Mysterious tropical islands, complete with their own otherworldly tribes and apocalyptic dangers, sound like something straight out of the pages of an adventure novel. Yet deep within the south pacific, there lies the island of Tanna, one of many in the Vanuatu archipelago chain.
Much like those stories, Tanna is home to one of the most active volcanoes in the region, Mount Yasur. Sacred to the indigenous Melanesians, Mount Yasur has been a focal point for generations of both locals and most recently, travellers who like to get off the well-beaten path.
While it may have erupted continuously for several hundred years, Mount Yasur draws in a handful of willing hikers every year. Combining the thrill of climbing an active volcano in one of the often-cited happiest places on earth, whose country’s name translates as the chest-thumping; “our land forever,” there’s nothing quite like Mount Yasur and Vanuatu.
So, how do you get to this fairly unknown island, and what does it take to hike the angry volcano of Mount Yasur? Let’s get into it.
Where is Mount Yasur? (And How To Get There)
Mount Yasur stands proud on the island of Tanna, one of the southernmost islands that make up the Vanuatu archipelago chain, which lies within the South Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles east of Australia and 700 miles west of Fiji.
To get to Tanna and Mount Yasar you’ll need to fly to Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital and only international entry point. Generally, this means flying via one of Australia’s eastern cities such as Brisbane, Sydney, or Melbourne. Your flight from here will take around four to five hours.
The high-maintenance accessibility possibly explains why this gorgeous country is still one of the least visited nations on earth.
Once on the island of Efate, Vanuatu’s main island, it’s a case of getting a smaller inter-island flight to Tanna. Air Vanuatu runs two flights daily, departing early morning and early afternoon. The flight from Port Vila to the island of Tanna will take around forty minutes and will cost about VUV 12,000.
Religion and Culture of Tanna People
The people of Tanna are mainly made up of Melanesians, indigenous peoples who are spread right across the western South Pacific. Adhering to a traditional way of life, many of the native islanders reject any form of modernisation, especially in the high altitude villages, known as Kastom villages – a word taken from the Australian pronunciation of custom.
One of the most peculiar traits of the Tanna islanders is their adherence to religious movements known as ‘Cargo Cults’. Cargo cults came about after many of these Pacific Islands were occupied by military forces during the Second World War. The islands were quickly transformed from societies untouched by modern technology for thousands of years to military bases, filled with all kinds of modern cargo – often dropped by aeroplanes onto the island.
You can imagine the sheer shock felt by the indigenous population; seeing all this modern technology of the 20th century appear before them in an instant. To them, only the Gods could have created and bestowed such technology.
Once the US navy and army left the islands, the indigenous peoples created a religious cargo cult known as the John Frum Movement. This movement includes building ritualistic landing strips, mimicking the militaristic drill formations, and marches, and even raising the American flag. All of this is done with pure religious zeal, hoping that the Gods that gave such modern technology to the outer world will return and bestow it on the indigenous Tanna islanders.
Apart from the John Frum Movement, the Tanna villages of Yaohnanen and Yakel follow another cargo cult known as the ‘Prince Philip movement’. This follows the notion that Prince Phillip, the late husband of Queen Elizabeth of the UK, is a divine being and embodies a dive spirit directly connected with Mount Yasur.
As out there as this might sound, Prince Phillip welcomed a select group of these islanders to visit Windsor in 2007 and a mourning ceremony was recently carried out by tribal leaders shortly after his death.
Is Mount Yasur Safe? (Deaths and Accidents)
Hiking one of the most active volcanoes in the South Pacific is never going to be without its obvious inherent dangers. The Vanuatuan government has developed a number system to ensure everyone is aware of Mount Yasur’s activity level.
- Level 0 is normal
- Level 1 is signs of volcanic unrest
- Level 2 is major unrest
- Level 3 implies a minor eruption
- Level 4 is a moderate eruption
- Level 5 is a major eruption.
Mount Yasur is prone to lava bombs, falling volcanic rock, landslides and sulphuric clouds. This may sound like a hellish landscape, but with the right care and precautions, there is no reason why you can’t complete a Mount Yasur hike.
Mount Yasur is broken down into three zones; safety zone B, safety zone A and a permanent exclusion zone within 395 m of the eruptive vents. There have been around three deaths, all of which took place during the mid-1990s, but these have been as a result of tourists ignoring the exclusion zones.
With scorching volcanic rock being thrown out at hundreds of miles an hour, it would be foolish to venture any lower into the lip of Mount Yasar than the permanent exclusion zone.
There’s no getting away from the fact that hiking the slopes of an active volcano is going to come with its risks. Following the clear safety instructions will go a long way to keeping you out of harm’s way, and after all, a little risk is what makes hiking a volcano on a pacific island a true kind of adventure.
Best Time To Climb Mount Yasur
Like most of the tropical region, Vanuatu has two distinct seasons; a dry season and a wet one.
Vanuatu’s wet season starts around November and continues right through until March. While showers are sporadic and rarely affect the ability to travel across the island, it does make the trek very hot and very humid – not something you really want when surrounded by molten hot rock.
Peak season in Vanuatu lasts from mid-December right through until the end of January. This is the time when Australians and New Zealanders tend to descend on the island in numbers.
I’d say that the best time to visit Vanuatu and climb Mount Yasur would be its shoulder months, around May or September (which is what we did). The weather is pleasant, there is very little chance of a cyclone, and the tourist traffic is low – ideal conditions for climbing a volcano!
