Elemental power, flinging red-hot boulders through the air. The ground shaking as 100 feet stomp in abandon. A lush garden below the swell racing past in the indigo current. If ever there was a natural eco-tourism destination, it has to Vanuatu, the Melanesian island group in the south-west Pacific.
     Known as the New Hebrides before its independence, the British and French colonial powers didnt bother brawling over this untameable area.
     They administered it as a condominium from the safety of the capital of Port Vila on the island of Efate, while missionaries regularly ended up in the traditional ground oven as reward for their efforts to un-teach local customs.
     A visible victory of the western churches over former savage ways has since been to substitute morally offensive grass skirts for aesthetically offensive Mother Hubbard dresses.
     Vanuatu means the rising land, and at a mere 22 million years young it is still shaping itself, with nine active volcanos.
     Mount Yasur on the southern island of Tanna is the most accessible active volcano in the world. You can get close to the heat of the nightly fireworks display with minimum footwork and in relative safety, though you will be asked to sign a liability waiver by the tour operator.
     Most of the high islands are still covered in virgin vegetation. On misty mornings the smoke rising from cooking fires of villages hidden in the rainforest presents a timeless picture.
     The Ni-Vanuatu people in the outer islands are pure Melanesian, while a blend of Melanesians, Caucasian expats, Polynesians, Chinese and Vietnamese can be seen in the street cafes and chic boutiques of Port Vila.
     Its a far cry from the outer islands, where the barter system still works in many communities. Black domestic pigs and woven mats are the traditional currency - a wife can cost three to 10 pigs. And Melanesian culture comes no more colourful than at events such as land-diving (no PADI speciality yet), where young men fling themselves off a 30m tower with vines tied to their ankles - the original bungee jump - or the many dance, pig-killing and kava-drinking festivals.
     Vanuatu has been on the divers map mainly thanks to the ss President Coolidge, the largest accessible wreck for non-tekkies.
     The Coolidge, a 650ft liner converted into a troopship, ran into a friendly minefield at the end of WWII and sank on a reef slope near the town of Lugainville on the northern island of Espiritu Santo. Its bow lies only 50m from the shore in 20m of water, its stern at 65m.
     People fly from around the globe to dive the Coolidge. Its scale is undoubtedly impressive and its originally generous interior layout as a cruise liner accommodates any number of divers with minimum silting.
     Tame grouper, angelfish, moray eels and turtles add extra spice to the already delicious soup of deep, clearwater wreck-diving and acres of encrusted WWII junk. Boisterous Boris the giant grouper takes care of the entertainment at the deco stops as he elbows through the divers to the guides fishy offerings.

one step beyond
Some visitors sacrifice a dive on the Coolidge to check out nearby Million Dollar Point, where the Americans bulldozed their unwanted construction machinery into the ocean before leaving Vanuatu after the war. The British and French refused to buy it at any price, reasoning that it would be left behind anyway.
     Some divers visit the freshwater blue holes set in idyllic jungle vegetation in the hinterland, and also head for the famous Champagne Beach on their pre-flight off-gassing day, but here the regular itinerary usually ends.
     They have missed out. As they digest their Vanuatu adventure along with the airline food on their flight back, one of the rarest and most curious sea creatures grazes peacefully on a seagrass meadow on the island of Epi.
     This magnificent, 3m dugong, or sea cow, visits Lamen Bay for his daily alfalfa sprout fix. You can snorkel with him for hours, watching him munching away. Its easy to interpret his angelic temper and indifference to human intrusion as friendliness.
     On the cuddliness scale he ranges right up there with the seal pups, but no amount of touching would distract him from his considerable task of maintaining his bulk. He just moves on, as if we were unworthy of his attention, like the remoras which hitch a free ride on his flanks, and which he brushes off if they carelessly move within reach of his flippers.
     He uses these extremities to walk along the bottom when feeding, dragging his tail behind him in a cloud of sand. His preferred feeding site lies in only 4m of water and, as you cruise alongside, he occasionally gives you a wink with his black button eyes as if saying: Here, have some of my grass.
     Only rarely is he moved to a stronger reaction. Coming up for breath every 10 minutes or so, he likes to be left alone, obviously feeling vulnerable near the surface. Unlike cetaceans, which have a blowhole, the dugong exhales through his oversized nostrils before breaking the surface, allowing him to spend minimum time there and stay undetected.
     With a stroke of his powerful fluke he can outswim even the most enthusiastic diver to find privacy when he needs it. Dugongs are mistakenly reputed to be sluggish swimmers, perhaps because they are confused with the manatee, the only other member of the order Sirenia.
     Early sailors christened sea cows Sirens after the beautiful winged women whose singing lured unwary sailors onto rocks in Greek mythology. One look at this one makes it obvious that those sailors judgment was unreliable.
     Dugongs are locally known as Cow fis and, being mammals and herbivores, they do have more in common with cows than with fish. They look somewhat prehistoric, probably because of their high specialisation on one particular seagrass.
     Scientific data is patchy on these shy animals. Dugong dugon is the sole member of the family of Dugongidae, which ranges from East Africa to the western Pacific. In many places they have been hunted to extinction, but they are now protected in most places, including Vanuatu.
     Females give birth to a single calf about every 3-7 years and have a gestation period similar to humans. The young are suckled for 18 months. A lucky dugong can live for up to 75 years, and it takes about 10 years to reach sexual maturity. The individual in Lamen Bay, a fully grown male, weighs about 400kg.
     A country like Vanuatu, scarcely populated or industrialised, seems to provide sustained habitats for dugong communities. The local people coexist nonchalantly with their sea cows and cant quite understand the fuss visitors make about them, but are happy to paddle you out in a dugout to see them.
     Lamen Bay also hosts a community of green turtles which are almost as tolerant to human intrusion.
     In Port Resolution on Tanna island a young male dugong is called to the shore by a local girl every afternoon. This individual can be quite amorous and frequently underestimates his power while overestimating human breath- holding capacity.
     His mum arrived in Port Resolution some 20 years ago, gave birth and died. The young and lonely dugong had only humans with which to interact, and the local chief assigned the job of dugong guardian/entertainer to a village girl.

