Descending inside Benbow Crater – Vanuatu Expedition #2

Standing at the top of Benbow volcano and peering into the center of the world is the most exhilarating thing I’ve done to date. But could I go a step further, a big step further and actually descend into the crater and get as close as possible to the boiling pit of lava?

I was buzzing after our first expedition to Ambrym Island, Vanuatu. But I wanted more. Enter,  Geoff Mackley – a friend who had the gear and expertise to make my ambition a reality.  Geoff was a great guy. He had crazy (and completely nutty) ideas. We were going to get along just fine.

He devised a plan to fly to Vanuatu, camp at the neighbouring Marum, then chopper to Benbow Volcano where we could make a full descent to the crater floor. The whole thing sounded positively mad.

On November 22, 2015 myself and friends Brody, Simon and Nicole left Auckland, bound for Port Vila International Airport and checked into the Melanesian Hotel where we met Geoff and Brad (working for Geoff). It was great to be back in Vanuatu – except this time, we felt like proper explorers. We had graduated from using jungle sticks and rain coats to helicopters and heat suits.

That night, we caught up for dinner and finalized the plan. Geoff had a film crew and celebrity from NHK Japan. They would be joining us for part of the expedition. There was still much preparation work to do, but we locked in November 25 for our departure to Ambrym.

Over the coming days, we bought enough food and water to last two weeks and organised everything from cooking gas to toilet paper. The climbing gear was checked meticulously. Geoff explained “one missing thing or malfunction and it’ll be an epic shit fest”. After a couple of days, we were ready. The weather wasn’t however, but only delayed us by a day.

On Thursday (November 26)  we were up at 4am, ready for a 5am departure from The Melanesian. We loaded what seemed an endless number of backpacks, plastic containers and duffle bags onto the back of Geoff’s pickup truck and headed for the domestic terminal. We met the Japanese crew from NHK and began the check-in process. Air Taxi Vanuatu had organised two aircraft and a helicopter from Vanuatu Helicopters. Geoff and Brad would take the helicopter, the NHK crew the Britten Norman Islander and we’d be on a Cessna.

The flight to Ambrym was just under an hour. Unlike our first expedition, we landed on the eastern side of the island at Ulei Airport. Geoff explained the villagers on the western side were not friendly towards him and had held him to ransom on a previous trip. The two planes landed on a small grass runway, while Geoff and Brad carried on directly to summit camp on the helicopter.

The plan from here was simple. Unload our gear and then heli sling-load everything, including ourselves to the summit camp. But, as we’d already become accustomed to, nothing ever works according to plan whilst on expedition. As we pulled up at the tiny airport shed, a group of locals emerged from the jungle. They weren’t friendly and began to surround the aircraft, armed with machetes. We were in serious danger.

So what does one do when you’re in the jungle on a remote island, trying to pacify machete wielding locals? You bring out your French! Turns out they spoke French and armed with my very limited vocabulary, I managed to understand that they weren’t happy with us landing on their land without permission. They demanded landing fees and were keeping us hostage until we paid up.

Just as this volatile situation couldn’t get any worse, it did. Geoff, Brad and the helicopter were nowhere to be found. The return trip to the summit was no longer than 30 minutes, yet hours had passed and there was no sight of them. I tried making communication via the satellite phone, but had no response. All of us were fixated on the summit which was shrouded in clouds, hoping to spot the helicopter. We also hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst.

As the sun began to set, we decided to take control and resolve our hostage situation. We managed to locate and converse with the village Chief. We explained our situation and thankfully he was a lot more understanding. The machete wielding locals left and a bunch of young children arrived with a bounty of fruit for us to purchase. After being the new owners of large watermelons, papayas and coconuts, we found our fortunes suddenly changed.

I received a message from Geoff (huge relief). They were safe, but had hit bad weather near the summit and couldn’t take off again. As a result, they didn’t have enough fuel to return. Instead, they had organised a sea barge to bring aviation fuel over in barrels which would then have to be transported through the jungle and to the helicopter for refueling. ETA? 2 days minimum.

