Mayumi Green, from Wrecks to Rainforest, took a trek to Ambrym’s stunning Mt Marum and Benbow volcanoes. Story and photography by Mayumi Green.
As I got onto the Twin Otter, all the other passengers were locals except myself. Walking across the tarmac, there was an old gentleman with a walking stick and a Vanuatu flag beanie. He was walking slowly and looked very fragile. A man walking behind him said, “Slow, Slow”, and handing over his young daughter to another passenger, proceeded to help the man into the plane and to his seat. This is what I love about Vanuatu, that kindness and caring towards strangers are just a part of life.
As the small aircraft took off, I was elated; my new adventure just began.
I had not traveled the islands since Cyclone Pam in 2015, when people we knew needed our help to get back to their normal lives, and we were busy fundraising and sending goods to the islands together with generous friends.
The pilot announced that the flight would stop over in Paama, Ulei (Ambrym Island) and then my destination, Craig Cove in Ambrym.
I was a little nervous during our landing on Paama as I could see the runway starting right next to the ocean. The Ulei airport was also near the ocean, with its tiny terminal welcoming tourists. The airport staff tapped each passenger on the shoulder to count the numbers when we were about to take off.
I arrived at Craig Cove at 8:30am and Daniel from Terter Hotspring Bungalows showed up to pick me up. Our tour and inward travel business, ‘From Wrecks to Rainforest’, has been using his bungalow since one of our clients recommended it three years previously, but we had never been to the bungalow or met him personally, so this was a great opportunity to ‘sample’ one of our products.
He asked me if I wanted to walk or take a transport, it was only an easy 15 minute walk, but as I had a few large bags, I decided to jump onto the local transport, an old well-used ute, with many of the other passengers. As always in Vanuatu, they asked me all the standard questions, so they could get a picture of my personal story, and hence I would be a stranger no more. Where I came from, how long I had lived in Vanuatu, how did I get to Vanuatu, where is my husband, where was I going, etc.
I am fluent in Bislama which means that the conversation can also flow both ways and become a little more in-depth. The transport would drop each of us where we needed to go, so I relaxed in the back of the ute and took in the landscape. Fifteen minutes later we were there.
Terter Hot Spring Bungalows is located on the coast in the west of Ambrym, at Malvet village, population 25, all family and relatives. With beautiful views of the ocean, I could see all the way to Malekula island in the distance. Five bungalows made with local materials, can accommodate fifteen people, and there is a well-maintained garden with lots of flowers, and clean bucket shower and toilet.
Daniel and his wife are a very friendly couple with two little girls. Daniel built the bungalow many years ago, but no one came to stay. The building got rotten, so he rebuilt again, but no one came. He persevered and rebuilt again and finally received his first visitors in 2012. Numbers have slowly increased throughout the years, but still, it is only a small trickle of visitors that make it to Ambryn, which is another reason why you should visit.
Daniel had arranged transport for me to visit a kastom village. It is small but good for those who cannot make it to the North, to witness the Rom Dance and have a great cultural experience.
On the way back from the village, the driver, Willie, asked me “You are going to stay in Fanla village, aren’t you scare of the Nakaimas ?” ‘Nakaimas’ are bad spirits that can hurt others and are part of Ambrym’s strong black magic tradition; the people of Ambrym island still believe they truly exist. I replied “I know the people of Fanla, so I’m not afraid, but I know the story about Chief Tofor.” To which Willie said “Yes, he was very powerful, he killed many people and people were very scared of him.” Nakaimas is like trade: people pay someone like Chief Tofor to perform Nakaimas to someone they don’t like or use it for revenge.
Arriving back at the bungalow, I though I would treat myself with a swim, after my full day of cultural dances. I walked down to the beach where the hot springs are, and found a few men bathing at the hot spring pool. They told me they come every day to enjoy the hot water. I put my foot into the water, and it was nice and warm, so I decided to come back later to bathe by myself. In the late afternoon, I went to the Kava bar with Daniel, and everyone there shook my hand, happy to talk to me. I always visit the local Kava bar when
I am in the islands, to meet and chat with the locals. That night, I didn’t realize I was talking to a Paramount Chief until later on, when we introduced ourselves. He was a very smart man, and thought that more women should be involved in the politics of Vanuatu as they are the mothers of all men.
Dinner at Terter was very nice with tasty local chicken and lots of fresh vegetables and salad; Helen is definitely a very good cook and great to talk to.
The next morning, I was dreaming of birds and I could hear them singing when I woke up. Our breakfast was manioc pancakes with homemade pawpaw jam that Helen had just made.
We were supposed to leave the bungalow at six in the morning, so I could meet my guide at 7am in Lailinda, but the transport did not arrive until after seven, and Daniel asked me if the transport I had chartered could pick up some copra on the way, to take to the beach where the boat would land. We went to a nearby village to pick up the large bags of copra and dropped them off at the beach for people to collect and put onto the ship to Santo.
After our unscheduled drop off, we were on our way to Lailinda to meet my friend and guide Joses. He has been a guide on the volcano since 1990, and we have been working together since 2012. I’ve been told he is the best guide in West Ambrym.
