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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Vanuatu: Volcano Hike Lessons

Ambrym, Vanuatu.  Surreal looking, but real.  Mt. Marum’s volcanic activity colors the night sky. 
How often do you get to hike up to a ridge overlooking a live volcanic caldera?

Ambrym, Vanuatu’s Mt. Marum is one of few places in the world it’s possible (as is Vanuatu’s Mt. Yassur volcano on Tanna – more on that in an upcoming post). 

We were at Ambrym, ready to hike to the caldera rim, on a sunny, crystal-clear day, blue skies scrubbed clean from recent rains.

We were excited!

And yet, our Ambrym volcano experience was a mixed deal. 


Banana flower on one of Ambrym’s plantations; passed on the way to active volcano, Mt. Marum, Vanuatu.
The good news was the volcano hike was much more affordable than the ~$200-300 fee our prior online research indicated.  Thanks to our ability to ride the cruiser coat-tails of Mark and Sarah Silverstein’s (of s/v Field Trip) prior arrangements with George in the Ambrym village of Ranveltan, the hike was within reach of even our paltry budget.  Our total cost was >$100 USD for the two of us, including a local guide, the porter up of our camping equipment to base camp, and an overnight stay in the base camp.

Jonas (pronounced “choh-ness”), our guide, was pleasant, but unfortunately, his English was almost as limited as our Bislama (Vanuatu’s primary language, a form of Pidgin English).  The answer to nearly any question we asked was "Yes."  “How long is the hike?”  “Yes.”  “Is it one or two hours left to hike?” “Yes.”  (You get the idea).  The other guides we bumped into on our way back, who eagerly struck up conversation with us, spoke excellent English. 


This butterfly looked like its wings were stolen
from the blue skies of Ambym, Vanuatu.
We hiked several hours uphill, crossing a stream (nothing was potable – anywhere), passing Vanuatu’s internationally famed cattle, alongside bamboo thickets, through plantations of coconut, banana, sugar cane, papaya (called “paw paw” in the South Pacific), yams, cassava, taro, mangos…. Birds twittered and cooed.  Periodically the jungle offered up spectacular albeit partial territorial views of Ambrym’s rugged coastline, verdant mountains and deep valleys.





 Jonas leads the way past a bamboo
thicket on the trail to Ambym’s
Mt. Marum volcano, Vanuatu.







Our bush trek took us under – and, in one case, between -- the roots of massive banyan trees, eventually giving way to a diverse forest of lush ferns, from creepers, to waist high to towering palm-tree size.  Red-violet orchids flourished, dramatically thrusting up through the charcoal-colored volcanic ash plains.



Ambrym, Vanuatu volcano base camp hut; we tent camped nearby.
By early afternoon, we reached the overnight base camp, a thatched-roof hut, complete with wooden floors, and a Georgia-O’Keafe touch, a decorative cow skull.  We set up our tent nearby, to privacy and to better screen out prospective malaria or dengue-fever-infected mosquitoes, as the hut, like most structures here, was relatively open.

There, we waited several hours, leaving at 4:30 pm, near dusk, to see the caldera.  We didn't know how far that additional bit was, but after about 1/2 hour of easy hiking on flat ash plains, we spent the next 45 minutes negotiating a rocky, twisty ravine, then up onto and to the end of a narrow ridge. “Are we coming back this way?,” I asked, sure the answer this time would be “No,” as part of the walk included the only water collection* spot on the entire trek. 

*This water was still non-potable, and required boiling before being considered safe to drink.


 Base camp kettle for making water potable, as well for the requisite camp coffee or tea.
The sun had set at this point, but we figured we had another 30-45 minutes until dark.  When we asked how much further, as what was ahead looked even dicier, we were told "about an hour." 


These weird sausage-like protrusion from this palm’s trunk
are actually new roots, slowly seeking their way
down to the ground.
What we just finished in the last 45 minutes looked far more technical than we wanted to return though darkness. What was ahead looked worse.  We’d just reached the end of a knife-edge ridge, not wider than 2 feet, with sphincter-tightening steep drop-offs on each side. 

