Beauty and the brink: Islands of Vanuatu offer a volcanic vacation

January 24, 1993|By Joe Scholnick | Joe Scholnick,Contributing Writer

Balanced on the brink of the active volcano, I struggle to contain my fear as the churning, boiling mass of molten lava below seems to surge higher, reaching out as if to embrace me.

Huge tongues of flame create an eerie glow in the dusk. The earth trembles, and the air is filled with the hissing of escaping gasses and thunderous staccato explosions.

"The volcano is in a constant state of eruption," a guide had explained before we climbed to the lip of the crater, "but it has never . . . done so violently."

As I stand on the precarious rim of this spectacle, the guide's words no longer seem so reassuring.

The volcano is called Yasur. It's on the island of Tanna, a tiny dot in the vastness of the South Pacific's Coral Sea. Tanna and 80 other dots of land make up the Republic of Vanuatu. If the name is unfamiliar, it may be because that nation adopted the name just a dozen years ago, when it gained independence after several decades of joint British and French administration. It is perhaps better known by its old name, New Hebrides.

Although the guide's reassurances proved out -- Yasur did not violently erupt during my visit -- the volcano nevertheless makes a lasting impression. (Capt. James Cook, the intrepid English explorer, spotting Yasur from his ship in 1774, described it in his log as "the great lighthouse in the South Pacific.")

Reaching the rim of Yasur is surprisingly easy. A recently constructed road, a twisting packed-earth path through the tropical jungle of the central mountain range of Tanna Island, leads to the base of the volcano, a broad ash-covered plain that extends like a moonscape up the side of the 1,155-foot peak.

Driving across the plain, skirting the fresh water Lake Siwi, brings us to a road carved roughly into the windward side of the peak. The approach leads almost to the top. From there, it's a 20-minute trek over hardened lava, around huge boulders that have been spewed out by the volcano and across shifting dunes of ash to the rim of the crater.

Cultural contradictions

Reaching the rim of the volcano is relatively easy, but adjusting to the cultural contradictions of Vanuatu can be a more difficult.

Vanuatu is a tiny nation, made up of eight major islands and many minuscule others with a total land area of less than 5,000 square miles -- about the size of Connecticut -- spanning 550 miles north and south in the Coral Sea. It's population is less than 200,000.

Ninety-four percent of the residents -- called Ni-Vanuatuans -- are of Melanesian extraction, descendants of migratory peoples who, scientists theorize, may have crossed over a former land bridge from Southeast Asia.

The islands are part of what scientists term the "Pacific Ring of Fire," a chain of volcanic islands extending from the Aleutians, off the coast of Alaska, to Central and South America and around to the eastern rim of New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan and the islands of the South Pacific.

Five of the world's estimated 500 active volcanoes are found in Vanuatu, including one beneath the sea.

Tanna Island, on which Yasur is located, remains remarkably primitive. There are few passable roads, a handful of motor vehicles and an old World War II airstrip, which is covered with grass and in a valley so deep that the descending aircraft disappear from view until they taxi up to the shack that serves as a terminal.

The people of Tanna, for the most part, live as they have for thousands of years. On the way to Yasur, we stop briefly at a couple of villages, each a collection of palm and bamboo shacks. Each shack is the domicile for an entire family -- chickens and pigs included -- which lives in the single enclosure around an open fire.

An agrarian people, they grow root crops, such as yams, taro and manioc, and various fruits including bananas, pineapples and citrus on tiny plots cleared in the heart of the jungle. Coconuts are harvested for copra, from which oil is extracted. The land is so fertile that twigs driven into the earth to mark the boundaries of farm plots quickly take root and sprout leaves.

In sharp contrast, Vanuatu's capital, Port-Vila, on Efate Island about a half-hour north of Tanna Island by air, is remarkably modern and sophisticated. It has several first-class hotels and a surprising number of restaurants that serve outstanding French cuisine.

The French influence stems from the peculiar history of Vanuatu, when it was still known as the New Hebrides -- and served as the inspiration for the James A. Michener book, "Tales of the South Pacific."

For more than 70 years, the New Hebrides was ruled jointly by the British and French in an administrative arrangement called a condominium.

Each of the powers established its own rules and laws governing the residents of the islands. Each built its own hospitals, administrative offices, official residents, jails and schools; bobbies and gendarmes patrolled the city streets and wilderness areas in pairs.

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