Right Time, Right Place, Right Now


Jun 5, 2001
Outside Magazine

One of the southernmost populated islands, Tanna is best known for its mysterious "cargo cult" religion, as well as its uniquely accessible, reliably active volcano, Mount Yasur.

Yasur's personality is more simmering than violent, but it has been erupting, sometimes with fatal results, almost continuously since Captain James Cook first observed it in 1774. With a licensed guide, which is the only way to go, you drive across an ash plain, past a lifeless lake, to a parking lot scattered with boulders that—though best not to ponder it until you are a safe distance away—were flung from the caldera during past eruptions.
From there, scramble 400 feet up the side of the cone until you come, abruptly, to the realization that there is no guardrail between you and a very big barbecue pit. It's possible to visit Yasur on a day trip from Port Vila, but far better to stay on Tanna at least one night, which will allow you to make the climb just before sunset, when the sparkler-like display is at its best. Activity is greater, and more spectacular, during the wet season, from December through March.

The day I visited, I was standing at the crater's edge, snickering about a nearby Frenchman sporting a hard hat and ski goggles, when the ground shook with a sound as if whatever God was driving desperately needed a new muffler. A fiery array of molten rocks the size of big-screen TVs shot into the air, followed by a belch of black smoke that devoured the entire crater but, thank goodness, was pushed away from us by a gust of wind. "Good thing I brought a clean pair of knickers," said an Australian woman standing next to me, whose initial shriek had fortunately covered my own. Our guide shrugged. "Not to worry," he said. "The activity is only Level Two."

I didn't find his reassurance all that comforting, since Level One means no activity, and Level Three that the island is in imminent danger of being vaporized. The grading scale needed refinement. Still, I stayed and watched the Roman-candle-like vents spew for another hour, and would have stayed longer if I'd had a hard hat and ski goggles.

Not far from the volcano is Sulphur Bay, or Ipeukel, the main village of the cargo cult known as John Frum. Another World War II legacy that has nearly disappeared, cargo cults once flourished all over the Southwest Pacific, with locals convinced that if they pleased the gods—by clearing jungle airstrips and building bamboo models of such unimaginable wealth as radios, refrigerators, and jeeps—they would once again be showered with the real things. Who John Frum was is something of a mystery, but he may have been an American medical corpsman, "John from America," whose red-cross insignia has become the cult's symbol.

Every Friday at their church in Sulphur Bay, the worshipers—whose ceremonial garb includes cast-off U.S. military uniforms—hold services that consist mostly of singing, dancing, and for the men, drinking an intoxicating kava-root brew. Visitors are welcome year-round, but the big blowout is on February 15, John Frum Day, when 100 barefoot "soldiers" carrying bamboo rifles drill solemnly before a tattered 48-star American flag in expectation of their messiah's return. It's likely the most flattering, if surreal, reception an American could receive so far from home. Perhaps, if I'm ever marooned on this particular tropical island, these troops would consider defending me against misguided would-be rescuers.

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