We arrived in Lalinda at 8.30am and Joses and his two porters jumped on the back of ute. One of the porters was his daughter, Lioneie, and the other her cousin, Sildas. We were now truly on our way and I was getting excited. The first part of the drive took us through thick forest, until eventually we came to a lava lake, and a river of ashes, that we followed for another fifteen minutes until we reached the place known as ‘Riverbed’, where the road ends, facing a black cliff. “What?” I said, concerned, “Am I going to climb that?” The cliff looked very slippery and steep. The driver said to me “I’ll wait until you have climbed up the hill, in case you fall and I have to take you to the clinic,” he laughed. It was a very reassuring start.
The driver waited for me to climb the lava hill then around 9.30, he took off with Daniel. Joses showed me the way up and gave me his hand when I needed it. In the end it turned out to be easier that it first looked.
We trekked through forest, lakes of dry lava, and gorges; every time I looked up or stopped to rest, I was surrounded by different scenery, all breathtakingly beautiful. Joses gave us a break every hour of trekking, and it took us three hours to get to the campsite; I was not in a hurry and took lots of photos on the way, so it was a slow climb. The campsite was divided into two separate areas. One big hut was a communal kitchen with cooking pots, dishes and firewood to cook meals, and small huts where the guide and porters sleep. The other area was for visitors camping; visitors need to bring their own camping equipment or arrange with their tour operator to provide it.
There were four visitors from Europe already there, who told us that the weather had not been kind to them, and they had not been able to see much when they reached the top of the volcano. It is nature, you cannot change the weather to suit you, so we could only hope for the best and enjoy the experience regardless of the visibility when we got to the top.
Both volcanoes’ craters on Ambrym were at level two, which meant we should not get too close to the crater anyway. We ate egg noodles cooked by Joses’s teenaged daughter Leonie as a lunch snack, and at 2pm Joses and I took off for Mt Benbow. This was my first time to Benbow, and as we got close to the mountain, I could see how steep it was. It was a hard hill to climb, but once we were close, the fog around the summit and crater cleared and we had a full and perfect view of the crater. All I could say was “Wow, this is the reason I’m doing this!,” The earth looked like many ocean waves, created by the wind, and I could see the path to our camp site. I felt like I was standing on top of the world, high up in the sky.
We kept going and when we were about 200 meters from the crater, we put the gas masks on before the last stretch. The fog started to descend upon us and we could see a wall of rain slowly coming towards us. At 3.30, Joses told me we should get back; I did not argue with him as he knows the mountain best.
There is very little vegetation on the west coast side but I still managed to find some wild flowers on our way. Joses cooked rice and an island curry with cabbage, onion and tinned corned beef for dinner. After an uneventful night of deep sleep, I woke up at 6am, to find it was still dark outside and raining a little. Joses was quietly lighting the fire to cook breakfast. We were to depart at eight o’clock and because I was crossing over to the north, he had arranged with a guide from the north to meet us near the summit of Mt Marum at 10am and take me to the north of the island. I wondered how ‘island time’ would work with this program. We left the campsite on time towards Marum, walking this time across the openness of the ash plane. As we got closer to the volcano, the view around me changed, and I could see the wildness of the wind and the rain by the shapes carved in the ground. Joses showed me the hair-thin, needle-like shaped bits of hard dust made from lava, and carried away by the wind, toxic to inhale.
Surprisingly, we met my guide William and porters Sandy and Bong on the way as we got closer to Mt Marum. We arrived there at 10.20am, and William said they had been waiting for us since 8. We were surrounded by fog, and with no time to waste, we all shook hands, and I said goodbye to my friends Joses, Leonie and Silda. We climbed down the North side in the fog, and I noticed much more vegetation was growing since I was there five years ago.
We arrived at the campsite just before lunchtime, after a three and a half hour trek, about 10km from the west camp to the north camp. Again, here the visitors need to bring their own tent or hire one from their guide. After lunch, we commenced our descent down the mountain. We trekked through a bamboo creek for about fifteen minutes with water not drinkable due to the acid. As we walked through the open lava lake and arrived at the forest, I kept looking back to see the volcano in the distance and how far we had walked, feeling a little sad to be leaving the spectacular volcanoes behind.
We finally arrived at the end of trek where our driver, Sandy, was waiting for us lying down under a tree. I was very surprised that ‘island time’ hadn’t affected their schedule, and everyone was ready and waiting for me along every step of the way.
I jumped on the back of the ute, standing facing forwards, as the land cruiser sped away along the dirt track into the forest like it was driving on a sealed road… I kept my eyes open and ducked down every time we passed low branches ready to hit me in the face. We saw a few familiar faces as we drove through Ranvetlam village and continued through ash planes, until we arrived to Ranon village and its beautiful black sand beach.
Yachts were already anchored and waiting for the festival to start. At Ranon Beach Bungalow, my friends Douglas, Emma and Freddy waited for my arrival. It would be another memorable few days, but that is another story…
Mayumi Green is the owner/funder of From Wrecks to Rainforest. A long term local, she has been a resident of Espiritu Santo for over 25 years. Her love for the country and adventure often takes her on week-long treks among some of the most unexplored parts of the islands. www.wreckstorainforest.com