Here Are Your Yams part one

10 Feb

A bit late with this post, but never mind. I’m safe by the way – Miss Jasmine turned the other way at the last minute so it was a very anti-climatic sort of cyclone. Not that I’m complaining. I’ve got no desire whatsoever to experience a category 4 storm. Anyway, without further delay, the Ambrym trip:

When Captain Cook first landed on Ambrym the local people came down to the beach to meet him with armfuls of root vegetables.

Captain Cook asked the people, “Where am I?”

The people handed him their armfuls of produce and responded, “am rêm”.

No prizes for guessing the direct translation. It reminds me of the story of the budgie where a man (possibly Cook again) asked, “What is this bird?” and the person being asked responded, “Yes, those do make a good meal.”

I think something similar happened with kangaroos. It begs the question why explorers ask these questions of people who clearly do not speak the same language as them. What answer are they expecting to get? Still, it does lead to some interesting place and animal names.

Now I’m thinking of back home and how Canada technically means, “Yes, you are pointing at a village.”

Half a world away and the same wackiness repeats itself. Never mind.

Ambrym, yam lend, the Black Island… this sounds like the start of a poem, or a bad punning exercise. It is black though, the island. It’s got that nickname because of soil and because of the magic. The magic and the soil are both the result of the volcano(s).


Map of the Black Island taken from thepositiveearth

Yes, this is another volcano story. Whether the volcanoes are plural or singular is really up to your opinion of what constitutes a volcano. Technically speaking, the whole island is one giant basaltic volcano with multiple vents. The interior of the island is a vast, sunken caldera. It’s a black and red desert area covering nearly a 100sq kilometres. Out of this real-life Morodor rises the mighty twin volcano of Marum-Benbow. There’s a third named volcano about as well that rose up recently. Maurem has multiple craters and vents. I was told that there are seven active craters in all. That’s not counting the large, “extinct” craters.

This is one of Marum’s “sleeping” vents. It erupted in 1913 and destroyed half the island:

maren extinct crater

Warning: volcanoes are larger than they appear

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dec. 31, 2011

I’m sitting out front of the flat with the New Caledonians waiting for my ride to the airport. It’s warm and breezy. We’re all laughing and not understanding each other because I don’t speak French and they don’t speak English. I’m playing endless games of Solitaire because the Internet won’t work and I really wanted to email people before I leave.

Predictably, the Internet comes just as the airport transfer arrives. I’m bounced and jangled out of Vila on the B-Bus. My booking agent gives me an envelop filled with the money I gave her to give to the bungalow (it’s really the weirdest system, you have to pay them the full amount, they take their commission and the airline ticket money, then they give everything back to you in an envelope with a letter inside it explaining to each bungalow/guide/tour operator exactly how much they should be taking out).

The airport isn’t as busy this time, thankfully. I go to check my baggage. They weigh my bag. Next, they weigh me. That should have tipped me off to the size of the plane. It’s not a two-seater bush plane or anything, but it’s still plenty small. 13 passengers and 2 pilots and propellers so loud you’re sure your ears are going to burst and bleed out you eyeballs.

Every seat is a window seat and the view is magnificent. Going to Tanna the only island the plane passed over was Erromango, and even that was from such a distance you could barely see. It was also cloudy. This day is clear and the plane flies low. It glides over the dense bush and mountains that hold sway over Efate beyond Vila. Then ocean and the small peaks of the Sherperd Isles. The undersea volcano there spews bubbles and reefs turn the water odd shades of blue and orange. The plane goes over beach-ringed Epi, mountainous Paama and smoking Lopevi. I can see Malekula, the sitting-dog island, to the side, Santo and Pentecost to the north.

Then the plane is bumping down on Ambrym at Graig’s Cove (or Craig’s Cove? It seems to be spelled differently on every sheet). The runway was clearly paved at some point, but I’d wager there’s more dirt than tarmac left under its covering of ankle-deep, golden-green grass. Despite this, the landing is considerably smoother than the terrifying “oh good we’re going to die” touchdown at Tanna. Go figure.

This is the Graig’s Cove airport terminal. It’s not large:

Graig's Cover

That's it

I am met straight away by my first guide who walks me about half and hour down the road to Graig’s Cove proper. We meet a funeral procession on the way and I am left waiting by the bay for an hour or so as my guide doubled back to pay his respects.

The rocks in the bay are sharp and black. They are clearly igneous and when you look at a map of Ambrym and see where Graig’s Cove is versus where the volcano area is that’s really quite frightening. From what I understand the island has a tendency to rip itself apart during major eruptions with new lava-spewing vents tearing open wherever they please and giant hunks of burning rock sailing through the air to land dozens of kilometres from where they were originally chucked up. And yet, people live here. People are amazing.

A bunch of boys splash around in the shallow, rocky bay. They duck and dive under the moored fibreglass boats. They keep pointing at me and murmuring, “Peace Corps, Peace Corps.” Er, no, but I get the impression that this island has more volunteers that tourists.

I sit on the sharp rocks and wait. There’s a rusted-out hulk of a fishing vessel listing on one side of the bay. I consider taking a photo of it and don’t. I also consider taking photos of the tiny black lizards with toothpick-thin limbs scurrying and leaping over the sharp rocks.

Then the guide is back and it’s into the boat, a small fibreglass with a yellow hull. The boat has no name. The voyage is two or so hours past rocky, impenetrable coast. The smell of sulphur is thick and the trees grow in strange patterns over the cliffs. Large black birds wheel over head and it takes a long time for me to realize that they aren’t birds, but bats. The water is an impossible blue.

The guide points out a deserted bit of shore where the island’s first hospital and several villages once stood, before the 1913 eruption sent a tide of super-heated mud and fire rushing over them.

Mid-way through the trip we take a stop at small black sand beach. It’s a narrow bar of sand with ocean on one side and a volcanic hot spring on the other. The water in the spring is chucked with green muck and is almost too hot to stand in. The beach is decorated with bleached out trees and driftwood; white on black standing guard between two different shades of blue.

Hotsprings beach

You couldn't tell there were hotsprings there from the boat


But a hotspring there was


Finally we arrive at Solomon Douglas Bungalows in North Ambrym (the “safe” part of the island – at least, the only part that’s not exploded in recorded history). The boat pulls away until its a speak of yellow along the horizon and I realize how remote I am from the world I know. There is no easy way back home from here. To get back to the airport I will have to hail another boat. Or walk.


A comfy bed

There’s one bungalow on the black sand beach and others standing on the hill at the end of a steep track. It’s a nice place to spend the last day of 2011. I wade along the beach and have a small kai-kai at the bungalow restaurant.  To the west there are two sunsets – one is real and one is lava reflecting off smoke. I fall asleep far before the clock ticks over and wake up to find a new year.

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Posted by on February 10, 2012 in Uncategorized


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