IN NOVEMBER 2010, THIS IMAGE WAS SELECTED AS FIRST RUNNER UP TO THE WHL GROUP PHOTO OF THE YEAR.
Every so often, a photographer finds him- or herself in the right place at the right time, although the circumstances may not be ideal. This shot (one of a series of 10) is the result of such a unique time and place.
Mt Yasur, although a Strombolian volcano only 500 metres high, is indisputably the most accessible live volcano in the world. There is no doubt that every person who makes the short (15-minute) trek to the crater is increasing the prospects of a shortened life, but that’s why thousands do it. There’s a violent explosion of 3,000-degree C magma every five to ten minutes. The experience of witnessing this phenomenon is addictive.
There are different categories of danger, which is carefully monitored. Categories 1 and 2 are relatively safe for viewing from the crater. Category 3 is not; no one should be near the crater. Category 4 means that no one should be within a 20 kilometre radius of the volcano. Category 5 obliges evacuation from the island.
The volcano usually hovers around a category 1.5 to 2. On most occasions, it is a simply beautiful pyrotechnic display and has an natural artistic grace to it. Oddly, the magma splattering softly into the crater resembles illuminated cow dung.
On the night of my photograph in 2002, Mt Yasur was doing its usual category 2 performance for an enthralled audience. Suddenly everything became much more frightening: the explosions increased in intensity and did not appear to be abating. Before we knew it we were in a category 3 situation. Deformed elastic chunks of magma the size of cows flew over our group’s heads. I knew we were definitely too close, but we would not make a run for it down the mountain. It was too dark and far more dangerous to run than to stay. Running, we would trip over black boulders and maybe get hit in the back or on the head with falling magma. The safer option was to stay alert to falling magna. This we did, and as my camera was on a tripod, I continued to shoot whilst looking up in the black sky for magma bombs.
This scanned-from-print image was shot with a Canon EOS 30, on 800 asa Kodak positive film at around 1/125 of a second. It has now become the country’s most-used iconic image of the volcano. Tanna Island is a 45-minute flight from Port Vila, but the volcano is another 90-minute 4WD drive from the airport.
I have returned over 30 times to Mt Yasur and continued to photograph this beast (yes you get to relate to it). It is in continual growth and I have had a different experience every time I visit. On the last occasion, there was an earthquake whilst we were on top of the crater. That certainly adds a new dimension to fear, as I was imagining the whole side of the crater – little more than compacted ash, like giant sand hill – caving into the vent!
You want an adrenalin high? The Tanna beast will give you one every few minutes! I am happy to advise/coordinate anyone’s Mt Yasur volcano expedition (we offer three options – an overnight trip, and a budget or deluxe seven-day option). I have never lost anyone to the beast… yet.
Visit the whl.travel Flickr photostream for a set of more pictures of Vanuatu.