The chief took pity on us and invited us to be the guests of honor in a village feast. We reluctantly left our gear and followed him along a narrow dirt track though the jungle. What emerged was something that resembled a scene out of Indiana Jones. The village was a hive of tribal dancing, fire in every direction and curious faces as equally perplexed as we were. We reluctantly followed the chief who sat us around a fire and served up some local kava. A wild pig was being prepared for dinner.

Following a feast of local bush salad and wild pig, the chief explained that we were in great danger and that he would need to camp with us to protect us. We never did ask what the danger was, but happily obliged. We pitched our tents next to the airport shed and let him sleep in one. We didn’t get much sleep that night, in constant fear hearing people creeping around our tents.

The next morning, we were still alive and all of our gear was with us. It was hot and muggy and were were fed up, but grateful for the fresh fruit. The hours passed, laying about the airport shed, eagerly awaiting the sound of the helicopter. But no helicopter came and we were stuck for another day.

Saturday came around and we were now onto our third day at Ulei. We were all lethargic and ready to go, but found ourselves once again passing the time by sleeping, chatting with the locals and keeping the malarial mozzies at bay. Just before midday, my sat phone buzzed. It was a message from Geoff informing us that fuel had arrived and they’d be back down within a couple of hours. Hooray! And sure enough, the noise we had all been dreaming about suddenly became a reality…the helicopter had returned.

It was a relief to see Geoff again and he wasn’t mucking around. We quickly loaded the sling up and lifted tonnes of gear to the summit. After three or so return trips, we said our farewells and climbed aboard bound for the summit camp ourselves.

The view was spectacular as we passed over the jungle. On our previous expedition, we trekked for days to get to the summit. This time it would be less than half an hour. As we climbed, we found ourselves in complete whiteout conditions – never a good situation knowing that the flank of the volcano is close by. Our pilot slowly nudged closer and within about five minutes, we emerged from the clouds to see a small wooden A frame and our gear perched less than a hundred meters from the crater edge.

 

We pitched our tents and quickly found the need to wear gloves. Pele’s hair, sharp hair-like strands made of glass were a painful reminder we weren’t on a regular camping trip. Nor could we hammer our tent pegs in the loose lapilli and ash. A good solution was to tie our guy ropes to rocks, then bury them. We also had to dig channels to avoid flooding.

The A frame structure that Geoff and Brad had constructed was our communal area where we cooked, ate and passed the hours. A separate tent was our bathroom and toilet. The massive crater was 100 meters in front of us.

The environment was harsh. A small wind change would send choking SO2 gas our way. Thankfully our respirators worked well. The wind would send lapilli flying and would get everywhere. Torrential rain was on a 10 minute timer. 10 mins on and then 10 mins off.

Our first night up there was otherworldly. The entire sky turned red. It was like being on the surface of Mars.

The next day, the Japanese film crew wanted to capture Geoff descending to a 100 meter ledge that provided incredible footage – and provide the illusion that lava lake was much closer than reality. The setup took considerable time and planning. Normally, rope would be attached to an anchor for the rappel. Unfortunately, being up on a volcano, there was nothing suitable for an anchor so we used a large anchor bag filled with sand and rocks. Petrol-driven ascenders made for an easy climb out. The footage being captured was epic.

The following day, we hiked the section between Marum and Benbow. The track was hard to follow in parts, but we found our way. We passed the craters of Niri Mbwelesu and Mbogon Niri Mbwelesu (Taten). Both smoking away and a place we didn’t want to hang around for too long. We also found a large acid lake that was our turnaround point.

That afternoon, Brad took us through our rappelling training. We learnt how to thread the rope through the rack and how to control our descent speed. We also learnt about the ASAP lock device – something that will arrest an uncontrolled fall – and how important it was not to accidentally set this out, which had happened to Geoff and turned into a “shiftest”. I had had rappelling experience before, so this was a good refresher.

