Volcano Post by James Agombar

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Essays, travels

Tanna Island, Vanuatu 2011

Many reasons tend to blur together after a while when you ask enough travellers, ‘why are you travelling? What are you looking for?’ I’d been asked this question by many others, many times beforehand. This time, however, I had a solid reason and it became a slight obsession… a mission. I would say, ‘I’m following Captain James Cook’s trail’. Some would look confused, others would actually laugh, but at least they didn’t give me the familiar raised brow of subtle denial/sympathy every traveller gets who replies, ‘I just needed to find myself’ or ‘I’m broadening my horizons’. Both of these responses are fine, and perhaps very true, but a real, long term traveller knows that look you get from them. Fortunately everybody knew who James Cook was, at least in some form of fame. He was almost up there with ‘Queen Elizabeth II’ and ‘Manchester United’ for global recognition and luckily, some people thought it was as cool as I did.

This particular leg of my journey was following the trail of the Resolution, Cook’s second ship and second Voyage. I boarded a flight that took off from Port Villa in Efate Island, Vanuatu (the New Hebrides in Cook’s era), and was headed for Tanna Island, further south in the archipelago.

The ATR-42 landed on a grass airstrip and I disembarked into the terminal building where security consisted of the baggage handlers passing our bags through a paneless window directly to us. I then caught a 4×4 pickup witha cracked windscreen all the way to the other side of the island. We navigated tumultuous, winding trenches of contouring red earth carved out through the jungle by bulldozers which now stood rusty and derelict aside the road.

Two and a half hours later, dusk fell quickly and I was the last passenger to be dropped at my wood and bamboo hut in Island Dream Bungalows, perched on the edge of a cliff at Port Resolution with a serene view overlooking the bay which escaped me in the current darkness. Named after Cook’s ship, it was a place that not only displayed natural beauty with tropical species and age old local customs, but also a nostalgic 18thcentury British presence where James Cook first described ‘a rumbling in the distance’. This rumbling was the main reason I had come. What Cook heard was the active volcano, Mt. Yasur. Vanuatu is littered with them, but this one in particular had stand out qualities. Yasur actually translates as ‘God’ in the local language, but aside from being deified by the Ni-Vanuatu people, it is also one of the shallowest and most accessible on the planet. This volcano also happened to be the only one to house a postbox on it’s way up to the crater. This quirk conjured me to carry two postcards with me, one for my partner, and one for me, just to test that it worked. Immensely tired, I staggered back from the toilet hut along a path of ash to my hut. I brought the mosquito net down and slept for nearly ten hours.

The next morning I was greeted by birds, bright blue skies, and to my shock as I walked out onto my balcony, a breathtaking view across the entire bay of Port Resolution. The bay had significantly decreased as the land had shifted and vegetated into jungle. Apparently Cook’s ship penetrated an area below me where it wouldn’t be possible today.

Dying for a drink of something other than water, I came out of my hut to find a spacious garden mountain setting with the ashen paths connecting six huts scattered around. My view was possibly the best from the clifftop and I didn’t have to climb a ladder like three of the others. I found the central communal hut where a handful of flags were hung up inside over a large table in the centre. Nobody was around. Back outside I found two ladies exiting another hut nearby, the only other guests here. For one of these wonderful ladies, I was the age of her youngest son back in New Zealand, and the other lady loved my travel stories of Myanmar where she was raised as a British-Burmese citizen. They were both midwives in NZ and had taken the noble task of annually helping the tribal children in Port Resolution. Intrigued, I offered to help and they were delighted with my first aid kit donations.

Several children benefited from my cotton pads and larger patches of Elastoplast after the midwives bathed their wounds in a large half-barrel and antiseptic fluid. I looked at the wounds wondering how they got there. When I asked her she responded by pointing behind me into the distance where the thick jungle stretched for miles into the country. Banyan trees, mangroves and coconut palms. It was no wonder they got scraped and knicked all the time.

