Great Lakes of Fire!

For information about the hike check out Hiking Marum for tips and a packing list!

It’s easy to forget just how magnificent nature can be when you grew up in a city, especially one like Chicago. True, it is located in the Great Lakes region of the United States, but there’s practically no untouched nature to be found there anymore. You could go your entire life and never see just how spectacular the natural world could be.

Because of this reality, those of us who have had the opportunity to see Mother Nature in her unadulterated glory can never truly forget the sight. Growing up in a family that has a profound love for the outdoors, I’ve witnessed some pretty breathtaking sites; from looming glaciers in the American west to stunning vistas in Europe, I’ve been very, very lucky. Nothing in all my travels, however, compares to the lava lake of Marum which comprises part of the volcano I live on.

Marum and Benbow are two lava lakes that make up the Ambrym shield volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the entire world. It’s caldera was formed in 50 AD during a massive plinian eruption, and it believed to be one of the largest explosions in recent geological history. While both Marum and Benbow are both lava lakes, Marum is arguably one of the most accessible lava lakes in the entire world. I would have to be crazy to not take advantage of its proximity. (View of the Marum lava lake from the N. Ambrym side. Taken by me, Emma M.)

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to finally go and visit my neighbor. Up until that point, Marum and Benbow had been nothing more than a source of mystery and consternation; not long after I had arrived a site in July, the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geohazards Department upped the Vanuatu Volcanic Alert Level (VVAL) for the two from a level 2 to a level 3.

Level three meant that there were minor eruptions occurring up in the caldera, with lava bombs, potential mudslides, and profuse gas making it unsafe to be near the volcano. Not an ideal set up when your entire island is the freaking volcano. It’s moments like this that makes the Peace Corps office antsy. At the time this was occurring on Ambrym, the entire nation was wrangling with the devastating eruption of another Vanuatu volcano; Manaro on Ambae. The entire populace, which included several PCVs, was evacuated from the island, resulting in nearly ten thousand internally displaced people. With nearly 4% of its population uprooted, Vanuatu was well on its way to having a refugee crisis on its hands. Peace Corps ultimately ended up shutting down operations on the island, prematurely ending the service of several volunteers. (Photograph of a smoking Manaro on Ambae, Natural Disaster Management Office)

Who knew if the same would happen on Ambrym? For months I lived with this fear dangling over my head like some volcanic axe. The eerie red glow in the night sky was a disquieting reminder of just how easily my life, and the lives of all my friends on the island, could be upended. After all, there’s no bargaining with a volcano. Finally, after several harrowing months, the VVAL was lowered back to level two. It was just in time too, for I was expecting a guest.

Andrew had originally come to Vanuatu as part of the Manaro relief effort yet, ironically, never actually got to see a volcano. This second trip sought to remedy that. We planned for him to arrive just in time for New Year, and what were NYE fireworks compared to fireballs?

Considering the fact that we were planning to climb one of the most active volcanoes in the world to visit a literal lake of fire, the preparation process was incredibly casual. After arriving in Endu, the village nestled at the base of the hike, Andrew, my host papa Moses, and I tracked down our guide Peter to discuss prices and departure time. Peter, however, was sleeping off a hangover under a mango tree. It wasn’t exactly an encouraging start, but I had also foolishly attempted to plan this trip during the holidays aka “drinking season.” Nevertheless, we found a much recovered Peter a few hours later and hammered out the details; we would depart at 7am the next morning. All Andrew and I had to do was bring enough food and water for ourselves, even the tent would be provided and carried for us. Easy enough.

The next morning we rendezvoused with Peter, his dogs (“Brownie”, “Blackie”, and “Freedom”), my “brother” Mael, and several youths who were visiting from Port Vila. They too had never seen a volcano. Compared to the rest of our merry party of adventurers, Andrew and I had grievously overpacked; Peter was only carrying a rifle, an empty liter bottle for water, a few bullets, and a small bag of rice. Talk about packing light.

Prior to leaving, PVCs Aaron and Rob (two of my islandmates) warned that the hike up was a tough one. The trail to basecamp was divided into three segments; the initial ascent, the descent into the jungle of the crater, and finally the ash planes. It seemed simple enough; I had gone hiking with my family dozens of times since I was a kid! Two thirds of this hike would be fairly flat, how hard could it possibly be?

