Manam Volcano

Alex Rust

28 November 2010 | Papua New Guinea

Reed and Peter stayed with the boat (now with kids climbing all over it) while Ben and I went to shore accompanied by several natives to have presence with the ‘head counselor.’ On the way we passed copra drying stations and a disproportionally large catholic church now locked up and covered in volcanic ash. He explained how the village of 400 had been evacuated to the main island due to recent volcanic activity but because they have nowhere to go about 100 had returned (mostly women and children) for lack of food and shelter and that some were even killed by local land owners on the big island. This led straight into what he wanted most: machine guns. He was straight to the point offering us as much marijuana as we could carry in return. We tried explaining that we had no guns and had no use for marijuana but he refused to believe that we, being American, had no access to crates of machine guns which he said he desperately needed for the survival of his people.

Later while spearfishing we talked with some locals paddling by in their dugout canoes and learned the best route to climb to the peak was from their village a few miles away and we made arrangements to meet them at 5 am on a nearby point.

That night as the sun went down the cloud cover disappeared for the fist time and we could see it – an erupting volcano! The bright reds and oranges that spewed up into the air from the peak only got brighter with every passing darkening minute, however we were distracted by several banana boats full of drunk natives (recently paid for copra) insisting that we, there great American saviors who destroyed the Japanese, drink with them offering us beer after beer (unusual because beer is so expensive here). It was a little much for Reed and Peter as the natives can get quite aggressive when drinking and were all over the boat but we finally managed to clear the boat of them and turn our attention back to the erupting volcano. We decided we had to climb up and have a closer look.

We woke at 4:30 and were now even more amazed at the huge river of lave now flowing down the the side towards us though we could tell by the previous lava rivers path it would empty into the sea over a mile from us. We hopped in the dingy and went to our rendezvous point we made with our friends from the day before and hoped they would be there. It was hard to see them in the dark but when ours eyes adjusted as we took off down the jungle path it became clear that there were way more than the two we had met the previous day. Apparently word had gotten out that we were going on a climb the volcano and when we approached the village everyone was awake to wish us off and we shook hands with them like victorious politicians. I may have even kissed a baby or two.

I thought the small crowd we had gathered were with us just to the village edge but after an hour of hard jungle hiking with a machete man hacking away in the lead I still counted 16 natives giving Reed, Ben and I a little more than 5 guides each to entertain us along the way. We came to a small clearing of several coconuts trees each with a height of around 80 feet and was surprised to see one boy take off up the tree (no branches and just using hands and feet) and in one minute was at the top throwing down coconuts. We learned he was deaf and mute which him an interesting choice to send up the tree for when one man shouted he was going under the tree to collect some of the coconuts the boy kept throwing them down nearly hitting the man in the head and killing him.

When he was finished our group went in to action gathering the coconuts taking only seconds to husk each and with a few effortless swings of the machete had us drinking the sweet water they carried. From here we learned from an elder man that the children must go no further and we were to proceed at our own risk stating that the official word from Rabaul (the other active volcano in PNG and research center) was that no person was to go near the area we were about to enter. We told him we understood and continued on through the thick bush blazing our trail up and down the steep valleys and sometimes having to backtrack. There was so much ash on the foliage and the jungle so thick that when our sweaty bodies finally emerged the ash was stuck to our skin making us appear as black as the natives.

Reaching the ash plain we could now go straight up to the top but with no trail and the crumbling volcanic rock beneath our feet each near vertical step we took had to be taken with caution as not to fall or cause an avalanche. It was exhausting and every several hundred feet of accent required a break to catch our breaths. After two more hours up the rock we had reached the lower level of the clouds. It started to rain. We were now close enough to hear the rumble from the belly of the beast but the clouds blocked all view of lava we knew was spewing from the top and running down the other side. All the locals were now quite frightened (they actually ducked and some ran with each explosion) and pleaded with us to turn back. They said we were now beyond where some Israelis had made it to in 1996 (the last people to attempt the climb besides a Greek man who didn’t make it) and the leader kept repeating ‘dis place we die’ so with some reluctance we turned back.

When we got back to the boat there was a barge loading copra on and when they tried to pull out one of our lines from our stern anchor got caught in their prop. Peter and I went to untangle it but I must admit I was very scared with my arms between a prop larger than me with the engine still running (i tried telling them to turn it off but they didn’t understand.) Soon thereafter I went to refill our containers with drinking water when we noticed a lot of commotion and yelling from the village and all the copra workers seemed to be involved. I saw a man run before me towards the shouting men with a spear in hand ready throw like a javilon. Another was running with an ax and even more with machetes but they all disappeared behind the palm foliage obstructing our vision but not our hearing. I was approached and told to return to my boat and that ‘dis be ova kwik.’ Eventually all was quiet but i’m not sure everyone lived.

That night before setting sail we stared up in awe from the deck of the boat as the volcano erupted. We could see a huge river of lava creating glowing bright red cascades that must have been freefalling several hundred feet and some neon orange truck size rocks thrown out of the top smashing themselves a thousand feet below into a fireworks display. If you needed a real place to film the ‘gates of Mordor’ this was it. We sailed away a could still see the glow of the beast hours out to sea.

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Madang Madam (35)
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Madang Madam (46)
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