“Have you seen the volcano?” the old man had us cornered on the street, a big smile composed of a symphony of chaotic grey teeth. His yellowing eyes still shining wide with honest interest. Too hot to care for his impending sales pitch, I was selfish in my quest to find shade. It was noon in Vanuatu, pasty white skin and a frail disposition to heat, I am not built for noon in the tropics. Alas, there was no sales pitch, just a sincere conversation from an elderly man proud of his islands reputation. A reputation for a giant volcano that never stops erupting. Traveling lessons #64,32,4 & 102- I am a dick.
Two days later and I find myself sliding around in the flatbed of a pick up truck, sandwiched between Linz and a big Welsh guy name Hywel driving straight to a big black cloud streaming from the horizon. Bouncing through the jungle on black sand roads, Ive got rapper Kendrick Lamar stuck in my head, which is stupid, the only conclusion being that Volcanos are some real gangster stuff. As we draw closer, volcanic silica and ash starts to fall. At first so light you wonder if you’re imagining things, or having a hypochondriac’s “tingle” from a stroke in your face. Soon, there was to be no doubt, the grit has worked its way into every part of my ears, eyes and nose. Hywel is protected by his substantial beard.
Its hard to imagine, but entire villages live under this cloud of ash. A cloud that has exhausted on this island since even before Captain Cook took note of it on his journeys. Small children wave and chase us as we pass through the minute villages nestled in lush green forests, their mothers overlook from the shade of monolithic jungle trees.
We could hear the booms from the moonscape parking lot. Steam rising from nearby vents. Our guide is barefoot, wearing a hole speckled t-shirt that says I survived the Tanna Volcano. I get the feeling that shirt is more true for him than anyone. He gave a hurried safety brief, of which I didn’t catch much of what he said, probably having something to do with the rumbling distraction behind him. “….3 people die the year before that…..” My attention jumped back to him. Wait, people die doing this?
I grew up in S.E. Portland, 5 blocks from a volcano called Mt.Tabor. The last time it erupted was some 500 years ago, but as kids we would walk up on lazy Sunday evening to “look at the crater,” guys playing basketball and families picnicking 50 meters away. Usually we’d try to steal a little volcanic rock or throw stuff over the edge. Lesson #55- I dont really know jack about volcanos.
Safety first reads the sign, at the trailhead.
Young and old, our small little band of travelers pretty much sprinted up the short vertical hike to access the crater. At the top, the smoke was mesmerizing, as Tanna lulled us all into complacency. Boom. The rocks, still smoking hot, glowing in the daylight, would eject from the thick smog with a fury. The larger pieces bend and smoke in their journey back to the ground. It was a giant Jack-in-the-Box of awesome. “If a piece is coming to you, do not run. Stand and watch it, until the last second, then step aside.” Somehow the guides advice didnt easy tension.
Its strange, how every instinct in my body recognizes that I do not belong here, on the edge of a volcano, in this place of destructive desolation, and yet I dont want to leave, starring expectantly for the next big explosion. It was another of those times I felt like my inalienable right as a human to be the top of the food chain, to conquer earth, to go where I please, was challenged by a raw sense of nature. This was nature uncut, both terrifying and exhilarating.
Picture gallery coming soon but until then-