The answer; it was grueling. The ascent, which followed a ridge up to the edge of the caldera, was relentless climb up through the muggy jungle where it seemed as though any trace of the wind had long perished. There were scarcely any flat portions where our legs could gain a slight reprieve. Between the heavy pack, cloying humidity, the fact that I had (embarrassingly) been neglecting my cardio workouts, and the recently consumed kato (fried dough similar to a donut) fighting every step in my stomach, I took a lot of breaks. As I fought down the kato, I began to suspect that I might not make it to the top without a dropping dead. Peter took all of this in stride, calling out the time until the next official rest stop with practiced accuracy. As it turns out, there is a “Ni-van time” and a “tourist completion time.” Our time fell squarely within the latter at painful three hours. Finally we reached the crest of the caldera, granting us the first view of our hard earned quarry; Marum was smoking lazily in the distance. (Photo by Andrew R.)

The rest of the hike was comparatively docile when juxtaposed with that climb. We walked through a pristine forest that was unlike anything I had seen on the island: the trees were smaller, obviously younger, yet the entire wood was dominated by massive ferns that made me feel as though I was walking through a scene in Jurassic Park. Despite living in the shadow of a volcano, life finds a way. At one point Peter left Andrew and I (our other group mates had lingered farther behind) to go stalk through the bush after one of his dogs had disappeared. I halfheartedly joked about our group being picked off one by one by raptors. Thankfully Peter and the dog returned minutes later, untouched by any prehistoric reptiles that potentially lurked in the bush.

Soon enough the brush thinned out and we entered the ash plane, which was yet another unique environment. It was arid, resembling something you’d find in the American southwest rather than the rainy South Pacific. The volcanic soil crunched deliciously underneath our boots as we trekked onwards across the black and desolate landscape, the volcano growing taller as we drew near. Despite there being zero shade to protect us from the blazing sun, it was remarkably cool at this elevation. Unlike the jungles we had just left, there was only one sign of life besides the shrubby grass; hundreds and hundreds of small orchids dotted the landscape with subtle pops of color for as far as the eye could see. (Photos by Emma M.)

I had heard about these rare orchids, which grow exclusively in the unique soils of this crater and blossom only once a year. Personally, I never knew of an orchid that thrived in arid conditions. Many tourists had gone up with hopes of glimpsing them with no success. Andrew and I were exceptionally lucky; the orchids seems to go for miles and miles without end.

It was here that our guide called a break. Apparently it was time to go pig hunting. Various members of our party had foraged for food along our hike and by the time we had stopped, they had an impressive amount of wild cabbage and a few coconuts. Now it was time for the main course. After clearing a small patch of bush for the two metalo (tr: white people), our guides said they’d return in an hour, tops. Skeptical that they’d be able to find and kill a wild pig within the hour, Andrew and I popped open a tin of corned beef for lunch. Yummy. Not even forty five minutes later, the guides returned with dinner. (Brother Mael carrying the freshly gutted pig, photo by Andrew R.)

It was the largest wild pig I had ever seen. Even the locals were impressed, jokingly asking our guide who he had poached it from. After witnessing our group-mates scrounge up a feast from nature, it became obvious that Andrew and I had packed far too much food. Whoops. Not that it would matter; soon we’d be able to deposit our packs at basecamp! It had only taken us a mere 6 hours of blood, sweat, and tears.

We arrived at the Marum basecamp in the afternoon, which was a collection of rickety shelters and a rain tank. The locals set about roasting the pig whilst Andrew and I took to setting up our tent. Peter announced that we’d hike up to the volcano in the evening, when the view was most stunning. After that hike, we were more than willing to take the afternoon off. Unfortunately, the volcano had other plans.

By mid-afternoon our once clear skies had greyed. Heavy clouds soon fell upon the cone of the volcano, obscuring our view. It became rapidly apparent that we were to have a storm on our hands. Rather than batten down the hatches and take cover, Peter announced that we had best get to the volcano before the storm hit. Mael would take all of us up while Peter would stay behind at basecamp to cook and keep the cantankerous German tourist (that we had discovered abandoned by his original guide) company. And why not? Hiking up to see a lava lake in the midst of a looming thunderstorm seemed like a perfectly logical idea. And thus our merry band was off. (Basecamp ft. the grouchy German tourist’s tent. Photo by Andrew R.)

