Walking the Volcano (Rich and Carmen)
Given that we on an island with two active volcanoes, we thought we were long overdue to climb them. And we knew that we had to do it before September 30, or else we would run into taboo season – it is forbidden to climb the volcano from the North as it will disrupt the yam harvest. As it turned out, some friends from Vila also wanted to climb, so we made our arrangements.
In the end, our friends Adam and Erin didn’t have time to travel too us up in the North, so we met them in the West, planning to catch a plane on to Vila once the walk was done. Once we had arranged our guides and our food (lap lap and savoury biscuits!) we were ready to go.
Inauspiciously, it rained during the night, and when we set off at 4:30am, it was into dark, wet jungle, although, mercifully, the rain had now stopped. We soon had the chance to dry out, though, as by dawn we had reached a wide, dry river bed that we would follow all the way to the Ash Plain, the barren landscape that surrounds Ambrym’s two volcanoes, Marum and Benbow.
By mid-morning we had reached the start of the Ash Plain, where the landscape changes abruptly from trees and grasses to dry gravel and rock, surrounded by jagged hills cut through with ancient lava rivers. The rocks are pinkish-red, and the word ‘Mars’ was mentioned several times. This was apt – we felt as if we were the sole inhabitants of a completely different planet. It was beautiful, in a lifeless and desolate way, which made it all the more exhilarating.
Soon we reached a point where the only place too go was up, and we followed an old lava river up a steep incline until we emerged and perched ourselves on a jagged hilltop. It was breathtaking – partly because the expanse of Mars landscape spread out below us, but mostly because the smoky, sulphur filled air caught in our throats – a sharp reminder that we were close to a volcano. After a short rest, our guide said “We’re going down there”, pointing to a steeply declining razorback ridge with no discernable path whatsoever. Carmen actually thought he was joking. If only we knew what was to come…
After a slow descent down the ridge, we reached flat ground again. And then the smoke really closed in. Visibility was no more than a few metres, Rich put a handkerchief over his mouth so he could breathe properly, and small drops of acid rain burned our eyes. Erin said it was “like Hell, only cold”. The smoke was so thick that our guides lost their way, and after several false attempts we were told to sit and wait while our three guides split up to find the path. After a couple of hours on this smoky plateau, we found the way and began our ascent up to the rim of the volcano.
As you would expect, it was steep. The smoke had cleared only slightly, our packs of gear weighed us down, and it only got steeper, but we were climbing up a volcano! Everything was fine, if tiring, until we got to within 100 metres of the top. Here it became so steep that we might as well have been rock-climbing, only the ground beneath our hands and feet was gravel and crumbly rock that gave away beneath out weight. It was genuinely dangerous, especially with our packs on, but we made it – to the relative safety of the edge of an active volcano.
Safety-wise, the rim itself was little better. Mostly the path was thin, about 30cm, with the mouth of a volcano on one side, and God knows what on the other – the smoke was too dense to see anything on either side. At certain points it appeared as if Carmen was going to be blown of the volcano by the gusting winds, and we’re sure that Adam, who was carrying a particularly large pack, almost toppled into the abyss several times. But we blindly walked on, around about half the volcano as we later found out, until we reached the path down.
The day was getting on, so we were glad to be heading down. As we made our way down the path (small and gravelly again!) we emerged from the smoke and beneath us was the other side of the Ash Plain – rolling hilltops of black rock dotted with rich green tufts of grass clinging to the steep inclines. We set up camp in a level place, another old river virtually at the foot of the volcano. It was a stunning place to camp, and we were glad to be stopping after what had been 12 hours of walking. Before we headed to bed our guides told us that if it rained we would need to jump on top of the rock to avoid the flowing water, but that did not eventuate and exhaustion ensured a sound night’s sleep.
The four of us decided that heading back down the path we struggled up yesterday was not the best or safest option and taking another route out would surely be better, as well as providing us with a different view on the way back. Luckily, we awoke to find that smoke had cleared somewhat, and we headed back up the volcano to see if we could get a look. Whether it was a good night’s sleep or us getting used to the slippery slopes, the climb back up was a lot easier. When we reached the rim of the volcano we could see down inside to what looked like another, volcano that constantly belched smoke, and if you were quiet you could hear the lava sloshing and heaving inside, like small waves breaking on the shore. As we watched the sun rise into the volcano, yesterday’s hard walk was definitely worth the view. While the others rested, I (Rich) went with a guide further around the rim, retracing yesterday’s steps. With the smoke cleared I could see what lay on either side of us, and was glad that we couldn’t see it the day before. On one side, rocks like jagged teeth marked the sheer drop into the volcano, while on the other a precipice into nothingness of the side of the mountain. There were points on the path where a misstep would have meant certain death. I was more scared than I have been for a long time, but that fear was mixed with equal amounts of excitement and exhilaration. It was an incredible experience.
We picked up our bags at camp and started the walk out. Our guides had told us that the path out was “just down that way”, giving us the impression that since there were no volcanoes to climb over, it would be a relatively easy walk home. After an hour or two’s walking on the Ash Plain, with stunning views of Benbow and Marum behind us, we reached the end of the plain, where palm trees lined the outer rim. To our left was what seemed like a flat descent into, we assumed, a village, to our right a small mountain. We joked that we all hoped to go over the mountain and thought we were very funny… until our guides told us that that was indeed the way home.
