Reporter's Notebook: Surfing the Volcano

November 5, 2002

Two seconds before I pushed myself down the 1,000-foot (300-meter) pumice slope of Mount Yasur, Vanuatu's famous active volcano, I wasn't thinking about the extreme sport I was about to launch.

I was thinking about Russian Roulette—with lava bombs the size of Rottweilers occasionally flying over my head and onto the slope below me. Volcano boarding is a gamble.

The locals can't remember a time when Mount Yasur wasn't coughing up its entrails. Even in 1774, when Commander James Cook sailed the HMS Resolution near Tanna Island, Mount Yasur was putting on a show. In his journal, Cook reported a great glow emanating from the eastern shore.

Since then Mount Yasur has gained a reputation as one of the world's best volcanoes to visit. It's reliable and easily accessible; you can drive a truck right up to the base of it.

Of course, that doesn't mean it's safe. The trail up to the rim passes by memorials for travelers who were struck by lava bombs—a daunting reminder that this volcano kills.

I first visited Mount Yasur in 1995 while cruising the South Pacific on my sloop. Any snowboarder seeing the volcano's northern slope is bound to think the same thing I did: there is a virgin slope waiting to be carved.

For years I planned a return trip to Tanna. When National Geographic Today gave me the opportunity to film my adventures in Vanuatu, I knew volcano boarding's time had come. With two bags of camera gear and a snowboard, I took off for Tanna.

Lava Bombs and Sulfur Fumes

In a country that never gets any snow, it wasn't surprising to see the locals curiously examining my snowboard. Some thought it was a field-plowing device; others, a surfboard. When I explained what it was and how I wanted to use it, I received only blank stares.

In Tanna's main town, Lenakal, I rented a motorcycle. After strapping my board to the back of the bike, I took off across the highlands. In a few hours Mount Yasur came into view, pouring black smoke and dominating the eastern side of the island's landscape.

Near the volcano the jungle gave way to a barren ash plain. As I rode to within half a mile (a kilometer) of Mount Yasur, I had to start dodging hardened rocks of lava on the ground.

After checking in at a nearby guesthouse, I started hiking up to the volcano's rim without my board. It seemed sensible to first check out the conditions.

Continued on Next Page >>


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