Ambrym Volcano Hike; Marum and Benbow (2 Days, 1 Night)
Hiking Ambrym’s volcanoes is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in Vanuatu. An intense hike to the summit of two volcanoes, an amazing view of two lava lakes, and a jungle adventure not to be forgotten.
Ambrym is one of Vanuatu’s outer islands. It is located 150 kilometers or a 1-hour domestic flight north of Port Vila.
Discover: more of Vanuatu’s outer islands
The island of Ambrym is home to the active volcanoes called Mount Marum and Mount Benbow. Both volcanoes have lava lakes, a very rare occurrence.
A two day, one-night hike on Ambrym takes you up the summit of both volcanoes, an overnight stay at base camp on the ash plain, and through some of the densest jungle, you’ll see in Vanuatu.
If you are daring enough, go one-step further and climb into the crater of Mount Benbow. Here you will get a closer look at the lava lake bubbling up from the center of the earth.
Review of the Ambrym Volcano Hike
Climbing to the Volcano Base Camp
Day one starts with a 7am pick up from our guesthouse in Craig’s Cove. We meet our guide Willpen and porter Tineen.
The drive to the drop off point takes one hour. Along the way, we experience some of Vanuatu’s worst roads, passable only by a decent 4WD. The road is steep and badly eroded by the rain.
Mind your head as the car passes through the jungle. Overgrown trees and vines have been cut away just enough to let the vehicle pass through. There is no extra head allowance.
After the jungle route, we drive along old lava flows. The road finally comes to an abrupt stop at a 10 meter high rock wall, this is where the hike beings.
The first hour of the hike is the easy part. The route follows a ravine filled with volcanic sediment.
After an hour of walking, we head into the jungle for the first time. The jungle is overgrown, and the path almost invisible. Luckily, the guide carries a machete as he cuts our way through the thick overgrowth.
We hike through interchanging sections of jungle and lava flows for another hour, and then come to a stop. The guide explains that the next hour is going to be steep. Best to have a rest and a drink of water now, as the next stop will be the base camp.
The trail goes almost vertical. We climb up through the jungle holding onto vines and tree roots, kicking our feet into the dirt to make footholds.
Overcoming the steep incline, we continue along a series of stagnant ponds of water. It is a mosquito breeding ground. Without insect repellant, the mosquitoes would eat us alive. Dodging the smelly water by stepping on stones only works for so long. Eventually, everyone slips into the water ankle deep.
Four hours into the climb the legs are burning. Willpen tells us this will be our final climb until the base camp.
Another almost vertical 30-minute grueling climb. Finally, we break through the jungle and onto the volcanic ash plains. The change in landscape is very distinct.
We walk along the ash plains until we reach a hut made from palm trees and a thatch roof. A fire pit lies in the kitchen hut for cooking. The camp is basic, but it is a relief to take off the backpack and have a rest.
We have a two hour break for a late lunch and tent setup, then continue to summit Marum.
Climbing Mount Marum
The 1.5-hour hike to the summit of Mount Marum commences at 4.30pm. The plan is to get to the edge of the volcano by sunset, and then watch the lava lake at night.
We start by crossing the ash plain for 30 minutes with views of Marum in the background bellowing out clouds of acidic smoke.
Wilpen points out a long line of jagged volcanic rocks on the right. This is a lava flow which was created recently in 2015, the last time Marum had a major eruption.
We are warned that Marum is still very active and has minor eruptions quite often. “If there is an eruption, we run fast. At least one kilometer. Marum will throw hot rocks into the sky and we cannot we where they will fall. Run fast.” Willpen advises.
It is a reminder the nature can take a quick and unexpected turn at any time.
Ascending the southern side of Marum we pass another smaller, active volcano. We are able to stand just one meter from the edge of the crater. There is no lava lake here, but it does throw out huge plumes of acidic smoke.
Less than 5 minutes after continuing on our route, the wind takes a quick turn and we are engulfed by a thick cloud of smoke.
With every breath, the smoke burns my nostrils and throat. The smoke is so thick we cannot see each other just a few meters apart.
In the distance Willpen shouts, cover your mouth with your clothes. We have gas masks, but they’re still packed away in the bag. We’ve been caught by surprise on this one.
The smoke passes after a few minutes, as we are all left coughing and spitting. Everyone puts on their gas masks, just in case we are hit by another plume of smoke.
The final 30 minutes of the summit of Marum is a steep climb on loose volcanic ash. With every step, your feet sink to the ankles making the climb double as difficult.
Up ahead Willpen stands by a wooden stake. This is the edge of Marum’s steep crater. Far down below, probably 1km deep, we can see Marum’s lava lake bubbling away.
It is apparently just one of five lava lakes in the world, a special sight to see. I watch in amazement, just three weeks ago I’d hiked to my first glacier in New Zealand, now I’m looking down at the complete opposite.
The hike back down to base camp has its own challenges. We walk down the steep volcano at night, through a thick cloud of smoke. Visibility is poor and each step has to be placed carefully.
Halfway down it decides to rain quite heavily. Acidic clouds and rain make acid rain. Though it doesn’t eat through your clothes or burn your skin, it will sting your eyes if you look the wrong way.
