(Kokamo was recently anchored off the
smoking volcanoes of Ambrym at 16:09.08S 168:06.45E)
Despite almost slipping on the slick
wood of the stile, Dr Beard was thankful he had donned his trusty walking boots:
laces trussed around his ankles, woolen socks pulled up to his calves.
Despite being early June, the weather was living up to its promise on every
field trip he ran. Form 4B was cloaked in dripping wet cloud as they made their
way uphill beside a fast running stream destined for Ullswater, whose outline
lurked in the white-grey clag below.
Newbald was keeping up a pathetic
line of sheep related jokes, aimed at the usual defenceless targets walking at
the front of the class.
"Newbald!" cried Beard, "If you had
even the slightest grasp of the subject we're meant to be engaged in here, you'd
know that the Lake District is in England, not Wales."
He immediately regretted stooping to
any kind of involvement. "Still got lots of stupid sheep, sir," retorted
Newbald, lobbing an orange intended for measuring the flow rate of the stream at
one of sodden animals. Then the inevitable imbecilic snigger
Not for the first time lately, Beard
couldn't help asking himself what he was doing here? Why exactly was he
trying to cajole half of a bunch of fifteen year old boys to stick
flow rate impellers into a brook on this godforsaken Cumbrian hillside,
while the other half timed a floating orange? It had once been so
He suddenly recalled climbing through
wet cloud on a very different occassion, on the otherside of the world - a
flash back to a more exotic existence.
"I remember a day a little like this
- albeit a bit warmer - on a very different kind of hill," he
"It wouldn't be in the South Seas
would it, sir?" ventured Wristhley in mock surprise, followed by a chorus
of stifled giggles. But Wilks edged nearer, biro paused over
clipboard with its useless, wet paper. God, Wilks could be an
irritating swot, but at least he'd listen to a story.
"We'd sailed to an island in Vanuatu
called Ambrym, with the hope of climbing up one of its volcanos. But the
weather was terrible - rain and strong winds. We had 35 knots and big
seas as we crossed the few miles of open sea to the north of the
island. My sister had just come out from England, and we joked she might
as well have stayed behind."
"Anyway, the next morning things had
improved a bit, so we decided to attempt to walk up the most nearest volcano -
Mount Marum, about 11 kilometres inland and 1000 metres above the boat anchored
in the bay. A man in the village - Ruben I think he was - offered to
be our guide, but explained that there was currently a tabu on climing to
the summit. It was the yam planting season, you see,
and some Chiefs believed that if they angered the volcano it
would send its ash to spoil the yam crop."
"What's a yam, sir?" asked
a quiet voice. "Well, you know Wilks. A tuber, like a long root
vegetable. Staple diet in the South Seas. Haven't I taught you
"Doh, Wilks!" That brainless
child Harrington again.
"This chap Ruben said he could take
us as far as the ash plain, and no further. So the four of us set off
through the gardens above the village, past planted taro, banana... Yes,
Wilks, taro is another root crop... then climbing steeply through the
uncultivated bush. Suddenly the spur we were ascending stopped short, and
dropped down on to the dark grey, crunchy expanse of the ash
"For an hour we walked across the
ash, only climbing very gently. But at the same time the cloud base came
back down, and very soon we were cloaked in a soggy white mist, just like this
His eyes roamed the truncated
horizon. Tightly grazed grass and wind swept gorse and bracken - maybe not
so similar after all. Deciding to ignore Brown using his clip board as a
shield against Newbald improvising a foil with his flow rate meter, Dr
Beard allowed his reverie to continue.
"But once we reached the end of the
ash plain, Ruben glanced up at the ever thickening clould, and seeming to think
it might disguise a minor transgression of the tabu, suggested we could continue
to the top after all."
"We plunged into an deep cut ravine,
where wet season run off had eroded the steep hill back to its bare lava shell,
climbing steeply upwards over big ledges and through shallow pools overhung by
wild cane, the first plants to able colonise such a rough environment,
and wet to the skin with the increasing precipitation." Beard gazed at the
gentle Cumbrian stream, as if the contrast might awaken the old
"Once we reached the head of the
gulley, we clambered up on the ridge above, a knife edge retained in the ash
layers of the cone itself, and followed its forty-five degree incline to the
very lip of the crater rim. As we approaced we could hear deep whooshing
noise, like a massive fan, loose on its bearings."
"Was it alive sir?" gasped his one
devoted listener. "You mean 'was the volcano active' I
assume, Wilks? Of course it was. This is the South Pacific, not
the extinct hummocks of the Lake District."
Wilks, a little crestfallen at his
naivety, still looked suitably impressed.
"As we leant against the wind and
rain on the cusp, looking down into the crater itself, we could see vivid red
rock, protruding in jagged formations from the near vertical bowl, plunging
downwards into the white cloud and grey smoke. We strained our eyes, but
could not see beyond the blanket to the source of the noise. And then, for
just a few seconds, the cloud parted enough to see half a red lake a
hundred metres down, glowing back at us, and we felt the heat of the boiling
lava on our faces."
Wilks stood gaping. Upstream
the shouts of half the class taunting a boy who'd got his welly stuck in a bog
before falling flat on his face swiftly broke the spell.
"Wristhley. What do you make
the water velocity then?"
"Erm... er... about 0.4 meters per
...erm... what is it...second or something? But then I lost my orange
"Ok, right chaps. Newbald, give
Dawson back his wellington boot. Now! Let's get back to the
[Dr Beard makes this return to the
blog by popular request. Tom has not completely lost his mind in the final
weeks of our cruise, and has not determined to return and undertake a doctorate
in Geography. Yet...]