Ambae IslandGrand Manaro Trek

Climbing to the top of Manaro volcano on Ambae Island has always been a bucket list item for me ever since I flew over it a year ago and saw the incredible coloured lakes perched within its crater, like three shiny jewels glistening in the sun. But it’s also personal, because like James Michener before me, I sit in my house on the east coast of Santo and the island seems to call me from across the sea, a siren song to a mystical, magical paradise, tantalizingly close but just out of reach.

 

Manaro volcano lakes Here am I your special Island, Come to me, come to me

Your own special hopes,, Your own special dreams

Loom on the hillside and shine in the streams

If you try you will find me, Where the sea meets the sky

Bali Hai, Bali Hai, Bali Hai

(Lyrics from Bali Ha’i song, South Pacific the musical)

Yes, Ambae is the real life Bali Ha’i in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. And now I was about to climb those shrouded peaks as part of the Grand Manaro Trek, organised by the Vanuatu Tourism Office (VTO) in conjunction with the Department of Tourism. The last trek was in 2017 just before the volcano erupted, resulting in the evacuation of the entire island (all 11,000 residents). Half have since returned and the chiefs of Ambangga village, high up on the slopes of the mountain, have finally deemed it safe to reopen the track, not just to expeditioners like myself but also to local villagers keen to see how the lakes have changed since the eruption.

Vanuatu’s Largest Volcano

A few facts about Ambae and Mt. Manaro. Ambae is famous for its aelan taro, mat weaving and melo-melo kava. As for Manaro, it rises nearly 1500m out of the sea, a classic shield volcano crowned by a massive crater nearly 6km across. But like a tropical version of an iceberg, most of the volcano lays hidden deep underwater. So its true height is more like 3900m, almost half the height of Mt Everest! That makes it Vanuatu’s largest volcano by sheer volume.

Manaro Volcano Ambae Island  

To climb into the crater containing the lakes will require four hours of solid hiking from Ambangga Village, a distance of some 12km. We are told not to express too much excitement or emotion while on the volcano and to avoid bringing anything back with us, lest we offend the spirits there. It seems that for villagers living around the base of Manaro, this is a sacred place, a kind of heaven where the spirits go and rest after departing the bodies of the living.

Cloud Forest

Trekking through the cloud forests on the way up the steep slopes of the volcano is an experience in itself. The vegetation regrowth since the eruption is lush and green, as you would expect thanks to metres of ashfall, but many of the trees are dead or dormant, their leaves killed off by acid rain. A heavy mist shrouds the slopes.

hiking Mt Manaro AmbaeGiant tree ferns and palms abound, along with rare mountain orchids and the distinctive sounds of a small bird known locally as Hundred Tongue, because of its endless repertoire of tones. There are 12 trekkers in all, along with porters, guides and support staff. Our plan is to camp at the shores of Lake Gesa, the blue lake nestled within the crater walls, and then, weather permitting, hike the 2.5km to the rim of the caldera overlooking the active heart of Manaro, a seething cauldron of steam and sulphur.

On arrival at the lake four hours later, the sun finally breaks through and we stop for lunch and to unpack our bags at the campsite. Some take the opportunity to have a brief swim in the lake, which turns out to be chilly and shallow, rather than warm and deep. But being on top of a 5000ft high volcano is a tricky thing, because the weather can change so abruptly, and by the time we are ready to do the next part of the trek the mist has rolled in and we can barely see a few metres in front of us. 

 

Spectacular Volcanic Lakes

Mt Manaro lake

We nevertheless head off in the hope the sun will break through again and reward us with the view we’ve all been waiting for. And it does! As we crest the rim of the caldera, which our guides call Lo Ben Ben, the skies clear and we are greeted with an incredible vista – three stunning lakes, each different colours (Gesa – dark blue, Vui – light blue and Goru – yellow). They stretch out before us surrounded by an almost alien landscape of black volcanic ash worn into fissures and canyons by the insanely high rainfall (almost 4m a year!). Separating Lake Vui from Lake Goru lies the active cinder cone, hissing and boiling like a giant kettle, yellow streaks of sulphur spewing down its slopes. It looks to all intensive purposes like Mt. Doom in Mordor (J.R Tolkien’s stories of Hobbits and Middle Earth) and I almost wish I had a ring to throw into its beating heart in order to save the earth from Lord Sauron.

Exploding volcano Ambae IslandEruption!

Karl Nako, our guide, said the last time he saw the volcano was in July 2017, when he and five other local boys heard a sound like thunder and scrambled to the lookout above Lake Goru to find out what was happening. They saw the entire lake bubbling like a cauldron. Rocks and plumes of ash were being thrown hundreds of metres into the air. They raced back down the mountain and told their elders and a few months later the entire island was evacuated.

Now, of course Manaro has gone back to sleep according to Vanuatu Geohazards Department. It’s at Level 2, and has been this way pretty much since December 2021 (except for one or two minor eruptions).  The people of Ambae are hoping that the re-opening of the trek will bring much needed tourism back to the island and re-invigorate an economy destroyed by ashfall and acid rain.

Kastom Stories

The next day, making my way down the mountain after a chilly but uneventful night’s sleep (it gets down to 8 degrees C up there, brrrr) I pondered what it would be like to live in the shadow of a volcano and listened as the guides told me kastom stories of giant rocks cut and moved by magic, mythical eagles and the powers of Tagaro, the ancient God of the island.  And as I lay in the hot springs of Tahimamavi, at the base of the volcano, soothing my aching muscles and watching the other hikers getting massaged by expert hands, I secretly thanked the spirits for allowing us a glimpse into their world and for providing us with a glorious window of opportunity to admire and take photos of the heart of Lo Ben Ben.

For more information on the Grand Manaro Trek contact Vanuatu Tourism. Flights to the island leave weekly from nearby Espiritu Santo (approx. 30 min trip). Best accommodation choice in Santo is Turtle Bay Beach House – great value for money cottages, apartments and houses all self-contained and with an on-site laundry (which you will need after returning from the volcano hike!). On Ambae the best accommodation is at Lemus Guest House in Saratamata, there are also basic bungalows and a guest house are also available in Ambangga Village. Activities near Saratamata include Vondonebari Kastom Village, Tahimamavi Hot Springs as well as walks to Lake Wei Lembutaga, Lolowai Harbour and nearby black sand beaches.