The minute we started, it began to rain. It was not the sort of rain I had grown accustomed to on the island, which was soft and akin to a summer rain in the States. No, this rain was punishing; it came in sideways and stung whatever flesh that had the misfortune of being exposed. What’s worse, it was freezing. As we neared the top, the lighting strikes grew nearer and nearer until I feared that we’d all be turned into crispy critters in the blink of an eye. Here we were, hiking across a seemingly alien landscape in the midst of a raging lightening storm to see a lake of fire. It would have been positively cinematic if it weren’t so miserable. (Photos by Andrew R.)

Finally we reached the summit and the storm abated, as though the mountain had merely been testing our determination to reach the top. Here we found our bearings, finally able to appreciate the seemingly alien landscape around us. Nothing grew. It was an expanse of midnight black soil and stones, punctuated by vents of volcanic gas that rose languidly from the earth as though a sleeping dragon lurked just beneath the surface. With the wind gone, I could feel the sulphur in the air begin to burn my airways. It was time to cover my face; I had no desire to do the return trip with burning lungs. What was most impressive, however, was the deep rumble that seemed to reverberate through the earth. At long last we could hear the thrumming tune of the volcano!

Mael told us to wait while he went ahead to check if it was safe to approach. He moved forward deliberately, checking his footing as he cautiously neared the edge. Freedom, his dog, followed after, oblivious to the fact that one poorly placed step could send her tiny frame tumbling into the inferno below. And they say ignorance is bliss.

My “brother” lingered on he precipice for a while, his t-shirt pulled tightly over his face as he took stock of the situation. Finally he announced that the gasses were too thick here, making it impossible to see the fire below. Apparently this was a frequent barrier, the gases would often shroud the prized view from prying eyes. We would have to move to another vantage point. Thankfully a safe path along the edge had been demarcated by dozens of cairns and stones. If we were to catch a glimpse of the elusive lava lake, we’d have to balance along the brim of the volcano and walk to the N. Ambrym side. (It’s a floating head! Andrew takes a cautious peek over the edge.)

(Despite the wind, ash, and sulfur gas… a moment of tranquility.)

After scrambling along the steep edge, we reached the second viewing point. Again Mael inched forwards first, checking the stability of the ledge we perched upon. All was clear. One by one, our party took turns taking in the absolutely humbling view. Hundreds of feet below, a churning lake of lava raged on. Waves the most brilliant hues of red, orange, and yellow crashed against the pitch black cliffs, the echoes vibrating up the walls of the crevice with a deep roar. Everyone whipped out their phones, attempting unsuccessfully to capture the sheer awesomeness of the spectacle below. The Port Vila boys started taking a selfie video, throwing up deuces while declaring “i bin gat thanda. I bin gat lightening, be mifala I NO GAT TIEM!” (Tr: there was thunder. There was lightening. But we ain’t got time for that!”) They were very proud of that moment.

Below, it was looked like a seascape from Hell. To be sure, I had often heard Hell described as a lake of fire and the scene just below our feet certainly fit the bill. Fire and brimstone, literally. Yet, for all of its chaos, it was strangely zen. The thunderous clap of the fiery waves soon began to resemble something else entirely… In that moment, it felt as though I had stolen a glimpse into the very heart of the earth, its heartbeat a soothing sound unlike any other. Powerful, magnificent, unstoppable, yet calming nevertheless. It was nature in its most awesome form and it was mesmerizing. At that moment I realized that we were just minuscule spectators in the great scheme of this performance. It had been playing long before we existed, it would continue long after we had gone… And there was something very humbling about that realization.

I later learned that Andrew and I were very, very lucky; such unobstructed views of Marum are incredibly rare. Perhaps, despite the punishing storm, the volcano had looked favorable upon us after all. Hundreds of people have made the trek, only to find an impenetrable cloud of gas.

Unfortunately, despite all of our good fortune, it was time to head back to camp. Dusk was drawing near and many of us were without a flashlight. As we turned our backs on Marum and made our way across the now clear landscape, I couldn’t help but glance back over my shoulder every few steps.

I understood why this entity had once been worshipped as a god.

Marking the end of the trail, this skull patiently watches over the expanse of the caldera.

Cold, wet, and exhausted, we made it to the top!

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