Vanuatu Part One: An Especially Wild 24 Hours

Call to mind the heaviest rainfall you’ve ever found yourself beneath. Water falling at such a rate you would kick the cat out of your way to reach the front door sooner, so as to hurriedly shut the monsoon out behind you, and stand motionless in the dark hallway: arms akimbo, knees slightly bent, raindrops still gushing from a disbelieving face. Apocalyptic is the only word to describe what you’ve just witnessed.

The cat made it in too, barely, and has already begun the long road to dryness with a haughty shake and, confusingly, the enlisting of its tongue. Is it drinking itself dry? You, on the other hand, will never be dry again. So much rain has landed on you that you’ll spend the rest of your days trying to get it off, or at least so it seems, and you don’t know where to begin this eternal mission of unsaturation, though you know it won’t be with your tongue. So you just stand there, utterly and stupidly paralysed, a pond quickly gathering at your feet.

This was the state of affairs for the first three days after we arrived in Vanuatu, though we don’t have a good old-fashioned door to keep the cats and dogs out. It’s not a happy time on Blue Eye when water is falling from the heavens: even in a patch of drizzle life becomes more or less miserable, let alone during a period of sustained tropical downfall. This is in part because it demands the sealing of all the hatches – all two of them – and this soon produces our very own boat-sized oven. Naturally, we’ll crack one ajar to invite some cool, fresh air in, but now rain’s getting in too, and now we have our very own boat-sized sauna.

A day of this is just about bearable. Detestable, but bearable. However Blue Eye is a confined space and after that day has passed the desire to not be in a damp, sweaty cabin is overwhelming. On Tanna, our first Vanuatu Island, this was compounded by a sickening swell that was wrapping into the bay, lurching the boat from side to side with more zeal than a boisterous seaway has been known to. We simply had to be elsewhere.

But Tanna, a verdant mass of dense bush, is not the kind of place you will find a cafe to idle away the hours. None of Vanuatu is really, save for the island that homes Port Vila, the capital city. There is, though, the option on Tanna to take your mind off what is falling from the sky, by observing what is being flung from the earth. Herein lay the reason we tolerated the conditions of the anchorage: to go and stand on the edge of a volcano and peer down into its fiery abyss.

Mount Yasur is one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world, but that isn’t necessarily saying much. Our driver jolted us along in his 4×4 for several uncomfortable hours: climbing steep, pothole-ridden dirt tracks through tropical forest; ploughing across a rising and rushing river; and racing over sprawling ash plains towards the volcano that steadily filled the windscreen. We stopped to take the view in at the plains, and as we did so heard the distant rumble of Yasur. James and I looked at each other, alarmed, and then at our driver. “It’s the volcano!” he smiled, as if we’d mistaken it for his stomach or something. “Is that normal though?” We asked, eyebrows raised. “Yes, yes. Come on, you’ll see!”

More ash plains and treacherous dirt tracks later, and we were standing on the crater’s edge. But we did not see, we did not see at all. As you might have gathered, it was raining, and, as you might be able to imagine, this produces rather a lot of steam when in the vicinity of one of earth’s great vents. The sought-after sunset photo with a cow-sized bit of rock soaring through the dusk air was clearly off the table.

After all the excitement of reaching the summit, we now joined the ranks of tourists lamenting the fact that they hadn’t made the much more comfortable and cost-effective journey to their kitchens to watch their kettles display a modest interpretation of what lay in front of us. This volcano excursion was proving to be nothing other than a whole lot of hot air.

But then a shockwave thudded into my chest and my eardrums were left ringing. You could quite literally see it coming: nanoseconds before the wave hit us the steam and smoke visibly pulsed. Then, with an enormous tremble, colossal boulders erupted from the smoky below, and ascended hundreds of metres into the air for us all to see. They glowed deep red and seemed to hang at their apex forever, before making a slow and elegant fall back down to earth, like they weren’t heavy balls of death at all. They landed on the other side of the crater, and from our point of safety the pitter-patter could be heard as if it were merely the rain on Blue Eye’s deck.

