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YASUR

There’s always the first time with each breed of nature – the inaugural desert trek, the pioneer moment in the mountains, the primal tropical storm. This was my first volcano.

He stood on the rim with me or a moment then gently melted back, leaving me alone looking down into the pit. Yasur was in continuous eruption with great gouts of lava flying high, hundreds of feet into the air, falling in slow motion back into the core, disappearing into the smoky blackness a thousand meters below. It was Dante’s Hell, all electrical crashes, hissing explosions, rolling thunder and vibrating earth, a thousand, thousand boiling souls. Dogster found it oddly appropriate.

There was another unexpected explosion and sheer terror ripped me from that biblical reverie.

‘O-o-o-o-o-h-h-hh shiiiiit!’

Words were lost in the vastness of that sound. I was inside the noise. The ground under my feet trembled, the air around me changed shape; I forgot to breathe, forgot my name, forgot my very life – closer to death and yet more alive than I had felt in ages; lost in the power of it, blasted out of myself. It was all strangely liberating.

Then a sudden silence; a great tower of black smoke rose vertically from the pit and it was over. Mr. Dogster wanted to have sex.

When the next major eruption started I found myself whooping, jumping up and down, jiggling in a vestigial remnant of the savage still in me; falling into that aboriginal mind, seeing the volcano through original eyes.

Daniel was bemused by his excitement. For as moment he almost forgot to hate me. Dogster certainly wasn’t the first tourist to be knocked out by this astonishing sight and wouldn’t be the last to cry out in involuntary supplication to the great god of fear.

‘It’s extraordinary.’

Words didn’t seem enough. He was amazed.

‘You keep back from the edge. Maybe Yasur will explode a big one, right up to here, and you will be frightened and fall in the hole.’

Daniel didn’t sound as if he much cared either way. He gestured around at the boulders, small rocks, exploded debris all around them. Clearly every now and then Yasur let out a really big belch and rained space junk over the area they were standing in. I picked up a souvenir.

‘No! You can’t take that!’

Dogster was startled by the ferocity of Daniel’s reaction. He gasped and blinked confusion at his guide.

‘John Frum people believe if you take away what the volcano has given us crops will fail next year.’

‘Where are these John Frum people, Daniel?’

‘John Frum villages,’ he waved one thin arm in a semi-circle, ‘all around here. Sulphur Bay down there. Big John Frum village. Friday night all John Frum people go there for special singing and dancing service. Every Week. This is their holy day.’

*

Yasur groaned again, splashing liquid rock high up the cliffs that surrounded that murderous chasm. He could imagine the lake of lava below his feet; see into the molten centre of the planet. It seemed to him to be perfectly balanced with the moon, nearly full, hanging up there, baleful female balance to this unmistakably male phenomenon.

‘John Frum people say this is where the spirits of the dead go. They see them come up here after they die. They see them go down there,’ he pointed into the crater, ‘this is John Frum’s army of twenty thousand. Yasur is the centre of the earth.’

Between each major eruption, every fifteen minutes or so, a great gulp of cold air flowed up the sides of the volcano to be sucked down into the crater as oxygen to boil the rock, blowing cold and serious at their back as they looked down, expelled poisonous and black as that great plume of dead smoke. Dog turned to face the wind, saw silver water in the distance, shoreline cutting sea, black hills and headland, isolation all around. I felt quite at home. Only Sulphur Bay was hidden.

‘Chief Jimmy says Tanna was the first island, the first place. You understand? Big God made the Tanna land first and sent Tanna people to make the rest of the world. All animals from here, all plantations, even snakes.’

Faced with the black hole to the centre of the earth in front of him he knew what Daniel meant.

‘Yasur is the heart.’

As the next explosion burst upon us I let out a whoop of terror and copped a lungful of bitter sulphur and ash. Enveloped, enclosed in volcanic phlegm, gritty and scared, I looked around for Daniel – invisible. The tower of smoke we cowered in was lit from below by a bright shaft of lava, turned an exquisite shade of pink, then red, then mauve, was blown upwards by another explosion, replaced by a dull orange light. There was another explosion. I couldn’t see my feet for fear.

A small white hand wormed its way into mine, opening the clenched fist, clutching a single finger, pulling me away from the edge. Or towards, I really didn’t know. The wind changed suddenly and I saw the crater gulp back the lava it had just spat out. I sat down heavily and wept sulphur tears.

‘Yasur crazy. Bad. Come down now.’

The voice belonged to the hand, now pulling at his sleeve and whispering urgently. I looked up through bloodshot eyes.

‘How did you get here?’

The child smiled briefly but his eyes flashed with fear. Dogster could see the rot between his teeth, the dirt around the creases in his flesh. It didn’t occur to him that he probably looked much the same. Huddling together in the flying dust, waiting for the smoke to lift, they were all mankind, trembling in awe at some great God. Then the next eruption came.

‘Now!’ breathed the boy and got to his feet, ‘come on!

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A single fountain of lava was rising from the base of the pit, a scarlet gush of molten blood from the centre of the earth. As I stumbled blindly backwards I saw it pouring up into space, splash wildly onto the far side of the cone in showers of sparks then run back down into the pit.

‘Amazing,’ I wheezed, ‘just amazing,’ then reluctantly turned away.

*

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