If you ask around about volcanoes in Vanuatu you will inevitably be steered towards Tanna Island and the expensive package deals that every tour shop in town sells. They’ll promise you a night at a resort and an easy 20-minute walk up the side of a volcano to see the fireworks. But those who prefer the road less travelled might find their way to Ambrym Island, where the challenging hike through the tropical forest takes 4 to 6 hours, accommodation is in tents or huts built by local villagers, and the food is whatever your guide catches on the way up to the camp site.
The centre of Ambrym is dotted with a pair of volcanoes, Maroum and Benbo, but it is less popular than Tanna because they don’t produce such a flashy display.
Maroum volcano is a roaring cauldron which produces “Pele’s Hair,” fine strands of volcanic glass which coat the ground around the crater. They are said to occasionally form fragile glass “hairballs” that, in the right wind, can be seen blowing up from the crater. Maroum is also reputed to the site of animal sacrifices – dropping a white chicken into the crater helps escape bad luck.
Benbow is a more hazardous journey, and the crater must be entered via a rope to see the lava.
The ash plains that lie between Maroum and Benbow are stunning in their own right, but can only be crossed with a guide. Black ash, tinted orange with sulphur from the volcanoes, they become on an eerie sight when wisps of smoke and cloud float through.
Different parts of the island have different stories about how the series of volcanoes came to be. One story is that a group were visiting family on the other side of the island, and crossing over left some laplap cooking under coals in the centre of the island. On their return through the forest the laplap had been consumed by the earth, and a volcano erupted the next day.
Visiting Ambrym requires more cultural respect than the usual tourist expedition. Visitors must book in advance and can only visit the volcanoes with a local guide. Guides are enthusiastic about sharing stories about their history and their way of life, but they are new to tourism, and there’s a sense that too much attention could upset a delicate balance between maintaining cultural ties and becoming yet another commercialized tourist trap.
Know Before You Go
You can catch a flight to the island from Port Vila, Vanuatu.