Hell ain’t a bad place to be

Hell ain’t a bad place to be

Justin Jamieson journeys to the centre of the earth on Vanuatu’s black magic island.

“You wanna have a look?” yells the pilot over his shoulder, his question barely audible over the screaming propellers of our Air Vanuatu Twin Otter. As I nod eagerly he veers around the smoke billowing from two craters below. Staring out of the small plane’s window I feel as though I’m looking down on a Spielberg movie set. There is no life below, just two gaping holes in the puckered earth, belching smoke menacingly as we buzz closer like a curious blowfly.

We are flying over Mount Marum and Mount Benbow, the two volcanoes on Vanuatu’s ‘black magic’ Ambrym Island. Relatively undiscovered by travellers, Ambrym has long played second fiddle to Mount Yasur’s nightly fireworks display on the more accessible and far more visited Tanna Island. The lure of Ambrym, however, is not just exclusivity but also the chance to stare directly into a bubbling lava lake. For unlike Yasur, Marum’s eruptions are few and far between.

Ambrym is not far geographically from Port Vila, the main tourist hub of Vanuatu, but the journey is a long one. Our plane is up and down onto runways that look less and less like runways the longer we travel. Locals jump on and off unloading supplies as the pilot stretches his legs. I stare down the grass strips amazed at how easy it seems to be to land on what looks like a small football field. The pilot explains later that the locals are tasked with maintaining the airports and generally they do a good job. The problem, he says, is when they let the grass grow too long and you can’t see the lights. “Near bloody impossible to land at night. But it doesn’t happen too often. Otherwise they get no supplies.”

We eventually land at Craig Cove Airport on Ambrym’s far eastern tip. From here we board a small banana boat (the main form of local transport), hugging the coast as we head north to Ranon, the starting point for the easiest ascent to the volcano’s rim. Like everything in these parts, the boat trip is relaxed. Our captain and his mate throw in a hand line each and regularly stop to pull in their catch. Six fish and three hours later we pull ashore at a hot spring. I choose the cool Coral Sea over the volcanic heated spring. An Ambrym Islander wanders from the jungle, covered head to toe in black volcanic sand and dives in beside me. I ask Maina, my guide, if the man has been exfoliating, and she laughs and explains that he has been burrowing for megapode eggs. These large chicken-like birds bury their eggs deep in the sand. It isn’t uncommon, Maina tells me, to see just the feet of a local digging deep for his bounty. Maina buys a large egg from the smooth-skinned local. It could make an omelette big enough for the four of us, I joke. “Easily,” she says, smiling back.

It has been a long day when we finally reach Ranon Beach Bungalows. Freddy, the owner, and his wife greet me with a hearty meal of vegetables and fresh fish. Dessert is a perfect sunset from the window of the dining bungalow. Their children play on a makeshift swing on the beach at the water’s edge. There are only two accommodation bungalows here, each offering water views from small balconies. It should be the end of a great day’s travel but Maina suggests we head to the local nakamal for some kava. “It will help you sleep,” she tells me with a cheeky smile.

The nakamal is a traditional meeting place in most Vanuatu communities and is where the men gather to make then drink the narcotic-like liquid. Stumbling through the pitch-black jungle we come upon a shelter at the bottom of Ranon village. I’m introduced to Edwin, who sits cross-legged crushing the kava root down into an ornate silver tube called a tambil. The pulp is then mixed with water and strained through what looks like an old sock. Rather ironic given that is what it tastes like. All the while the men chatter and laugh. The only light comes from the mobile phones of the surrounding women. It is a surreal scene.

We have a couple of coconut shells of the dirty water mixture and I sit staring at the ground for what seems like an hour. My mouth is numb and control of my body is limited. My body is drunk, but my mind seems fine. Edwin insists I have another – so as not to offend I oblige. It is a mistake. The trip up from the beach bungalows was arduous enough and I am barely able to stand, much less navigate through the jungle to get back. Thanks to Maina’s somehow steady feet we make it. I fall asleep face down and fully clothed, only waking well after the sun has risen. Yes, Maina, it certainly does help you sleep.

