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Vanuatu: Ambrym volcanoes

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Ambrym volcanoes | Vanuatu | Oceania

[Visited: November-December 2012]

Even after the spectacular visit to Mount Yasur just ten days earlier, I was very much looking forward to climbing the twin volcanoes of Ambrym island. The two natural powerhouses are very important to the locals of Ambrym; the island is known as the Black Island, not just because much of its sand and stones are black, courtesy the volcanic character of the island, but also of black magic - which is closely related to those same volcanoes. Getting there was a little harder to organize; I ended up flying into Lamap, and finding out that even though I wanted to charter a boat, it was impossible to find anyone to take me across for a decent price. So I spent an unexpected night in Lamap, had a great dinner, during which the lady whom I was talking to in the dark and whose face I would only see the next morning, suggested I ask for the police boat. It seemed a strange proposal, but to my surprise, the owner of the guesthouse actually showed up a little later, saying he had arranged a charter with the policeboat for the regular fare. Indeed, when he guided me down the beach early next morning, marketwomen were just unloading their wares for the day from a boat with blue and white checkered sides, and on its front painted "Vanuatu Police Force". The sailing was easy, with lots of fish flying around us, and when we arrived on a beach of black stones, the two guys in the boat started collecting as many of them as they could; they are apparently the best for making laplap, the traditional Vanuatu dish in which hot stones are put inside leaves filled with the ingredients of the day. Once I found the right person, we ended up planning my visit to the volcanoes; and I found myself on the tray of a pick-up truck on the way to Port Vatu. John, my guide, and his helper David were easily found, and the driver then took us to the very end of the road on the way up to the volcanoes. We prepared our bags while the truck drove off, and started climbing up the steep ascent of the ash field of Ambrym.

Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): View over the unique landscape created by the volcanoes of Ambrym

David proved very slow, and we waited several times for him; we reached the ash plain and the campsite in a little over 2 hours, and had lunch, before John and I were off to climb Marum. Looking around me when we entered the ash plain again, I realized the abrupt change between the lush vegetation with palm trees, huge ferns, and other trees and plants, and the barren, black area where the wind was sweeping across relentlessly. The more we walked inside the ash plain, the more I felt overwhelmed by the surrounding landscape. The weather was changing very rapidly: a short shower, followed by sunshine, and while the sun was still shining, the next shower was already coming down. Ahead of us, we saw barren hills with a touch on green on some of them, I assumed because of the rainy season. There were also hills that looked like sanddunes, and gave the impression of walking in a desert. We walked next to a relatively new lava-field: a smaller volcano had spewed out the rugged black rocks in 1988. After a while, we entered what looked like a canyon; it closed in on us, and John introduced me to what he called the gateway to the moon. Indeed, from here, there was no more vegetation; we were getting close to the volcano, and even though we could not feel its heat, it was easy to imagine that we were breathing unhealthy gasses that were detrimental to anything trying to grow. We walked past an un-moon like pond, passed the crater rim of a smoking volcano mound, and started to climb steeper. On many maps, Marum is marked as being over 1200 metres high, but when we had barely reached 900, my guide stopped between two wooden poles, pointed down into a sea of grey, and told me we had arrived. Indeed, I could hear a constant hissing below me, coming mysteriously from the thick cloud below us. On either side of us, a sharp ridge of the crater contrasted with the clouds coming from below, until suddenly the wind blew an opening in the cloud, and we could look right into the boiling magma 400 metres below of us. Once we had seen that, we were of course waiting for another opening, and indeed, they did present themselves, until we noticed it was getting dark, and we started our descent. Walking back through a foggy lunar landscape was, to me, a fantastic experience, and gave the place some mysterious air. When we had almost reached camp, I stayed behind - and my patience was rewarded: the clouds over Benbow, the other big volcano of Ambrym, suddenly sailed away, exposing the top; I could now finally see that those huge columns of clouds in the sky were actually formed by the volcano, not the weather. A sun was setting over the half-desert ash plain, the few plants got a warm glow over them. The last speck of light had already gone when I finally tore myself away from the spectacular landscape, and walked almost straight into my guides who were worried about me. A simple dinner on the fire readied us for the night.

Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): The special landscape near Benbow volcano requires some ridge-walking

Even though I had plans to go out at night, and try to see the orange glow over the volcanoes, it rained too much for me to believe I could ever have a good view, and I ended up staying in my tent. I did wake up regularly; first because of the rain, but then also because I saw the shadow of rats walking over my tent, just a little above my head. I forced myself not to look and to forget about them, but then I realized I could actually hear them all around me, munching on leftovers of food not disposed of properly by previous visitors. When I finally woke up, I noticed that daylight was on the way, and I hurried up, over the ridge, to the ashplain. The volcanoes were in a thick cover of clouds - the marvellous sunrise I had hoped for, would not happen that day. Still, I stayed to watch, and again, was rewarded when I suddenly saw a fierce rainbow appearing out of nowhere in the middle of the ash plain. I wondered how this was possible: I could not see any sunlight, yet the phenomenon was bright as could be, until it disappeared as sudden as it had come. During breakfast, a more steady rain started to fall, and John began what I had been afraid of: trying to convince me to take the same trail back to Port Vatu, even claiming, with written proof, that the trail over the volcano was too dangerous for foreigners, which only made it more interesting to me. I tried to convince him to stick to the original plan: visit Benbow, walk over the volcano, and back to Craig Cove on the other side. There was still some vagueness, and when we entered the ash plain again under a heavy shower, we saw a strong wind blowing dense showers over it; visibility was miserable. Again, John tried, but I did not budge; I suggested we should cross the plain, and see about the weather. I was convinced that the weather would change for the good again, which indeed it did, and before we reached the foot of the mountain, a bleak sun was shining on us. We soon reached the ridge of the crater, while a helicopter was flying over the ash plain, and it was clear that under the given circumstances, the plan to descend into the crater with a rope was out of the question. I was pleasantly surprised when John continued walking over the rim, not even discussing the day anymore. He only warned me constantly not to step to the left, whcih I thought was so logical that it did not need his words. We went down a steeper part, and a little later, John confirmed that the dangerous stretch he had mentioned that morning, and that I had dreaded a little bit, was already behind us. We descended though a narrow gorge, and when the view opened, the sun surprised us again by casting some light on the barren, wild landscape of ruggedly shaped rocks and landscapes. The weather had been dismal at times, but I was very happy we had come all the way up. Actually, the hike over the ridges of sharp and strangely shaped mountains, and later through a gorge that was very slow in showing signs of green again, was a truly memorable one. The walk down to the main road lasted longer than I expected, and I proposed John and David to turn left, and walk to Port Vatu; I was sure I could find the way back to Craig Cove, which indeed proved very easy. I could certainly feel my feet protesting all the hiking, and I was quick to put on my swimwear and dive into the crystal clear waters of the bay of Craig Cove for a well-deserved dip.

Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): Rainbow over Benbow
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): Benbow volcano with tall cloud rising from its crater
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): Marum volcano: barren hills to the south
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): Rocky mountains with a touch of sunlight
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): Landscape near Marum volcano
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): Desert-like landscape of the ash plain of Ambrym with lone plant
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): Fog lingering around the feet of Marum volcano
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): The boiling magma of Marum visible in a rare opening in the cloud
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): Sunset over a cloud-covered hill at the edge of the ash plain
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): The mountainous and desolate landscape to the north of Benbow volcano
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): Lunar landscape to the north of Benbow volcano
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): The rugged crater rim of Benbow volcano
Picture of Ambrym volcanoes (Vanuatu): Misty mountains with contours of rugged lava field

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