A visit to Tanna Island's Mount Yasur starts with a kava ceremony asking the world's most accessible active volcano for permission to climb it. An American gent in the crowd is invited to present a cup of the murky stimulant to the village chief. He passes the cup to the chief who accepts it, bows, and then disappears behind a bamboo fence.
Our Ni-Van host, Silvie, shouts to the chief in Bislama, the language uniting Vanuatu's myriad tribes with one voice. Is it okay? she asks. The chief answers back. He says that it is.
"We have been given permission," says Silvie, turning towards us. It's an interesting bit of theatre that's no doubt rooted in authenticity, though I can't help but feel that it might be a little contrived, just for us visitors.
"The villagers here believe they can talk to the volcano," explains Jack, our driver for the bumpy, 90-minute journey across the island, through a mountain region known as "Middle Bush", from our hotel on Tanna's north-west coast.
Before we all cram into the back of the village's fleet of 4WDs ahead of a bouncy ride to the crater rim, Silvie warns us about the four rules we must follow when climbing the volcano. One advises us to listen to instructions. Another tells us never to walk ahead of our lead guide. The last rule is to have fun.
"But always think of your safety," she adds.
It's the third rule – the one about not running when there's an explosion – that I'm most concerned about. Mount Yasur has been erupting continuously for almost 800 years and continues to do so several times an hour. What if it spews a flaming projectile straight towards me? Do I stand still then?
About 20,000 visitors arrive annually through Tanna's White Grass Airport, primarily to see Mount Yasur. Our only protection comes in the form of canary-yellow hard hats tied on with string, perhaps explaining why we must first appease the gods. Good manners, it seems, go a long way towards ensuring one's survival here.
Fortunately for us, the volcano has been given a Level Two volatility rating today. It's ideal. Any higher and we wouldn't be allowed near it. Any lower and we'd miss the fireworks; it wouldn't put on a show. And a show is certainly what we want, despite the risks.
Our visit coincides with sunset, when the molten lava glows ever brighter against the darkening skies. It's this evening radiance that lured Captain James Cook to Tanna's shores, back in 1774. And it's what makes a visit here so special.
Despite our respectful greeting earlier, the volcano betrays its discontent. Regular explosions erupt from deep in its bowels. Ash-laden clouds mushroom in the sky. Chunks of molten lava spew towards the heavens. It gurgles, it growls. It spits, and it hisses. And it's spectacular.
So spectacular, in fact, that when the call comes for us to descend, I'm loath to leave. I linger as long as possible, willing the volcano to erupt just one more time.
But then I remember the gods. By overstaying my welcome, I might be tempting fate.
Rooms at the White Grass Ocean Resort cost from $300 a night. Airport transfers and breakfasts included. See whitegrasstanna.com
Mark Daffey visited Tanna courtesy of Air Vanuatu (airvanuatu.com) and White Grass Ocean Resort.
Vanuatu's borders remain closed due to the COVID pandemic. However, reports suggest Australia is looking to at some point establish travel bubble agreements with selected Pacific nations.