Walking through the Pages of the National Geographic

Well, I think we can safely say that Vanuatu has been one of our favourite destinations so far. It really is like walking through the pages of a National Geographic Magazine. My only regret is that we must move on so quickly. A month has flown by and we now find ourselves with very little time to make the many thousands of miles that we must make in order to cross the Indian Ocean before the Cyclone Season there gets into full swing.

Following on from where Sarah left off, we sailed North overnight to the island of Ambrym. We’d heard about this island from two sources. The first was Thomson, the gardener who so kindly gave us a guided tour of the ‘closed’ gardens on Efate. He told us that his grandfather had moved to Efate from Ambrym when his village was threatened by a particularly violent volcanic eruption. The second was when we met Philip at the Volcano Centre in Port Vila. He showed us some amazing photographs of a boiling lake of lava on Ambrym. It seemed to us that this might be one of those occasions on which we might have the opportunity to see something truly spectacular – something that people specifically travel half way around the world just to see – on a spur of the moment just because we happened to be in the vicinity. We were not disappointed.

Philip had given us a phone number for a guy called Joses, who is a volcano guide.

“Hello! We would like to climb your volcano please and see a boiling pit of lava. Tomorrow if possible”, I said (or words to that effect).

“Sure! Bring some food, some water and some sleeping bags”, said Joses.

We turned up at an appointed place at the appointed hour the next day thus equipped, not knowing quite what to expect. What followed was an arduous but exceptionally rewarding experience. It started with a 10km hike through a dry riverbed and then a rainforest path up to an elevation of about 750m. Here there was a makeshift camp already constructed in the local style, with a couple of palm-leaf shelters and an open fire for cooking. We dumped most of our stuff and then set out to visit one of the volcanoes, making the most of the fair weather because you never know when it’s going to go foul on you when you are at the top of a mountain. From the camp we climbed a dune of black sand, and when we reached the top we found ourselves facing one of the most incredible landscapes I have ever seen – miles and miles of ash plane. The ground was dead flat, black sand covered in fibres of naturally-produced fibreglass that is regularly ejected from the volcano. In the distance were fumaroles – small vents billowing volcanic gases – and the cones and craters themselves. The wind was a moderate 17 knots that day from the East, but up there there was a fresh breeze and the craters billowed out dense clouds of smoke that would blot out the sun one second and let it through the next, such that racing bands of shadow galloped across the landscape and off into the distance. It was eerie and surreal. We hiked for another 6 kilometres and up another 250m to reach the crater of Mount Marum, across the ash plane, through the shadow of Mount Benbow and then up the cone of Marum itself until we stood on the edge of a precipice and looked directly down 400m to a lake of boiling lava. It was bubbling away quite merrily, throwing huge gouts of liquid rock out onto the surrounding rock face. The thing that really impressed upon me however was the sound. It sounded just like the ocean beating against a rocky shore. Who’d have thought the rock itself could make that sound?

 

Much of the hike to the camp was through forest such as this. Joses and his fellow guides cut these paths several years ago with machetes. It must have been a long, hard job. I wonder who found the route in the first place……..

 

One of the local guys serving as a porter. These guys hike up to the camp and back down again in one day. Barefoot.

 

The ash plain.

 

More ash plain, this time with a backdrop of craters angrily billowing smoke

 

The smoke would collect in dense clouds that seemed not to readily diffuse. This one was nearly stationary. We came prepared!

 

One of many stunning volcanic landscapes.

 

Our reward for all that walking!

 

Sarah was happy to sit perched right in the edge. Meanwhile I crawled up to it and peered over the edge much more cautiously.

 

This is me standing near the edge of the crater, posing as requested by the master camerawoman.

 

And a short video of the boiling lava lake:

 

We slept that night in one of the shelters since we had no tent. Sarah laid out her yoga mat and slept in the sleeping bag while I cocooned myself in a blanket. I don’t remember what I dreamed of but it was probably something fiery.

 

Our accommodation. As we entered to go to bed our torch light revealed a cockroach that quickly scuttled beneath my blanket and a rather large spider perched where Sarah’s head was going to be. For a wildlife enthusiast she didn’t show much enthusiasm for the wildlife! Paul and Monique, you may recognise the blanket. Thanks for that!

 

The next morning we had hoped to visit Mount Benbow but the weather had turned overnight and an ascent was no longer advised by Joses. We had been very lucky just to be able to visit Mount Marum. One of the other guys there had travelled all the way from France to visit the volcanoes. He had visited twice before and had stayed up on the mountain on each occasion for over a week. In all that time he had never seen the lava lake at Mount Marum, and we just toddled up there for one night and took it for granted. These volcanoes are not to be trifled-with. People have died while viewing the volcano on the island of Tanna, and at the moment Luganville is overcrowded with the population of one of the Northern islands which has been officially evacuated by the government as a temporary state of emergency due to volcanic activity.

By the time we got back down we had hiked about 36km in 36 hours, which is the most that either of us have ever managed. My right knee was giving me a bit of grief (I must be getting old!) but it was a small price to pay for that experience.

After a good night’s sleep we left Ambrym the following afternoon and made the short hop to Banam Bay, Malekula. This was a destination that I specifically wanted to visit because my mother visited here about 8 years ago and I wanted to visit the same place that she had been, and meet some of the same people. Another friend had given me the name of a family that lived there and asked me to pass on their regards, so I had some kind of starting point by which to introduce myself and, I hoped, form some kind of relationship.

