Posted by: Tommy | September 23, 2011

Mt. Yasur – Mountain of Fire

Mt. Yasur, located on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, is the world’s most accessible active volcano.  Every night, Yasur thunders sulfurous gas and shoots chunks of molten rock into the air.  We hadn’t initially planned on visiting Tanna during our brief time in Vanuatu, but how can you pass up the chance to witness a volcano eruption?

Another influence that convinced us to make the trip to Tanna in lieu of time in Vila (capital of Vanuatu) – the fact that a reward trip took place on Mt. Yasur during Survivor: Vanuatu.  Anna and I enjoy watching Survivor, as much for the scenic destinations as the strategic happenings.  We both remembered the scenes from the volcano reward being amazing.

So, with only a brief window of time in Vanuatu, we ended up buying a flight with less than 24 hours notice that would give us just over 48 hours in Tanna.  We emailed a few places to stay (never heard back) and read the Tanna chapter in Lonely Planet, but were otherwise completely unprepared.  We learned, from Lonely Planet, that Tanna has no electricity, no banks or ATMs and no sealed roads.  So, with no plan and not enough money, we arrived at the Tanna airport.

We looked for the truck of the place we’d emailed previously, but there was none to be found.  We talked to several cab drivers, trying to get someone to let us call the place and see if they had room.  The English in Tanna wasn’t great and the people weren’t very cooperative (not unusual for taxi drivers at an airport).  Eventually, we gave up and decided to take a room with the Jungle Oasis – the owner was there picking up guests and had a room available.  We hopped in his truck – for the standardized price of $20/person.

I thought that was fairly steep to go 30 miles in a developing country – until we did it.  The road is not just unsealed – it’s hilly, pitted, potholed gravel for 30 miles.  We never got up to 20 mph.  We rarely hit 10 – we were mostly crawling through potholes and dodging giant road craters.  Even the roads in Africa weren’t as bad as this one. We’d gone about 1/3 of the way when the owner got a call – we’d left a guest at the airport and would have to go back.  3 hours later, we arrived at the Jungle Oasis, tired but excited to see Tanna.

From everything we’d read, we knew we wanted to see the volcano at night – that’s the whole reason we stayed in Tanna rather than taking the daytrip that is offered.  During the day, the smoke and flying chunks of rock are impressive.  During the night, the flaming reds and oranges shooting from the ground are mesmerizing.  After talking to the owner, we decided to leave at 4, walking 45 minutes up the mountain to arrive just before sunset.  The older Dutch couple who’d ridden with us from the airport would be joining us and we’d be taking a guide along to show us the way.

It was a tough 45 minutes – the Dutch couple spent the entire time complaining about the entrance fee to the volcano – $35 each, which is a lot, but no more than is charged at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.  The guide walked 50 yards ahead of us – which made him completely unnecessary, as there is a well-marked road heading straight up the mountain that we followed with no forks and no turns.  We had a ton of questions about life in Tanna and living near the volcano, but we couldn’t catch up to him to ask.  The walk was arduous, so by the time we reached the summit we were too sweaty and breathless to ask him anything.

Mt. Yasur at sunset

Once the fireworks show started, we forgot those questions anyway.  We reached the top just as the sun was going down – we saw the volcano in daylight for a few minutes, just long enough to realize how much more impressive it was in the dark.  I can physically describe the next 2 hours in about two sentences.  But there’s no way to give you the feeling of awe that Anna and I both felt dangling our feet over the edge of an active volcano.

The mouth of the volcano is a small area, at least compared to the crater.  From the mouth, a small amount of lava is constantly bubbling, popping and frothing.  In the dark, this varies in color from a deep blood red to a bright yellow-orange.  There isn’t as much smoke as I was expecting.  But every few minutes, a gas vent near the mouth pushes a huge cloud of smoky gas in to the air with a loud boom, and then the real show begins.  Fire gushes from the mouth, flying upwards to reach our eye level, at least 50 yards above.  From there, it dissipates, scattering in a uniform circle around the mouth.  Ropes of lava cling together, smaller droplets land further out and it all slides back down the inner slopes of the crater, cooling rapidly in the chilly night air and turning to ash.

Ropes of lava, flying out of the volcano

We watched this drama play out, once every 5 minutes or so, for about 2 hours.  Over that time, nothing really changed.  It was hypnotic to stare in to the flames, like staring into a fire and a boiling pot of water at the same time.  It got cold out – Anna took my shirt.  I would shoot some pictures, then decide we had enough and put the camera away.  Then it would erupt again and I’d announce that I needed to take a few more pictures.  That went on about a dozen times – and we ended up with more than 200 pictures.  In the end, many of the photos looked the same.  We kept our favorite 20 or so and put them on Flickr, here.  Also on Flickr is a video or a large eruption – a camera can’t capture the combination of the sulfurous smells, the terrible roar of the gas or the sheer size of the eruption – but it can show you all the pretty colors.  Enjoy.



  1. Looks like an awesome sight!

  2. That I would LOVE to see!!

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