A few months ago, on a Maya pyramid in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle, we met Sam Cossman, a young guy from the States who had done a crazy thing: Dressed in a special suit he descended into the crater of one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Mt Marum on the island of Ambrym in Vanuatu. Since so long we’ve wanted to go to Vanuatu, that small pacific nation with lots of volcanoes and where, supposedly, the happiest people on earth live. Vanuatu has a lot to offer: Culture (what we know as bungee jumping is actually an old ritual called land diving, practiced on the island of Pentecost), nature, and volcanoes (the world’s most accessible volcano, Mt Yasur, is a major tourist draw on the island of Tanna).
That day on El Tigre pyramid in Guatemala however, was the first time we heard about Mt Marum. And, since it’s much less known and much more difficult to access than Mt Yasur on Tanna, it’s much more interesting. Right?
Ambrym is called the “black island” due to its black volcanic soil and the black rocks that make up most of the island’s coastline. The island is an active volcano with a huge caldera of over 100 square kilometers at its center. Inside that caldera are two active cones, each one with a bubbling lava lake: Marum and Benbow. Permanent lava lakes are very rare and only in a few places on earth it’s possible to see one. And here there’s not only one, but two! A good offer, I’d say.
The only decent way to get to Ambrym is by plane and the best way to see the volcanoes and the otherworldly landscape surrounding them is by crossing the island. Instead of going and coming back the same way, you can walk from one end of the island to the other (almost, at least). That way, you see much more of the island and it’s a great experience.
Starting from Endu
We flew into Ulei airport on south-east Ambrym. The airport is just a grassy airstrip. The small building, let’s call it Terminal 1, makes the international airport of Port Vila look like a real big airport. The only road leading to and from the airstrip is a one-way dirt track only manageable in a 4WD.
We had called the only accommodation in Endu in advance so when we arrived, the owner was there to pick us up. Good, because there’s no public transport on Ambrym. The accommodation, a lovely bungalow, is right in the middle of Endu village and some kids showed us the beach, their school, and picked some pawpaw for us. In the evening we met Peter, our guide for the volcano trek, discussed the hike with him, and the next morning we were all ready to start.
(For prices of the volcano trek and accommodation on Ambrym as well as phone numbers see the list at the end of the post)
From Endu to the East Camp
Starting from Endu, the trail leads along beautiful black beaches before it turns inland and up the mountains through thick jungle. Not long after we started, our deepest fear came true: It started to rain. Memories of Ibu came up. But: we had learned. All our stuff was now safely packed into plastic bags. This time, we wouldn’t sleep in wet sleeping bags, no way. Well prepared or not, the rain dampened our mood but nevertheless we continued and as soon as we reached the huge ash plain in the caldera, the rain stopped. What a relief!
The edge of the caldera is marked by steep green walls. Inside, it’s mostly black and grey. Only sparse vegetation dots the ashen landscape. The closer you get to the craters – there are some other smoking cones in addition to Marum and Benbow – the fewer plants there are.
After we reached the camp and pitched our tent, Peter prepared lunch: Chocolate biscuits and fried bread. I wonder what’s for dinner…
After a good break, Peter put on his alien costume and we set off to Marum. From the East Camp, the ascent to Marum is very easy. It’s not steep at all and suddenly you’re standing at the rim of the crater, staring down into it at the bubbling and boiling lava lake. Wow! It’s like you can see right into the middle of the earth. And Mother Earth is wild.
From time to time, the wind blows out gas that clouds the view and makes you gasp for air and scratches in your throat. Sometimes, our extraterrestrial guide told us, there’s so much gas that the lava lake is invisible and remains like that for days.
Day 2: The trek to Benbow
Since we crossed the island from east to west, we would go down the west side (actually, it’s rather south-west) with another guide. Each guide only goes up and down from and to his own village. Our new guide Joses left a message for us written in the volcanic sand on top of Mt Marum. We were to meet him the next day at 8 am on top of Mt Benbow.
So the next morning we got up at 4 am, woke up Peter and the porters and, after a breakfast of undercooked manioc and noodles, set off to Mt Benbow. The trail lead us once again to Mt Marum and then through spectacular volcanic landscape ever closer to Benbow. This is the most beautiful and stunning section of the whole trek.
