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Vanuatu: May 2018


We have decided to go and explore Vanuatu for the next 12 days to meet the happiest people in the world…

In the south west reaches of the mighty Pacific lies a small archipelago nation consisting of 83 islands. This is Vanuatu, a destination like no other. The Vanuatu population are called Ni-Vanuatu or Ni-Van. The official languages of Vanuatu are Bislama, English and French, however, you might be surprised to find out that there are 115 mother tongues that are in common use. This makes Vanuatu one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world with the highest concentration of different languages spoken in a region interwoven with local rituals…
We read so much about this country from the many traditions and “kastom” faithfully passed down from generation to generation, the dances of the tribes, to the wonders of nature and its amazing volcanoes. We can’t wait to discover all these by ourselves!


Wednesday 23 May 2018 (Day 1)

Here we are. Today is the day we start our journey …
Wake up early at 05:30 in order to arrive at La Tontouta on time. You never know with those awful traffic jam in Nouméa and surroundings. Well, that was not a bad idea… and luckily, the heavy traffic jam was in the other direction! So, on time to fly Air Vanuatu… we’re not very reassured…

08:45: we’re on board of the ATR 72 for our flight from Nouméa to Port Vila on the Efaté Island in Vanuatu with 2 small bags of 10 kg checked in. That’s a premiere for us… No way to bring more luggage as the inter island flights have a limit of 10 kg. A real challenge… when you want to do an overnight trek on a volcano! So, guess what? In addition to our main storage in Switzerland, our primary storage in Brisbane, and a temporary storage in Auckland, we have now another temporary storage in Nouméa !!!!

After less than 2 hours, we arrive at the shaggy international airport of Port Vila. We survived the first trip… we have many more flights planned, so many more frights to come.

But today’s journey is not over. Our next flight is to the Island of Tanna in the South.
The plane is scheduled at 14:30 from the domestic airport. So, plenty of time… to develop our first impressions and to listen to Bislama, the local language.
Direction the currency exchange to change some Pacific Francs into Vatu (VT)… then, we buy a Digicel SIM card for 1,000 VT (including 1,000 VT credit). The best network for anyone wishing to visit the smaller islands (i.e. all the other islands apart from Efaté and Espiritu Santo). A must over there as you need to reconfirm by phone all flights, transfers and accommodations!

Time now to go and search for the domestic terminal. A walk around the corner and we’re there. What a surprise! Quite a difference with the international airport. You can feel that you’re fully alive ‘cause all your five senses are on the edge... Between the dirt, the cockroaches, the smelly food and sweaty people.
Damn … our plane is 1 hour late. You don’t understand why because the airport is empty.
The joys of our first inter island flight … the smell and the noise of a dozen of chicks during our 35-minute trip. Really exotic …

Finally, we arrive at the Whitegrass airport in Tanna. The bus transfer is there to pick us up to go to our resort, the Tanna Evergreen. A very nice resort with a strange design and in huge contrast with the rest of the village. We’re welcomed by a very fluent receptionist, who is a french lover, with lovely drinks and hibiscus flowers.
It was a long day filled already with lots of experiences. We’re exhausted.
So straight after dinner around 20:00, it’s bed time. We’ll try to wake up early tomorrow... will see.


Thursday 24 May 2018 (Day 2)

We wake up around 07:00. Too hard to make it earlier.
We leave our small bungalow at 07:30 for breakfast. This morning at 09:30, we have a snorkeling trip planned.
We board one of the ancestral carved canoe to go and snorkel on the reef in the hope to see giant green turtles. The reef in Tanna is very steep, completely different from the lagoon of New Caledonia. There isn’t that many colors of corals. It’s mainly green with few blue spots, with mostly flat corals and a few fan type corals. You can see green and orange anemones filled with plenty of “nemos” (clown fish). There isn’t a lot fish either but instead tons of brightly colored sea slugs. As for the giant turtles, not this time ... we only spotted two turtles deep on the sea bottom …

Back to the resort around 11:00 for a quick shower prior to our excursion to Mount Yasur volcano at 14:00. We’ll be watching the sunset on top of the crater rim. But before we need to pre-order our dinner as we’ll be back after the restaurant is closed. We also need to sign a waiver in case of any accidents on the volcano.

14:30: our 4×4 transfer is late. This means less time on the volcano. It takes 1 and ½ hour to arrive at the volcano. We need to cross the island from west to east and then proceed a little bit to the south, cross the ash plane to go on the other side of the volcano, to the visitor center.
At the visitor center, all visitors have to pick their country sign and then walk to the tribe nakamal. The nakamal is a traditional meeting place used for gathering, ceremonies or drinking kava. We’ll tell you more about kava later…
In the nakamal, we sit behind our signs. We have to ask the chief’s permission to go and climb the volcano. The tribe’s chief is waiting for us. Our guide requests permission and surprise, surprise, permission is granted !!!
To properly welcome us on their property, the villagers perform a kastom dance and also to wish us a nice safe journey atop the volcano.

