The Dwarf with a Big Black Beard

The plane landed in Ambrym at the “airport”, which had no check in, nor baggage claim, nor security, and only three walls – it was not a triangular building. This flight, I was less enthusiastic, choosing to nap for the hour instead of taking in the scenery. We had no accommodation booked, no food, a bit of money, and a general idea that we wanted to head south, away from the village with a store (and the only place to buy beer) for a more local experience. In traditional fashion, we started walking down the dirt road, following a map that fit in the palm of my hand. After 30 minutes, we arrived at a small village of thatch roof huts and asked where we were. They said Craig Cove, which was the same town as the airport. The island was much bigger than it looked on the map.

A few of the people in the bed of the truck. The people that could hold on to something held everyone else’s hands. Pot holes were not fun.

We continued down the road, and eventually a pickup truck stopped with room for us, it was the first car we saw since we landed. They were going to Port Vato to an island wide soccer tournament for Independence Day and had nine people crammed in the bed of the truck. We arrived to about 2,000 people packed around a soccer field. We watched one game between the Port Vato team and one from Ambrym’s east side, which is only accessible by boat. The teams looked well organized with nice jerseys and cleats, which was surprising considering the absence of running water and electricity on the island. We enjoyed lunch of rice and vegetables for $1 each with fresh coconuts to drink for 20 cents from a concession hut next to the field. Since I’ve been unemployed for six months now and spent a lot of time in Tahiti with an absurd cost of living, I was ecstatic to pay local prices. When the game ended we set out to find lodging and a guide to take us up the volcano.

The most promising place to find any man in a village is in the Nakamal (Kava bar), so we stopped at the closest one to the field. The first person we talked to said he was a guide and he introduced us to another man who had a guest house. They spoke French, so Pauline negotiated with them, with the upper hand since she was sober and they were kava drunk. Although we wanted to stay with locals for free, we got our lodging for $15 a night which was good enough. Our bungalow contained two bamboo beds and with thin foam mattresses and mosquito nets hanging from the ceiling. It wasn’t luxurious, but it met our needs from a Maslow’s hierarchy perspective.

Our hiking guide met us at our accommodation at 0730 and was actually early, something unusual for Vanuatu or any of the Pacific Islands. We finished our breakfast of crackers with jam and began the hike. We walked along dried lava flows, along river beds, and up dunes of black sand. I was the pack mule carrying the bag with all of our clothes and valuables and enjoyed the extra exercise.

Working our way up a dried riverbed.

Eventually we arrived at the base camp. Our lodging for the night was a wood structure with no beds and only tarps to keep you off the sandy ground, but it had the appeal of a Hilton after the brutal four hour hike. We had a lunch of canned tuna on crackers, but before tackling the summit, we took a nap using Pauline’s bag as a pillow. At 1500, we departed for the crater. We reached the peak in a drizzle and visibility was horrible. Fortunately we passed another hiking group and their guide offered to take us again the next morning with his three clients, so we still had hope. Our guide was a little bit lazy and had as sore knee, so we jumped at the opportunity while he was happy to stay at camp and relax.

Walking towards the craters with the guide and his dogs.

That night we retreated to our cabin that we shared with four other people, all of whom were working – their clients had tents, sleeping bags, and foam to keep them off the ground. We had a thermal blanket that Pauline had in her purse for emergencies that sounded like someone opening a bag of chips at our slightest movement, all of our warm clothes – not much because we were in the tropics – and a thin blanket we borrowed from our accommodation the night before. It was a cold night and the worst part was the lack of insulation between our bodies and the frigid, hard ground, but at least we were living like the locals.

I woke up with a stiff back and could see my breath in the crisp morning air. After eating an entire package of cookies for breakfast, we started back up the mountain. We asked the guide if visibility would be better that day multiple times, and although he was confident the skies would clear, I had spent the last five months outside and knew they probably would not, but Pauline wanted to go so I begrudgingly trudged along. We continued towards the peak shroud in clouds for the second time in 15 hours.

We arrived at the top, and once again, could see nothing. We waited for about 20 minutes, wind cutting through our light jackets, and the light rain completely soaking us. Eventually the guide decided it was not going to clear, so he offered to take us to the other lower crater. We asked how long it would take and he replied 20 minutes. That seemed reasonable so we set off again.