With a stomach full of fresh fruit we jump on the back of a passing truck and head towards the start of the volcano trek. Passing through Ranon village we pick up our two guides, Isaiah and Timoty. The village is a network of huts, shacks and larger dwellings. We pass a school with one large bamboo building and a playground with swings made from bamboo and vines. The children run out of the classroom to wave. Their teacher chases them, wielding a large stick and yelling furiously. She looks up at us as the last student runs back in, smiles and winks.

Isaiah is a Morgan Freeman–type character, with wise eyes complementing his wide smile. He tells me he was one of the first to set paths to the volcano from the north to the south. He has been to the crater “many, many, many” times. As a young boy he and his friends would make their own tracks and see who could reach the top first. “Is it a tough trek?” I ask him. “Nothing like it used to be!” he laughs. Timoty is quiet, but he looks strong enough to push down a tree with his bare hands. Both of them carry machetes and if I’d run into them in the dark the previous night I would have been petrified.

It is a four-hour trek through the dense damp jungle to reach the ash plain. I trip up steep vine-covered paths and through banyan tree passageways. It is hot, humid and uncomfortable. Isaiah smiles constantly and Maina puts me to shame, especially when I see she is in a pair of thongs. Timoty chops ahead clearing a path. I’m sure I catch him smile when a bright yellow and black spider lands on my face and I scream. Eventually we make it to the ash plain. It resembles a bitumen road and crunches like honeycomb underfoot. The sun gains strength in the clearing, but there is a breeze now and Marum, with a halo of cloud around her gape, is visible in the distance. I feel like Frodo Baggins staring up at Mordor, but refrain from calling Timoty Gollum. Gollum never carried a machete.

“The last big one was 1913! And was big!” Isaiah tells me as we walk along the ash plain. “Ya, a missionary took a coconut from the spirit tree and the man blong majik was angry. He make Marum angry too.” Isaiah explains there are many things in the jungle here that can kill you. The magic men know what they are and how to use them – and they do. This is what has perpetuated the legend of black magic on Ambrym. “And what about making Marum angry?” I ask. “Don’t pick coconuts!” he laughs.

The path, if you can call it that, leading up to the rim of Mount Marum is like walking towards death. The closer we get the less life there is around us. Even the birds have disappeared. The hot, sticky jungle seems days away as we enter a forest of almost white wild cane, the last sign of life before there is only black ash. The view back from where we have come is extraordinary. The light-coloured cane forest darkens to a pale green as life takes over and continues to darken to the lush deep jungle spilling off the ash plain and down to the sea.

Nothing, however, can compare to staring over the rim for the first time and into the bubbling lava lake below. Even Timoty is beaming now and, at first sight, I let out a guttural yelp and yell to Maina to hurry up. It is like looking into the mouth of hell. All around us is black grey ash and smoke clashing with the bright orange gurgling lava that spits up and onto the surrounding walls, darkening as it cools in the air only to fall back into the inferno. It is beautiful, mesmerising and terrifying all at once. I sit with my legs over the edge holding on to the safety stick Isaiah has stuck into the ash. He talks of one day building a platform for people to stand more comfortably. “How many people have been up here in the last year?” I ask him. “Not sure. Not many. Maybe 20.” It astounds me.

We camp that night on the ash plain at the base of Marum where life is starting to grow. Isaiah cooks up tinned stew that we eat smeared on taro. The night sky behind us is crimson as the glow of the lava lights up the belching smoke. The view and a voracious appetite help the meal go down and I look at Timoty. He’s still grinning and I ask him if he ever gets tired of it. He shakes his head. “I like to see your face too!” he chuckles. “Everyone the same!” “Yes, Timoty,” I respond. “I’ll bet they are.”

Get there

Air Vanuatu has regular flights to Port Vila from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, with connections to Ambrym.

Stay there

When in Port Vila, check in to La Maison du Banian, an incredible treehouse built into a giant banyan tree. It’s a little way out of town, but the perfect place to isolate yourself for a couple of days. It costs about US$120 a night for two, including breakfast and dinner.

Ranon Beach Bungalows is perfectly positioned on the beach of Ambrym’s north side. The team there can help you organise everything, including meals, hikes to the volcano and trips to see the Rom dancers in nearby Fanla. Stays cost about US$25 per person, including breakfast.

Get Informed

Find out more about Ambrym and Vanuatu’s other islands on the official tourism website.

Words Justin Jamieson

Photos Justin Jamieson

Tags: beach, island, unusual experience, volcano

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