We then depart with an another 4×4 to make the last section of the route. It’s a small bumpy track on the slopes of the volcano.
At the end of the road, a pathway leads us up to the crater rim. After a short 10-minute walk, we reach the first viewpoint. There are 4 different viewpoints around the crater rim with the best one being Point 8. From there, you can see inside the crater and watch the boiling lava!!! The view is magnificent and it’s even better when it’s darker with the glowing reds and yellows. The cherry on the cake is a couple of eruptions with the thundering roars.
But beware, you need to be well equipped on Point 8. Because when there is an explosion with a few lava bombs and ashes flying over the side, you get completely covered in ashes in your face, hair and clothes… not a treat!
Unfortunately, you’re not told so. You really do need to wear a long raincoat with a large hat to protect your hair and clothes, a scarf for the fumes and good goggles to protect around the eyes because of the burning and stinging ash. Also, you should not stay longer on Point 8 due to the sulfuric gases…
However, it’s worth the pain!
We then walk all around the main crater and stop at Point 6 to admire few more eruptions.

What a breathtaking experience to marvel at this continuous natural fireworks show, but with a bit more of a kick to it. And you are so close to the action on Mount Yasur ...
It’s considered one of the world's most accessible volcanoes. The sight and sound is just unforgettable, words cannot describe this power of nature.

Unfortunately, we left too early due to a group who was in a hurry. Thus, we arrived at the hotel 1 hour earlier than planned…
23:00: Bed time!!!! We are so excited with so many stars in our eyes… difficult to find sleep.


Friday 25 May 2018 (Day 3)

Today is our last day on Tanna Island!
Before taking the plane at 13:20 to Port Vila, we have the Louinio primitive kastom cultural village tour. We leave at 08:45 with our 4×4 transfer. After at least 45 minutes on a bumpy small track up the hills, we arrive at the Louinio village. The village is a 3-hour walk from the center of Lenakel, one of the main towns in Tanna.

On our arrival, we’re welcomed to the village. A group of kids is playing and we’re in complete admiration. The kids go to school in Lenakel and for them, it’s a daily 6-hour return journey by foot.
We are given a tour of the village and we’re told that some of the huts (made of bamboos, pandanus and banana leaves) were destroyed by the last cyclone Paula. The villagers had to rebuild them all.
We, then move to the nakamal where the villagers show how they still make fire the ancestral way. It’s now time for a couple of kastom dances just for us two ...
After the dances, the villagers mainly the women set up a small market with carvings and home made jewelery. We decide to buy a small bracelet made from local seeds and one of the villagers show us how the seeds are collected and transformed into jewelery!
For 1 and ½ hour, we step back in time. This primitive friendly village is still untouched by western influence …

The driver then takes us to the Lenakel market. A beautiful and very colorful market with plenty of fruits and vegetables … chouchoutes, spring onions, big pineapples, pumpkins, yummy mandarins, piles of coconuts, huge taros and yams.
There is no comparison with the more or less empty Nouméa market!!!
While at the market, we are approached by an old Ni-Van man who starts to speak to us in an amazingly good french without any accent … telling us that he lived in France before going back to Tanna after the independence. That’s the beauty of Vanuatu! People are so friendly and it’s astonishing to meet so many locals fluent in French!

11:00: Straight to the airport for our plane to Port Vila. We take off half an hour earlier than scheduled. After 20 minutes in the air, the pilot tells us that we’re close to landing in Port Vila - prior to our planned take off time!!!
That’s the reason why it’s important to be there 2 hours in advance because you never know when your plane leaves ...

We finally see the capital city of Vanuatu: Port Vila on the Efaté Island while transferring from the airport to our hotel. But, we’ll just spend the night there. A call to confirm our flight departure and we’re all good for bed.
Tomorrow, another island is on our radar screen …


Saturday 26 May 2018 (Day 4)

04:45: The alarm goes off. Ohhhh... that was a short night! Our plane takes off at 07:20 this morning for the Island of Pentecost.
The 2-hour check-in rule still applies as you never know. We leave the hotel at 05:25 for the airport.
Nearly nobody on the road … but we’re not the first ones at the airport. We step in line to do our check-in. Our bags are less than 10 kg each... But, we have to weight ourselves including our cabin luggage because it’s a small, a very small plane (Twin Otter) with 21 seats maximum… Just to make sure that all is ok with the total weight!

07:15: Boarding complete for our plane. Direction: Lonorore on the Pentecost Island.
We have the best seats ‘cause we’re just behind the pilot. A young, friendly pilot who makes a detour on the Ambrym volcanoes: the twin peaks that we’ll be climbing in a few days… 50 minutes later, we land on the tarmac of Lonorore on Pentecost Island.

