You’re standing on the black ash plains below Benbow Volcano on Ambrym Island. A current of clouds sweep past your sweaty body as you adjust your backpack. It’s time to summit.
Benbow Volcano was once famous for its bubbling lava lake. Radiating a deep red glow from its mouth and rumbling with rage, Benbow attracted volcano lovers from all over the world.
Unfortunately, following the December 2018 earthquake which displaced hundreds of residents, the bubbling lava lake is no more. But this doesn’t mean the hike up to the rim of Benbow and around the neighbouring volcanoes is any less spectacular.
In fact, the earthquake serves as a reminder that this volcano, and the tectonic plates below, are alive and have no mercy for the common adventurer.
- Expansive ash plain with rich, black volcanic soil
- Sweeping views of former lava streams
- The walk along the rim of Benbow Volcano
- Views of four other volcano craters
- Views of Malekula Island from the volcano edge
Day one is a big one, with a 3-4 hour hike up to the West Campsite, and another four hours up and around the volcano. According to our step counter, it was just over 22 kilometres.
The first hour of the hike mostly follows old lava flows, before diving headfirst into thick jungle. This is where the guide works his magic. With a machete in hand and a deep understanding of the land, you’ll push your way through tree roots and vines, hitting steep vertical runs and creeks all the way to camp.
At around the 3-4 hour mark, you’ll make it to the bamboo cross-thatched hut (West Campsite) where you’ll either be pitching the tent or rolling out some blankets for the night ahead. Use this time to re-hydrate and have lunch. This is also a great place to dump your bag, so you don’t have to carry extra weight up the volcano.
The next leg is a long one, and while you may be feeling tired from the morning on your feet, this second part is what you came here for. Right from the first step, you’ll be transported to a martian landscape, where the black ash, rugged volcanic rock and dry and slippery crust has you dumbfounded for the rest of the day.
I hiked Benbow with some friends, right in the middle of the wet season, and we were greeted with plenty of wind, clouds and torrential rain. We didn’t mind though, we were well prepared (rain jackets galore!) and really leant into the romantic and ominous vibe.
The entire view on the way up to the Benbow crater is insane. The old lava streams run like veins from the mouth of the volcano, all the way into the jungle below. There’s no vegetation at all, so you’re exposed to the elements in a big way.
At the top of Benbow, you’ll make your way around the side of the crater, before descending down to the ‘son’ and ‘nephew’ craters, as they are referred to by the locals, before making your way back to camp the same way you came.
On day two, you’ll wake early and make the 3-4 hour trek back (around 11km). Remember, going down can be hard on the knees, so do the crab walk down the steep parts to protect yourself.
Your accommodation provider, the person who organised the tour for you, will make sure there’s a ride at the end of the hike waiting for you. On the way home, you’ll be treated to a spread of fresh fruit and hand-woven gifts from the guide’s village. You’ll never be more stoked to see fresh fruit in your life.
After refreshments, you’ll make the final leg back to your accommodation. Don’t forget, there are no sealed roads on the island and the trees have low hanging branches. If you’re sitting in the tray of the ute, watch your head!
– Food – We recommend bringing your own meals and snacks for this hike. Best to pack your favourite food at home before you leave, or stock up in the supermarkets in Santo or Port Vila.
– Hiking poles – This is on my essential gear list for every hike I will ever do again. I know, I know, I’m that hiker.
– Tent – This is optional, but if you’re planning on doing a fair bit of adventuring on Vanuatu’s outer islands, you may be more comfortable in a tent. If you don’t pack a tent, they often have one handy, so be sure to ask before you head out. Otherwise, there are small bungalow-like shelters to sleep under and the porters can bring blankets on request.
– Toilet paper – Always handy. Read up on how to poo in the bush here.
– Water – The guides can carry your water, so pack a little extra. It’s hot and humid, so you’ll be sweating significantly more than usual. You need to ensure your water intake matches this. I recommend around 5L (not including water you might need for cooking if you’re packing your own food). Pack hydration tablets too!
– Mosquito repellent
How To Get There
Flights to Ambrym from Port Vila are around $250 return and the hike itself costs about $200. If you wait until you’re in Vanuatu to book your internal flights, Air Vanuatu will give you a cheeky 20% off (as long as you have a valid return ticket home with them too).
Once you’ve made it to Ambrym, I recommend staying at Ocean Blue Bay Bungalows – it’s nice and close to the airport. From here, we took a truck out to the base of the volcano early in the morning. Your hosts will arrange all of the transport to and from the airport and volcano, and will ensure you have a guide and enough porters for the trip.
Difficult, in more ways than one! The climb can certainly be a hard slog at many points, however the terrifying nature of walking on dry, crumbly ridgelines requires a certain level of skill (and courage!).
– There are currently two flights a week with Air Vanuatu in and out of Ambrym to Ulei airport, on Tuesdays and Sundays. If you’re flying with Air Vanuatu take your international ticket to the Port Vila booking office when you book to get 20% off the price of your domestic ticket. Travel expert David in the Air Vanuatu office can organise your guide and bungalow too.
– Ambrym is known for great wood carvings. Ask around for your local carver and inquire about the carvings themselves – you’ll hear some great stories. You may learn about the local cultural beliefs too – many people say Ambrym is the island of black magic.