We left my Mum’s in Townsville heading for the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu with the intention of fulfilling one of those life-long dream kinda things. I have long wanted to see lava up-close, and despite Etna practically being on my doorstep in comparison to an island half-way around the world, Ambrym ended up being the chosen place for a volcanic adventure.
And adventure it was. We arrived from Brisbane into Port Vila which is on the island of Efate, and is the capital of Vanuatu. In order to save on costs once again, we’d booked ourselves into a shoe box with a double bed, table, and just enough space for an unnecessary fridge. We learned the hard-way, yet again, that you never want to book something through a hotel, later finding that despite saving on the shoe box, we’d been fleeced on the taxi cost from the airport. Nevertheless, the staff were friendly, and the restaurant next door which served American-style food had a great breakfast. We spent our day before heading off to Ambrym in search of accommodation for our return to Efate, and as it turned out, was well worth the hunt as we spent the end of our time in Vanuatu in an apartment with a beautiful sea view.
The transfer to Ambrym was the transfer we were worried might not happen as the plane that usually flew had been grounded for two days due to mechanical faults, which of course always inspires confidence. Thankfully Air Vanuatu solved the problem by bringing in an 8-seater plane which was certainly a novel, if not particularly cramped experience. A note to anybody who might end up on one of these in future, you definitely want some ear plugs! The first stop of the flight was at Norsup which had the most unique airport I’d seen to date at that point. Unfortunately the building had been destroyed by fire recently, and I guess with all the work going on after the last earthquake, the airport understandably wasn’t a priority. The plane was doing some sort of shuttle run, trying to corral all the people at Norsup who would be heading on to Ambrym, so we had a few hours to wait in the baking heat. Luckily I managed to find a shop that sold ice creams, yey! Why they don’t have a massive sign saying “Cold drinks, ice cream and lollies this way” I don’t know, as I’m sure they’d make a killing.
The plane eventually arrived back for the run to Ambrym where we landed at Ulei on a 100% grass runway. I have to say, the pilot managed to do some fantasic landings in comparison to the larger planes we’d flown on that were landing on tarmac; I was extremely impressed, which counteracted the smidgen of nervousness. We were driven to Endu village in the back of a ute along an exceedingly bumpy dirt track which posed some serious risks to one’s coccix. We stayed the night at the Sea Roar Bungalows which I can only really describe as a luxury hut which was a two-storey building with comfy beds. I think our arrival caused some confusion as the owner seemed to have been told to expect a couple, but wasn’t expecting two men. He kindly offered another bed, and since it meant having a bit more room for each of us to sleep, we took up the offer anyway. We were fed a fantastic dinner of the typical local food, although neither of us were particularly keen on the lap lap, which is sort of like squares of mashed potato or squash with an odd jelly-like substance on top.
The next day we were met by our guide and porters to start the trek up to the volcanoes. It wasn’t particularly sunny, but it was certainly warm and definitely humid. We stopped for lunch where Andy and I were given some biscuits, a type of savoury donut, and bits of coconut laid out on a palm leaf. One of the guys spotted a wild cat (well, a normal cat, but in the wild) in a tree which Andy took a picture of, only to subsequently find out that they’d knocked it out of the tree and it had been killed by the dogs for lunch, eek! Rest assured, I didn’t eat the cat. We carried on walking and eventually made it to the camp site and set up the tent. We didn’t have anything for cushioning to sleep on, so we tried layering up leaves underneath; it didn’t work. It was also a tiny tent, and of course Andy and I aren’t exactly small.
When the sun was almost set, we started out for Marum, the first of the two volcanoes that we were to see. As we approached, it looked something like a sunset, the sky glowing as we approached the volcanic crater. I will point out that the photos I took have absolutely no adjustments to the colour (so I’m also admitting that sometimes, you have to tweak things just to make it look more pretty).
The lava lake itself was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen. It was a few hundred metres away, so we couldn’t feel the heat, although every so often we got a face full of sulphur fumes. We were told to be aware of possible earthquakes, to which the advice was simple: get away from the edge of the crater so you don’t fall in. The guide said that it’s always best to view Marum at night since you get to see the light coming off the lava. We were doubly lucky that the weather was in our favour and there was very little cloud, so there was nothing in the crater obscuring the lake at the bottom.
Knowing that the plan was to spend two nights up in the mountains in the tiny tent with no cushioning, Andy and I decided to ask if we could do the next two days’ worth of walking in one day. Our guide said it was possible if he could make the arrangements. The interesting bit was that the only mobile phone signal available was at the top of the volcano. Despite some difficulties, I managed to get through to the travel agent who set the wheels in motion. So, we set out for Benbow with a long day of walking ahead of us.
The landscape, unsurprisingly, isn’t particularly interesting when you’re in the shadow of a recently erupted volcano. Life comes back, slowly but surely, but for the most part, you’re looking at rock, sometimes black rock, sometimes grey rock, and sometimes brown rock. You get the picture. Levels of excitement rose when we were briefly engulfed in a noxious cloud of gaseous sulphuric acid; not just stinky, but nasty to breathe too. I fashioned a mask out of a T-shirt just in time for the cloud to have passed. The idea came in handy again not much later though.
The walk up to Benbow was pretty scary. We’re both afraid of heights to varying degrees, and as it turns out, the walk was something more of a scramble in some places, with much of it consisting of walking along the arete of soft, loose, basalt hills, hoping the rock wouldn’t give way beneath you. We made it to the top, only to find out that in order to see the lava lake at Benbow, you had to descend into one crater of similarly loose basalt and climb another.
Andy decided to stay at the top of the mountain and watch me descend into the crater, with much trepidation I might add. For me, it was worth the scramble. Benbow was much more bubbly than Marum, throwing more lava up into the air. The improvised mask came in handy again as along with the lava, there was a lot of sulphur and sulphuric acid in the air. I met another group at the bottom whose guide had very kindly fitted them out with proper gas masks.
Our walk back down from Benbow didn’t turn out to be the “not so steep” walk we’d been promised, although I think this may have been a mis-understanding as the descent itself wasn’t particularly steep, but the drop on either side definitely was. My personal “trick” in these situations is just to look at my feet, and try as hard as possible not to look anywhere else. I combined my looking at feet approach with very tiny steps; Andy took the lower centre of gravity option of sliding down a good chunk of the walk on his arse.
Upon reaching the next camp site, our second guide met us and we found out that we still had three or four hours walking ahead of us, after the six we’d already done. The going wasn’t quite as hard, but we were pretty tired by this point. As luck would have it, there was a truck waiting to pick up the other group I’d met at Benbow, and they kindly agreed to take us all the way to Craig’s Cove, with a stop off at a geothermal pool along the way. Just what the doctor ordered. Having sped through our trek which was originally scheduled for three nights on the mountain instead of just the one that we were up there, we ended up spending the final three days at Sam’s Guesthouse in Craig’s Cove, where we shared our room with two friendly rats, and a lizard that kindly ate the pesky moths which gathered around the light each night.
I realise by now that I’ve turned just a few days into possibly the longest bit of blog I’ve written. I can only say that it was absolutely one of those once in a lifetime experiences, and if you have a hankering after seeing lava like I did, it would be well worth the investment.