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Erupting Vanuatu volcano lures thrill-seeking tourists

by Staff Writers
Mount Yasur, Vanuatu (AFP) Aug 22, 2010
As the Mount Yasur volcano cracks like thunder, spewing molten rock and billowing clouds of ash, it sends a warm rush of air to tourists watching from its rim.

Amid the roars from the abyss, the hiss of steam, and the thud of large pieces of magma hitting the ashen dust on the other side of the vent, more visitors arrive to view the eruptions in the pre-dawn dark.

"I've been here many times but I still get scared," says a tour group leader, moving back from the unfenced rim overlooking the red-hot gash in the Earth's crust in the South Pacific state of Vanuatu.

The fear is understandable. The track to the crater's edge is strewn with rocks tossed skyward by the volcanic eruptions -- ranging from the size of house bricks to one as large as a car door which almost blocks the ashen path.

Kicking a dinner plate-sized piece of cooled lava that he estimates has landed in the last month, a guide points out that Yasur is not particularly active at the moment, rating only one on a scale that runs to four.

In May, visiting the crater was banned and the huge plume of volcanic ash which fell over Tanna Island, clouding windscreens as people drove, disrupted international flights.

Since the intrepid Briton Captain James Cook first spotted its glow in 1774, thousands of tourists have visited the volcano which lies some 250 kilometres (155 miles) south of the capital Port Vila and within the "Pacific Ring of Fire", known for its high seismic and volcanic activity.

One of the most accessible volcanos on Earth, the 361-metre (1,190-foot) Mount Yasur is also nearly always active -- its super-hot crater a warm glow seen from around the island.

Officials say no one has ever fallen into the molten pit but acknowledge that at least two people have been killed by flying lava after venturing towards the more dangerous sites on the ashen mountain.

Another person, a resident of another part of Tanna island, died after he was hit in the leg by a piece of lava and bled to death after failing to seek medical help, according to the Vanuatu Tourism Office.

The volcano has also been known to cause a tsunami and locals live with the constant nuisance of falling ash destroying the crops they need for their survival on the island, where most still live in traditional villages.

Many of the poor roads which link the island communities are cut into the volcanic ash, meaning heavy downpours can make travel impossible, while the ash mud also has the potential for landslides which could bury villages.

But the volcano, reached via a barren moonscape covered in ash and dotted with rocks of lava, also ensures that Tanna has some of the most fertile soil in the country and the island produces coffee, coconut and copra.

It is also the source of hard currency, as tourists come to see an island once famous for its cannibalism which now boasts visitor-friendly traditional Vanuatu villages, where residents still wear grass skirts and subsist on coconuts, bananas and yams.

As dawn breaks on Mount Yasur, roosters are heard and surrounding peaks can be discerned, as can the surrounding sea.

"Before, the people believed the volcano was their god," explains local guide Fred George, who has brought two foreign tourists to the crater's edge for a dawn viewing. "I can say they worshipped it."

In former times, a local practice was to push dry sticks into the lava to obtain fire for heat and cooking, with villagers saying 'Yasur, Yasur, we need the fire from you', George said.

"It's still important to us," he says, but for reasons less sacred: the mountain brings hundreds of tourists to Tanna Island each year, each of whom pays 2,250 Vatu (22 US) to view the volcanic eruptions.

"Without the volcano... no money," George says.

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