Expedition Vanuatu 2023

The first to descend into and explore the new volcanic cone of Ambae on Extreme Pursuit’s 2023 Expedition to Vanuatu. We had a goal. Three weeks to climb four volcanoes – Yasur, Ambrym, Lopevi and Ambae and complete a world first on each.

To pull off such an expedition takes months and months of planning and preparation. Vanuatu can be an extremely challenging country to travel in. Flights are almost religiously cancelled, the weather often turns nasty and you need local connections to make anything happen. With over 20 internal flights booked and bags and bags of gear, we made our way to the capital of Vanuatu, Port Vila.

Our 737 Air Vanuatu Flight from Auckland, New Zealand

After overnighting in Port Vila, we embarked on our first volcanic island – Monaro Volcano, Ambae Island. Getting there is relatively straight forward. An ATR flight from Port Vila to Santo and then onto a smaller plane to Longana Airport in Ambae. Upon arriving into Santo, our connecting flight had been delayed by an hour or so. No biggie. We then found out that Solomon Air would be operating our flight…on a plane more than 50 years old and had only crashed twice. Such planes scare me more than any volcano.

Boarding our Solomon Air plane to Ambae

Up arrival, we met William, a local who would look after us whilst on the island. We boarded an old truck and headed to the local shop to buy supplies before making our way up a steep muddy road to the local guesthouse.

The road was impassable. Ambae gets very few visitors and so I think we were the first to drive up here in some time. The driver tried and tried, but he was at risk of getting stuck. Our guesthouse was only (supposedly) 2km up the road, but we had far too much gear to carry. William came up with a plan. He disappeared for a while, then returned on a quad bike and loaded our gear onboard. The road proved a challenge even for the quad bike.

With our gear being whisked up the mountain road, we started our trek behind. We were told it was an easy 2km walk to the guesthouse, but after 5km and over 550 meters of climbing, we still weren’t there. It was hot and extremely humid. I was over it. Thankfully, it began to flatten out and after 7km of climbing, we finally reached the guesthouse.

I needed a rest, but we weren’t done for the day. Instead, we had to walk a further 2km to the local nakamal (a traditional meeting place/house) where the chief performed a ceremony and served up kava.

Outside the nakamal with the village chief.

Whilst exhausted from the big climb, the nakamal ceremony was particularly special. When invited inside, we were shown a line not to cross. One side was for outsiders and the other was sacred for locals. A ceremony of drumming and prayers followed. We were then permitted to cross the line and welcomed with kava. Vanuatu kava is particularly strong. It makes your mouth very numb.

Making kava inside the nakamal

With the ceremony completed, we headed back downhill to the guesthouse. An early night was welcomed.

Next morning was the climb up Monaro. We assembled a small team of porters and left just after 8am. The hike up was relatively easy. You just have to be on the watch for snakes, ticks and other things trying to kill you.

As we climbed higher and higher, the vegetation began to thin out. Heavy fog obscured any views.

As we hit the caldera wall, we got our first whiff of H2S and SO2.

Once down inside the caldera, we entered an apocalyptic wasteland. Major eruptions occurred in 2017-2018 which caused large pyroclastic flows, lateral blasts and lahars. There was once a lush jungle covering the area.

It was one of the eeriest places I’ve been. Large trees had been stripped bare and snapped like matchsticks. It was hard to comprehend what had unfolded here and somewhere you definitely wouldn’t want to hang around for too long.

One of the crater lakes nearby. It was very warm to touch and filled with lapilli.

Being the idiots we are, we set up camp right within the caldera. The sky turned pink often and weren’t exactly sure why.

The heavy fog finally lifted and revealed the new cone that was built during the 2017-18 eruptions. It was something to behold. Less than a thousand meters in front of us was a massive, smouldering cone. I managed to get the drone up to try an scope out a safe route there. Flying over the crater revealed extensive and steaming lava flows. It was a hostile environment, but one I needed to get closer to.

It wasn’t long before the fog returned. Visibility was lower than 10 meters at times and was very easy to get lost. We had no choice but to return to camp. I always leave a GPS tracker running, as it’s common to have sudden whiteout conditions on volcanoes.

