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Contrasting maelstroms in the South Pacific



Vanuatu: Walking right up to 'the gates of Hell'


Meridian Writers' Group

TANNA, Vanuatu-"It's like gazing into the gates of Hell," said Kerri Miller.

Standing on the rim of Mount Yasur volcano's crater, I had to agree with the Australian tourist. We peered into the bowels of the earth, listening to a sea of lava bubbling and shuddering from the backdraft of dozens of little explosions throwing cinders high in the air.

Every so often there came a "belch" and ash was thrown high, to come down on our heads.

Yasur, on the southeastern end of the island of Tanna, in the South Pacific cluster of islands once called the New Hebrides, is one of the world's most accessible volcanoes. You can literally walk to the lip.

In the crater are three huge vents. One rumbles constantly, another throws up billows of sulphur and steam.

But it's the middle vent that's the most awe-inspiring. It glows permanently, like the inferno it is, and every 10 minutes or so it shoots up a shower of red-hot stones.

Usually, the stones plunge right back into the crater. But not always. People on the rim have been hit - I had to use my backpack to protect my head from cinders - and in 1994 two Japanese tourists were killed by falling rocks.

If Yasur were in any Western country, injury liability would keep tourists well away from the rim. But Vanuatu is not a litigious country, so the volcano is there for everyone to marvel at, up close. Really close.

A four-wheel drive vehicle had taken us to within a few hundred metres of the summit. We hiked the rest. As we moved upward we could hear in the distance a deep rumble, followed by a whoosh! , like a jet plane taking off. "The gods in the volcano are active tonight," joked our guide (or perhaps he wasn't joking, for some native tribes believe Yasur is indeed the home of deities).

Suddenly we were in the midst of a thick, sulphurous cloud, then it was clear again and I looked into what my Aussie tourist friend called "the gates of Hell." It's something I'll never forget.

We had arrived at Yasur at the best time of day, about half an hour before darkness fell, so we saw it first in daylight, when you get a good feel for the geography, and then after dark when the whole thing becomes a spectacular natural fireworks show.

Yasur is one of Tanna's prime tourist attractions, but for many islanders it's also a shrine for the gods and especially for Jon Frum, the legendary figure worshipped by the so-called "cargo cults" of the South Pacific. Many believe Jon Frum will come and bring them cargoes of food, pop and medical supplies (hence the term "cargo cult") and "liberate" them from European influence.