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Abseiling Vanuatu’s Volcanoes

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Lava is an otherworldly wonder we all know about, but rarely get to experience. Alex Bortoli felt the heat as he ventured down into Vanuatu's Mount Marum to have a closer look.

Down into the abyss; image supplied

Staring into the pool of super-heated liquid rock that lies at the heart of Mount Marum volcano half a kilometre below, it's easy to imagine I have reached the gateway of hell.

Or perhaps that I am Frodo Baggins, on a quest to scale Mount Doom and throw the One Ring into Sammath Naur (the Chamber of Fire), thereby saving the world from the dark forces of evil.

In front of me lies a legion of potential dangers: an almost vertical descent of crumbly rock ready to break off at the slightest touch, shards of spiky volcanic glass known as Pele’s Hair, and clouds of toxic gas that belch up from the crater and cause temporary whiteouts. And above all else, an overwhelming, primal fear that screams “get the hell out of Dodge”, because no living thing is meant to exist in such a hellish environment.

If only I could somehow navigate safely into the crater and get close enough to throw the ring into the roiling lake of lava below…

Crazy as it sounds, that’s exactly what I’m about to do. With a little help from Geoff Mackley and his team at Ultimate Volcano Expeditions I am going to attempt a 100m abseil into the belly of the beast. This will place me on a ledge a mere 300m above Marum’s molten, fiery core.

If all goes to plan I will have time to both throw the One Ring into the glowing eye of Sammath Naur and snap a few pictures, before being pulled out by a powered ActSafe ascender. I briefly wonder if the sugar cane branch I offered to the ancestors earlier in the day will be enough to stop the volcano from roasting me alive, like a soft white marshmallow on a stick.

REACHING THE LIP

The apocalypse is nigh

So how did I end up here? It started out as a pipe dream: to hike from north to south across Ambrym Island, in the middle of the Vanuatu archipelago, and climb the twin craters of Mt Marum and Mt Benbow along the way. Having just moved to Vanuatu six months earlier, I was looking for an adventure that would test my limits while providing me with a world-class, mind-blowing trekking experience. I briefly considered Mt Yasur on Tanna Island, one of the most active and accessible volcanoes on earth, but quickly realised the commercial aspect of the Yasur tour wouldn’t provide me with enough of a challenge.

Ambrym Island is a short 20 minute flight south-east of Espiritu Santo. The island itself is relatively small, around 50km wide by 30km long, and is dominated by the desert-like ash plain surrounding the twin peaks of Mt Marum and Mt Benbow, both of which tower some 1300m above sea level.

It’s one of only six places in the world that have permanent lava lakes at the centre of their volcanoes (Ethiopia, Antarctica, Hawaii, the Congo and Nicaragua being the others). Technically, Ambrym’s twin craters (each with their own lava lake) are considered part of the one volcanic caldera.

In order to reach Geoff and his crew at the top of Mt Marum, I endure a two and a half hour boat ride in a small fishing boat from Craig’s Cove (where the plane lands) to the tiny village of Ramvetlam. This is followed by an overnight stay in the local bungalows, a 4WD journey part way up the mountain and then a three hour hike with guides and porters through the jungle and across the ash plain to the north-western lip of the crater.

Incredibly, Ultimate Volcano Expeditions has set up a semi-permanent camp here, supplied by helicopters flying out of Port Vila (on nearby Efate Island). It allows intrepid adventurers like myself, plus a gaggle of volcanologists, geologists and other scientists, to safely access the inner workings of a live volcano.

Geoff explains there are two permanent abseiling rigs positioned on the edge of the crater. The first abseil leads down to ‘The Ledge’, a small outcrop of flat rock 300m above the lava lake. Only basic rope skills are required for this (and if you have none, Geoff’s crew will teach you).

The second abseil is called the ‘Ultimate Approach’; it involves three separate pitches and takes two to three hours to complete one way. It leads down to a rock ledge a mere 50m away from the lava lake, pretty much as close as it’s humanly possible to go without cooking yourself like an egg (keep in mind the lava here often reaches temperatures in excess of 1000°C!).

As you would expect, this abseil not only requires basis rope skills and a good level of fitness but also a full heat suit incorporating a firefighter-grade breathing apparatus. I choose The Ledge because of time and monetary constraints.

