Through Peter, a local agriculturalist Mark met who is working at Tanna Coffee, we were given the phone number of his cousin, Berry, who took us to the volcano, and through John we arranged a visit to the kastom village with driver Sam.
The track up to the highlands was rough and took us through wonderful countryside and villages. Great banyan trees were frequently seen, putting down a forest of roots, often trained to make a room in which men gather to drink kava. As we climbed, the villages had more traditional huts, with woven walls and thatched roofs, with neat compounds and gardens.
At Lowenia, we were invited to join half a dozen other visitors sitting on benches under a shelter at the edge of a clearing with a beaten earth floor. At the far side a group of bearded men hung around wearing nothing but grass penis sheaths. Across from them, under the banyan tree, were bare breasted women, wearing long grass skirts, and displaying handicrafts on mats. Our host was a well spoken educated young woman, wearing a second skirt as a a modest cape, who was the spokesperson for the village. We were entertained to dancing, and invited to join in, stamping feet hard to make the world tremble, and clapping hands at knee level with a sharp cracking noise. Then the men showed us how to make fire, rubbing a stick hard along softer wood to create saw dust which smoked and glowed. Once scooped into wine dried coconut husk fibre it was soon aflame. Having tried unsuccessfully to do this in the Las a Perlas Islands, I was keen to try the technique. Kneeling in the dust and rubbing the stick back and forth with maximum pressure I soon had it smoking.
Before we left we were shown the vegetable gardens, which are very fertile in the volcanic soil. For example, "water taro" produces tubers. One lifts the whole plant and cuts off as many as required and put the plant back in the hole. Kitchen taro is different; one cuts off the whole root, and replant the leafy top! There was also cassava, or tapioca, ground nuts, pumpkin, beans, a kind of bush called spinach and chillies (eaten mainly by the men) and kava.
After buying a little souvenir we were treated to a taste of "lap-lap", a cassava pancake with spinach. It was fascinating to meet these people who lived a peaceful simple life. I worry that exposure to tourism may change their self-perception to that of being a dancing troupe. Clearly some of the younger women were becoming shy about the traditional costume, covering their breasts. The men were friendly, and seemed relaxed and kind to the little children who sat with them or on their laps.
That afternoon we set off to the volcano up a much better road, which rose through the highlands or "MiddleBush", until it reached the ash plain. Along the way we entered a region of dense tree ferns, growing twenty feet high, and later on the ash plain it changed to a yucca-like plant with mangrove-like roots, the pandanus. Eventually the vegetation ended and we raced across the flat expanse of the ash below the volcano, which was rumbling deeply and belching smoke. In a cluster of vegetation we came to the park entrance where we watched a ceremony to placate the volcano, and a dance troupe which clearly did not come from a kastom village, wearing board shorts under their grass skirts.
Then a drive almost to the top of the crater, which we reached with a 10 minute climb up a steep path. Here on the rim the deep noises of the volcano sounded like a giant steel factory, with occasional explosion and deep rumbles that really shook the ground. As light fell we circled the rim to a high point where we could see right down to the glowing vents. There was a constant shower of sparks, with regular explosions that sent boulder sized gobs of molten rock high above us to crash in a shower of incandescence on the crater walls. I watched one above me getting bigger and bigger, and not deviating left or right, and got ready to step smartly out of the way. Thankfully it crashed into the rim below me.
It was a remarkable experience, free of most health and safety restrictions. So free in fact, that despite the supervision, I was concerned that older or younger visitors might lose their footing on the rim and plunge down to the inferno.