'Welcome to Hell': Mt. Marum Volcano in Vanuatu Spews Lava Lake

PHOTO: ABC News Asia Producer Karson Yiu lies right on the edge of Mt. Marums crater.PlayBradley Ambrose
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Getting there was enough of an adventure.

"Put that [expletive] camera away," our helicopter pilot, Phil Cotter, shouted at me. "I can't see out of there."

Cotter had remained absolutely calm on the already bumpy ride in, humming to the '70s rock he was pumping through the helicopter's sound system. Now, however, he was finally betraying some nerves as his helicopter fought the gale-force winds.

Our destination was Mt. Marum, an active volcano on the remote island of Ambrym, in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. We were in the middle of the "Middle of Nowhere."

Watch the full story on "Nightline" TONIGHT at 11:35 p.m. ET

Cotter was trying to deliver me and an ABC News correspondent to the lip of the volcano to rendezvous with adventure cameraman Geoff Mackley, who had set up camp there a few days earlier. This was our second attempt to land. As we saw the campsite appearing out of the volcanic smog, the mountain resisted once again, and Cotter sharply peeled the chopper away.

Earlier that morning we had been waiting in Vanuatu's capital of Port Vila, located on another island, when we got a call that there was a break in the weather. Severe storms on top of Marum had confined Mackley and his team to their tents for the past three days. It was now or never.

For another 15 minutes, our small helicopter bobbed and weaved through heavy rain and winds with next-to-no visibility. And when we finally did land, on the third try, all of us in the cockpit started laughing in relief.

Then the helicopter doors flung open, and the rain started pouring in.

"Welcome to Hell," one of Mackley's team members shouted.

In what seemed like an instant, Mackley's team whisked us out of the helicopter, unloaded our gear, and Cotter took off again, disappearing into the horizon. Our only lifeline to civilization was gone.

I looked over to my correspondent, and she shot me a What-the-hell-did-you-get-me-into? look.

Mackley was our host and this "Hell" -- a barren lunar landscape of jagged edges -- was his office. The ground was volcanic sand, sharp and intrusive, and the air was suffused with the acrid and corrosive odor of sulfur dioxide. Gas masks were an everyday accessory up there. There were no signs of life other than us; only the high winds, the smog and a dull roar in the background.

PHOTOS: Descent to the Lava Lake

Mackley and his merry band of fellow New Zealanders had set up "Camp Marum" only yards away from the sheer cliff of the volcano crater. It would be our home for the next four days.

Mackley is a multi-hyphenate storm-chasing, thrill-seeking cameraman whose first love is this volcano. He travels the world chasing eruptions but keeps coming back to Mt. Marum for one reason, which I was about to see for myself.

When the rains cleared a bit, Mackley waved me over to the edge of Marum's crater and pointed below. "This is why you're here," he said in his Kiwi accent. "It's the greatest show on Earth."

I looked down and hundreds of feet directly below where we were standing was a massive of lake of lava. It was the size of two-and-a-half football fields. An angry, glowing pit of churning molten rock, or, as Mackley giddily referred to it, "the heartbeat of the Earth."

It looked almost fake, unbelievable. But when you're standing there, feeling its radiant heat against your face and listening to its low, guttural, oceanic roar, no pictures or video can match the visceral impact of being in its presence.

'Marum Is a Fickle B----'

Lava lakes are exceedingly rare. Despite our hair-raising journey to get there, Marum is considered one of the more accessible. Two larger lava lakes (Erta Ale and Nyiragongo) are in remote, conflict-ridden corners of Africa, and another is all the way down at Mt. Erebus, in Antarctica.

Mackley has been coming here for 14 years because there is one thing that eludes him: He wants to get to the very bottom and be right next to the lava.

"That's where I'm going to go," Mackley told us. "To get a shot of a human being looking like an ant on the lip of it, that will show the awesome power of Mother Nature. That's really the ultimate shot."

He came tantalizingly close last year. A few years earlier it all nearly ended in disaster. His campsite was completely destroyed by stormy weather, and his entire team had to be rescued. This time, however, he has come prepared, spending thousands of dollars hauling state-of-the-art gear up to the volcano. To get down to the lava, Mackley has also brought a team of like-minded daredevils -- professional climbers and cameramen -- and a whole lot of rope.

As we tried to take another peek at the lava, the wind suddenly picked up, and us almost along with it. It roared past as though it were being sucked into the crater. Below us the volcanic smog quickly moved in, and the lava lake disappeared.

It was as though the volcano was telling us that we had seen enough.

"Marum is a fickle b----," Mackley scoffed, looking more determined than ever. But it was clear Mt. Marum wasn't going to go down without a fight.

Watch the full story -- and find out if Geoff Mackley's team made it down to the lava -- on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 ET.

ADDENDUM: Our helicopter pilot, Phil Cotter, died Aug 26, 2011, when his helicopter crashed on an outlying island in Vanuatu. Our condolences go out to his family and friends. It was a pleasure flying with him.

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