Then, straight to the village with a 4×4 transfer where all the actions will unfold: the Nagol.
The Nagol is a land diving ritual which occurs every Saturday between April and June.
The awe-inspiring ceremony celebrates the yam harvest and is a fertility rite for men. The story of the festival tells of a woman who ran away from her husband and hid in a tall tree. The husband, Tamale begged her to say sorry and come down. She refused, so he climbed the tree after her and as he reached the top she jumped. In his anguish Tamale jumped after her, only to realize that she had tied liana vines around her ankles. The woman survived while Tamale perished. To this day, men jump from the tower as a show of strength to women in the village and as a statement that they cannot be tricked again. When the vine stretches at the end of the dive, the land divers head curls under their shoulders to touch the earth, making it fertile for the following year's yam crop.
The ritual influenced the popularization of bungee jumping by New Zealander AJ Hackett.

We are welcomed with a necklace made of herbs and flowers. We mingle with the villagers and play with the kids. We also have time to practice a bit our Bislama… “Mi no savé tok tok bislama”. Well, surprise, surprise… we won’t have to struggle too much. Apart from Bislama, everyone speaks French at Village St Joseph! We’re privileged to have the kids give us a tour of the school where they learn French. The school was built by the French embassy.
They have a catholic church where interestingly, they do the mass in French and Bislama.
We experience first hand that the hospitality of the Ni-Van is legendary. The villagers share a lap lap (the local dish) to taste: a taro mash cooked in banana leaves. Very nice but heavy... They also share juicy, sweet mandarins with us as well as “navel” to taste, a nut-like fruit that we never ate before.

10:30: The Nagol is about to start. Everyone walks towards the man-made tower. The tower takes locals at least five weeks to build using materials from the forest. If a woman touches the tower, the tower can no longer be used and it must be rebuilt for the next year.
Mainly teenagers will be jumping from the tower this time but also kids starting from seven can jump from the tower.

11:00: Everything and everyone is now ready! The ritual is about to begin. Behind the tower, you can see all the women and girls from the village in their local costumes, singing and dancing in order to give strength to the jumpers. Woman’s clothing consists largely of grass skirts, which similar to men, only cover the lower portion of the body. The boys and the men unmistakably wear nambas – a fringed skirt with an erected sheath. Traditional clothing forms an essential part of kastom.
Suddenly, baannng … the first boy just jumped from the tower … with his head banging the shoveled earth … Between 8 to 10 boys jump. Depending on their age, they jump from different levels of the tower. Two adults jump from the highest level. On the last jump of the day, the liana breaks and the men is injured, fortunately without major consequences.

At 11:20, it’s over. It went so fast! The Nagol lasted only 20 minutes… but it seems like eternity…
It’s so surreal and so impressive to witness this kastom… those kids are so brave to jump from this height only tied by the leg with a liana vine!

Traveling to view this magnificent land diving ceremony is a once in a lifetime experience. No words can express the feeling of the ground vibrating under the dancing and stomping feet of the villagers and the excitement of sitting beneath the tower waiting with unease for the diver to jump safely to the ground. 

After the Nagol, back to the village to have lunch (taro, kumala and island cabbage). Then, it’s time to go to our guesthouse located in the North of the island in the Vanu Village. A few hours drive on the back of a 4x4 on dirt roads !! Just imagine …

Next to the Vanu waterfall is the Noda guesthouse, a quite well-maintained guesthouse. Lucky us, we have our own small bungalow. The bathroom is shared.

We settle and then go for a stroll along the beach. Short lived … we come back completely soaked … it’s pouring!
As it’s raining, Jocelyne brings us our dinner on our veranda (better than room service)… A nice and tasty dinner of tuna with lap lap manioc, island cabbage, rice and beans, accompanied with a home made lemon juice… delicious!
After dinner, straight to bed. It’s still raining. Hope the weather will be fine tomorrow.


Sunday 27 May 2018 (Day 5)

Yesterday evening, it rained all night and when we wake up this morning, it’s still raining!

After our nice rich breakfast with fresh bread, eggs, jam and fresh papaya, the sun is finally out. So, we decide to go to the Vanu Waterfall. There’s an entrance fee of 500 VT/pers. to be paid to the guesthouse. The trail to get there is muddy and slippery due to the evening rain and it’s a challenge to go up. Once arrived, we literally jump in the waterfall and enjoy a refreshing swim in the pool. A small but cute waterfall.
To come back down … a nightmare … it’s so hard to remain on our feet. Some of us make it on their buttocks because it’s soooo slippery!

Back at the guesthouse, we relax a bit. Then, it’s time for lunch. We have noddle soup with bread and eggs followed by fresh papaya for dessert.
Time to call for our plane to check that there’s no changes in sight ... Well, there is … Our plane will take off at 16:05, so 2 hours later than scheduled!!! That’s 2 hours more tomorrow to find something to do.
After lunch, we go for a longer walk. We cross the Vanu village, then cross the river and after the river, we arrive at another village with a brand new football and basket ball field: the Ranawani Village.
There’s a bakery where they source the bread at the guesthouse.