We arrived an hour and twenty minutes later, after the guide mentioned that he was creating a new path since nobody had visited this crater since the earthquake in 2015. He stopped the group as we arrived to give us a warning. He said if he starts running, don’t take pictures or walk slowly away, RUN. That was reassuring. We learned later that nobody goes to that crater because it is unstable and tends to collapse. The crater was interesting, with white bleached sides from gases escaping and a black dried up lava lake at the bottom. There was a faint smell of sulfur escaping from the bowels of the earth. Several years ago the lake was molten orange lava, but the earthquake unfortunately caused it to dry. We took pictures for about fifteen minutes before the guide decided we had pushed our luck enough so we returned to camp. We reunited with our original guide and headed down the mountain.

The top of the second crater.

Half way down, we stopped to rest. Our guide spoke French, so Pauline was my translator. We told him that the other guide told us that the dogs barking in the night were barking at the spirit of the volcano, who apparently they can see but we cannot. The spirit is friendly, and takes care of the villagers and watches over the volcano. He laughed and said no it was probably just a wild cat, but he had seen the spirit once. He described the spirit as a dwarf with a very long black beard. Then, he asked if we knew the history of the volcano. We did not. He said there originally was no volcano on Ambrym, but there was on a nearby island. One day two villagers set out on canoes to the island. They grabbed the volcano, put it in their canoes, and brought it back to their village. However, the volcano was loud and smelled like sulfur, so the other villagers complained. The volcano thieves agreed to take it to the center of the island where it would not bother anyone. They hiked through the jungle and up the mountain, carrying the volcano the whole way and put it in its new home, where it still is today. It was clear to us that the volcano is a huge part of their tradition and culture, and they have great respect for it. We were happy to have visited, and with all the crap in my backpack I felt like I was carrying a volcano too.

The barren landscape.

That night, we went for kava with our guide and the owner of our guesthouse. We only planned to have a couple cups, but once there we met two of the three village chiefs and they kept buying rounds for me and Pauline. If they buy you one, you must buy them one, then they feel obliged to buy you one, so we ended up stuck in a cycle while Pauline tried to get them to introduce her to a sorcerer. They eventually told her if she stayed a month and learned their language, they would introduce her and she could watch the sorcerer practice magic. They were whispering the whole time they spoke about magic, it was clear that it was not a joke to them and they feared it.

We eventually broke the kava rounds cycle by saying we had to go to dinner. There was a feast near the church to honor the Port Vatu soccer team which placed fourth in the Independence Day Tournament, and we were considered part of the community now, so we enjoyed all you could eat lap lap, taro, rice, chicken, papaya, poulet fish, and more. After living on crackers for two days, the feast was more than enough to put us in a food coma so we went home early. Before bed, I checked my phone and my dad wanted me to return to Port Vila to get the boat ready for the next leg of our trip, so we decided to look into ways to leave the island in the morning.

We awoke to a breakfast of fried dough and homemade coconut marmalade, basically doughnuts but not circular. It was delicious and included in our guest house charge. After eating, I looked at flights. There were no open seats until Tuesday. That was bad since it was only Friday. We asked some villagers about the ferry and they said there was one at some point later that day. We optimistically started walking towards the biggest town and the ferry terminal, Craig Cove, while we waited for a truck to pass. Eventually a truck picked us up and we felt like we were going to make it. When we were about 30 minutes from town we saw the ferry motoring away from the island. Crap. Fortunately, a French father and son were in the truck with us and they offered to take us to Santo with them that night in their sailboat, a 10 hour sail. They had the only sailboat on the island, so it was incredibly lucky.

Weird driving a boat besides Nor’Easter.

Santo wasn’t where we wanted to go, but at least we could get a flight from there. We joined them on their Jeanneau 43 for the passage in 25-35 knots of wind and arrived in Santo to Frank Zappa on the stereo and a cloudy (but not rainy) morning. Although, we did not have a plan for most of our travel, it always seemed to work out just the way it was supposed to, kind of like life.

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7 thoughts on “The Dwarf with a Big Black Beard

      1. And you are. Knowing that i will never travel to where you have been and are headed it is a treat. No question an adventure with some unanticipated twists and turns.
        Thank you for posting and tell Hardy Hey!

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  1. More great stuff, Travis . . . Volcanoes, a soccer tournament, the Dwarf with the big black beard, a church feast, hitch-hiking in the back of strangers’ rickety trucks and a Jeanneau 43, all concluding to the tunes of Frank Zappa. Yep, just another few average days in your Nor’easter adventures. Thanks for taking us landlubbers along and continued safe journeys!

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  2. Travis, Sitting in the middle of NYC, I can only shake my head and say what crazy adventures you are having. Personally I think some of the things you do are bat shit crazy, but it’s great to read about while I sit in armchair comfort. Good on ya, mate. Stay safe.
    Best, John Dutt

    Liked by 1 person

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