Go with the flow
As far as stratovolcanoes go, Mount Mayon is a beauty, having as it does an almost symmetrically conical shape. In December, though, scientists were predicting that Mayon, in the Philippines' Albay province, 330 kilometres southeast of Manila, was about to spectacularly erupt.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology raised Mayon's alert level to four, the highest below a full-blown eruption, on December 20, as lava flowed down its southern slopes. Each day, Mayon was pumping out 750 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and was being shaken by 460 earthquakes. More than 40,000 people were evacuated from around its base. No civilian was permitted within an eight-kilometre safety zone.
The danger passed, however, and on January 13, the alert level was dropped to two. As local residents returned to their homes, one thrill-seeking tour company took its quad bikes back to Mayon's slopes.
The volcano has erupted 49 times since 1616. In 1814, a major eruption killed more than 1,200 people, buried entire coconut trees and devastated several towns.
Mayon's power is in evidence in the remains of the Cagsawa church, in the town of Daraga. A lava stream from the 1814 eruption buried the church and killed hundreds of villagers who were sheltering inside. All that remains is a blackened tower.
Last year, with the alert warning at level two, Your Brother Travel and Tours began taking adventurers onto Mayon, one of the more prominent flashpoints in the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Although the volcano is officially off-limits to the public when an alert is in force, our guide is able to get us past the checkpoint and its armed soldiers. Quad bikes are waiting for us at the village of Bonga. After a brief training session, we hop on our bikes and zoom towards the volcano, tyres crunching over stones and volcanic ash.
We leave our quads near a row of thatched huts at the Mayon Adventureland base camp, scramble down an embankment and cross a shallow valley to the foot of the volcano. The steep incline looks unclimbable but once I grab the dangling rope I haul myself up the ash-coloured powdery slope without too much trouble.
The rope leads to a vast expanse of hardened grey lava rock left over from previous eruptions. We clamber over the uneven rocky surface, stopping on a large flat ledge to gaze over the palm tops towards Legazpi City and the Gulf of Albay.
If a major eruption occurs while we are exploring the base, we'll not be able to outrun the lava.
After a major eruption, pyroclastic flows of superheated gas and volcanic debris race down the slopes, incinerating everything in their path for as far as six kilometres from the crater.
Today, the volcano's summit is shrouded in mist; wisps of steam escape from the rocks beneath us. I feel as though I'm looking down on the world.
The region surrounding the volcano is a kaleidoscope of scenes: buses with flapping banners of Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), a controversial Christian organisation, and billboards that describe Coca-Cola as a 'Gift of God' and 'happiness in all sizes'. Colourful jeepneys - second world war-era jeeps that have been made into buses - with names such as Pauline, Sheena and Cheryl are packed with passengers.
Not surprisingly, Mayon has contributed to the region's culture and history. Our Lady of the Gate Church, in Daraga, is a baroque structure that was built in 1773 from volcanic rock. Adorned with relief carvings of floral patterns, religious seals and saints, the church's moss-covered colonial facade resembles those of South America.
Mount Mayon hides behind the clouds as our boat speeds across Tabaco Bay towards Cagraray Island.
Between 1575 and 1826, Spanish galleons sailed east from Manila to Acapulco and returned laden with Mexican silver. But some didn't make it and the coves of Cagraray and the Sula Channel are littered with wrecks.
Mount Mayon draws thousands of Filipino tourists each year but the province is relatively undiscovered by foreigners. A new resort on Cagraray is hoping to change that.
At Misibis Bay Resort, a group of lithe-limbed dancers in flowing green outfits welcomes guests with a lively dance. I am shown to my ocean-side villa and pampered with a 30-minute foot massage.
The villas are decorated with brightly coloured soft furnishings, ceramics made from Mayon ash and woven table settings.
Attentive staff members are everywhere. Poolside, they bear iced water and chilled towels. Others are in the tropical gardens, ready with umbrellas to protect guests from the rain and shine, and, on the beach, they assist with kayaking, snorkelling, diving and jetskiing. Personal butlers rush into vacated villas to fold towels and plump up cushions.
The food is exotic and delicious. The local breakfast of ensaymada (blueberry bun with grated cheese) and arrozcaldo (rice porridge with egg, chive and dried onion) is delectable and satisfying.
We lunch on generous amounts of fresh crab, bought from a passing fishing boat, deep-fried and seasoned with salt and pepper, and washed down with a bottle of South African wine.
At the end of the meal, we feel ready to explode - a condition not yet shared by Mount Mayon, fortunately.
Getting there: Philippine Airlines (www.philippineairlines.com) flies to Manila, from where you can connect to Legazpi City. Mount Mayon lava tours can be arranged through your hotel or by contacting Your Brother Travel and Tours (tel: 639 054 557 594).