You can also choose whether to climb Mount Yasur during the day or in the evening. During the day, you can enjoy pretty amazing views across the island, but you’ll pay for it in sweat. Alternatively, climbing Mount Yasur in the evening is much cooler and you’ll have time to appreciate the hypnotic glow of the not-so-distant magma dancing above the volcano.
Can You Volcano Board Down Mount Yasur?
Sadly for me, it was not allowed at the time that I hiked Mount Yasur and was closed temporarily due to the volcano bubbling a little too much, which apparently affected visibility.
After volcano boarding in Nicaragua, I was completely hooked on the idea, however, it just wasn’t meant to be for me. So if you can, go do it and make me jealous!
Fitness Level For Climbing Mount Yasur
Like most volcanic mountains, Mount Yasur is not a Sunday morning ramble around the park and will take some effort. This being said, you don’t need to be an Olympic athlete or even super fit to complete the climb.
People of all ages and fitness levels complete the Mount Yasur climb; it’s all about patience. There’s no point rushing to the top without appreciating the nature around you. Stop regularly to catch your breath or even sit down on your way.
Go slow as the ash will make you slip down if you go too fast. You’re not in a race, just slowly dig in and enjoy the beauty around you.
Where To Stay in Tanna To See Mount Yasur
Tanna is home to a variety of different accommodations, suiting a range of budgets and experiences. Much like other island nations in this part of the world – if you fancy experiencing island life in a more subtle and authentic way there are a number of traditional bungalows located on the east of the island, perfect for clear views of Mount Yasur.
You’ll also find endless bungalow-type accommodation peppered along the Loanengo road and this eastern region, offering a real down-to-earth feel to your stay on Tanna and without spending the earth.
If you’re looking for a more luxurious stay on the island, then the western edges are your best bet. Scattered along the beaches here are boutique hotels with a more refined resort-like feel. If you do stay on the western shores, you will need to organise transportation to the Mount Yasur centre before beginning your hike.
8 Things To See and Do on Tanna Island
Although many come for a thrilling Mount Yasur hike, Tanna Island has so much more to offer. The rich heritage, history, and culture that permeates the island is something that draws you into another world. This landscape and its people provided the only Oscar-nominated Australian film, ‘Tanna’ – a testament to the power of the island’s identity.
Let’s take a look at other things to see and do once your volcano stomping activities are over.
1. Explore the Blue Cave
Located northwest of the island, just north of the island’s airport, the Blue Cave is a hidden sea cave only accessible by swimming through a passage. Once inside the grotto, you can see how the Blue Cave got its name. Blue light dances across the water and cave walls, giving it an otherworldly feel like no other. You’ll need to pay a 2000 vatu fee which goes towards the upkeep of the site.
2. Visit the Yakel Village
Truly immerse yourself in island tribal life with a visit to the Yakel Village. Here you can see the traditional ways of life preserved by this village. Watch traditional dancing, craftsmanship and generally get to know the people who have called the island home for thousands of years. Generally, you’ll need to join a tour to visit the village.
These span from half-day tours to two-day tours which allow you to spend the night and soak up the culture a little more.
3. See the Giant Banyan Tree
The banyan tree is one of the most iconic images of island life on Tanna, and, amazingly, Tanna is home to one of the largest in the South Pacific, if not the world. There’s no visiting Tanna without gazing at this giant of nature. Once you’ve reached the village of Leitouapam, it’s just a ten-minute stroll to the tree.
4. Lenuanatuaiu Waterfall
Like its neighbouring island nations, Vanuatu is no stranger to bragging a striking water landmark in The Pacific Islands. Lenuanatuaiu Waterfall is one of the most picturesque sights on the island and really sums up the Eden-esque nature of Tanna.
The flowing water crashes into the green vegetation and smooth rocks below – a real picture-postcard image of South Pacific life.
5. Visit Lenakel Fresh Produce Market
Located in the island’s largest town of Lanakel, the Lenakel Fresh Produce Market is a real hub of island life and the perfect place to haggle for some fresh island fruit. There is also a range of handcrafted items on sale here, setting you back only a few hundred Vanuatu Vatus.
The haggling is warm, cheeky and a little shy. A much less harsh environment than similar fresh produce markets that I visited while backpacking in Papua New Guinea.
6. Relax on Louniel Beach
As a tropical island, Tanna has no shortage of beautiful beaches, but the east coast Louniel Beach has to be one of its best. With crystal clear waters and stretches of black sand, don’t forget to bring those flip-flops as the ground can become unbearably hot to walk on barefoot.
7. Tafutuna Cultural Experience
The Tafutuna Cultural Experience opens the door to Tanna island life and history, immersing you wholeheartedly with the tribe’s people. Started as a grassroots business run by young people, this is the perfect way to give back to the island that has given its tourists so much.
8. Explore The Coral Reefs
Surrounded by beautiful volcanic coral reefs, Tanna is one of the best places to set your eyes on this awesome underwater labyrinth of sights. With opportunities for snorkelling and diving, there is something for all skill levels.
You can either rent your equipment and head out on your own accord or join one of the many tours to discover some of the best snorkelling spots. Most tours leave from Port Vila early in the morning and cost around 10,000 vatus.
Climbing Mount Yasur: My Experience
I think this one speaks for itself. Taking a private jet to an isolated paradise island, in an already isolated country and hiking an incredibly active volcano, with some of the friendliest people in the world… what’s not to love?
The only thing that I didn’t love was the fact that I left my new camera up there! I did however manage to snap a few on my phone of the trip to Tanna Island, and of the bubbling furnace at the top.
Mount Yasur is definitely worth the time and effort required to get there and the prize of the foaming lava, once you get to the top is one of those that you’re best off being present and completely taking it all in…just not so much that you leave your camera up there!