At the Whitegrass Airport on Tanna, F (small and organised and quiet) and her husband C (with a cheerful smile and hair in an impressive top-knot) and the driver whose name I never did quite catch collected me. F and C climbed in the back of the Hilux and we set off over unpaved roads towards the other side of the island.
We stopped at a co-op to buy three eggs. A few kilometres further we picked up more supplies and some extra people for the back. We passed an inlet where some goats were climbing, and a group of peace corps workers walking down the road and came to another smaller store with Bible verses painted over the door and a hurricane lantern hanging in the trees nearby to advertise a kava bar. A little girl wanted to join us but was only allowed to pass up bunches of bok choy and fresh peanuts with their stems tied together. Then the owner of our truck appeared and took over driving. He was friendly, but spent most of the drive on the phone, swearing at one of his drivers (a new mobile phone company had opened across Vanuatu the week before, and the coverage was better than in Australia). We went back to the co-op where some chickens ignored us, then back to the small store and bought potatoes and bok choy and added a few more people to the back. It must have been at this point that the little girl joined us after all.
We turned inland – past coconut palms and overgrown plantations, bougainvillea apparently coexisting peacefully with other plants, farming families walking down the road waving and smiling and swinging their bush knives, cows tethered on banks or blundering loose in the road and regarding us with that particular unimpressed expression native to all cows, past extravagantly-tailed roosters and neat compact pigs which waited intelligently for the truck to pass before crossing the road. We stopped at a little outdoor market under a spreading tree and the driver bought more fresh peanuts, still on the stalk and with a sweet vegetable crispness, which we ate as the truck laboured over rutted, slick hill road.
At last we came over the top of the island and saw the sea on the other side. The horizon seemed as high as we were and the mother-of-pearl ocean fell down to the shore far below us. Down there was an iron-grey plain of ash and the volcano – smaller than I imagined but more barren, a black cone smoking distantly and rumbling.
On the other side of the plain, which was cut by clear streams, we found an ash road between the trees and almost ran over a puppy. Someone recognised it, so it was picked up by one leg and added to the back of the truck. We drove to the driver’s bungalows, unloaded most of the people and supplies, then went back down the ash road and up a rutted side road to our bungalows. I put my bag in my bungalow and then W (driver) and P (guide) and I left in the dark and drove to the volcano.
The main ash roads had been smooth and firm, but the track to the volcano was very rough, well beyond corrugations, and by now it was very dark. We drove to the base and then P and I walked up, P a bit behind me, shining the torch on the path. It didn’t take long to reach the top and then we were on the edge of the volcano.
K and B had described the volcano to me, but it would have been hard to have been prepared. I had been mesmerised by Isabella Bird’s descriptions, but this was not a lake of fire. Instead, a great black sulphorous pit fell away below us, and from the darkness at irregular intervals fire flew upwards. The earth would gather itself with a great roar like the rushing of the sea and then glowing molten rocks would fly up into the air, from far below us high into the sky and fall, whistling and glowing orange against the night. There was more than one cone and they would explode alternately, sometimes a hiss of glitter, sometimes howling and shrieking. Many of the glowing rocks fell back into the earth, but some seemed to stop suddenly in mid-air, fallen on the sides of the cone which was otherwise invisible in the darkness. Huge rocks rough with glassy knobs lay around us, fruits of more violent explosions – some within the last few weeks.
It was hard to turn away – it felt disrespectful. Walking back down, the volcano rumbling and venting behind us, I looked across to another mountain, cold and dark, with the plume of the milky way sailing up from it like an explosion of ice.