After spending four nights on Marum, we packed down our tents and gear and the helicopter returned once more, transferring us to Benbow. Unlike Marum, Benbow featured a large flat area within the crater that was going to be our campsite for the next few days. We had visited this location on our previous expedition. It was difficult flying for the pilot who had to circle a number of times to get the helicopter down.

The location was equally as epic as Marum. A large tephra ring rose just in front of us, with a churning lava lake at the bottom of the crater. The risks of camping inside the crater were significantly higher however with a risk of landslides and high concentrations of toxic gases. We ended up pitching our tents far away from the communal A frame.

Shortly after, we were joined by George Kourounis and another crew member Chris who had arrived on the helicopter from Port Vila.

Before making our descent, we got word of another lava lake within the Benbow crater. After a short conversation and a rough idea of where it was, we started trekking alongside the inner crater wall. It was perilous and a slip could have been fatal. After 45 minutes, we located the crater. It was different from the lava lake at Benbow in that the crater was narrow and was difficult to view. Due to its funnel shape, it created a very dangerous upwards draft of toxic gases.

Descending into this crater would just about be suicidal. Instead, we came up with a plan to capture the lava lake without putting anyone in danger. I had about 100 meters of steel wire with me and a go pro and with the use of George’s tripod, we dropped the go pro over the edge and lowered it in. It worked a treat, but eventually ran out of wire and we were nowhere near the lava lake. Even 100 meters down, the Go Pro casing had begun to melt. The footage was interesting and gave us some great shots of the lava lake. We were the first people ever to capture it on film.

The next day was our big day – our descent into Benbow. Like on Marum, we picked a suitable descent spot and rigged up the anchor bag and ropes. I got into my full body harness and was attached to two ropes (ropes in volcanoes are prone to damage and essential to have a backup). We went through the usual checks and a reminder to keep the descent smooth – no sudden jerks or the ASAP locking device would activate. And then, with a few careful steps, I was over the edge and on my way down.

There were two sections of our descent. The first down a vertical cliff face. I slowly released the rope through the rack, carefully managing the speed of my descent, then pulling the safety rope through the ASAP. Hot fumaroles dotted the crater wall and rocks tumbled beneath my feet. Half an hour later, I was at the half way point – a small shelf and a welcome relief. Chris rigged up the next section, tying the rope around a large boulder and hoping this was anchored securely. The second section was a bit shorter, but equally as perilous as the cliff face was very unstable and easy to dislodge rocks.

Over an hour later, we finally touched down on the crater floor. I looked up to see where we had come from. It looked such a long way back up. Rocks and boulders were littered everywhere and we knew they were a constant threat. The entire area was constantly shaking and like being in a constant earthquake. And in the middle of this vast crater was what we had come – the lava lake. From up top, it was hard to gauge the size, but all the way down there, it was easily the size of a football field. We walked over as close as we could before the heat became too intense. In front of us was a sight to behold. Lava surging fifty meters or higher. At times, I had to just leave the camera rolling and run as it got too hot to handle. At times it was relatively calm, then would fire back into life with some enormous pulses. At one point, I noticed a large number of relatively fresh lava fragments around us – this was a good reminder of the dangers that a large pulse could bring.

We spent about three hours down there, exploring an older (empty) pit and placing the world’s hardest to reach geocache under a large boulder. Not sure anyone else is going to find it.

The ascent out was made easier through the petrol-driven ascenders. Jumaring was impossible due to the distance required. After almost two hours, carefully revving the ascenders up and down, we emerged out of the crater safely. It was a great feeling!

This expedition had topped everything and exceeded all our wildest dreams. It was an absolute privilege to be a part of something so special and wouldn’t have been possible with the vision and expertise of Geoff, Chris and Brad.