We brought our handheld flashlights, but they weren't the greatest, Jonas was even worse, and my night vision is pretty crappy.  If the trail had been more like what we'd hiked up to the hut, or the first half hour from base camp, we'd be fine with taking it back in the darkness to the base camp.  Alas, ahead was at least an additional hour there and back, first down then, up, clambering over and through rocky outcrops.

Wayne and I share an agreement that if something looks like too much of a safety stretch, we stop, reassess and generally retreat.  "No health insurance," is our mantra when we figure it's time to deploy some common sense over maybe foolish fortitude.  Plus, we'd already hiked quite a few hours that day and to continue was a minimum of 2-3 hours more round-trip if we continued.

We turned around.

“You don’t want to see the volcano at night?” Jonas asked, puzzled.  Yes, but no, we replied.  Our actions more clearly than our words signaled our intent.  Jonas complied.

Afterward, we heard from other guides they recommend for most folks that they guide to hike to the caldera ridge in the daytime.  They recommended the night-time trek in only for the very fit, with good flashlights and who are comfortable navigating those dicey conditions in darkness. 

If had a do-over, we'd
  • Pack the night before to make the village start point at 7 am, rather than 8 am-something
  • Take the truck as far as we could (we walked about 1/2 hour from the beach to the village (mostly up), then four and a half hours up from the village to the hut; we could've cut that in half or more. 
  • Again use the porter for camping gear and maybe more water
  • Either take only a brief rest before continuing us to the caldera -or -
  • Spend the next day hiking the caldera back to the hut, then the following day, back.
  • Bring better flashlights, in an ideal world, good headlamps (ours weren’t working, or we’d have brought them)

Ambym’s active volcano, Mt. Marum looked deceptively calm the morning we headed back to our boat.  Vanuatu.
With some effort, I probably could've made the hike in two days, even without the truck lift, but these days I’m in better hiking condition than Wayne.  I had no intention of leaving him behind, especially after worrying him on Waya Sewa.

Still, even without making it up to Ambrym’s caldera, we were treated to the most magnificent, surreal night sky we've ever seen!  Imagine palm fronds silhouetted against a bright pink sky, then, off to the side of that, a brilliantly dense array of stars, Milky Way, and all glittering against blackness. Low on the horizon, yellow-orange Venus and Mars looked so close, they appeared to nearly touch each other.

I did manage to snap a nice image of the palm fronds against a bright pink sky, but the stars were more than I could capture with my cameras.  Word is the new cameras are much better at capturing good images in darkness, but I'm grateful for what I was able to capture, and, more importantly for what I was able to see and experience.  If I saw that sky in a movie, and hadn’t actually been there, I’d swear it was CGI (computer-generated images).

Really, truly, simply unforgettable.


Jonas scaled the coconut tree and is now
harvesting its bounty. Ambrym, Vanuatu.

 One of the several methods Jonas used to access
the coconut water. Ambrym, Vanuatu.

























A piece of the coconut’s husk doubles as a spoon to enjoy this young coconut meat. Ambrym, Vanuatu.

The next day, on the way back, Wayne finally firsthand discovered the restorative powers of coconut water. Jonas scampered up one of the plantation trees, knocking down a dozen or so, about half of which the three of us greedily sucked down.  “Numbah One!” exclaimed Jonas, with beaming satisfaction, indicating the coconuts.  We agreed.  I mulled over the irony that the food we brought for trail munchies and beverages were processed versions, pale in comparison to what grows naturally in Vanuatu … coconut, chocolate, coffee and vanilla, as well as a plethora of sumptuous fruit.  Jonas brought back the remaining coconuts, along with a large soursop.  Grocery shopping, Ni-Van style.

Amazingly, we returned to our breached dinghy the next afternoon without a scratch, bruise, or even mosquito bite -- far better than we expected.  Thanks to some strategically-timed ibuprofen doses, we weren’t even sore.

Our dinghy, still there, right where we left it the morning before, where we first began our hike to Ambrym’s volcano.   Whew!

A few nights later, thanks again to Sarah and Mark of Field Trip, we got to see what we missed (click here to see their excellent Ambrym volcano video, including footage of the molten caldera shot from their drone).  Wisely, they learned from our mistake, and on their hike one day later, they were well on their way back from the caldera by about the time we were starting off from base camp, plus they cut a few hours off their hike via truck.

