This island could just be mango heaven. I had barely grabbed my luggage and walked out of the small hut, which acts as the Air Vanuatu terminal at Walaha on Ambae Island, before I encountered the sweet smell of fermenting fruit. Mangoes were everywhere, crushed into the road, lying beside it, even on the roof of the terminal’s building. I picked up one to eat, and one of my fellow passengers quickly told me it was not ripe enough, so I stuffed it in my bag for later. As I jumped on the back of the ute, the same passenger returned with his arms full of ripe mangoes. “These you can eat!” he told me happily. I had travelled to Ambae, also known as the island of Aoba, to visit the volcanic crater Monaro Vui. The whole island is in fact a volcano, rising 4000 metres from the seabed. On its peak, the volcano has three lakes filling craters that had been fairly inactive until recently. Previous eruptions occurred long ago which resulted in Ambae receiving scant attention in recent years compared to the more active volcanoes in Vanuatu. This all changed in 2005 when an Air Vanuatu pilot noticed smoke coming from the volcano and then later there was a sudden change in the colour of the water on the lake from blue to bright red. Small eruptions and earthquakes followed, with plumes of ash visible from nearby Santo. Villages began to be evacuated and almost half of the island’s population was moved away from the danger zone. And then the volcano returned to slumber.
Monaro Vui still remains one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. In volconology terms it is a ‘Surtseyan’ type, one that will explode with tremendous power when magma contacts water. With pools of lava sitting just underneath the large lakes, the risk of a catastrophic explosion is great, with the threat of tsunamis that would not only affect the whole of Vanuatu, but could also impact the east coast of Australia. A smaller eruption could create lahars, a combination of volcanic material, water, trees and mud, which would potentially wipe out many of Ambae’s villages located at sea level. Why would you live on such an island? Well, there are the previously mentioned mangoes. The earth is incredibly fertile due to its volcanic origins; you would never starve on Ambae. Pineapples, watermelon, bananas, mandarins, passion fruit and pamplemouse can be picked from the side of the road. There is an abundance of fish both inside and outside the reef. And the locals are very relaxed and happy with life on this little paradise with little need to go across to neighbouring Santo or to the fearful noise and hustle and bustle of Port Vila.
Sitting beneath a mango tree in the small village of Ndui Ndui, on the west coast of the island, I began to understand this. I had just bought some delicious fresh banana cake from a stall at the market for 20 Vatu. For dessert I reached down to grab a mango, and sucked the fruity juice out of it, before discarding it and picking up another. This was a place I could stay a long time in. Unfortunately I was only here for a long weekend and had to prepare to climb up to the top of volcano the next day.
Setting off at 4:00AM I clambered aboard the back of a small truck with a motley crew of locals who were coming with me to visit the crater. Opportunities to visit the volcano are rare due to the lack of visitors to Ambae, and most were climbing up because Stuart, a local geology student at the USP in Fiji, wanted to visit his first volcano. All considered it a special occasion as the craters are a very sacred place in Ambae; the resting place for human spirits after death. We bounced around on the single track road, crossing dry river beds at speed and then climbing slowly up alarmingly angled inclines, the tyres losing their grip on the polished rock surface. After an hour, we reached the village of Lolo Tinge and made our way to the hut of David Maga Tao, our guide for the climb to the volcano.
Only a few guides are allowed to take visitors to the crater, and you can not travel alone, not that you would want to as it is easy to get lost. The guides are the custodians of the crater and choose the best routes to avoid the sacred places that are taboo. David was thin and extremely fit. He had just finished helping build a village home by lugging bags of cement up from the beach, a thousand metre journey on a small muddy path. In his early forties, he could easily outclimb the younger members of our party. He told us he could do the climb in two hours. Looking up at the crater high above us I was dubious I could do it in ten. The climb was David’s 38th trip to the crater over a period of sixteen years, which shows how few people actually make it to Ambae to attempt the walk. We set off with an additional member on our team, David’s son, John, who was training to become a guide like his father. The path took us past homes long abandoned, with terrific views out to the sea and the island of Santo just visible in the far distance. Even here mangoes were lying on the ground, being eaten for a quick energy hit as we travelled higher.
The path was slippery in places. Ambae was suffering from a drought on the coast, but the volcano has its own weather system and decided to unleash a tropical rainstorm with loud thunder and lightning all around us. The dried creek beds we crossed on the way up, had become raging torrents when we descended later that evening. As we got closer to the top, the foliage became rainforest and the overgrown path required considerable hacking from our guides with their bush knifes. The slower pace meant I had more time to look at the wildlife around. I was admiring a large spider in the middle of a glistening web, when I looked up and saw a beautiful baby flying fox (fruit bat) hanging from a branch. With flying fox being a local delicacy I was certain that it might have ended up as the evening meal had I not paid it so much attention with my camera.
Finally, up and over the crater’s edge we got a glipse of lake Manoro Lakua before the clouds began to cover it. As we were already behind schedule, we pushed onto the lake at the crater of Manoro Vui. The closer we got to it, the more ghostly our surroundings became. The weather was closing in with the mist descending and rain lashing down, accompanied by waves of sulphur being blown towards us from the lake. Nothing lives here as the sulphur kills everything in its path. It reminded me of a photograph of a WWI battlefield in Northern France, with mud, mist and the skeletons of trees. The sulphur made it hard to breathe as we walked through the dead forest, the branches breaking as they were grabbed for support while walking over the uneven muddy ground. The gas, mist and rain prevented us from actually seeing into the actual crater, but the smell made it clear it was still very active.
We rested for a while before deciding to start the climb back to the village. It was already late, and only a few hours of daylight remained. For those who want to visit the volcano, I would strongly recommend an overnight camp, you would have more time to explore and would be able to take advantage of the clouds usually being much higher first thing in the morning. The descent was quicker and more slippery than the journey up, and we arrived back in darkness for our return trip to Ndui Ndui. We were slightly delayed, and bounced around a bit more when we suffered a blow out tyre on the rough road.
I was still in time for a late dinner. The meal was fresh reef fish, taro, cabbage and rice. Even though I was ravenously hungry, I was concerned about the possibility of getting ciguatera, the nasty and painful fish poisoning that can occur by eating reef fish. Evelyne, the cook at Toa Palms Bungalows, told me that the Ambae fisherman have developed a method for beating ciguatera by weeding out the poisonous fish. After catching the fish they return to land and lay them on the ground, near an ants’ nest. The ants will clamber over all the good fish, and will leave the poisoned fish well alone, which is then buried. How scientific this method is has yet to be proven, but it seemed reasonable to me, and the fried fish I ate that night was delicious and had no ill effects.
I reluctantly left Ambae the following day. The island has been described by James Michener in his book ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ as a mystical, magical island, known to his readers as Bali Ha’i. He wrote that it was a remote place of great happiness but impossible to reach. These days you can get there fairly easily from Santo but it still remains a magical and happy place to visit. I look forward to returning and exploring more of the island, lingering under the trees, and of course, eating more mangoes.
Story and photography by Simon Proudman.