The ascent of Mt Benbow is steep but on top you are rewarded with amazing views of the caldera’s landscape. And there is mobile phone reception, for the first time since Port Vila airport. Time to send home some selfies!
Benbow also has a lava lake but it’s hidden from view from the top of the mountain. This is because inside the huge crater there’s another cone where the lava lake is. The only way to see it is to go down into the crater. “Is there a way down?”, we asked our guide. “Yes, here” – “Where?” – “Right here”, Peter said and pointed into the crater. There’s no visible trail but if the guide says there is one, then there is one.
As soon as the group of our new guide arrived, we went down into the crater. It’s so steep and the ground so loose that it’s best to go down almost sitting and using your hands as well. The way down is long and you better don’t look up to where you came from: You’d only see a wall.
The lava lake here is closer than the one at Marum and it’s even wilder. There’s also more gas; sometimes it’s impossible to go into the crater because of the amount of gas. Some guides provide masks, others, like Peter, don’t. So we did it the “local’s way” and used a humid scarf to cover our mouth and nose.
Down to the west side and to Terter Hot Springs
After scrambling back up (up was actually easier than down, just more exhausting) we went with the whole group to the west camp. There we had lunch – unsalted rice with noodles, the same as last night’s dinner, apparently a favorite among the guides and porters – and then walked down to Lalinda village. That trail leads through beautiful jungle but also along a creek so it’s pretty muddy and wet after rain.
After a long hike you need a good nice place to relax. Probably the best place on Ambrym to do that is at Terter Hot Springs bungalows. The place is right at the sea and although the beach is rocky and not very good for swimming because of the strong currents, the hot water that fills the rock pools at low tide more than makes up for that. Because once you’re lying in the warm water, you don’t want to do anything else.
Ambrym: Essential Information (prices as of October 2016)
What to do on Ambrym:
– Volcano trekking
– Cultural tours including Rom-dance: 2000 – 5000 Vatu/person
Volcano trekking (prices in Vatu):
Guide: 3000 per day, 1000 per night
Entrance fee: 1000 per person
Porter: 1500 per day (no extra charges for overnight)
Meals: 2000 – 3000 for two persons (Which is much more than the food actually costs. Try to negotiate so you can go shopping for the food yourself)
Every accommodation on Ambrym can organize the trek. Most people make a return hike but it’s much more rewarding and interesting to walk across the island.
One night is enough. Insist on visiting both volcanoes (for the same price), there’s enough time, even with only one night on top.
Where to start:
– From Endu (East): Good access. Airport at Ulei, transfer to Endu 3000 vatu. The hike starts in the village, so no extra transport to the trailhead needed.
– From the North: Fly into Craig Cove, take a boat (charter 12’000 vatu) to any village in the north. The trail from the north is short (around 2 hours) but the boat is expensive and the sea very rough.
– From the West: Fly into Craig Cove, transfer to Port Vatu or Lalinda, where the hike starts, 5000 vatu. The most common way. The trail involves some climbing and walking in a muddy and wet riverbed (after rain).
Book your flights well ahead, especially in high season. The planes are small (20 seats), don’t fly every day, and are often booked out.
Volcano trekking: What to bring
– good shoes
– Rain jacket and plastic bags / dry bags
– Warm clothes (it gets chilly at night and on the volcanoes)
– A scarf to cover your nose and mouth (some guides don’t provide masks)
– A tent, if you have, otherwise you can borrow one from the guide
Accommodation on Ambrym:
– Endu: Sea Roar Bungalows. Walter: 535 75 84 / 730 25 77
– Lalinda: Bungalows. Joses Wilfred: 548 74 05
– Terter Hotsprings (20 minutes walk from Craig Cove. Only accommodation at the beach in the island’s west). Daniel: 549 37 00 / 773 94 55
– Craig Cove: Sam’s Bungalow. Sam: 776 71 29. The bungalows may not be the best but Sam is a very nice man and can help you book or change flights and organize tours.
They all calculate prices differently but expect to pay around 3500 vatu per person with all meals.
Don’t worry too much about finding accommodation, there’s usually vacancy. If everything should be full, if you have a tent, you can pitch it somewhere near the bungalows or, if you don’t, the hosts can find you a room somewhere.