wall of perception
Epi constitutes the northern rim of a gigantic submarine volcano bordered by the islands of Emae in the south and Tongoa in the east. In the tradewind lee of Tongoa, on the outside of this undersea crater wall and flushed by strong, clear, offshore currents, thrives an explosion of tropical marine fauna.
     Tongoas wall is what psychedelic dive dreams are made off, a vertical garden of big, blooming fans, succulent soft coral and black coral trees, pumping with schools of fusiliers, surgeonfish and trevally.
     Anthias dance in thick clouds with the swell; dogtooth tuna, sharks and eagle rays glide in and out of the seemingly endless vista. Occasionally visitors from the deep blue such as oceanic whitetip sharks cruise by. The wall has the same virgin feeling as the tropical rainforest above. Because of its remoteness and the lack of facilities on Tongoa, only a handful of divers have visited this site, and a liveaboard is the only option to get there.
     The fierce current and ever-present swell make this an advanced dive, and Tongoa wall is rated as the best underwater experience in Vanuatu, but there are other world-class sites here that are hardly ever touched.
     Vanuatu is not a budget, beach-holiday, family-friendly destination, and the diving can be as challenging as it is rewarding. But the wreck of the Coolidge, a chance to snorkel with the sea cow of Epi and a dive on the Tongoa wall would each by itself be reason enough fly the extra mile.
     Combine them with the fire of active volcanos and encounters with the islands inhabitants, and you have the elixir for the experience of a lifetime.

Mount Yasur erupts on the island of Tanna
virgin bushland on Malekula
oceanic whitetip shark on Tongoa Wall
bungee-jumping is nothing new in Pentecost, Vanuatu
a feeding green turtle
this friendly dugong is not bothered by snorkellers
famous lady with unicorn at 45m on the Coolidge wreck - a porcelain figure set above a marble fireplace
Tongoa sea fan
dancers and spectators on Tanna
One of the dugongs of Epi
Manta ray on Tongoa Wall
Tribal woman on Tanna
reflecting diver on the Coolidge


GETTING THERE Via Australia or Fiji. Air Vanuatu has direct flights from Auckland, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Nadi (Fiji). Van Air services all outer islands including Epi, and the aero club in Port Vila offers charters and scenic flights into volcano craters..

DIVING: Nautilus Scuba visits four wrecks and some mediocre reef locations around Port Vila. Three operators go to the Coolidge in Santo. Allen Power has been there longest and runs a no-nonsense operation with emphasis on safety. The only liveaboard to service the outer islands, including Tongoa wall, is the vintage schooner La Violante, which usually has Epi and Santo on the itinerary and is the best way to see and dive Vanuatu (00 678 83143). Island Safaris in Port Vila (00 678 23288, www.islandsvanuatu.com) will arrange excursions and bookings for the dive charter trimaran Octopussy
ACCOMMODATION: Port Vila has resorts from budget to four star. In Santo most divers stay at the midtown Hotel Santo. Basic but clean bungalow-style accommodation is available in Tanna, Epi and Malekula. Charges are one or two stars ahead of quality - the price for remoteness.
WHEN TO GO: Vanuatu is hot and humid from November until April. Go between May and October, when the south-east tradewind makes for more agreeable conditions. Water temperatures range from 24-28C.
HEALTH: No vaccinations are required but precautions against malaria are recommended, especially when visiting the outer islands. Kava, the narcotic drink of the Pacific, carries a risk of hepatitis and TB, as it is traditionally prepared by chewing in Vanuatu. In the old days only children and virgins were allowed to chew it for that reason!
CURRENCY: Vanuatu is expensive, as all western consumer goods have to be imported and distributed by air. Carry the currency (vatu) in small denominations when visiting the outer islands.
LANGUAGE: Bislama, or pidgin English. All 115 islands have their own language, but if you ask for fins rather than feet blong duck duck at the dive shop you will be understood!
FURTHER INFORMATION: National Tourism Office of Vanuatu, 00 678 22685 / 22515.