Ambrym, Vanuatu

The island of Ambrym owes its name to Captain Cook who anchored off there in 1774. It means “here are yams” (ham rim in Ranon language). It is one of the larger islands in Vanuatu, is well known for its highly active volcanoes and their dominatingly wide caldera. The the black, volcanic sand, sea shores stand out against Ambrym’s lush vegetation. Located near the center of the long Vanuatuan archipelago, Ambrym is roughly triangular in shape, about 50 km wide. It is the fifth largest island in the country. The population of 7,275 inhabitants lives mainly off coconut plantations in the three corners of the island.

Ambrym is a large basaltic volcano with a 12-km-wide caldera, and one of the most active volcanoes of the New Hebrides volcanic arc. The caldera is the result of a huge plinian explosion, which took place around 50 AD. Its explosive force is rated 6, the second highest in the Smithsonian Institution's Volcanic Explosivity Index ranks of the largest volcanic explosions in recent geological history. The massive, 1900-year-old, 12 kilometres × 8 kilometres caldera is the site of two active volcanic cones, Benbow and Marum. While at higher elevations cinder cones predominate, the western tip of the island is characterized by a series of basaltic tuff rings, of which the largest is about 1 kilometre in diameter. These were produced by phreatic eruptions when magma contacted the water table and water-saturated sediments along the coast.

There were fatalities in two eruptions at Ambrym. In 1894, six people were killed by volcanic bombs and four people were overtaken by lava flows. In 1913, 21 people were killed during an explosive eruption. Successive eruptions in 1913, 1929, 1937, 1946, 1950 and 1979 caused a lot of damage. The villages to the south were evacuated and the people settled on Efate (at the village of Melemaat). The lava flows and ash dust which surround the two volcanoes give the landscape a moon-like aspect. Acid rainfall in 1979 burned some of the inhabitants. Local water supplies were contaminated and had a pH of 5.2-5.5

The highlight of any visit to Ambrym is viewing of a Rom dance, which is usually only performed during grade-taking ceremonies or men’s secret society meetings. It involves near-naked musicians and dancers clad in dry banana leaves and wooden masks, dancing in a mesmerizing fashion. Ambrym is famous for its magnificent drums carved from tree trunks. The dancing areas in the traditional villages are decorated with these slit gongs, planted in the ground, which can measure several metres high. They are used to beat the rythm for the singing and dancing during ceremonial rituals.

The striking Rom dance is held every year in Northern Ambrym and is followed by a pig-killing ceremony. It is exclusively a male event and kept very secret. The masks which are made specially for this event are superb.The outfits worn for the dance are destroyed immediately it is finished so the spirits won't haunt the dancers. The Rom festival relates to the yam harvest and planting. Yam and taro are food staples in Vanuatu. Today it appears to be a tourist event for us, but none the less spectacular

The drums started beating and Rom Dancers appeared wearing colorful and elaborate masks and costumes made from long banana leaves. They hold conical shaped carvings symbolizing weapons. Then the dancers appear forming an inner circle which consisted of men and young boys (learning) wearing only a banana leaf sheath in front and other colorful leaves over their bottoms. They stamped their feet and chanted a rythmic chant. They slowly progressed towards us, taking around an hour to cover the 200 metres from the point where we first saw them. All one heard was a repeated chant and the beat of the drums. It was hypnotic, and I feel that the dancers were on some sort of narcotic, probably betal nut

The chief, adorned with the highly valued boar's tusks (used to buy wives) supervises the ceremony. Having eventually reached us, they suddenly broke off and ran away into the jungle

After the dance, we made our way along the beach to the main village where we got to spend to wander through the village houses. There were some beautiful artefacts for sale with some very delicate carvings: heads, statues and even wooden hanging fruit bats.

The Chef came ashore to buy some local products such as tomatoes, papaya and mango. We then headed back to Silver Discoverer for lunch and the Captain weighed anchor to head for Tanna Island.

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The walk along the black sand beach led to the village. And yes, they did carve the wodden goods for sale, and did not by them from the Chinese. The sacred totem that was the seal of office of the chief, was interetingly used to prop closed the door of his outside toilet. Lighhting was by the simple, but effective, means of small solat powered lights, that were charged up during the day. Canoes were of the simple dugout variety. The local school had up the motto - "Prosperity grows in Education"

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On to Tanna Island

South Seas Holiday