It’s not sunny but at least it’s not raining. We hope that the rain is over. Tomorrow is our last day on the island.


Monday 28 May 2018 (Day 6)

After breakfast, we go “again” for a walk but this time we’ll try to go further...
We cross the Ranawadi Village and we go up the hill to the Ranawadi College. It’s a big college, built with the help of the Australian aid. There’s a lot of pupils. There are students coming from all the other islands of Vanuatu, apart from students from Pentecost. There’s also a clinic where the locals can go and see a nurse for any medical care. There’s a small shop with basic stuff, a library with a couple of books. The college is quite well-maintained. The kids are getting an education and learning social norms such as how to behave in society and being responsible. The pupils live there, sleeping in dormitories around the college.

We leave the guesthouse around 13:30 for the airport. We check in, weight ourselves, pay the domestic tax … as usual!
When we see the plane, sudden panic... how scary… the plane is much smaller than the last one: 8 passengers plus one pilot! The aircraft: a BN-2 Islander built in the late 70s with no navigation tools. The pilot has to check the islands below for navigation (visual navigation) which means that he opens a paper folder and looks at the pictures and tries to identify the islands below... When he has identified the island, he changes the navigation route to go to the next island on the folder map… Luckily, we have good weather and the pilot can see the islands… OMG!!!!

Therefore, the return flight is a slalom between one island to the other because we cannot afford a large segment of the flight over the sea or we’ll get lost... We believe for a long time that we’re currently lost. After approximately 1h10, we finally land in Port Vila – safe and sound!

Our bags collected, transfer back to Chantilly. A quick beer at the bar next door and then off to bed, no dinner… so drained… But bad news before going to bed … an email from Air Vanuatu: our flight to Ambrym scheduled at 13:10 is brought forward by 5 hours!!!! This means that the plane will be leaving at 07:00 !!! We have to wake up again at 04:00 in the morning. So, we can forget about having a late morning and a good breakfast.


Tuesday 29 May 2018 (Day 7) 

Today, we’re spending the entire day in Port Vila. It’s good to experience some modern day “comfort”…

09:00: Down to the restaurant to have a nice breakfast with eggs and a sea view.
We decide then to go to the city which is 5 minutes away on foot. There’s some showers, but we don’t have to wait for too long to leave the hotel.
A stroll on the only main street reveals that Vanuatu is a really expensive place. New Caledonia is damn expensive but Vanuatu is even more expensive! The choice is very limited in the big supermarkets and everything is expensive with the exception of the duty free (alcohol and perfume).
The only main street is clogged with buses. There are so many buses that they’re creating traffic jams. All of them are empty apart from 1 out of 10 which carries passengers.
In this chaos, we manage to find a nice place where you can have a really good espresso and a french pastry: “Péché Mignon” !
We continue our stroll to the market of Port Vila … It’s beautiful, incredible with so much choice. We’ve never seen yams so big than the ones here. And so many fresh products: yams, taros, manioc, sweet potatoes, vegetables, island cabbages, pineapples, ginger, turmeric, oranges, mandarins, tomatoes, spring onions – you name it … and everything is so fresh and in huge amounts. Fruits and veggies that you can only dream about in Nouméa.

We bought some excellent banana chips, very yummy for our trek. They have all sort of chips: sweet potato, yam, taro ...
We also found local chocolate, handcrafted in Vanuatu. “Aelan Chocolate Makers” is sourcing the cocoa beans from 4 islands (Malo, Malekula, Espiritu Santo & Epi). “Aelan” in Bislama means island. The dark chocolate is of single island origin with 70% cocoa. Those tablets will come in handy during our trek in Ambrym.
Before going back to the hotel, we make sure to have sufficient cash as there aren't any ATMs on Ambrym Island!

This afternoon, we have to fix our 2 Deuter backpacks because they’re close to the breaking point. If we don’t do something, they’re not going to last long. So, Mac Gyvver reinforce the bags’ straps with pieces of plastic from a water bottle thus creating a protection for the straps. Nice job!

After repacking our bags, it’s an early night tonight in order to sleep a bit before our plane tomorrow...


Wednesday 30 May 2018 (Day 8) 

04:15: No way - it’s already time to wake up. We didn’t sleep much…

One hour later, the transfer is there to pick us up for the airport.
Incredible, we’re the first ones at the domestic airport. We check in. Our boarding passes, for the plane to Craig Cove on the island of Ambrym, have the sequential numbers 01 & 02 and our allocated seats are 03C & 03D.
The airport then starts to fill up with locals and tourists. We pay the domestic tax and then wait for our plane.

At 06:55, the boarding gate is open for our flight to Craig Cove. We present ourselves and give our boarding passes. The attendant then say “you’re good to go. Boarding is closed.” On the tarmac, the attendant has to ask which plane we’re boarding… guess what, we’re the only 2 passengers on the plane!!! A twin otter of 21 seats … completely empty … with 1 pilot, a co-pilot and 2 passengers!
Unbelievable … we have a lot of pictures of an empty plane.

