Jan. 1, 2012
Some advice on bush-walking and visiting remote volcanoes: pack your bag, then take everything out of it. Get rid of the extra clothes, the snorkelling gear and everything else that isn’t extra water, crackers, a sleeping bag and a first aid kit. I thought I’d packed sensibly. I thought my bag was light. It was under 7 kg. It was way, way too heavy and I considered chucking it off a cliff on more than one occasion.
In the morning I was fresh-eyed and bushy tailed. Up at five and ready to greet a new year. Breakfast was bread and crackers, jam and instant coffee. Delicious. The owner of the bungalow boiled a bunch of bananas for me to bring into the bush to share with the guide.
Then it was back into the boat and down the coast a bit to a rocky harbour with the most incredible shade of water I’ve ever seen.
There was no mooring and you had to scramble up a cliff to get ashore. There wasn’t anyone to greet us initially and the man steering the boat made a… unique noise… until someone showed up.
I met my next guide, Rubin, who would be leading me to the volcanoes. I gave him the boiled bananas, the envelop of cash and a box of pencils (every guidebook, traveller and tour operator suggests bringing them with you as a gift). Rubin’s children were really, really excited about the pencils. One little girl went around with the box, solemnly distributing one pencil to each of her siblings and friends.
Walking came next on the agenda. Lots of walking. Walking past bush gardens and cultural sites, past half-carved tam-tams and black tree ferns, waling up mountains and by mountains. Climbing too, when the path got steep. The vegetation is intense: grass and palms, huge lap lap leaves, wild cane and banyan trees that grew over the track to make living tunnels of greenery. Tiny blue and orange lizards dart out of the undergrowth at every step.
After four hours or so we rest for lunch. Rubin vanishes into the undergrowth with one of my empty bottles and reappears with it full of fresh spring water. We eat bananas – the big, boiled bananas, and some tiny, sweet finger bananas that Rubin has carried along. He tells me about the seasonal work he does harvesting apples and kiwi in New Zealand. There was something really surreal about sitting in the middle of the bush discussing DVD players and New Zealand cash crops.
We reach a stream leads us out of the jungle and to the grassy edge of the dessert area. The ground here is soft ash and criss-crossed with animal tracks – birds, wild bullock, dogs, wild pigs, even some barefoot human footprints that make me feel like Robinson Crusoe on the beach before he finds Friday.
This is a volcano bungalow:
The stream bed continues towards Mt. Marum, getting closer and rougher as we go.
There is a lot of climb and scrambling over holes and steep banks. I wouldn’t want to be caught here in a sudden downpour, but luckily the sky is still clear. Going up the mountain doesn’t require any kind of special equipment or ropes. You just walk up a knife’s edge ridge over loose ash and scree. There’s wild cane and grass at the bottom, but that falls away as you go up revealing just how far the drop is on either side.
Near the top of the trail there are two sticks thrust into the ground, one short and one tall. The symbol for tabu.
The view is –
I can’t describe it with a million words or a thousand pictures. If I’d remembered that my camera has a panorama setting I might’ve got closer, but I didn’t remember and I don’t think that would’ve done it justice anyhow.
Imagine dense virgin rainforest rimmed by blue-white ocean. Imagine the forest fading into surreal green moss and wild cane. Imagine the ground is wrinkled and pulled up in every direction. Imagine the Grand Canyon and fill it with lava. Not lava like you see on TV or in pictures, but real, bright, glowing fire, scabbed around the edges, burbling, roiling.
I might mention here that, while Tanna had benches you could sit on to watch the show it did not have anything that could be mistaken for a safety rail. Ambrym didn’t have anything rail-like either, but there was a stick you could hold onto while leaning over the edge to see the lava. I very much appreciated the stick. I think I appreciated the bit where Rubin got down on his stomach and shook off the loose rocks at the edge of the cliff (which was quite a good chunk of cliff) to make it “safe”. Rubin seemed a bit amused at how I walked all the way to the volcano only to get nervous at the top. For his part, he spent most of the time on the summit leaning over the crater trying to get cellphone reception.
Rubin’s response to me not wanting to get close to the edge was to get down on his hands and knees and shake a big chunk of rock loose. We watched it fall a very long way towards a pit of boiling lava. He tend stood up, held out his hand again, and assured me that it was safe now.
On the way back down the mountain my cheap sneakers slipped on the scree and I nearly broken my arm/ stabbed myself in the throat tumbling through the loose cane.
That should be added to the volcano advice: Don’t be a klutz. Don’t fall down the volcano – just don’t. Your guide will look embarrassed and not want to take you up the other volcano if you do.
Wear good hiking boots – the gide was wearing flip-flops that kept falling apart and he didn’t seem bothered. I was wearing cheap running shoes from Pay-Less and I kept slipping and sliding on gravel. This was both dangerous and embarrassing.
Don’t underestimate how much water you’ll need – I brought five liters and drank all of it. Rubin vanished into the jungle with one of my empty bottles and it came back full. He filled it at a natural spring, but I didn’t see the spring. I drank it because I ran out of everything else and was getting dangerously dehydrated. I didn’t get sick so I guess its okay.
Do bring a sleeping bag – It gets surprisingly cold in the desert at night and shivering all night under your slightly damp towel on the very damp ground isn’t fun.
Do bring matches/ a lighter – the guide kept telling me he could make a fire by rubbing to sticks together, and I don’t doubt that he usually can, but I must have jinxed it because all he got was a lot of smoke and charred wood
Do wear long sleeves – yes, it’s hot as hell, but there’s no shade for miles and the malaria pills make you more susceptible to sunburn (or at least mine do). I reapplied sunscreen three times a day and I still ended up a nice cherry red.
Do bring food (this, at least, I did right. Hurrah for peanut butter and crackers!)
I spent the night cold, wet, and terrified of the rumbling volcano, half convinced that it was erupting every two minutes and burying the tent under metre of dark, smothering ash. It wasn’t, of course, but you try sleeping at the base of one of the world’s most active and destructive volcanoes (though, apparently I’m just a chicken because I know at least one person who pitched their tent a metre away from the crater rim and had a very fine night’s sleep. I also know of people who brought ropes and climbed into the crater to get closer to the lava. People are very strange).
Look out for part three, coming soon to a blog near you!