For the last decade-and-a-half, a burning question has consumed Geoff Mackley: How would it feel to stand at the edge of the lava lake on Mt. Marum and stare into the heaving mass of molten rock? Now he knows the answer.
“It looks like the surface of the sun,” he says over the radio to his right-hand man, Bradley Ambrose, who is perched 330 feet above him on a rocky overhang, capturing the moment on film. “It’s like my wildest dreams.”
Marum, on Ambrym Island, is the fifth-largest land mass in the Republic of Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. It is home to one of the world’s few persistently active lava lakes. A lava lake is a large, permanent volume of molten rock bubbling away in a crater or vent.
Since 1997, Mackley has spent close to $420,000 on expeditions to Ambrym to figure out a way to rappel down the 1,300-foot vertical cliff to the lava lake.
“I’ve been here 13 or 14 times now,” says Mackley, “and the footage and pictures we got this time, I’ve had in my mind’s eye for 15 years. On some of the early trips we carried our gear up the mountain, sat in our tents in torrential rain for weeks, and left without seeing anything. I’ve learned from previous expeditions and tried not to make the same mistakes.
“When we first went there it was tents and equipment that failed, so now we use the highest-quality gear. But the failure has usually been down to people. People go crazy up there.”
With Mackley on this trip were fellow New Zealanders Bradley Ambrose and Nathan Berg, and American filmmaker Rui Cavender, who piggybacked on the expedition. Ambrose, a freelance cameraman, met Mackley at a fatal car-crash scene a few years ago and started working with him. This was the 36-year-old’s fourth trip to Ambrym.
Berg was washing dishes in a café when Ambrose, whose stepson is Berg’s best friend, asked him if he’d be interested in visiting a volcano. The 18-year-old, who’d never been out of the country before, jumped at the opportunity.
“I was cheap labor I guess,” laughs Berg, “plus I’m fit, I work hard, and I do what I’m told.”
The three Kiwis arrived in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, at the end of June and were joined by Cavender a week later. A combination of bad weather and their freight company losing some crucial gear meant they didn’t board the helicopter to take them to the top of Marum until mid-July. With them on that chopper they carried over one and a half tons of equipment and a considerable amount of pressure to get the money shot.
“On the last trip two years ago we got some reasonably good pictures,” says Mackley, whose cameramen that time were two climbers who got to within 165 feet of the lava lake. “The only way to outdo that was to get closer to the lava.”
Getting close to the action is something that Mackley has been doing since he started working as a TV news cameraman more than 20 years ago.
Fires and car crashes were his stock-in-trade, until 1995 and the eruption of Mt. Ruapehu, a volcano on New Zealand’s north island. Mackley hiked up the mountain for five hours through thick snow to get shots that sold around the world. A U.K. production company bought 15 minutes of his Ruapehu footage, paying him $20 per second, or $18,000, for his troubles.
It was a eureka moment for Mackley, who carved out a new career traveling the world to film extreme events in dangerous places.
The 48-year-old has since chased storms across America, captured the devastation of the tsunami in Indonesia, and covered the war in Afghanistan, but volcanoes are his passion.
In 1997, the Discovery Channel commissioned him to make a TV series called Volcano Detectives. During filming, Mackley visited one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Mt. Yasur on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. While he was there, the locals told him about a huge lake of lava on the island of Ambrym.
“The people I was with were like, ‘Bullshit,’ ” says Mackley. “If there were a lava lake, everyone would know about it and it would be a massive tourist attraction. I soon found out why it wasn’t.”
Mackley couldn’t afford to hire a helicopter, so he climbed the 4,376-foot mountain. When he got to the top, he found that a recent earthquake had buried the lava lake in a pile of rocks. “There were just a few puffs of smoke coming out,” says Mackley.
A few months later, he heard that the lava had re-emerged, and so he went for another look. “Sure enough, there it was, at the bottom of an enormous hole in the ground,” says Mackley. “We had terrible weather, and you could only see it for a matter of seconds between the rain, but even then I knew I wanted to get to the bottom. I knew what was waiting for me and I also knew how hard it was going to be to get down there. I’ve taken people to Ambrym who’ve climbed Everest and they’ve looked over the edge and said, ‘I’m not going down there.’ I wasn’t taking no for an answer.”
There are other lava lakes around the world, but, according to Mackley, they are dangerously volatile. The pulsing, boiling molten rock in this lava lake, which reaches temperatures of up to 2,282°F, has remained at the same level since Mackley first started coming here.
“The lava lake at Marum isn’t erupting,” he says. “The pressure is being released in a very stable manner. Most other volcanoes you can’t get close to, because you don’t know what they’re going to do next.”
