Tourism is a massive component of Vanuatu’s economy, its pristine beaches and untouched wilderness attracting droves of tourists from Australia, NZ, and around the world yearly. This industry, however, has barely reached SE Ambrym despite its two impressive volcanoes, Marum and Benbow. Part of the issue is a lack of infrastructure as well as lack of exposure on the tourism market. What is advertised comes out of larger tourism companies out of Port Vila, which often cut out the locals on the island. Outside of kava and copra exports, there isn’t a lot of income flowing into this part of the island so the locals have been desperately trying to find new ways of improving their livelihood.
The majority of people on Ambrym are engaged in subsistence farming, meaning that they grow enough food for just themselves. Communities work collectively to harvest and prepare kava and copra, which are then placed on irregularly scheduled cargo ships and sold in Port Vila. Outside of that, income is relatively nonexistent. As someone who works at a school, the number one reason for my students dropping out is that their families cannot afford the school fees. I’ve seen so many bright students unable to continue their education for this reason. Early childhood education is also neglected for the same reason, as many families want to delay having to pay education fees for their younger children until they can afford to do so.
My students mean-muggin the camera before our National Kindergarten Day earlier this month. This national celebration comes as part of the push for greater dedication and enrollment in early childhood education.
Coloring books are a rare treat for my kids, so I often have a small crowd of little artists outside my house on weekends.
For my more regular readers, the lack of income also feeds into the health crises and the rise of diabetes I wrote about a few months back. More and more people are buying unhealthy food options, such as rice, because it is significantly cheaper and less labor intensive than locally grown alternatives. The reality is that the small-scale farming methods simply aren’t cutting it anymore for the majority of families… But the issue is that there are no other income opportunities on our island.
Over the last year of my service, members of my community have asked how they could improve their visibility and market to tourists internationally. Our little island may be underdeveloped, but they do have one absolutely amazing resource: the unspoiled beauty of their volcanoes! While I have zero experience in this respect, I have tried my best to help my community share the wonders of their island is what ways I can (we are currently working on a YouTube project). My post about my first hike to Marum got a lot of attention online, so maybe it’s a good first step in that direction!
Ever since completing my first climb in January, I’ve been asked numerous questions about the hike up to the Marum crater and so I’ve created this little hiking guide and FAQ that will hopefully help clarify this information and encourage people to come visit our stunning island!
(Note: I did not and will not receive any compensation, monetary or otherwise, for this article.)
Standing on the edge of the abyss, our group tries to catch a glimpse of the lava below through the clouds of ash and gas.
The Road Ahead
When I last went up, it took us approximately five and a half hours to hike from Endu to the Marum basecamp, and another thirty minutes to hike from basecamp to the volcano. The official time estimate to complete the hike is about six and a half hours. The complete trail can be divided into five segments;
- Traveling from Endu to the trailhead, which will take you across a beach – flat.
- The ascent to the lip of the crater – very sharp incline.
- The decent into the crater – sharp but brief decline.
- Traversing the forest and grassland until you reach basecamp – flat/gradual incline.
- Basecamp to the mouth of the volcano – incline.
I know many people of various fitness levels who have completed the trip, but I will urge you to do some sort of preparation because some of the segments (especially the initial climb) can be absolutely brutal. It is a steady climb through the bush and there are very few places where you can catch a breeze to escape the cloying humidity. When I hiked up, it took nearly four hours to complete this leg alone. After this climb, however, the trip is fairly easy to complete.
Going down was a lot easier, taking us approximately three and a half hours to complete the entire hike.
(Official trail map for all of Ambrym)
Our lunch spot on the last hike.
Views from along the trail.
Tips & Tricks:
- Pick the right season! When I first hiked Marum, I was with a guest who was visiting during the holiday season. We planned that we’d hike up a few days after New Years. That was a mistake; not only is it during the hottest season of the year, most of the locals were still in party mode – our guide included. I went for a second time in June, which was exponentially better; it was cooler and significantly less humid.
- Take money out in Port Vila: Vanuatu is a cash driven economy, especially on the outer islands. There are no ATMS on the island, so you’ll need to bring your cash with you.
- Buy food beforehand: While there are small stores in Endu, where you’ll likely be staying, the selection is not great and is ultimately unreliable. You should be able to find instant ramen, rice, tinned fish/meat, and instant coffee, but you’ll need to bring your own food if the instant food won’t do it for you.