When we finished we walked a jungle path down to the village, worshippers of the John Frum Movement*{1}, and passed the most enormous Banyan tree I had ever seen. The village was simple, they had a coffee house which also sold biscuits (a treat for this region); a church was in the process of being built with logs for seats, as well as an altar and breeze block bases for the beams. We were soon invited by Joe for dinner in the communal area. Joe was a good English speaker and sometimes helped with tour guiding on the island. They sat the ladies and I down on woven mats where families joined us for dinner as well as chickens, pigs and a warming sun. Everything was shared equally among the villagers when it came to food, and we were honoured to be included with our taro, chicken and rice. Banana was served for desert and, to my surprise, we even got provided with forks. I felt a sense of luxury when an orange juice turned up for me. The strength of the communal spirit was something I had never felt so much since. It proved to me that the heart and soul of the people create the community, not the leaders. One of the ladies spoke a form of Pidgin from her travels in Papua New Guinea, but even with my lack of Vatu tongue, interaction was attempted and appreciated by all, even the young lads I kicked a scrappy football around with were happy do see the half baked skills of a westerner. They were overjoyed as they ended the day riding away on their tyreless bikes. After a while we were interrupted by a change of tone, the mountain in the distance rumbled, just enough to intimidate. It was then that I asked Joe if he could take us.

The following day arrived after a rough nights sleep due to rats; their scavenging efforts were astounding. They soon became accustomed to my incessant torch shining and even managed to climb the rope in the centre of the room that held the rubbish bag. I remember their reflective, beady eyes laughing at me as they scuttled around. In the end I just hoped they didn’t pierce the mosquito net as I forced myself to sleep with the earplugs in. The morning brought a trip to the stunningly beautiful White Sands Beach where a lone wooden boat posed on the sand as if ready for a model photo-shoot in paradise. The sand itself was totally natural; soft stuff that slipped straight through your fingers and didn’t stick to you when you left. Joe walked us back to the village where another 4×4 Jeep waited for us, so after lunch we made a break for Mount Yasur.

We reached the base of the mountain just before dusk.  The smoke that chugged from the crater was intimidating, but the thunderous booms it produced echoed and shook the ground as we approached. I pictured Cook’s ship firing its cannons, but the power behind a cannon would soon be proven no match for the mighty Yasur. Ash covered the entire area, smothering out the grass and vegetation completely. I scaled the mountain path slowly to post my postcards I had saved specifically into the worlds only volcano postbox and, of course, gained a photo of myself with it. I continued across what seemed like the surface of the moon, crushing brittle rocks under my boots. Finally reaching the crater, the ground hissed, rumbled and undulated below us. An ethereal landscape where no birds flew was strangely peaceful with just a slight breeze. However, the peace didn’t last long when the crater started spitting rocks and streaks of lava, but fortunately never veered towards the small party of silhouettes we had cast above it. As darkness fell, I filmed a video and this was when the mountain put on a show for me. A spread of molten rock was blasted up and landed a little too close for comfort causing people to run, but the locals calmed us, advising us to stay still and watch the rocks as their trajectory could be deceiving. As the night grew colder and darker, the mountain’s fire became brighter, as did my passion for travel in James Cook’s wake. It’s power had outlasted Cook and all those historians who mapped the island, and it would certainly outlast me, but at least I might have a postmark from the only Volcano mail service on Earth to prove I was there too.

PS: The postcards made it back to my hometown in the UK about three weeks later! Mission accomplished.

DSCF9258

Referenced:

Cole, G. & Logan, L. (2006) Lonely Planet: South Pacific & Micronesia,       Clerkenwell, London, Lonely Planet Publications, (3rdEdition)

 

BIO: J. Agombar is an author of ghost/crime/supernatrual short stories. He lives in Essex, UK, but many of his works have been inspired by travelling. So, as a break from dark and nasty stuff, he writes about his light-hearted travels around the world, because every wander has a tale, no matter how far.


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Sarah Leamy, MFA, is an award-winning author of both travel books and novels as well as a photographer, presenter, and a bit of a wanderer. She has lived in England, Germany, Spain, Guatemala and the Southwest of the US. She is the founder and editor of Wanderlust, a travel journal publishing international travel writing, photos and trip reports. Find out more at www.sarahleamy.com

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