By 7pm we reach base camp, all too happy to put the feet up next to the fire and enjoy a huge plate of rice, taro, fish, and soup.
Climbing Mount Benbow (Day 2)
The plan is to climb Benbow in the early morning, starting at 7am. However, this is subject to weather.
Sure enough, it has poured down overnight and the morning cloud cover is thick. The hike has been delayed until further notice.
By 10am the sky has cleared and we are good to go. The hike to the summit of Mount Benbow is about the same distance as to Mount Marum, but a much steeper climb at the end. You also get the option of climbing down into the crater.
Again, we cross the ash plains for the first 30 minutes, but in a different direction. Here the ash plains are broken up by deep ravines where heavy rainwater has eroded the surface. The edge of the ravines is covered in green moss and grass.
Reaching the base of Mount Benbow, we stare up at an almost vertical climb. From here it is a leg burning hour ascent to the top of Mount Benbow.
Halfway up the volcano a thick cloud cover rolls over. Visibility drops to about two meters.
We must walk carefully along the ridge to the summit. The track is only half a meter wide. Either side of us is a 20 to 30 meter drop down to jagged volcanic rocks below. Sure death if you were to place a wrong foot and slide down.
As we near the top of the first peak, I ask the guide, “is this the top?”
He points out at another huge peak in the background, “No, we follow the path up there.” Surely, he must be joking… but no, that really is the climb ahead of us.
Finally, after 1.5 hours we summit Mount Benbow. Now the rain is pouring down, the wind blowing a gale and the cloud cover still thick. Everyone hides down behind the ridge waiting for things to clear up.
Willpen pulls out the rope and tells us it is time to descend into the crater. Until now, I was fairly firm with my decision not to descend into a fiery hell. However, to actually see the lava lake of Benbow, you first need to climb down the main crater, over another ridge and access the inner crater.
I am the only one in the group to descend Benbow’s crater with the guide. The other three sit comfortably at the top of Benbow and watch as I descend.
The descent down to Benbow’s inner crater takes another 30 minutes. The crater’s edge is so steep that you need a rope to get down, otherwise you will just slip on the loose volcanic ash as not come back out.
Reaching the inner crater is something special. The lava lake is not as big as Marum, but you are much closer. Standing at the edge of the inner crater you can really feel the heat coming from the center of the earth.
For volcano maniacs, it is also possible to descend the inner crater with Ultimate Volcano Expeditions. On this tour, you will use professional hiking equipment and heatproof clothing instead of board shots, a wet shirt and sneakers.
Turning back to the outer crater comes with a moment of realization. You need to climb back out of that crazy crater you came down.
The climb up and out of Benbow is by far the hardest part of this two day hike up Ambrym’s volcanoes. The climb is relentlessly steep, about 700m high, the volcanic ash crumbles and slides beneath your feet and the wet rocks are slippery. The fact that your legs are already spent from the climb up Benbow and Marum doesn’t make it any easier.
It takes 45 minutes to climb back to the ridge of Benbow’s outer crater. Reaching the top, my legs collapse, exhausted.
The hike to the summit of Benbow started late because of bad weather. As I am on the 2 days 1 night tour, we have to head all the way back down to the pickup point before night. It is a 4hr climb down without breaks.
Climbing Ambrym’s volcanoes is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences, you can have in Vanuatu. It is far more difficult than driving a 4WD to the top of Mt Yasur on Tanna. Both Mt Marum and Mt Benbow have amazing lava lakes at the bottom of the crater, this is something Mt Yasur does not offer.
That said, you need to be fit to climb Mt Marum and Mt Benbow. I’ve been running 5km daily for 6 months prior to the hike, and I still struggled. If you’re not too confident with your fitness, extend the trip out to the 3 days, 2 nights option.
What to prepare
I learned the hard way by not packing all the essential equipment. Before you climb Ambrym’s volcanoes be sure to pack the following:
- At least 4.5L water. Rainwater on the mountain is not drinkable due to its acidity. If you drink it, you will be coughing for half an hour or more.
- A good headlamp. You will descend Mount Marum at night.
- Rain jacket. The weather up on the mountains changes quickly.
- Good walking or hiking shoes.
- 6 months fitness training.
Can you hike Ambrym’s Volcanoes by yourself?
Nothing says you are not allowed to hike Ambrym’s volcanoes by yourself. However, from experience, you are best off going with a guide.
The trail is in many places invisible to an untrained person. People do go solo, get lost, and have to be rescued.
There are good guides available, for cheap enough, so best to rely on their experience?
How to arrange a hike up Ambrym’s Volcanoes?
Many guides are contactable only by local phone number, and phone numbers change quite often. Drop me an email at [email protected] and we’ll arrange a guide, transport, and porter.
We can organize the hike for about $160 if going solo, $120 if two or more people. That is significantly cheaper than you will find elsewhere online.
Watch my video of the hike here, then drop us an inquiry!
Accommodation in Ambrym
The best place to launch your trip from is Craig’s Cove. Sam’s guesthouse is my favorite place to stay in town. He has decent bungalows, good food, and loads of information on the volcanoes.
Tell Sam you found out from Josh at The Lost Passport!