Saturday, September 01, 2007

Vanuatu volcano erupts, entertaining tourists

The pre-departure briefing and instructions were quite frightening.

"Don't panic when blasts (especially the first one) go off. Don't try to run when debris fly in the air – just be calm and watch so you can dodge the red-hot molten rocks as they fly towards you. And, make sure your body is covered completely in clothes to shield your skin from smoke and ash, and wear your sunglasses."

No, these were not instructions for a trip to Baghdad. They were from our tour guide moments before we set off in a four-wheel drive vehicle for another potentially deadly spot on the other side of the world from Iraq – the very active Yasur volcano on the island of Tana in Vanuatu, about 45 minutes by air from the capital Port Vila.

Located in the midst of lush green mountainous forests, it is hard to imagine how nature's fury can exist in such a peaceful, calm place.

The island of Tana is one of three main southern islands of Vanuatu. Despite its relative isolation, it is increasingly becoming a hot spot for adventure tourists from around the world, thanks mainly to Mount Yasur and its fiery underbelly.

Local tribesmen believe the spirits of their ancestors live right in the crater.

Famed as the world's most accessible volcano, visitors can be driven in a four-wheel drive vehicle to as close as 150 metres from the crater. A short 10-minute walk, and they are right on the edge of the 100-metre deep crater, which is about 300 metres wide.

Daring adventurers can even walk the entire perimeter to get the most out of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Standing a metre or two from the unprotected edge of the crater can be frightening. Huge explosions from deep inside the crater frequently shake the ground and can scare even the most hardened war veteran.

The explosions are immediately followed by debris that shoot high into the air but settle back into the crater. On a rough count, I noticed there were no more than five minutes between explosions.
Mount Yasur boasts the world's only "volcano post", where visitors can mail letters and postcards to friends and loved ones in a box provided by Vanuatu Post. I mailed a post card there and it took 10 days to arrive in Sydney.

On the day I visited, the danger level was two. Like fire danger signs in Australia's national parks and bushlands, the public is warned in advance with a system that rates the likely danger from one to five.

If it is rated three or higher, there is the likelihood that the red-hot rocks can fly to as far as the edge of the crater and far beyond, and that can be deadly. They kill, almost instantly if they hit.

On such days, visits are not allowed. Ironically, it is the magnificent fireworks displays which accompany huge explosions that attract many tourists, especially if visits are made at dusk.
And you can take home a memento – one of the hot volcanic rocks (a cooled one, of course) that had emerged from the crater during eruptions.

Vanuatu is a real haven for adventure tourists. Quite apart from the volcano, visitors can indulge in snorkelling, wreck diving, traditional bungy jumps, and many more.

If adventure is not your fare, the pristine islands are just great for a plain relaxing holiday, especially since instability in several Pacific island countries is challenging many Australians to look for a stable, peaceful neighbouring country to enjoy their holidays.

Vanuatu seems to be benefiting from conflict in the region. Political problems in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Bali have seen Vanuatu registering huge increases in tourist arrivals this year.

But try mentioning this to Vanuatu's Tourism Minister James Bule and Linda Kalpoi, General Manager of the Vanuatu Tourism Office, and they will instantly dismiss this line of reasoning. They particularly deny that Fiji's problems are helping in the growth of Vanuatu's tourism industry.

"We do our own thing," Mr Bule told me in his Port Vila office. "We promote the attractions of Vanuatu to potential overseas tourists. Our attractions speak for themselves – the natural beauty of our islands, our clean, white, sandy beaches, and the friendliness of our people are what is helping drive our tourism industry forward."

His country is fast catching up with Fiji, boasting highly-rated resorts, hotels and a completely different world many Australians would be happy to experience.

"We're always happy to share our history and our ancient way of life, including the fact that our people were once cannibals", the tour guide at a traditional village said.

The people of Vanuatu are friendly, hold their traditional way of life in high esteem, and are always happy to put on their famed singing and dancing performances for tourists.

But as they say in tourism parlance, "you'll never never know if you never never go".


For volcano trip on Tana island, pack comfortable clothing and walking shoes, long-sleeved shirts, a hat and a pair of sunglasses.


Pacific Blue Airways and Air Vanuatu have daily flights from Sydney and/or Brisbane to Port Vila.
The writer was a guest of Starwood Hotels, staying at Le Meridien Port Vila Resort and Casino, and flying Pacific Blue.

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