Return To The Fire Expedition

Our fascination with volcanoes has became an obsession. They are an exquisite feature. Anyone who ventures near has felt a blazing sense of mother nature’s disinterest in us. In small measures she exhilarates. In her full form she annihilates.

On this expedition, we returned to Vanuatu, venturing ever closer to the blazing lava in pursuit of peril.

We spent a week on Ambrym Island, renowned for black magic and its out of this world lava lakes. We’re also traveled further afield to explore Ambae, being the first people to climb the summit of Manaro Voui since the recent eruptions.

We’re so lucky to have Vanuatu in our backyard. And we can’t keep away. Shortly after our last expedition, the Manaro Voui volcano on the island of Ambae erupted in spectacular fashion. Such the danger, the entire island’s population of 10,000  were evacuated. Large ash plumes were produced. In-crater fire fountaining was also observed. And so a decision was made to visit the island, observe the activity and stop by Ambrym on the way back.

On Dec 27, 2017 we boarded flight NF51, leaving Auckland and bound for Port Vila.

Checking in at Auckland Airport

The calm before the storm – Relaxing at the Grand Hotel, Port Vila

Expedition crew – team dinner in Port Vila


The next morning, we made our way to the always chaotic domestic airport and checked in for our flight to Longana, Ambae via Santo. The first leg was uneventful, but we certainly got some perplexing looks from the locals when we boarded our flight to Ambae. They thought we were a bit insane and instead tried to sell us on a relaxing holiday on Santo. No thank you!

Chaos at Port Vila Domestic Airport – Checking in for our flight to Longana, Ambae (via Santo)

Our twin otter aircraft finally touched down at Longana Airport, turned around and left immediately. We suddenly found ourselves alone, without transport, accommodation with an angry volcano smoldering in the distance. There was no turning back now.

After some discussion, we managed to flag down the only pickup truck to have passed in the last few hours. A kind local called Gme agreed to help us. We jumped on the back of his truck and we were on the way to his house. He happily agreed to let us pitch our tents next to the ocean. Nothing can be planned ahead with these sort of expeditions and it was great to have a local with us and somewhere to stay!

Scenes from Ambae

Just down the road was the Ambae Geohazards office. Two of the scientists there explained the series of eruptions that had rocked the island and provided us an update on the current situation.

At the local Geo Hazards Office

Our make-do campsite for the night

Just after we had set up our tents, I received an unexpected call from the Head of Tourism of the Penama Province.  He had found out we were on the island and was surprised to hear of our visit. In typical Vanuatu fashion, he was ringing to ensure we were well looked after. Within the hour, we had packed up our tents and were on our way to a house for the night. We had running water, beds and even a local chef looking after us. What a turn of events. That evening, we had a wonderful dinner of local meat and bush salad and complemented with some of our freeze dried food, cooked over the fire. Come 6AM the next morning, we would be on our way up Manaro Voui.

Preparing/eating dinner in our new home on Ambae

We awoke the next morning and made our final preparations. We followed a small pathway leading to the village at the base of the volcano where we met the Chief. We expected a short conversation, a guide and to be on our way…but the chief wasn’t at all happy to see us. No one had been up the volcano since the eruptions commenced and he wasn’t about to let us up due to the ongoing danger. No matter what we said, he wouldn’t budge. Could the entire expedition be in ruins, right at the last hurdle? At the point of exasperation, I got on the phone and asked if our tourist boss friend could help. I passed the phone over and after a long discussion, the chief agreed to take us up. We were on our way!

We entered the jungle to start the 3-4 hour climb. As no one had climbed the volcano in over a year, the track was overgrown and difficult to follow in places. The chief was constantly whacking away plants with his machete. It was a beautiful climb, with waterfalls, steep ravines and rain – plenty of it. As we climbed higher, the rain began to dump down. There was no keeping dry. The track turned to a torrent of water in places. The thick vegetation started to show signs of distress from the the eruptions.

As we inched closer to the summit crater, entire trees had been charred. Pungent SO2 could be smelt. We could see steam and ash rising in the distance. And then we were stopped – right on the summit. The chief refused to go any further and would not let us continue. It was incredibly disappointing. We had come so far and overcome so many obstacles. I couldn’t even get the drone up as the weather was absolute crap. I could sense the chief was uneasy and decided it was best not to push it, and with the weather deteriorating further, we turned around and returned.

One final swim before our departure from Ambae

Whilst our time on Ambae island wasn’t entirely successful we pledged to return again sometime soon. The trip was full of ups and downs, but we weren’t about to let that be the defining moment. As we said farewell to Ambae, a new plan had been hatched – to head back to Ambrym!

