Photo: Genevieve Swart
Genevieve Swart is dazzled, and a teensy bit scared, by nature's pyrotechnics.
It is dark and I am flat in the dirt on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, peering into the jagged crater of a volcano. Boom! Mount Yasur erupts. Whoosh! Lava sprays into the sky, making New Year's Eve fireworks on Sydney Harbour look like damp squibs. Thump! Rocks the size of cars crash and burn in the crater. "Mummy!" cries a boy behind me. "I'm frightened."
I congratulate myself on being braver than a six-year-old, then the earth trembles and I'm not so sure.
A broiling black cloud rises and there's a whiff of sulfur. Though older brother Tom is rapt, his eyes shining in the lava light, young Jak huddles under his mother's coat: "I don't want to see the volca-n !"
This is not the desired reaction. We have bumped along dirt tracks, over ash plains and through rampant jungle in a Land Rover for three hours. "We're safe here," Jak's father tries to reason with him. "Look at that woman in front of us. If the volcano explodes, she'll get hit first." I turn around and wave: "Hi, Jak."
He seems comforted by this idea and I'm too in awe of the brilliant pyrotechnics to feel hurt.
We're on a mountainside devoid of the trappings of tourism - no souvenir shops, safety barriers or signs reading: "Warning: contents may be hot." Apart from a few fragile humans snapping photos on the rim, Yasur is a blazing lighthouse in the wilderness. And that's the appeal.
The South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, just a 31/2 hour flight from Sydney, has become famous as an adventure travel destination, partly thanks to its location for the filming of the ninth series of US reality show Survivor and Australia's Celebrity Survivor in 1996.
On the island Efate, where international flights land at the capital, Port Vila, visitors ride in high-speed jet boats, abseil down waterfalls, swim in cascade pools, hike through rainforest, go sea kayaking, and snorkel or scuba dive on colourful coral reefs. On Espiritu Santo island, divers can explore the wreck of the USS President Coolidge, an American passenger liner turned troop transport ship sunk by a mine in 1942. Jeeps and Howitzer cannons still rest in the cargo holds. On Pentecost Island, the birthplace of bungee jumping, men dive off wooden towers with vines attached to their ankles - touching the earth with a shoulder is a fertility rite to ensure the next yam harvest is a good one. Land diving is only performed from April to June when vines are supple and elastic (the one time an exception was made, when the Queen visited in 1974, a man died).
I have flown 45 minutes from Efate to Tanna to see the legendary Yasur, which means "Old Man". The volcano has been erupting at least since 1774, when Captain Cook sailed by and logged it. Then it was "tabu" - a word in the pidgin English common tongue, Bislama, meaning "forbidden" and "sacred" - to climb the 361-metre cone. Now small bands of travellers roll up each dusk to watch the spectacular transition to darkness.
My base is idyllic - the intimate and relaxed White Grass Ocean Resort, where a seafront restaurant serves luscious fruit, proof of the volcanic soil's fertility, and lobsters that come in as many sizes as T-shirts, from small (about $24) to XXL ($60). Remote and undeveloped Tanna is one of 13 main islands in the 83-isle chain. Its 20,000 rural residents retain many old customs (except cannibalism). I learn this on a black magic "kastom" tour, in which an entire village puts on a joyous pantomime of traditional jungle know-how. Also worth visiting are the John Frum villages. A cargo cult with Christian influences, John Frum derives from "John From America", a god-like figure who bestowed fridges, jeeps and radios in World War II. Followers are waiting for the US soldier to return, bringing wealth, prosperity and whitegoods.
Our volcano safari begins at White Grass at 2.30pm. Australian resort hosts Robyn and Ted Redknap brief us on the six-hour expedition, which traverses rough roads to Yasur in the west. Four-wheel-drives are essential. "The volcano is on level two," Ted says, "which means you should have a good show tonight."
I later learn that at level three, rocks would have been falling on our viewing point. Comfortingly, I also learn volcanic activity is constantly monitored by scientists.