We land on time in Craig Cove and meet Sam, our guesthouse owner who is also the Air Vanuatu agent.
Sam greets us and asks us to wait until he has finished his work i.e. check in of the passengers, unloading and loading the luggage, boarding, closing the airport desk …

Once all is done and the airport is closed, we go to the guesthouse by 4WD. There, we’re greeted by Sam’s wife, Elena. She shows us our room. One of the nicest on the property with an ensuite bathroom, a clothing line and a small veranda!!!!

We settle in our room and Elena invites us to have breakfast around 09:00 with homemade doughnuts and local grapefruits.

Then, off to the village to buy water for the trek as there will be no water en route. 4 bottles of water that we bring back to our room before going to explore the surroundings and the “famous” Ter Ter hot springs.
We follow Sam’s directions and we pass the airport. There, we meet a few stranded passengers who missed their flight because they had no idea that the flight, “our flight”, had been rescheduled 5 hours earlier...

On our way, we also try to find the Ter Ter Bungalows. This will be the place where we’ll stay when we return from our trek in 3 days’ time.
After 20 minutes, we’re lost. We ask a local for direction. 45 minutes later on a small trail through the forest, we finally arrive at Ter Ter Bungalows… It’s far, very far from the village!
We see the hot springs and the bungalow where we will be staying on our return.

It takes us close to an hour to get back to Sam’s guesthouse via the dirt road. It might surely be a bit less by truck but we start doubting if it’s a good idea to stay there the day before taking our plane back to Port Vila. Besides, the boat bringing us back, after the trek up to the volcano, will drop us at the wharf close to Sam’s guesthouse. Moreover, Sam is the Air Vanuatu agent. So, if there’s a problem with the plane, he’ll be the first to know. We also plan to leave one of our luggage at the guesthouse before the trek. That’s a lot of ...

With all these in mind, when we’re back, we decide to swap guesthouses. We ask Sam if it’s possible to come back here when we return and stay in the same room.
For Sam, it’s not a problem “eee-straight” but we have to call the travel agency Malampa to confirm.

So lucky that we called Malampa. They had our boat scheduled for the Sunday morning instead of the Saturday afternoon!!! So, we had to reconfirm all the transfer details to be sure to be in Craig Cove to catch our plane on Sunday… oh gee... Otherwise, no issues for our change of accommodation.

Later on, we meet our West Ambrym guide, Bae Wilpen. We’ll have 1 guide and 2 porters. He explains to us that he’ll be guiding us up only to Mt Marum where the North Ambrym guide, William Adler, will meet us to take us to the North of the island. We remind him to bring a double tent and bedrolls for our trek. We’ll see how this works out.

Another trip to the village before dinner, we have the chance to see the weekly “merchandise” boat berthing on the shores of Craig Cove, disembarking passengers and merchandise, from boxes to fridges and cars! That’s life on this island … the only connection to the outer world.

Back at the guesthouse, we meet a group of French tourists who tell us that the weather was awful when they were up on the volcanos and unfortunately did not see much of them despite staying 2 nights camping up there. We really hope that the weather will be better for our treck.

Then, it’s time to have dinner. Once finished, back to our room to prepare for our trek the next day and do all the packing. We’re in bed quite early at 21:00 in order to leave at 07:30 tomorrow morning with our guide. We cross fingers to have beautiful sunny days for our trek.

Home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Mount Benbow and Mount Marum are both located in the middle of the Ambrym island with a 12km caldera joining them together like holding hands. These majestic twin volcanoes light up the night sky with their bubbling lava lakes, a beautiful sight to see and a great excuse for us to embark on this overnight trek. So, we dream of sun and a troubleless trek.


Thursday 31 May 2018 (Day 9)

The alarm goes off at 06:00. Time to wake up and get ready to take the 4WD pick-up to Port Vato.

We didn’t sleep much because of all the mice and tons of cockroaches running around in the bungalow, beside being awake at 03:00 and with the roosters starting singing at 04:00. Definitely not a very good night… Hope not to be too tired for our long trek...

All of this is forgotten… It’s nice and sunny with a bright blue sky. How wonderful! Good sign for our trek… Pastor Sam’s prayers may have paid off.
A quick breakfast with eggs and bread, it’s important to eat well for the start of our trek.

We bring our backpacks, bags to the gathering hut and wait for the Landcruiser to come and pick us up to go to Port Vato with our guide and the 2 porters. We’ll leave one of our bag at Sam’s guesthouse.
The pick-up arrives just before 08:00. We load our bag and backpacks and then leave for our journey. On the way to Port Vato, we stop at one of the village shop for the guide to buy food for dinner for our overnight stay at the West Camp. We also buy an extra bottle of water, just in case.