- Pack light, pack smart: As someone with a fair amount of hiking experience, this is not an easy hike. As such you’ll want to pack as lightly as possible, preferably with lightweight gear if you have access to it. This being said, don’t cut out the essentials just to lighten the load.
- Get a guide: You absolutely need a guide to do this hike, regardless of your skill level. For one, the paths are not clearly demarcated and it’s easy to get lost (there’s no cellphone signal either, not that GoogleMaps would be able to help you). The guides also know which parts of the volcano are safe to walk along and which are not; it’s not uncommon to segments of the cliff face to crumble off and fall into the lava. They know the land far better than anyone else, so it’s best to defer to their judgement. Plus, if you hire a local guide, you’re helping the local economy.
- Be respectful: As I stated in my last post about Marum, these volcanoes were once worshipped as deities and still hold a very important role in local lore. As such, it is important to respect the local history and culture as much as possible.
- Rain Jacket & Dry Bag: even in dry season the weather up on the crater can be weird and unpredictable. Despite having beautifully clear weather on the hike up the first time around, a freak storm came out of nowhere not long after we set up camp. Depending on where you are, there may not be much in terms of shelter.
- Reliable Shoes: We don’t want you tripping on your shoelaces and falling into the volcano now.
- Spare socks: Everything underfoot is damp or wet and hiking in wet socks is my own personal hell.
- Sleeping bag/Warm blanket: We may be in the tropics, but it gets shockingly freezing at night! I’ve seen multiple tourists shivering like crazy because they didn’t think to prepare for the cold.
- Face mask/Bandana to cover your mouth: Depending on the conditions, there is a chance that there will be ash and sulfuric gas near the mouth of the volcano. Take it from me, you don’t want to inhale the stuff.
- Food: While the guides will likely try to hunt down some wild pigs, nothing is guaranteed. Therefore pack light, easily cooked food (ramen is my personal favorite).
- Emergency medical supplies: This is an isolated tropical island, meaning that there really isn’t any reliable medical care around. So pack the hiking essentials! (Namely just Band-Aids, painkillers, and an ace bandage to take care of minor injuries.)
- Water, water, water: There are no places to refill on water on the entire hike up until you get to basecamp, so be sure to pack lots of water. It’s hot, it’s humid, and the trail is tricky so the last thing you want is to get dehydrated. Experienced local guides say that this is the number one downfall of tourists who make this hike; people unaccustomed to the tropical climate don’t pack enough water and get disoriented. They’ve found dehydrated wandering the ash fields before and it is not a fun time trying to get them down to safety. The first time I did the hike I packed 7 liters, which was far too much, and the last time I went I brought 2, which wasn’t enough. So, know yourself and pack smart.
- Oral Rehydration Salts: because you’re gonna sweat. A lot.
Basecamp is located approximately 30 minutes from the actual mouth of the volcano. It has a pit toilet, a cooking area, rain tank, and serval places to pitch tents. Thankfully, there are a lot of things available for use up at basecamp that you won’t need to bring up yourself, such as tents and cooking utensils such as pots, plates, cups, and cutlery. Discuss what is available with your guide prior to departure to make sure that the accommodations are still available.
- Flight from Port Vila to Ulei airport: approx. $220 USD
- Truck hire from Ulei to Endu: $30 USD
- Guide: $50 USD roundtrip per person + tip. Porters are also for hire if you need help carrying your luggage to basecamp.
- Bungalow: Contact the Vanuatu Dept. of Tourism for prices
*Prices are an estimation and subject to change. Contact the Vanuatu Dept. of Tourism for more information.
So that’s it! Hopefully this helped clarify any questions/didn’t scare anyone off. Feel free to hit me up with any questions you may have about this adventure, or about life in general here on the island.
I’ve lived in SE Ambrym for the past year I can say that it is hands down one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been; I’m very lucky to call this island my home. It is my sincere hope that more people come and witness just how much the land and the locals have to offer! Unlike so many places in the world, Ambrym (and all of Vanuatu as a whole) is one of the last “undiscovered” paradises left. We have maybe a hundred tourists come visit a year, meaning that so much of the landscape remains unspoiled. Coming here is a read adventure and the effort is rewarded tenfold. Neither words nor pictures even come close to just how captivating this place really is and while the hike up is a real butt kicker (one red-faced tourist asked incredulously why I’ve willingly done this hike multiple times), it’s totally worth it.
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