The path from the Ash Plain was a small break in the trees and as we ducked under the foliage we found ourselves immediately in a tropical rainforest. So stunning was the sudden break that we all stopped to look back out the small archway of trees, which now framed the volcanoes. Pretty soon, we started the march over the hill, climbing up, and down gullies, and up again. It was going to be a hard slog home. When we started to see coconut plantations, we knew that we had to be close. By this stage Carmen’s knees were really sore, Adam’s old football injuries had been brought back to life, Richard had blisters and Erin just wasn’t talking. Even our guides, who were usually indestructibly bounding off into the distance, said that their knees were sore too. This made Carmen feel better. Shortly after our final rest and a snack of coconuts, we hit the main road. We thought that this was it and someone would soon arrive to pick us up. But our guides started to walk up the road and off we went again. Finally a ute came our way and we fell into the back to head home for a hot dinner and bed.
When we arrived in Vila it had been a month since I had washed my hair, this due to our current water situation, resulting in daily sudless swims in the ocean. Rich graciously let me have the first shower, possibly the best hot shower I have ever had. The smell of soap now officially my favourite smell, rivalling fresh bread and sizzling bacon for the top spot.
Normally when we head to Vila we stay with two other volunteers, Jess and Andy. They live in Mele Village, just outside of Vila and are tremendous company. They have a spare room which we normally call home, this usually means that nightly dinners turns into a game of 500 and an empty bottle of wine. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a visit from Jess’ brother and family obligations saw him get our room. Luckily Jordon was also great company and didn’t seem to mind sharing his sister and brother-in-law with two no-name volunteers from Ambrym.
We took our eviction from Mele as a sign that we should stay in the best B&B in Vila, La Maison Bleue. It’s run by a lovely French lady who makes us feel like we have come to stay with an old family friend. Every time we stay there we feel spoilt, she makes homemade yoghurt and jam and washes our dirty clothes without a fuss. Admittedly we always take our dirtiest clothes back to Vila to be washed by a machine. Just to labour the point, as I write a lizard has just pooed on my shoulder, quite a feat as he is attached to the roof, must have great aim.
While we look forward to going to Vila, the luxuries of running water, endless electricity and cafes, we spend the whole time running around trying to get two months worth of stuff done in a week. Squeezed around work is catching up with our friends in Vila. This trip we chartered a sailboat around South Efate. Captain Harold is a character and has a very well rehearsed speech that he makes every time he sets sail. Rich who is notoriously seasick, escaped queasiness and enjoyed manning the sails and at Pango Point jumped into the ocean for a swim. I, on the other hand enjoyed my vodka and orange and decided that since I now live in the tropics I can forgo swimming unless it is hot, a cool breeze kept me on deck. I happily passed beers down to those drifting past in floating donuts.
Vila town itself is nothing to write home about. While it has a nice waterfront, the main street is less picturesque and you can comfortably walk from one end to the other in half and hour. Vila seems like a town that has seen better days, many buildings look tired or simply thrown together in a hurry. But there is no point expecting a bustling metropolis in the middle of the Pacific. Vila does have its charms, the men gathered in the parking lot to play petanque, the bus driver stoping to chat to someone they know all the while holding up traffic, not a horn to be heard and you can rarely walk for 10 mins without someone wishing you a good morning or good afternoon.
After a very busy week and my legs recovered from the volcano walk we headed back home.
Our Work (Carmen)
In between ceremonies, collecting water, going to the garden and cooking we both have our own work assignments to complete. Our work with the council (Rich’s assignment) is going gangbusters. Our focus has changed from working on projects such as the boat and funding for the schools and has moved into training. We have been running two training workshops a month which focuses on skills that the council members need to be able to run the council more effectively.
First we tackled the basics; the roles and responsibilities of council members and following that with how to run a meeting and write minutes. Our third workshop was probably the hardest, how to write a funding application. This training workshop would have been difficult in Australia but here it was a particular challenge. To make the training more relevant we decided to complete a real funding application as part of the training. Due to the current lack of water, it was quickly agreed that the council would apply for water tanks. To see a village through a bad dry season they need a large water tank (6000 litres) and our funding would only accommodate three large tanks. This means that out of 32 villages in the Lonali Area only three will get a water tank, that is a lot of unhappy villages. In an attempt to curb the inevitable criticism, the council has set up a water committee with council members, a chief and the provincial area secretary. The committee will conduct a community need survey that will establish which villages have the capacity to have a tank (e.g. iron roofing), centrally located so that the maximum number of people can access the water and locate those village who are the furthest from a water source, ocean or half salt, half fresh water well. Hopefully the water tanks (if our funding application is successful) will go to the villages with the biggest need and will benefit the largest group of people.
The council has long since invited all mamas from the community to attend the workshops and also any men who are interested. The council believed that there are many mamas who were interested in becoming council members but were worried about what it would entail. To demystify the council all mamas were invited to attend training workshop but also encouraged to stay for the council meeting that followed. Our most recent training workshop was on financial management. The misused of money was the downfall of the pervious men’s run Lonali Council before it was handed over to the mamas. As a result, transparency and accountability is a serious problem in North Ambrym and I suspect Vanuatu as a whole. Although people are busy clearing land for their gardens, this training was attended by 40 women and 10 men, quite a feat.
While I am still heavily involved in the council, in September I officially started my own project as a Community Health Education Officer. This boils down to going to the 7 school in the North Ambrym area and running workshops with the kids and staff on hand washing, tooth brushing and looking after sores. Together with the school I will hopefully establish a program where kids will have access to hand washing facilities near the toilet but also wash their hand before lunch and brush their teeth after lunch. To help encourage good dental hygiene and to initially start the teeth brushing program which the school will continue themselves, I needed the first supply of toothbrushes and paste. I was speechless to hear that amongst family member and friends they were able to pull together 1200 brushes and pastes. I would like to thank them all for their hard work and will keep everyone up to date on the progress of the program. Currently I am writing the workshop and will be ready to meet with the school in November.