“The rocks never come this way, do they?” James asked our guide. She laughed – a bit too hysterically for my liking – and pointed at the big lump of volcanic rock he was standing on in his flip-flops. Health and safety isn’t really a thing in Vanuatu. But she had been born and raised next to this volcano, she woke up every morning and brushed her teeth to the sound of its explosions, so when she said we were safe there for today, we believed her. Even so, we shuffled back a bit, as you would too: a couple of Japanese tourists were killed up here once by those heavy balls of death. Anyone who tells you this always follows it up with: “But they wandered off somewhere they shouldn’t have.” To which I always think, “Well, no shit…”

We watched these sporadic displays for a long time (the eruptions, not the demise of Japanese tourists), and indeed one could happily pass days and days waiting in the lulls for the shockwaves to signal the next blow. I wasn’t worried anymore that the mist had blocked our view a bit. Once we experienced the volcano vent a little steam, so to speak, we realised what we were really there for: to feel it. So I forgave the rain, especially after the wind was so good as to clear the crater occasionally and reveal to us the blazing bowels of Mount Yasur, hundreds of metres below, bubbling and boiling.

The rain did, however, curtail our visit slightly, as there was concern the river we had driven through on the way up might get too deep before we could get back down. So dozens of volcano-seekers and tour guides bundled into a handful of pick-up trucks as night descended, and we began the long climb down in the perpetual precipitation, with the orange-glow of Mount Yasur fading behind us. Perched on the back of the pick-up, weaving in convoy through black rivers and dark rainforest with the steam of the land shimmering in the headlights, was almost as thrilling as the volcano itself.

In a way, this early departure was fortuitous because we had no intention of remaining in our terrible anchorage a moment longer. Whilst a night of sailing was not an appetising prospect, we reasoned it would only be a ten-hour passage (only being a relative term) before we could relax in a calm bay at the next island. The friendly Lithuanian couple we had shared the 4×4 journeys with couldn’t fathom that we would be taking to the ocean after the gruelling trip to Mount Yasur, and once back on the rolling Blue Eye it was not without envy that I pictured them returning to their luxury resort, boasting its warm showers and clean beds. We might avoid extortionate accommodations costs by traveling as we do, but we still pay a price I thought to myself, as we hauled anchor and set off into the torrential night. At that moment, I couldn’t have known how much debt we were due to pay.

The best thing I can say for the ensuing hours of darkness is that the wind was kind: consistent and favourable, it meant all the watchkeeper had to concentrate on was quite how wet he was, and the answer to that was straightforward. After four hours of complete saturation we would swap over, and the relieved man (in both senses of the word) could trudge down into the cabin, shut the hatch behind him, and stand paralysed by water as a pond formed at his feet. He would never be dry again in his life, or so it seemed. And it’s not like we have a hot airing cupboard, or the luxury of space to hang up piles of wet clothes. Whatever was wet remained wet, until we put it back on four hours later to return outside, and render it even wetter yet. And to make matters stupendously worse, it was also raining inside the cabin on account of a leak in the ceiling, which had deemed the entire portside unapproachably sodden. It was misery itself.

But come the grey morning light we had other things to worry about. We had reached the next island in good time, but in rounding the headland that should have offered us the shelter we so craved, we discovered it to be about as safe a place to anchor as in the belly of Mount Yasur itself. Thunder rang out all around, the wind had increased so dramatically that we needed only a handkerchief of sail out, and the thick rain now journeyed sideways as liquid bullets. The flat water we had expected was as level as our blood pressures, as it dawned on us that we had no choice but to sail another 80 nautical miles north to the next island, where we could be more sure of finding refuge. I was sure the Lithuanians would still be snug in their beds, but threw the thought from my head as quickly as it entered.

In the midst of all this chaos, just when it seemed that Mother Nature had born all her might and played all her cards, a whale appeared amongst the crashing waves. It was the only other soul that we saw out there for the entire time we endured that frightful weather.

Some 14 unpleasant-hours later – of which you do not need a recount but only to know that life continued in much the same wretched way as before – we motored into the protected waters of Port Vila under cover of dark. There is only one good thing about being in bad weather, and that is the relief that accompanies getting out of it. We picked up a mooring without a care for who it belonged to, found what dry clothes we had left, and laughed it all off over a banquet of instant noodles. We were safe, it was over, and we could sleep: there is no feeling quite like it. That 24 hours ago we had been standing on the edge of a volcano was unbelievable, it felt like years had passed since then. Now, amongst the metropolis of Port Vila, we could take a break from all the beauty, wonder and ferocity of Mother Nature.

… A few days later, at exactly 8:13am, our habitual coffee and pancake breakfast was shaken to life as Blue Eye trembled ominously in the anchorage. In Vanuatu, if it isn’t monsoon-esque rains, active volcanoes, or wicked winds, it’s earthquakes you have to worry about…

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