Ted runs through the rules, ending with a jovial, "Don't worry! We haven't lost one yet." Nervous laughter follows. Nine visitors have signed liability waiver forms and spread out over two cars, including Australian couple Rachel and Brett, with their sons, six-year-old Jak and Tom, eight.
The boys' enthusiasm is infectious - an excuse to abandon grown-up facades and rediscover a sense of wonder. It's a volcano! It explodes! Anticipation builds in the back of the truck like it's Christmas morning.
En route, we stop to see a century-old banyan tree and listen to a welcome song by a choir of schoolchildren who spring up at a seemingly random point on a dirt road. At a rustic settlement of coffee bean farmers (Tanna coffee is renowned), a swarm of ragged children show us their pigs. Pigs are valuable currency in agricultural Vanuatu and tokens of wealth and power. Even the nation's beer is called Tusker. We're also shown a kava plant, the root of which makes a milky drink used as a relaxant, the world's only legal narcotic. Tanna's kava is said to be the strongest in Vanuatu, with a key ingredient being saliva - traditionally boys chew the root then spit it into a coconut cloth. The muddy, peppery juice is squeezed from the cloth, then drunk. Mmm. But it's tabu for Tanna women. "Only men are allowed to drink kava," the woman showing us the plant says. She doesn't seem upset about this.
Our first glimpse of Yasur, with a mighty smudge of smoke hanging overhead, comes as we descend a windy hill pass. Then we motor on over ash plains, the desolate moonscape at the foot of the volcano. Ash clouds travel far; particles even land on White Grass on the other side of the island and must be wiped off tabletops regularly, Robyn says.
Finally, the Land Rover churns onto treeless black land near the rim. We use the facilities; a postbox (buy a card before you come) and a toilet shack, which considerately lacks a door to allow the user a better view of incoming trucks and vice versa.
Everyone grabs a torch and walks 10 minutes to the crater - Yasur is living up to its reputation as the world's most accessible volcano. We arrive just before sunset. The Old Man is grumbling and hissing but though I crawl to the edge of the crater, about half a kilometre wide, I can't yet see any lava in the distant pit. Later, Robyn tells me the observation site is more than 200 metres from active vents and lava bombs are ejected at speeds of 100 to 300metres a second. A White Grass guest who was a mathematics professor calculated lava bombs shoot up about 240metres, she says. For photographers, this means a tripod is essential or you'll capture a red blur.
As night falls, it's like having front-row tickets to one of the greatest shows on earth, with an audience of about 50 people whispering "wow" as applause. Lava lights up the sky every few minutes, inspiring awe and a sense of ant-like insignificance. Oddly, listening to the roar of the eruptions becomes as soothingly hypnotic as watching the ocean. Who needs kava?
The writer travelled courtesy of the Vanuatu Tourism Office and Air Vanuatu.
* Volcano tour: White Grass's Mount Yasur volcano safari, 8800 vatu ($103) a person, is held from 2.30 to 8.30pm daily. Physically, the tour is suitable for everyone from grandparents to children, but do consider the fear factor with littlies.
* Getting there: Air Vanuatu flies from Sydney to Port Vila for about $637 return; Port Vila to Tanna return, about $300; see http://www.airvanuatu.com.
* Where to stay: Tanna: White Grass Ocean Resort, see http://www.whitegrassvanuatu.com.vu. Bungalows with sea views from 10,500 vatu ($123) a person to 25,000 ovatu ($293) for a family room. Port Vila: Le Lagon, see http://www.lelagonvanuatu.vu; Le Meridien Port Vila Resort & Casino, see http://www.lemeridien.com.
* On Tanna, find time to: Go snorkelling. The coral reef in front of White Grass has a splendid 20-metre drop-off. Visit rural villages. Explore on mountain bikes or sea kayaks. Relax with a cold Tusker while watching the sun set over the ocean.
* More information: See www.vanuatutourism.com.