We drive through thick forest at first and then follow a large, dried-up river bed with black ashes until we arrive at the stop point around 09:00, where the road ends facing a medium size cliff.
This is it! The start of our Volcano cross-over trek (West to North). With this weather, we do hope to see the fierce and fiery volcanoes, Mt Benbow and Mt Marum today and tomorrow.

We climb the cliff (around 6 to 7m) to get onto the track in the river bed through the forest. We trek through the forest and through lakes of dry lava and gorges. Different sceneries, all breathtakingly beautiful under the sun. It takes us at least 4 hours with 3 breaks, some steep and hilly climbs through the river bed before a short very steep sandy dune until we reach the ash plain.
During our last short break, our guide makes some sand drawings on the black sand ash, explaining to us that this is one of their ancestral form of communication. A sip of water and off for our final leg to the West Camp Site (Alt. 720 m) where we arrive around 13:00.

We finally have a glimpse at the expanse of the ash plain and the volcano scenery for the first time.

The campsite is divided into 2 separate areas. One big hut for the communal kitchen with cooking pots, dishes, firewood to cook meals and a small hut where the guide and the porters sleep.

After a short break to set up the tent on the ash plain, relax our muscles and have a quick snack, we leave West Camp for Mt Benbow.

It takes us 1h10 to climb the steep 1159 meters of Mt Benbow. A though, speedy and excruciating climb … we have to return to the campsite before dark.
The first part is totally flat, we walk through the ash plain. Afterwards, it starts to be extremely steep when we walk on the sides of the volcano. We arrive at the large crater outer rim but we can not see the lava lake from our position. The active crater with the boiling lava lake is further away and down by 200 m. To get to the active crater, you need to climb down and up using a rope and then walk for at least another 15 minutes to reach the view point for the boiling lava lake. We decide that it’s not for us this time as we’re so exhausted and we still need to get back to the camp. We prefer to save our energy for the day after.
The reddish sun is relatively high with strong steam and smoke coming out of the crater. It’s unlikely to have a clear view of the deep lava lake. But with the beautiful sunny day, we have a full and perfect view of the crater and imagine the steaming lava lake. We stay on the outer rim for 45 minutes enjoying the view before descending back to the campsite.
While on top, our guide makes some calls to find out if all is ok for our journey to North Ambrym. It’s unbelievable but it’s the only spot where you have a decent phone reception up there. Bad news … our North Ambrym guide is now in Port Vila! There’s no way for him to be tomorrow on top of Mt Marum waiting for us. Wilpen will have to guide us all the way to Ranon. Hope that’s the last surprise ...
It takes us 1h for the return to West Camp.

Back at the campsite around 16:00 before sunset, we arrange our tent. Our opportunity to freshen up a bit and remove our sweaty clothes. In the meantime, our guide and the porters cook dinner: rice, kumala (sweet potatoes) and tinned tuna.

After dinner, we decide to go to the start of the trek for Mt Benbow/Mt Marum to see if it’s possible to view the red glow from the volcanoes as it’s pitch black. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The red colors are really faint. So, back to sleep in our tent for a restful night. The plan is to have breakfast at 07:00 and leave the campsite at 07:30 tomorrow.
It was a very nice day with a lot of emotions...


Friday 01 June 2018 (Day 10)

It’s a big day today. The sky is cloudy this morning.
But early in the morning around 05:00, it was really beautiful because you could start seeing the blue sky and 2 huge red clouds on top of Mt Marum and Mt Benbow. An amazingly gorgeous sight and a promise for the day.

However, the night was terrible... cold, not very restful… Sleeping directly on the compacted sand was really painful and luckily, it only rained a little bit. In our small tent, we were not able to extend our legs fully which did not help to have a proper sleep. So, we’re happy when we hear the alarm at 06:00 to formally wake up.

We pack up all our stuff to leave, have a small breakfast at 07:00 and we’re ready to leave the campsite at 07:40 for Mt Marum.
The hike from West Camp to the spectacular Mt Marum takes us 2 hours.
From West camp, we start with an easy walk across the the ash plain, a desert-like landscape with only sparse green mosses and grasses near the edge of the plain. As the weather is fine, we can see spectacular views of both Mt Benbow and Mt Marum with their plumes of smoke. Awesome ...
We then pass one of the crater with a big active fumarole. There’re lots of fumaroles thus we cannot approach the crater itself. We then walk past lava flows from previous eruptions and hike through 2 other vents before ascending the highest rim of Mt Marum (1270 m). We finally arrive at the lava lake 2 hours after our departure from the West camp, at 09:40. What a blow minding view!
The lookout is on the absolute vertical of the lava lake. Perfectly on the line of the boiling cauldron of lava and you can admire the lava bubbles and hear the sounds – plof, plof, plof …

It’s amazing, impressive, unbelievable - there is no word to describe this sight!!!! The bowels of the Earth – the Inferno, it’s spectacular!

