The Element of Fire


Tanna, Vanuatu – March 2006

Before we climb into the safari truck, introductions are made. Besides Laurence and myself, there are three Australian couples. We are all guests at the luxury White Grass Resort.

Laurence is shy about speaking English, so I say. “We’re from New Caledonia. But I’m American.”

Nods and distant, polite smiles. An instinctive wall goes up. However, their aversion is without hostility, and they are most likely oblivious of it. Laurence and I have simply ceased to exist.

Laurence and I exchange a look. We climb into the back of the truck. We speak in French, but not about them. We speak about the volcano that we’re going to see. Mt. Yasur is the reason that we’ve come to Tanna. It’s one of the world’s most accessible active volcanos.

There’s not enough room in the front, so one of the couples takes a seat across from us.  To my surprise, they strike up a conversation. They ask us about life in New Caledonia. They are from Sydney and are in their early forties. Their preferred method of travel is cruising. She’s wearing white short shorts, a halter top, a full face of makeup, and lots of gold jewelry. His constant grin takes up half of his face. They ignore the efforts of the other couples to keep them engaged in their conversation. Instead, they ask me about all of the places I’ve traveled.

My answers are short and to the point. I’m not used to people being interested in the things I’ve done. Every time I fall silent, they ask me another question. Laurence listens in silence, too intimidated to speak. She says to me in French, “They are very kind, but they sure like to talk, even though they don’t know us. How strange.”


The truck comes to a halt in a village. A group of villagers is waiting to greet us. Dressed in their Sunday best.

“They will sing some songs for you,” the driver says. He tells us to line up in front of them. This village receives a little money from the tour and they want to do something in return. Laurence and I stand behind the others. We are uncomfortable.

The driver grabs our arms and leads us to the front. “You stand up there.” He glares at us.

He’s the only rude employee that we’ve encountered at the resort. The others have been genuinely kind and very professional, as employees at such a resort should be. Laurence and I were going to stay at a more modest guesthouse, but my husband paid for our room at this resort as a Christmas gift. He couldn’t come along, because he had to work.

After so many years of staying in rustic accommodation, it’s a shock. It’s strange not having to share a bathroom or check for creepy crawlies before I go to sleep. I must admit that it’s fabulous. I’m a backpacker snob no more.


We pass through more villages. At the sight of the truck, hoards of children emerge and chase us down the grassy two-track road. They wear no shoes. Their clothes are dirty and threadbare. They scream with laughter and wave. Their joy is contagious. We smile and wave in return until, one by one, they fall back and disappear.

The road smooths out as it climbs out of the jungle. We stop at a lookout point. In the distance sits Mt. Yasur. The driver informs us that we are halfway there.


The closer we get to the volcano, the more hostile the villages become. Children still gather on the side of the road as we pass, but they scowl and yell at us. From the tone of their voice, it’s clear that what they say is not kind. They wear clean, brightly-colored clothes. One boy has a shiny new bike.

We stop again on the ash plains. The driver hands out juice boxes.

One of the ladies looks at the box. She smiles. “Ah, good Australian brand.”

The woman from Sydney looks at her husband and rolls her eyes.


A short time later, we arrive at the trailhead for the summit. Laurence and I slip our postcards into the Volcano Post box and then follow the others up the trail. A constant low vibration moves through me. Every once in a while a loud boom shatters the air. My heart begins to pound.


The hike is short – about ten minutes. At the summit, the group spreads out. Another group is already there. Their driver comes over to us, because he knows our driver. The group is from the guesthouse that we were planning to stay at. The guests are from different places, but they’re laughing together like old friends. They’re going to a kava house afterwards.

“That sounds like fun,” I say.

He slaps our driver on the back. “You should take them!”

Our driver glares at me and walks away.

As the sun sinks into the horizon, a chilly wind picks up and the rumbling intensifies. The volcano is most active in the evening.


Lava begins to shoot up. It looks like fiery glitter. Icy sprinkles of rain prick my cheeks, but there are no clouds to be seen, other than those from the volcano.

“It’s ash,” the driver tells us. It’s not water, but dead embers that are raining down on us.

Laurence sits on the edge. “I’m a Leo. Fire is my element.” She stares into the crater, mesmerized.

I sit next to her, one hand on my backpack. Just in case. I’m a Virgo. Fire is not my element.


The eruptions are now constant. With each one, a visible ripple can be seen moving through the air. Towards us, through us, and away. I feel a surge of euphoria.

The man from Sydney shakes his head in wonder. “Wow, you can see the shockwaves.”

For the first time, the driver smiles. “This is the most active I’ve seen it in a while.”

One of the women runs back towards the truck. Her husband tries to coax her back. She crosses her arms and shakes her head. I pace back and forth as I gaze into the liquid fire. I’m not afraid. I’m bursting with life and gratitude. It’s okay if this is the last thing that I see on this earth. It would be a magnificent way to go.


23 thoughts on “The Element of Fire

  1. The post is excellent as usual, but the picture of the rolling grassland is just brilliant… The shadows of the clouds and that green… Love the colours and shades…

  2. Always fun, always educational. After reading this, I looked up Australia and New Caledonia on the Internet. I am curious why the natives nearer the volcano were more hostile than the poorly dressed children in the hinterlands, though. Did you ever make it to a kava house?

    • Hey Chuck – my theory is that they were more hostile because they were a richer tribe. I’ve noticed this a lot in Melanesia. The more gifts a village receives, the more hostile they are to outsiders, unless they’re getting more gifts, and even then the politeness is forced. The resort probably didn’t give them part of the tour money.

      I went to a kava house in Pohnpei, Micronesia! Though they call it sakau there. It’s really nasty to drink, but the effect is nice.

  3. We are tied to earth for we are made of the substance that flows from its centre. We know instinctively that we will return to the ash that flows from the mountain. In the meantime, our struggle and joy is with all of earth’s children. That is the fire that strengthens character.

  4. it is interesting how the natives act at times, so interesting, I like Laurence she must be fun to travel with

  5. really awesome… We’ve been volcano fans for years, we visited Costa-Rica last month… we’ll return to Iceland this coming summer! My very best and bonne continuation! 🙂

  6. Ha, I’m Scorpio and water is my element, the exact opposite of fire. I’ve never been near a volcano yet… what a shame ‘coz my homeland has a lot of volcanoes – active and inactive, the inactive ones are attracting more tourists than the active. I wonder why. 😀 And btw, I like that photo of you. You look young and adventure is all over your face.

    • Thanks, Prem. 🙂 It’s too bad that you never got to visit a volcano in the Phillipines. Very few active volcanos are easy to get to, that’s what makes this one so special.

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