The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

The Adventures of Katie M II and Her Crew in Vanuatu

Martin Minshall

Katie M II
Tuulos Custom 36 Cutter
December 9th, 2014
The nighttime fireworks display

We call our sailing experiences ‘adventures’ and mostly they are, but occasionally we get one that is more ordeal than adventure.

I was recently quoted the following: “The difference between adventure and ordeal is attitude.” At the time, Martin and I, along with two fellow cruisers we recently met here in Vanuatu, were in the back of a utility vehicle, heading out on a great adventure to see the volcano on the island of Tanna, which is the second island up in the Vanuatu chain of islands.

We had all expected to be riding to our destination in a 4-wheel-drive truck, sitting on cushioned seats supported by springs and 21st century automobile suspension. Instead we found ourselves sitting on a 6-inch-wide piece of crude lumber supported at each end with equally crude and wobbly legs. This lumber ‘bench’, if you can describe it as such, ran the length of the flat bed and was barely wide enough to support our well-fed North American butts in any degree of comfort, even without the bumps and swaying of the ‘yute’ (utility truck) as it made its way along the main transporta- tion route across Tanna, headed for Mt. Yasur. I can only describe this major transportation route as a rough track, as road would be a gross exaggeration. It was literally a track carved through the bush, just wide enough for one vehicle in most places. I have seen river beds with a smoother terrain!

The yute had a cage built around and over the flatbed and the reason for this soon became apparent as we bounced and jostled our way along the track and up the mountain. The side bars were to keep you from being flung out of the flatbed and the overhead bars provided much-needed handholds.

It was as we were bemoaning our situation, and I had made a comment about the cushions must have been an extra charge, that Yvonne, one of our new cruising buddies, shared the above quote with us. It rang all too true for the four of us and served as a reminder on this particular occasion that it was all part of the adventure. So we laughed and joked even when our vertebrae collided with the metal support bars and our butts lost circulation.

On the way, we picked up locals hitching a ride to their villages. None of the locals seemed concerned that they shared their island paradise with an active volcano. Apparently, it has been spewing ash and molten rocks high into the air for many generations. One of the islanders says, for some unknown reason, it seems more active during planting season. I could only hope the practice of human sacrifice to the volcano god for a good harvest, if such a practise ever existed, was as defunct as cannibalism!

Our hitchhikers got on and off at several stops along the way, and for some strange reason, at some of these stops, our driver and guide got out, too, and disappeared inside a hut or building for several minutes. No explanation was given and none asked for. After a while, we just accepted it as part of the experience and sat patiently; after all, we are on island time! There is no such thing as haste here in the South Pacific.

The volcano is only about 8 kilometres from the anchorage, Port Resolution, but it took an hour to reach the car park at the base of the ash-covered section of Mt Yasur.

Mt. Yasur’s crater

We stepped from the yute onto a moon-like landscape of black volcanic ash strewn with boulders of differing sizes, which had been thrown out of the crater on previous eruptions. I stupidly asked if any tourists had ever been hit by one. The answer wasn’t reassuring! We were advised to keep an eye out for molten missiles heading in our direction once at the top.

The black slope leading up to the crater loomed above and would have made a difficult climb to the top, but a man-made path made the trek much easier. At the top, we could look down into one of two craters. The volcano is shaped like a figure-eight with two craters and two lava tubes in each crater. At the bottom of the crater, we could see steam and smoke issuing forth and a more concentrated deposit of boulders.

We were told the best viewpoint of the lava tubes was higher up on the ridge. There was no man-made path for this section, so we clambered up the black sandy slope until we stood on a ridge overlooking the crater. Suddenly there was a roar and the ground shook beneath our feet. The roar became a huge explosion and red hot boulders and molten rock shot high into the air. The noise and spectacle was almost frightening, but as this was repeated more and more, we started to relax and enjoy the spectacle, still keeping an eye out for burning hot projectiles heading our way!

I finally secured myself a spot overlooking the cauldron itself; a round lava tube glowed yellow and red, reaching down into the bowels of the earth. Every now and then the tube would glow redder and another explosion would send up more red hot boulders high into the air and up the sides of the crater, where some would roll back down into the crater again. Then a cloud of sulphurous smoke would rise from the crater.

It was still daylight but dusk was close at hand. We had been told to make sure we stayed to see the eruptions in the dark so we patiently waited for the sun to disappear behind the surrounding peaks. As the sun sank lower, the volcanic activity seemed to increase in both frequency and intensity. As darkness came upon us, the explosions and ‘fireworks’ display intensified against the backdrop of black sky. It seemed the cauldron glowed hotter still, the explosions were louder, and molten lava and boulders shot higher into the air in greater concentrations and travelled even further up the slopes of the crater. It was a truly magnificent and awe-inspiring spectacle.

I could hardly credit that we were standing on the rim of this volcano, looking down into the abyss of the cauldron, and witnessing the raw energy and fury of this beast. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the spectacle, but as darkness came, so did a squall and it brought with it cold wind and rain. Although the rain had lasted only a short while, it cooled the night and we were all chilled, despite the heat radiating up from below.

Our guide had already returned to the truck, probably to get out of the wind and rain so now we had to make our way back along the crater rim and down the black sandy slopes to the path and car park below. Not an easy task as we were to find out, even with head lamps and flashlights. A couple of fellow tourists stopped suddenly ahead of us, having come to a sudden drop off on the crater rim. Obviously we had missed the sandy slope down, so we backtracked and Martin went ahead to scout out the way. Where was our guide, I asked myself?

Can you imagine this situation happening in North America? Even if we were allowed to experience an active volcano, which I somehow doubt, the path would be well marked and roped off. Guides would be expected to stay with their group. However, safety is not viewed with the same degree of concern here. Our guide did eventually appear out of the darkness and we made our way safely to the car park.

Now, as a concession to the rain and cold wind, our yute is covered with a tarp. It’s dark under the tarp and there are now about eight of us in the back, clinging to the bars for support, as we wind our way back down the bumpy track.

What an adventure!

As cruisers we may complain about rolly anchorages, too much wind, too little wind, sitting out a storm for 21⁄2 days at Minerva reef in 30 to 35 knots of wind with gusts of 50 knots (yes that did happen), but I hope I remember in future it’s all part of the big adventure called cruising!


  1. Jennifer Handley says:

    We have some very similar memories, Angela, of time on Tanna and our excursion to Mt Yasur. When our guide told us he was heading back down the mountain as we stood open-mouthed in awe, almost mesmerized by the constant eruptions, we did wonder if maybe we too should back away a bit. You’re absolutely right, there is no way we could have such an experience here! Thanks for rekindling some memories!

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