It’s a strange feeling to have your bones rattle as you stand a mineral-rich stone’s throw away from an active volcano.
The ground trembles and the vibrations reverberate into your core while a thick sulphur fog burns your eyes and lungs.
Throw in a fierce wind that blows rain sideways and threatens to nudge unsuspecting travellers through rickety railings down a hill and into Mount Yasur’s simmering lava pit below and I wonder: are humans really meant to be here?
I’m on Tanna – a wild, rugged island in Vanuatu’s south yet to be transformed by the slick progress of modern tourism and perhaps most famous to date for the Oscar-nominated 2015 film of the same name.
The only sealed road I see extends away from the airport but not towards the handful of resorts on the island’s western coast.
Instead, it’s up to local drivers to traverse pot hole-laden dirt roads with cattle and goats for company.
It’s on these roads our day began, winding along a beaten jungle path with our driver Rex to the Siwi Ash plain.
The 4WD leaves the jungle and enters an otherworldly clearing of black volcanic soil and rolling, dark hills.
Steam and ash clouds blend into the overcast sky and the scene looks like something out of a science-fiction movie.
Rocky outcrops dot the landscape and Rex points out a hollow that was once a lake – the constantly shifting earth has let the water run free and only a crater in its place.
A chance encounter on the road with a mate of Rex’s leads us to the Tanna Tree Top Lodge for lunch. It feels like we’re deep in the jungle now.
Our host pops out of a tiny kitchen to serve us lunch on a covered deck: lightly fried poulet (a prized local fish named for its chicken-like texture and flavour); grilled savoury banana and rice; and a spicy green curry of fresh vegetables.
It’s a spectacular meal made all the more special by the surrounds – a couple of treehouses nestled among thick scrub as tropical rain belts down.
Then as the sun sets it’s up to the volcano, where time stands still as I gaze at the warm orange glow in the dark.
Tanna’s other gem is the Blue Cave and like Mount Yasur, simply getting there is part of the allure.
The hidden sea cave isn’t visible from the little tinny that bobs in an inlet tucked among the high cliffs of the island’s remote southern coast.
Instead, I dive below the surface and through a short underwater tunnel.
Popping up into the secret grotto is truly magical.
Shafts of sunlight stream through an opening in the giant rocky chamber like a spotlight and the water seems to glow iridescent blue.
The brightness of the water amid the darkness is quietly jaw-dropping.
It feels like a different planet to the hot blast of volcanic air from only the day before, but the thread of untouched nature’s beauty links both experiences.
Tanna’s raw beauty is a sight to behold but there’s a feeling among some locals that it’s about to change.
Chinese development and property purchases are always viewed with caution in the strategic South Pacific but there are fears foreign investment may chip away at the island’s charm.
It’s that dance of local tradition, unadorned nature and the creeping influence of the modern world that makes Tanna so fascinating.
How to get there
Tanna is a short 40-miunute flight away from the capital Port Vila.
Air Vanuatu now flies direct into Port Vila from Melbourne, as well as Sydney and Brisbane.
The writer travelled as a guest of Air Vanuatu and the Vanuatu Tourism Office.