By Mike

A volcano pretending to be a sand dune. Clever disguise…

A few months back my supervisor proposed that I go to Vanuatu to ‘have a look’. After literally seconds of hard, ponderous thinking I decided that maybe I should give it a go, and shortly after that I was on an Air Vanuatu flight out of Sydney on my way to the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have a hot shower for three weeks.

The real draw for most tourists going to Tanna island is the volcano, Mt Yasur. This is famously (if you’re on Tanna it’s famous, anyway) described as “the world’s most accessible active volcano”, and accessible it is; 4x4s can park around 150m from the crater’s edge. It is also undoubtedly active, with eruptions every 2-4 minutes like a natural firework show. A smelly, dangerous and dusty natural firework show.

The volcano on this island is the product of a subduction zone where the Pacific tectonic plate slides underneath the Australian plate. This causes some magma to form in the Earth’s mantle then ascend into the crust, eventually ponding in magma chambers underground and erupting out when the pressure gets high enough. On Tanna, these eruptions are manifested as big gas and ash clouds, volcanic bombs (chunks of rock and magma flung out of the volcano at lethal speeds) and most awesomely, shock waves. Standing on the crater rim these shockwaves would feel like being hit by a wave, sometimes causing us to stagger or stumble backwards. Down at the foot of the volcano where we were staying, the shockwaves would shake our whole bungalow and keep us up through the night.

local lads squeezing delicious masticated kava root into coconut shells.

On another note, it is important when on fieldwork to indulge in some liquid relief at the end of a hard day. Where beer is unavailable, ad-libbing is permitted, and on Tanna this involves indulging in local drink ‘Kava’. Kava (which tastes like muddy water mixed with Tabasco and is drank from half a coconut) should not be confused with cava (which tastes nice and is drank from a flute), especially when catering for elegant soirées or high tea. It’s prepared by chewing a root, spitting out the chewed root, then taking this chewed up mulch and pouring water through it to release its muddy goodness (and presumably a whole load of saliva). The fluid is then drank all in one, and the effects are left with the drinker for many hours of confusion and poor coordination. Well worth a try.

So, if you fancy getting up and close with geology as it forms and also getting involved with some crazy local customs (and sharing saliva), make your way to Tanna. A hot shower never felt as good as the one after 3 weeks without…