STAIRWAY TO HELL

Preparing at the top, about to go down

After suiting up with long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, boots, helmet, gas mask and a belt full of carabiners and ascenders, I meet my on-rope guide, George Kourounis, an explorer in residence for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

He tells me it’s his fifth time to Ambrym and that he’s a veteran of over a dozen descents into Mt Marum crater. When I ask him “why Ambrym?” he explains the island not only has the highest density of lava lakes in the world, but the lava here is extremely violent and fluid and provides important clues to how volcanoes behave and erupt. It’s not a comforting thought…

As we hook up onto the rope, I notice my legs are shaking from a combination of fear and adrenaline. Kourounis casually drops the fact that the crater we’re about to descend into is deeper than the Empire State Building is high and that the volcano has erupted some 50 times since the late 1700s, making it one of the most volcanically active places on earth. I grimace, get a grip on myself and drop over the edge.

The abseil to The Ledge takes under an hour. My initial fear slowly gives way to a growing sense of awe and wonder and a realisation of my insignificance in the overall scheme of things. Mt Marum’s huge crater is mind-blowing but its lava lake is even more so, a 65m wide pit the size of two soccer fields filled to the brim with molten red rock. It writhes and sloshes like it’s alive.

While I have prepared myself for the sight of a lava lake close up, I haven’t prepared myself for the incredible sound it makes. It reminds me of being on a beach in Hawaii on a big surf day. In this case, the booming surf is actually liquid waves of rock smashing violently into the side of the crater. Pressure waves of heat and gas occasionally erupt from the waves on the lake with enough force to almost knock me off my feet.

It dawns on me that what I’m really looking at is the tip of a ‘fireberg’. Deep below me, this lake connects to a veritable sea of magma pooling under the entire length of Vanuatu, part of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. It’s scary and humbling and at one point I am so overwhelmed I almost forget to throw my precious ring into the lake. But then I remember and make the toss. Humanity saved, disaster averted. Phew!

By the time I make it back out of the crater and clean up, the sun is setting and the entire sky is glowing a vibrant orange, not from the sunset but from the heat of the lava lake below. I close my eyes and dream of wizards, orcs and brave hobbits.

BACK ON SOLID GROUND

Camping on the cusp; image supplied

The next two days are a blur of insane, out-of-this-world trekking through tortured volcanic landscapes reminiscent of a Mars sci-fi movie-set with names like the ‘Valley of Death and Glory’ and the ‘Mabenbwelesu gas crater’.

We do a second summit up nearby Mt Benbow, and even manage to clamber down into the inner crater kitted out only with gas masks, some good hiking shoes, a sense of adventure and the instructions of our experienced local guide, Joses Wilfred. Benbow’s lava lake is similar in size to Mt Marum’s, but seems to be even more volcanically active. For once I am glad to be a safe distance above the lava, instead of dangling on a rope just above it.

The final hike down from West Camp, near the base of Mt Benbow, takes around three hours and is a lesson in the regenerative power of nature. Because, while the ash plain and the craters seemed almost devoid of life, the slopes of the mountains cascading to the coast are a riot of thick jungle, bird life, palm groves and giant tree fern forests. It’s as if Mother Nature is saying to us, what I give to you freely, I can also take away from you violently.

I make a mental note to never again underestimate the beauty, power and life-giving force of the world around me, and quickly begin researching my next adventure. But then, how do you top an experience like this? The only way would be taking the ‘Ultimate Approach’, taking myself one step closer to the unimaginable power constantly bubbling beneath the surface.

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

Nailing the dress code

Geoff Mackley of Ultimate Volcano Expeditions has been conducting expeditions in Vanuatu since 2012, and offers abseiling and rope adventures inside Mt Marum, Mt Benbow and around the world. See www.ultimatevolcanoexpeditions.com for more.

In terms of trekking logistics, there is no better contact that Mayumi Green, owner of Wrecks to Rainforest tour booking agency on Espiritu Santo. Mayumi has spent the last 30 years exploring every nook and cranny of the Vanuatu Islands and can not only provide you with an itinerary for your Ambrym Island trek, but also organise porters (essential), tourism-approved volcano guides, transport and accommodation for the entire adventure. See www.wreckstorainforest.com for more.

A moderate level of fitness is required for any trek up a volcano. Good footwear, a light raincoat, a hat, plenty of water and some warm clothes in winter are essentials to ensure your trek is comfortable and safe. Also remember to check the latest advice on tropical diseases and health warnings for Vanuatu at www.smartraveller.gov.au.

This article originally appeared in the 2018 November/December issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today to keep up to date with all the latest outdoor adventures, travel news and inspiration.