So here I am, frozen halfway up Tavurvur Volcano in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. The Beast had looked so small from the shore. So easy to climb. I’d be up the top in fifteen minutes, I’d told myself. No need to take water, no need to wear sunscreen, pfft!
Alas, half an hour after I’d started trudging through the crumbly ash, slippin’ and slidin’ and doing my best not to think about how dumb I’d been to a) not bring water, b) not wear sunscreen and c) wear silk pants, I’d stopped for a moment. I’d looked down. We were really, really high. Sorry, I was really, really high. Four of our group had chickened out and were standing at the bottom, while the two guys I’d been following had sprinted ahead and disappeared.
We’d pulled up to The Beast’s feet on our little boat after chugging across the bay from Kokopo Beach. I’d immediately decided to push the fact that Tavurvur is active (it had erupted just last year; had in fact wiped the whole of Rabaul out 20 years ago) from my mind. Mainly because one of the guys, who worked for Lonely Planet, had said it was THE most amazing thing to do in the country and that you’d “hate yourself forever if you didn’t do it”. But also because I’d just been chewing betel nut and was feeling kinda buzzed and happy about life.
Anyway so where am I? Ahh yes, frozen. Frozen and clutching onto the ash beneath my palms like it might somehow keep me from tumbling back down the volcano, and doing what I normally do in these kind of situations. Talking to myself.
“If you don’t go up there, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,” I mutter through clenched teeth.
“It’s very unlikely you’ll die.” (Because at this point I’m convinced I will – from dehydration, from sulphur asphyxiation, from a lava flow. I’m a catastrophiser from way back.)
When my legs still won’t respond, I try being more gentle with myself.
“C’mon, what are the chances it’ll blow today? Two years in a row? As if!”
“Image the photo ops!”
And I’m up.
By the time I reach the top, I’m 99 percent parched. My shoulders are neon with sunburn and I am indeed struggling to breathe from the ash and sulphur fumes filling my lungs. My body’s actually shaking with fear, but I let it pass through me and do what I came here to do. I peer over the edge of the crater and into the mouth of The Beast.
I see that The Beast is angry.
It’s belching smoke from every orifice, and that sound I assumed was the ocean on the other side of the volcano is actually a ripping and a roaring from deep inside its belly.
I only stay for about two minutes. But man, are those two minutes worth it. Not only for the views of the bay, the water a million shades of blue and the craggy volcanic peaks surrounding it covered by lush jungle in unimaginably complex greens.
But also because in conquering The Beast, I feel like I’ve won a small battle with The Beast inside myself.
Later in the week, we were having lunch at the bizarre and delightful time capsule that is the Rabaul Hotel when we passed the owner advising some guests. “On no you can’t climb Tavurvur!”, she yelped, before adding, “Well some people do. But then again, some people are really bloody stupid.”
You said it lady. Don’t try this at home.