We stay up there, watching this incredible spectacle for at least half an hour. Admiring the show… feeling blessed to be able to spend time marveling at the magnificent boiling cauldron below.
We have the perfect light, it’s not raining. We can see everything because there’s no smoke, no fog, no clouds, no wind. Just a little bit of sun to be able to see things clearly … wow … awesome…

A perfect day for an experience of a lifetime! One of the world wonders…

Time to get around the crater rim to see the lava lake from the other side.
This view is not as spectacular as the other view point because you’re not exactly on the vertical line but the view of the lava lake is from a different angle. The boiling cauldron with its deep red, orange colors. We’re a bit far away from the lava lake on this side but here, we have the view on the entirety of the crater.

After 1 hour spent around the crater rim, we start our descent to Ranvetlam on the northern coast of Ambrym.
We descend a ridge down into the wild cane, then down a rocky creek bed to a flat river bed through the ash plain. The route then follows flat stream beds through scattered bush and vegetation across the ash plain. Afterwards, we walk down through lush rain-forest with ferns until the end of a 4WD road to wait for the local truck to transfer to the Ranon village.

The descent is extremely long. After 4 hours’ hiking, close to non stop walking with only 2 breaks, we’re almost there… we’re completely shattered.
Finally, 5 hours later we’re at the Ranon Beach Bungalows where we have a nice welcome from Douglas and Emma, the owners.
Emma greets us with hibiscus flowers in our hair and then takes us to the dinner room where we have an apero with home made lemonade and very nice taro chips. A nice treat after this exhausting trek. We then move to our room to undo our bags and have an inviting bucket shower…

The beach bungalows were completely destroyed by cyclone Paula that we experienced in Paiha when we were in NZ North Island. Douglas and Emma had to go up the shore.
Therefore, only one room was in use, especially prepared for us. It’s a nice and sweet room. The dinner area is also set up just for us with one table and 2 chairs. The rest of the guesthouse up the hill is not in use and it’s abandoned.

After our nice bucket shower, it’s already time for dinner. A huge dinner with good fresh products.
Big pieces of fish with yam cooked in coconut milk, island cabbage and rice. Delicious … we’re full.
After dinner, we go to sleep in our wonderful bed with a nice rose mosquito net. Ohhhh, a bed … and a pillow … We sleep like babies!

See also our video on youtube: Mount Marum lava lake

P.S.: A fissure eruption began six months after our visit, on 15 December 2018. This started a series of volcanic events that eventually led to the disappearance of the amazing lava lakes. The lakes at the two summits were probably emptied by the lava flow in the rift zone, the caldera floor dropped causing dramatic changes to the crater walls, that finally collapsed. Something similar happened in May 2018 at Kilaulea, there too the lava lake disappeared. Lava lakes are now very rare.


Saturday 02 June 2018 (Day 11)

Wake up at 07:00, a bit later than usual to have breakfast at 08:00.

No insects, no cockroaches, no rodents and with the net, no mosquitoes. Even the rosters, we did not hear them… It’s a really quiet and nice place. We really had a great night!

Icing on the cake: no sore muscles or pain … it was a less strenuous trek than expected.

We prepare our bags, because there’ll be no time after Fanla and after lunch, as we have to take the boat to return to Craig Cove.
We have a nice breakfast with doughnuts, grapefruits and a perfumed infusion made from fresh orange leaves.

At 09:00, we take the truck to drive on a bumpy track for Fanla.
Locals from the Fanla village will demonstrate the famous Rom dances - traditionally performed only on very special occasions. They usually perform those dances in July after the yam harvest. The Rom or ‘Masked’ dance is a sacred event associated with magic and it’s believed to influence the harvests. The masks are made of banana trees and leaves. The singers and the drum players only wear nambas and they sing and dance.
We arrive at the Fanla village and the villagers get ready to perform the Rom dance. They perform the dance for 30 minutes with singing and dancing.
Another tradition is the intricate and imposing carved Tam Tams - guardians of the ancient dancing site, very nicely carved out of tree trunks.

Afterward, back on the truck to the guesthouse to have lunch. We ask Emma not to cook too much.
We eat taro chips, island cabbage, lap lap bananas and canned tuna with homemade lemon juice.
After lunch, we finish our bags and when we’re ready, we say goodbye to lovely Emma and we walk down with Douglas to the beach to catch the boat.

We’re 16 people on board of a tiny orange fisherman boat to go to Craig Cove!!! Not reassuring at all… It’s gonna be a 2 and half hour ride.
The boards of the boat are only 20 cm out of the water because of the weight. Luckily, the sea is rather calm, it’s not too sunny and not rainy. So, we’re not completely soaked in salt water...
We make it safely to Craig Cove.

From the harbor, we walk to Sam’s guesthouse with our packs.
On arrival, we meet Elena who tells us that our room is ready. We go directly there – the exact same one we had 2 days earlier. Drop off our bags, then back to the village to buy a beer for dinner after this eventful journey.

