Tanna Island, Vanuatu

Welcome to Tanna

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016


“Welcome to Tanna!” a local Ni-Vanuatu exclaimed with wild laughter, words in competition with the booming, boisterous volcano. We passed briefly, shoulders nearly touching, as I approached the final lookout on the rim. His voice rang with reverence, pride and perhaps a bit of incredulity at the rumbling behemoth in his backyard. Indeed, Mt. Yasur provides no better welcome to Tanna. Yasur is the literal beating heart of the island, so alive a non-human, elemental thing that it is downright scary. So alive that you cannot help but also feel insanely alive, totally mortal and inconsequentially small. Not to mention more vulnerable than ever before. Magma swirls and spews and Yasur stirs emotions deep within. She steals away your breath until you must remind yourself to breathe deeply again. Fluctuations in pressure, temperature and wind are profoundly felt as the volcano inhales and exhales. Her breath is hot and it feels as though her fiery tongue is licking at your toes.

Acting on instinct, knees knowingly bend and feet plant themselves firmly and deliberately into the upper reaches of the bone hard, gritty volcanic turf as the wind whips and ash clouds predictably barrel toward you. Your only hope for “shelter” is to turn your back and cover your orifices until the ashen dust settles. Despite best efforts to protect oneself, volcanic grit finds it way into any exposed surface. There is no refuge on the rim.

Tanna is made up of its people whose history and worldview are inextricably linked to Yasur. The local Ni-vauatu have an intimate relationship with the sacred volcano; she is part of them. I approached the unfamiliar volcano with the utmost of caution, knowing nothing of her moods. Peering into the lively magma chamber, I instantly felt gripped with halting, choking fear. In the face of magma chunks spewing upwards, then dispersing in my direction, my reaction was an expletive laden one. I am here and my baby is sleeping peacefully (hopefully) on the boat? Am I a completely irresponsible parent? Teetering on the edge of a volcano that threatened to turn me to cinder with one erratic and far-flying bit, I wondered if I should call it quits and turn around. My stomach twisted itself into a tight little knot and my mouth filled with a foul sulfurous gas. In our ignorant imaginings, Pete and I were planning to stand on the edge of the crater with Taz, babe in the backpack! This hostile environment was certainly no place for a baby and perhaps not for me either.

After his trip to the volcano 2 days prior, Pete had assured me, “Yeah, you could definitely die” and so I naturally signed on with some trepidation. Despite sounding this most sobering warning, Pete encouraged me to go while he managed Taz alone at bedtime (for the first time ever) on the boat. Knowing that Taz was assuredly safe under his dad’s care while my safety seemed so dubious made for an unsettling evening. From within the roiling cauldron, magma kernels of an indeterminable but frightening size popped continuously, turbo style, then exploded in a far-reaching magma shower too close for comfort. As much as my survival and maternal instincts pulled me away from the lively crater, the volcano kept me a rapt spectator.

It isn’t often that we are granted a view into the earth’s physical depths, bearing witness to the raw, fiery forces of Mother Earth that actually and ultimately decide our lives the world over. Vanuatu lies along the Ring of Fire and her shifting tectonic plates are part of a long underground chain that acts out an often quiet dynamism beneath the homes of so many humans. It is ironic that such dramatic experiences in the outdoors often seem so otherworldly when we are experiencing the earth carrying out her most basic natural functions. To be sure, it is rare to see a display so powerful and impressive. But we humans so often underestimate the earth’s power, especially if we lack a colossal reminder like Mt. Yasur in constant view, red smoke billowing overhead night and day. Pete reminded me of the tenuousness of spending time at the base of Alaska’s calving glaciers from the “safety” of Privateer, riding out the shock waves created by massive glacial collapse. Though always at the ready for a quick exit if the moment calls for it, there are no guarantees when you put yourself into these positions. There is often fear in the precarious but also a crazy feeling of freedom.

Our guide claimed that Yasur is less active at night. Some people believe that the volcano has gone to sleep as darkness creeps in. And so I was sure that I would pay Yasur another visit, to be by her side as she roused for the day, affirming the vitality of life on this beautiful, breathtaking planet of ours.