into the volcano.
The wind and the noxious smell from the sulphur dioxide fumes made for an uncomfortable environment.


As we climbed the narrow ridge line the view got better and better. Finally on the southern edge of the volcano we had the right angle to look down, almost to the bottom where the pool of molten lava was, but not quite that far. There were occasional booms (which got your immediate attention) with subsequent fireworks of molten lava. You could smell a strong sulphur dioxide smell in the air and taste the volcanic grit on your teeth.

The French girl's father had hired a private volcanologist so they were allowed to hike along the more dangerous north rim.
It was only after about 5:30 pm that it got dark enough that the eruptions got really spectacular. We meet a young French girl who had been up on the volcano the day before and she said today was quite active. There are five levels of activity and we were lucky today it was at a Level 1, which meant normal activity and access to the crater was allowed.

Taking photographs was difficult since by the time you got camera focused the eruption was usually over.
There were actually four vents in the two distinct craters. It was hard to tell since you couldn't see the actual bottom of the craters.
It was quite windy up on the ridge and the amazing thing is there are absolutely no safety measures in place. You are standing with your little tippy toes hanging over the edge of a 500-foot sheer drop into the crater that was littered with chunks of solidified lava that had spewed out at various times. The French girl told us one landed fairly close to where we were standing the day before. It would be quite easy to lose your balance or have a gust of wind catch you off balance, so trying to focus the camera on an upcoming eruption in virtual darkness was quite the trick.


I had just switched my camera to video mode and pushed start when the largest eruption of the night occurred, filling the frame with a wall of red molten lava. This video certainly tells the story:


A little after 6:00 pm the guides hailed us to begin the long trek back to the trucks and I have to say most of us delayed and shuffled our feet as much as possible. As you might imagine, hiking down in the dark was a challenge, but most of us had flashlights or headlights. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and well worth the effort.

We took one last look in the crater for John Frum and his followers but didn't see them.

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