Ambrym’s active volcano rises 4375 feet (1334 meters) above sea level.  If in your research, you encounter photos of overweight hikers with ankles the size of footballs, don’t believe it when they claim they completed the hike in 4 hours.  But it’s still well worth doing, even if you don’t make it to the caldera, though we surely wish we had.  Nonetheless, we have no regrets about making the hike we did; it was gorgeous! 


Ambrym volcano hike map; pilfered from Malampa Travel and marked up with our Mt. Marum observations.  
Learn from our mistakes, and plan the perfect hike to the rim overlooking Ambrym’s incredible caldera.

If I could waive my magic wand and make the hike even more perfect, I would
  • Put catchment tanks to collect rainwater for drinking, at least one small one on the track and a larger one at the base camp, reducing the amount of water that needs to be carried
  • Create and maintain at least one un-occluded viewpoint, either via pruning, a tree house platform or simple tower
  • Hire guides with a better command of English (the most common language we find spoken among international cruisers and Kiwis and Ozzies make up the bulk of Vanuatu’s tourists)
  • Or, better yet, provide an info sheet with hike, volcano, flora and fauna info
  • Include a brief stop both ways at the plantation for coconut and ripe fruit for trail consumption, and plant some harvestable crops near the base camp

About the only relatively un-occluded territorial viewpoint on the trail to Mt. Marum. Ambrym, Vanuatu.
Yet, at the same time, much of what makes the Ambrym hike so awesome is its remoteness and simplicity.  There are no signs.  No souvenir shops.  No bloated entry fees.  No hordes of tourists too busy taking selfies to appreciate the magnitude of this truly natural wonder.

As Sir Archibald Geikie lyrically observed, all the way back in 1879… “Looking back across those long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress.  So slow and measured has been their march, that even from the earliest times of human history they seem hardly to have advanced at all.  But none the less are they surely and steadily transpiring around us.  In the fall of rain and the flow of rivers, in the bubble of springs and the silence of frost, in the quiet creep of glaciers and the tumultuous rush of ocean waves, in the tremor of the earth quake and the outburst of the volcano, we may recognize the same play of terrestrial forces by which the framework of continents has been step by step evolved.”

Evolution of our planet, in the form of fiery, molten magma, here and now, right before our very eyes.  Wow.

That kind of reality sure beats the stuff out of a trip to Disneyworld in my books!  “All” you have to do is get to the tiny, remote South Pacific country of Vanuatu (about the size the USA state of Connecticut -- only Rhode Island is a smaller state), then to the even more remote island of Ambrym, hit the weather and volcanic activity right and put in a good day of hiking.

Location Location
This is a recent retrospective of our time on Ambrym, Vanuatu, which we sailed to for a cultural festival in Nopul, and missed because they held it earlier!  We then re-anchored off black lava beach (S19.09.072 E168.06.433)  our hike up Ambrym’s volcano, September 2-3, 2016.  This is the first post written since we’ve left Vanuatu.  We are now in Noumea, New Caledonia (S22.16.695 E166.25.688).  We arrived yesterday, September 21, 2016, after a little over a 3-day 305 mile passage,  an overnighter, then another 38.5 miles.  
Predict Wind forecast for our passage from Vanuatu to New Caledonia.  We arrived September 20,2016.









Cruising by the Numbers
  • Our September 2016 sail from Vanuatu to New Caledonia was 305 miles.
  • Our August 2016 sail from Fiji to Vanuatu was 525 miles.
  • We cruised just under 440 miles in Fiji, between late May and early August.  
  • Our May 2016 sail from New Zealand to Fiji was 1090 miles.
  • December 2015 - May 2016 if we weren't cruising New Zealand or hunkering, we were making massive road trips from New Zealand's tip to its tail.
  • From December 2014 - November 2015 we sailed from Northern Florida's Atlantic side to New Zealand, over 10,000 miles, with more than a few stops in between.
  • Prior to that we sailed from St. Lucia to Florida and also spent a season cruising the Bahamas.
World view of our just completed passage from Vanuatu to New Caledonia, from Predict Wind.




Up Next
We're planning on cruising in New Caledonia until November.  After New Caledonia, we head to Australia, by December 2016 (but probably earlier).  There, we plan to sell our boat, and go back to work, somewhere.