On our return to the guesthouse, we stop at the kava bar to celebrate our marvelous trek.
Our first taste of the famous Vanuatu local drink… Served in a coconut shell, kava is a gray and dense liquid like muddy water. It tastes like a mixture jagermeister and ginseng with a touch of black pepper and clove. After a while, you start feeling that your tongue and jaws are getting numb. For 50 VT, you can buy a half coconut shell of kava. It’s made out of the roots of the plant macerated in water for some time and it’s also used during ceremonies. That’s clearly not something we’ll indulge in ...

After this interesting experience, we return to our guesthouse, have a nice shower followed by dinner with a “hot” beer and then off to bed.

Tomorrow, we’re taking the plane to Port Vila via Norsup on the Malekula island. Hope all will be ok.
Pastor Sam assures us that the plane will be on time and check in is at 07:00. So, we’ll see how the day unfold...


Sunday 03 June 2018 (Day 12)

Wake at 06:00. Pastor Sam tells us that check in is at 07:00. So, we have to be on time “eee-straight”.

The night was hectic. Between the cockroaches, the rats, the flies, the spiders and all the other insects and animals we were not aware of… aaaahhhhhhhhhhh
And it rained all night, heavy rain … We didn’t sleep a lot so we’re glad when the sun rises and it's time to wake up!

We were extremely lucky that when we were up on the volcanoes we had good weather, no rain. Before our trek, it was raining a lot and after returning from our hike, it was again raining heavily. The prayers from Pastor Sam for beautiful weather were indeed fulfilled …

We finish packing our bags and at 06:30, breakfast and for the last time, we have Pastor Sam blessing our meals with a short prayer of only 10 minutes this time …

After breakfast, it’s time to say goodbye to Sam, Elena and the kids Amos, Timo. Lovely and simple people with a big heart ...

Unfortunately, there’s no truck to go to the Airport. So, we have to walk with Sam with our bags and backpacks. Luckily, our bags are only 10 kg. So, with the backpacks on the back and the shuffles on the front, we walk for 10 minutes on the dirt track to the airport.

We arrive at the airport where Sam settles the check in desk.
Privilege of being the clients of the guesthouse, we’re the first ones to check in. As usual, we have to step on the scale to weight ourselves. Sam sticks additional tags to our bags because of our transit to Norsup. Then, we wait for the flight 30 minutes longer than the planned take off time.

What a surprise to see someone waving at us from the cockpit when the plane lands. Guess what, it’s our friend, the young pilot who took us to Pentecost. He recognized us.
When he gets out, he comes to us and his first question is: “How was your trek?”

After another round of emotional goodbye to Sam, Elena and the kids: Amos, Timo, Lorenti, Kiki and Pelina, as they leave for the church, we board the plane with the rosters, the chicks and a machete.

Ambrym is known as “The Black Island” and the center of magic in Vanuatu. But, we haven’t seen that kind of magic. However, traditional custom beliefs are highly evident and remain very strong on the island.

Aboard, we have the front row seats as usual. We take off to Norsup and arrive 20 minutes later.
The pilot tells us he’ll be the one coming back to pick us up to go to Port Vila in 2 hours’ time.

We don’t want to venture too much in the city of Malekula (the city’s name comes from the French: “mal au cul”). So, we stay at a nearby snack for 2 hours. At 13:30, the plane arrives.
After disembarking its passengers, we can board. We take off on time. Before taking off, the pilot tells us as we’re sitting right behind him, that he’ll be flying slowly and low over the bay of Malekula and if we look carefully in the transparent sea water, we could see turtles and dugongs swimming and diving as they are easy to spot. Indeed, we can clearly see couples of dugongs and turtles swimming around!

We fly over the green forest of Malekula and all its mountains.

13:40: We land in Port Vila earlier than planned. We collect our bags and our transfer is already there waiting for us. Swiss precision in Vanuatu…

We arrive at the Chantilly hotel where the receptionist welcomes us back… Well, after 3 times ...

For our last night, we get an upgrade: a large suite … nambawan!

Once refreshed, we go to the city for our duty free shopping before our flight tomorrow.
The city is packed with cruisers from Australia. So, one of the reasons why most of the shops are opened. And the shops are ready for them… For instance, the prices of the postcards are 20% more expensive on that day.

We spend our last night at the hotel at the Banyan beach bar. A nice place with a relaxed atmosphere. After 12 days, we drink our first glass of wine with a good wood fired pizza! Topped with hot chilli pepper we collected in Malekula, it’s our treat.

As we take the plane tomorrow at 16:15, we have a late checkout. In the morning, we will go back to the city to purchase a few postcards at the normal price, and stamps ...


Monday 04 June 2018 (Day 13)

Our last morning in Vanuatu … a last stroll in the city … the last postcards in the mailbox and then, it’s time to leave for the airport.

Our plane is 30 minutes late. Nevertheless, we arrive safely in Noumea early in the evening.

This trip gave us a complete change of scene!!!
Back in time and reconnected to what is meaningful in life …

A visit to Vanuatu and its more remote islands is a must for a truly authentic experience!


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