Having freshened up back in Port Vila, we headed back to the domestic airport on the last day of 2017 bound for Craig Cove on Ambrym. John, a very good friend, was there waiting for us. John has helped us on many other expeditions to Vanuatu. We piled aboard his truck for the 1 hr journey to his home at Port Vatu. Being the last day of the year, it was party time! Local choirs sang loudly, guitars were out and plenty of kava was drunk. With a long trek the next day, we decided to take it easy.

Arriving at Craig Cove Airport, Ambrym Island

The next morning, and the first day of 2018, we jumped aboard John’s truck and drove as far as possible before the 4 hour trek to West Camp. The heat and humidity was insane. We were in Vanuatu in the thick of the wet season however.

The jungle was stunning as always, but a dangerous place. There are leeches, ticks, snakes and the infamous “stinky plant” that John said put someone in hospital for 3 months when brushing passed it.

Our army of porters and children that came with us for a short distance

We pushed on, and soon arrived at West Camp. To our amazement, someone had built a proper solid shelter. We were quite ecstatic to see it, but then later realised the water tank was empty. We had no water. We had no choice but to pay for our porters to head back down, then return the next day with water from the village. Expensive yes, but we had no other alternative.

With the weather good (and it rarely is up on top of Ambrym), we decided to drop our gear and push onto Marum. Marum is about 1.5-2 hrs one way from West Camp and is one of my favourite hikes on the planet. It starts over a relatively flat and vast ash plain, before hugging the side of the crater rim, through a narrow gap between two craters and then winds around the side of Marum crater before emerging onto a small flat area where we camped during the previous expedition. By the time we got there, the wind had risen and we were suffocating from the heavy So2. And then, like magic, the clouds cleared for a moment and exposed Marum’s fiery lava lake.

The lake had changed. The larger circular lake was present, however there were three smaller ones present also. We launched the drones and took plenty of footage. I even managed to capture a significant collapse of the inner crater wall fall into lava lake. There’s nothing better steering down the viewfinder, knowing you’ve captured something no one else has. Darkness fell and the entire sky all around turned dark orange. It’s such a surreal feeling and nowhere I would rather be. I remember peering down inside and thinking about my descent a year earlier. I couldn’t believe I had done that.

With rain threatening, we packed up and headed back to West Camp.

The next morning and with fine weather continuing, we decided to head to Benbow. Benbow is closer, but the final climb up the crater wall is precarious. One slip and you’d be dead. During our first expedition to Benbow, we arrived to find the crater hidden in fog. This time, we got a perfectly clear view of the crater. I got the rope out and secured it to two large iron stakes. Even with 200m of rope, it still wasn’t nearly enough, but at least got us past the tricky spot.

The ash plain, looking over towards Benbow

Climbing the steep crater wall of Benbow

The view of the inner tephra wall – and two hidden lava lakes

Setting up for our descent

The descent took about 30 minutes, then a short climb back up the inner tephra wall to the vantage point. Benbow crater had dropped significantly since our last time. You could just make it out from the first vantage point, but we managed to find a better spot and could see it churning away. Thankfully with the drones, we got some great shots.

Benbow’s lava lake

The inner walls of the crater. Not a place to hang around for too long!

Before heading back, John told us about another crater he had heard noises from, but hadn’t been to in a very long time. Niri Mbwelesu is between Marum and Benbow and had laid dormant for many years. We just had to go visit.

The acid lake – on the way to Niri Mbwelesu

As we got closer, we could hear loud noises and as we came to the edge of the crater, low and behold, there was an active vent, spewing lava. We were all amazed to witness this and it was completely unexpected. For the first time, we had captured the birth of a newly forming lava lake on the drone. It was like a mini Marum, but much, much closer. It was a tough environment to be in with constant dust devils attacking us.

The last day we decided to return to Niri Mbwelesu and capture a few more shots. We were intrigued to see if the activity had changed. Upon arrival, all was the same. But then things changed, and suddenly. Volcanoes are always unpredictable beasts and the volcano didn’t want to see us again. As I was setting up my drone, one of the vents started spewing ash. I filmed it for about 20 seconds, but as it started to grow, it became clear our safety was in danger. We grabbed our gear and ran. A plume came right our way and soon covered us in ash. Thankfully we got out of there in time and found clean air to breath. My heart was pounding, we were all a bit shaken, but we were safe. Always a good reminder to have the greatest respect for Mother Nature.

After this incident, we knew we had pushed our luck and decided to pack up and head back down to Port Vatu.

The party we had left was still going when we arrived back. The entire village was out dancing, singing and throwing flour – heaps of it. We even had kava with the Chief of Ambrym – quite a privilege and such a fitting way to end another expedition to Vanuatu.

One last picture from Port Vatu showing the red tinge caused by the lava lakes