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Vanuatu: To hell and back

“I know it looks terrifying, but most of what you can see is just clouds of gas,” says a British geologist, blithely addressing his holiday companions as they hug their knees at his feet; eyes screwed up tight in the darkness, their backs turned to Hades.

Vanuatu: To hell and back
Mount Yasur, Tanna, South Pacific. Image: James Draven

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We’re standing on the very brink of a precipice of crumbling black rock; beneath us blazes a literal lake of fire. I peer down into the pit and at that moment the air reverberates with a roar, and a searing wind blasts my face with hot ash, toasting my brow, temporarily blinding me and sweeping me off my feet. A jet of 1,000C liquid rock shoots heavenward.

Now I’m kneeling with the rest of the congregation and, in the absence of health and safety legislation, using the crater’s rim, both as a handrail to stop myself tumbling backward into inky oblivion and as a shield from the wrath of hellfire before me. Meanwhile, John, my new geologist acquaintance — still just about standing — continues his casual exorcism with a mantra on magma.

“… and the lava is illuminating that ash cloud, which makes it look much worse…” he spouts, like a mollycoddling boyfriend at a horror flick, throwing a metaphorical arm around quivering shoulders and explaining that it’s not real — there is no Captain Howdy — it’s all smoke and mirrors.

As I regain my feet, a very non-CGI bat flies across the face of the yawning abyss, its outstretched leathery wings silhouetted against the churning inferno below. Meat Loaf would be delighted, but also very sweaty — it gets pretty hot up here and it’s a bit of a climb… if you decide to walk, that is.

Mount Yasur is touted as the world’s most accessible active volcano because, with the right vehicle, you can drive to within 200 yards of its vents, which have been erupting near-continuously for over 800 years. Located on the remote island of Tanna in the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, the entrance is a two-hour trip from the airport; through forests, then across a barren ash plane of shifting, gunmetal grains of sand and brittle threads of Pele’s hair: airborne molten lava caught by the wind and spun out into delicate strands, named after the Hawaiian fire goddess.

It’s only a few months since Cyclone Pam tore across this countryside but, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of destruction, the locals have rebuilt and replanted; the only traces of this act of god are the sheets of corrugated iron that remain twisted like sweet wrappers in lofty tree branches along the pitted track towards the volcano that I’ve silently named the Road to Hell.

References to perdition aside, gazing into this mesmeric magma chamber, a veritable red-hot bowl of primordial soup, is like staring into the eye of the Creator, and up here on this diabolical mountaintop, geologist John’s sermon on stone is nothing more than the ravings of a crazed street preacher.

As the pandemonium subsides, John’s friends beat a hasty retreat back along the rim’s circumference and down to the base, leaving us alone with our awe. I ask him how many volcanoes he’s visited, and he surprises me with his answer: “This is my first,” he says. My eyebrows shoot upwards and he qualifies his answer with a Mephistophelean gleam in his eyes: “Having studied these things in great detail, I’ve never thought standing on the rim of an active volcano is a terribly sensible place to be.”