Well, we certainly didn’t need to try very hard to make friends! From the moment we arrived we barely had a moment to ourselves. Locally-made dugout canoes nestled astern of Bob for the best part of each day, their occupants sitting in Bob’s cockpit drinking coffee while we all exchanged ideas and tried to explain our vastly different ways of life to one another. I’m not sure that either party fully understood what the other was getting at but it didn’t matter – we enriched one another’s lives in a very profound way I think. The people of Vanuatu have an incredible amount to teach us as we run around going about our western lives. Vanuatu has apparently been voted the happiest place on Earth for a couple of years running. It is certainly the happiest country I have ever visited, and it is also one of the poorest. The villagers have very little in the way of possessions. A few items of clothing, a few cooking utensils and a machete. Everything else they make themselves – their canoes by digging out a ‘white tree’, their houses by weaving bamboo for the walls and palm leaves for the roof. They cook over an open fire. They bathe in the sea. They have little, yet they are rich. They own their own houses, which is more than most people in so-called developed countries can say. They need never worry about going hungry – food can be found in abundance, produced by the land. We human animals need only three things to sustain life – food, water and shelter. All of these things are provided free of charge by the environment to the people of Vanuatu. Anything else is a bonus. We have forgotten this in our culture. We get hung up on the most trivial, meaningless and unnecessary problems that we create for ourselves. They are not really problems at all. My grandmother used to say “if it’s not life-threatening it’s not worth worrying about”. The people of Vanuatu are testament to the truth of that statement. They don’t always realise it of course. They see us as rich because we have more money and access to more stuff, but when I pointed out to a new Vanuatuan friend that I had no land – that my boat was only a glorified version of his house and much less sustainable – when I explained that some people in our countries really struggle to feed themselves, and that a minority of people actually own anything meaningful at all (not their own houses, not a source of food, nor a source of water) this man who lives simply in a palm-leaf hut on an island here in Vanuatu actually expressed pity for people in the developed world. And the really shocking thing is that I think perhaps he’s right to pity our way of life. After all, he is one of the happiest people on the planet so he must be doing something right!

 

Here I am ferrying Colin, Estelle and some kids out to Bob in the dinghy.

 

While we gave vast quantities of things to the villagers – things like antibiotic cream, books, fishing equipment and other sundry items that they can use – by far the most rewarding opportunities  were when I was able to actually do something to help them, not just give something. One of their canoes had developed a crack and was more or less unusable in that condition. Here I am putting a fibreglass repair over the crack:

It’s quite a spectacle as a lot of modern materials and processes are completely alien to them. I doubt any of them had ever seen someone working with fibreglass before.

 

A typical rural Vanuatu village.

 

Here is Sarah with the Saitol family, whom my mother has met and who I had a kind-of introduction to through a mutual friend. They invited us over to their house for dinner on our final night in Malekula.

 

Here’s a picture that we really like. Contrary to how it looks these are not members of a child militia, but two very smiley village kids who chose just this moment to wipe the smiles temporarily off their faces. A four-year-old clutching a large knife is not an unusual sight. They learn to use them from a young age as the tool of choice. As the boy gets bigger so does the knife!

 

Our time in Banam Bay was far too short but we are being forced to move on. We left yesterday morninge at 0200 and arrived here in Luganville – the principal town in Northern Vanuatu – at 1730 on the same day. We started provisioning for the 10-day passage to Papua New Guinea today and figuring out what else we need to do to prepare for that passage. I’m also looking ahead to the Torres Straits, which will probably be one of the more tricky navigational sections of our voyage. 200 miles of shallow, narrow channels through reefs in the company of large quantities of shipping traffic. There are also some wicked tides to content with, with tidal streams running up to 8 knots in addition to currents produced by the heaping effect of winds and the fact that the entire Pacific Ocean is trying to squeeze through a narrow gap into the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Indian Ocean, where the sea level is lower. It’s going to be a tiring next few months, with not a whole lot of time for sightseeing unfortunately.

7 Responses to Walking through the Pages of the National Geographic

  1. National Geographic worthy indeed! I wonder what fraction of our world’s population has experienced a trek so remote and demanding? Bravo to you both. This account is truly awesome and enviable, as I sit watching the traffic and listening to the noises in New York city from a hotel bedroom window!!

    Our thoughts and prayers are with you both as you continue on this next unusual part of your journey. XO

  2. Much food for thought here, Alexander, and once again a time to admire not only you adventurous spirits, but you excellent writings.

    Much love

    Dad

  3. What a phenomenal blog. I love your thoughts and how you think, and sharing what you have seen. I remember Banham Bay so vividly and it was so unique. Safe passage to Port Moresty. It will be hot! I am so pleased you have a place to provision and sleep. Leave as soon as possible! All my love and thoughs.

  4. Just read this again – it is a masterpiece – you HAVE to write a book.

    Spend only as long as you need to in Papua New Guinea then get the hell out of Dodge!

    Love

    Dad

    PS – Looks like an earlier comment by me did not make it!

  5. Wow, what a powerful post! Your experiences are amazing and make memories you will keep forever. Safe journey and look forward to hearing from you soon. Sending lots of love and positive vibes xxx

  6. Wow looks fantastic, and a great blog! Unforgettable memories no doubt, and a million miles different from Port Vila! Safe onward journey!

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