So how does Mackley know what Marum is going to do next? “I don’t really,” he admits, “but it’s easy to look and see where the lava has been recently. If you go any closer than that, you’re stupid.”
The top of the volcano where Mackley set up camp is a flat ash plain, 7.5 miles across and completely devoid of life. A short stroll from the campsite is a ridge line, from which the lava lake can be peered down to, some 1,312 feet below. Even from that distance, the cauldron of lava, which is roughly 650 feet in diameter -- the size of more than two football fields -- is an incredible sight.
“It’s just mesmerizing,” says Ambrose. “It’s like a living creature.”
Seven tents were home to Mackley and his motley crew for the duration of their stay on the mountain: One each for the crew, a mess tent, a tent for the guide and the generator, and a shelter where they cooked, watched movies, and tried to keep each other sane as the weather messed with their schedules and their heads. A combination of the altitude, the heat, and the gases from the volcano gives Ambrym its own weather system.
“We probably got five good days while we were up there,” says Ambrose. “It’s like living in a cloud.”
“It might be fine and sunny across the Pacific, but it will be pissing down on top of the mountain,” explains Mackley. “If we had good weather, we could have been in and out in a week.”
The bad weather turned a costly exercise into a very expensive one; around $67,300, estimates Mackley. The initial plan was to spend no more than 20 days on the mountain. Instead they were up there for 38 days. That meant more money on supplies, more money for the helicopter pilot to fly in the supplies, and more money for the local village of Ranvetlam.
“We could get a helicopter to the top of the volcano and not pay anyone, but that would be silly because you’re on a remote island surrounded by people with guns and machetes,” says Mackley. “You’ve got to align yourself with a village and have guides from that village with you. They’re not really guides. They’re there to keep the peace.”
Mackley had previously dealt with the village of Lalinda, on the opposite side of the volcano to Ranvetlam. That relationship soured a few years ago after the villagers hid most of his gear and held it for ransom for a ridiculous sum of money. On this trip, a Lalinda villager rang Mackley’s pilot and threatened to shoot down his helicopter if it flew over Lalinda airspace.
However, the biggest threat on Ambrym is not from angry locals but from the volcano itself. “Everything up there is slowly trying to kill you,” says Mackley. Some nights the crew members were forced to wear gas masks when they slept, as the wind blew a nasty cocktail of toxic gases over the campsite.
Other times, the hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide belching out of the volcano mixed with rainwater to produce acid rain strong enough to burn skin. The locals call Marum the “Entrance to Hell.” Mackley agrees with their otherworldly sentiments: “There definitely are times when you think, ‘I shouldn’t be down here.’ ”
Harsh weather and low visibility made filming and climbing impossible most of the time. When the weather cleared, the crew set up the ropes and rock bolts for the descent and worked out a route to get Mackley, Ambrose, and the camera gear to the bottom of the 1,300-foot cliff.
Mackley went down first, on a 650-foot rope -- half the size of the cliff -- setting bolts in the rock at regular intervals. Just before his rope ran out, he found a 30-foot-wide ledge, which gave him space and time to scope out the second half of the descent. Meanwhile, Ambrose lowered another 650-foot rope to Mackley and carried down some of the camera gear. Before they could attempt to rappel down the second rope, the weather took a turn for the worse and it rained every day for almost two weeks, confining the crew to their tents or odd jobs around the campsite.
It was August 10, day 45 of the expedition, before Mackley got an opportunity to find out what lay at the end of the second rope. After a two-hour descent, he made it to the floor of the crater and ran 165 feet from the base of the cliff to a ledge just 100 feet above the pulsating lava lake. Wearing only a T-shirt and cargo pants, he lasted five or six seconds before the intense heat forced him to retreat.
“I didn’t expect to make it to the bottom that day,” he says, “but after 15 years of trying, there was no way I was not going to run to the edge once I found my way down.”
The following day the weather gods smiled on Mackley, and, wearing a heat suit and breathing apparatus, he stayed at the edge of the lava for three-quarters of an hour, watching the dazzlingly bright orange and red molten rock. (The spectacular footage Mackley and his team took was viewed over 2 million times just days after it was uploaded to the Internet. Since his return, Mackley has been approached by the BBC and TV stations in South Korea and Japan, hoping to go back to Ambrym with him and do it all again.)
“I was in la-la land at that stage,” says Mackley of his 45-minute experience at the end of a 15-year dream. “By the time I got to the bottom, I was so exhausted and hot and dehydrated I could barely think straight. And the noise: It’s like the sound of an angry ocean, but 10 times louder. I stayed there until my air ran out. I didn’t want to leave because it was so spectacular. The greatest show on Earth.
Check out the March 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands February 12) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.