The next morning proved frustrating. The fog was stubborn and was even worse that day. We waited patiently, but it refused to shift.

With one day left, we made a call to enter the crater area regardless. It wasn’t windy or cold – just visibility was limited. No one had dared venture inside the cone and we were to be the first people to do it.

It was incredibly steep just getting down there and without our using rigging gear. The terrain was a combination of crumbling rock and scree. One wrong step would have been fatal.

The vegetation quickly disappeared as we ventured closer and closer to the active cone.

First views of the new cone

By this stage, the gas was extremely strong and so gas masks were a necessity.

We carefully made our way up the cone and then the ground suddenly stopped. About 30 meters below was a massive body of cooling lava covering the entire crater floor. We were the first people to see it. Only a few weeks prior stood a lake. Unfortunately the fog never really cleared and obscured the view.

We didn’t want to hang around there for too long, so headed down towards the second lake.

View of the 2017-2018 cone from the lake.

We had made it. It was a neat feeling to have been the first people to have explored this new cone. There aren’t many places left on the planet where no human has been before. It will be interesting to see how future eruptions continue to shape this landscape.

As we started our descent back down to the guesthouse, I began to feel unwell. A cold or flu coming on perhaps? Either way, it was a relief to be off the volcano and into a comfy bed.


Part 2: Ambrym

The next day, we departed Ambae for the island of Ambrym (via Santo). I’ve been to Ambrym many times, mostly during the lava lake days. Today, the lava lakes are gone, but the volcanoes continue to change dramatically.

We met John at Craig Cove, a dear friend that has helped us on many expeditions. His village is about an hour’s drive from the airport and makes a great base for climbing to the volcanic cones.

The next morning and feeling better, we made final preparations for our climb to West Camp (a camp on the rim of the caldera). Normally, you can take a truck up part of the way through one of ash plains and onto a watercourse. However, the last cyclone has brought down a tonne of material off the volcano and made it impassable – so it’s on foot from here.

The track up was very overgrown and easy to get lost. Parts have been eroded away completely. Detours and bush crashing were required to get through in parts. If you don’t like ticks, stay away and had many climbing up our legs. They probably don’t have lyme disease, but best not to put that to the test. Long trousers and plenty of DEET is a must.

After 5 hours of hiking, we arrived at West Camp…or what was left of it. Cyclones and Covid have wreaked havoc on infrastructure and the camp was a mess. The shelter and cooking area were completely destroyed. The EU donated water tank was on its side and beyond repair. We manged to fashion up a basic camp with an old tarp and some palm trees.

The sorry state of West Camp

The next morning, we made preparations for our climb of Benbow. I was blown away by how green everything was. Since the lava lakes had disappeared, vegetation has flourished.

Climbing up Benbow cone. All this vegetation was not here during my last climb

Once at the summit, we had clear views down inside the crater. I was truly blown away by what I saw. It was completely unrecognisable with huge landslides, our old camp site all but gone and was an oasis of new plant life. In the distance was a new baby cone and extensive lava flows from a brief eruption back in 2022. It was surreal thinking about all the time we had spent camping within this crater during our descents to the lava lakes. Some fumaroles were still active.

The new cone formed during a brief eruption in January 2022

Extensive lava flows

Inside the crater

Many people ask me whether the lava lakes will ever return. I am hopeful. My analysis of the new cone’s location matches it to the location of the former “Son of Benbow” crater – a smaller lava lake. So that vent is still likely active.

Back at camp, we were pleased to enjoy of feast of locally hunted wild pig.

Upon returning to Port Vila for our next volcano, Lopevi, we found that the flight was cancelled due to the poor state of the runway and that a replacement flight was perhaps months off. Then to make a bad situation worse, our flights to Tanna were also cancelled. It was frustrating, but not surprising. Flight cancellations are almost guaranteed in Vanuatu. And so with that news, we decided to make a call to end the expedition there and head home. We’ll be back and we’ll be ready for more incredible volcano adventures again soon.


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