Try­ing to get up close and per­sonal with vol­ca­noes does not scare Ge­off Mack­ley. Old age does.

New Zealan­der Ge­off Mack­ley, 51, talks about gi­ant boul­ders, lava lakes and tak­ing thrill-seek­ers to see ‘the heart­beat of the planet’

Friday - - Contents -­off­mack­

What is it you do? I take peo­ple to stand at the edge of one of world’s lava lakes – bub­bling pools of molten rock that you can find in­side a handful of vol­cano craters scat­tered around the planet. There are only half a dozen of them and up un­til I first stood at the edge of one a few years ago, no one had ever done it.

How did you get into it? I’ve had a fas­ci­na­tion with ex­treme weather and nat­u­ral events since I was a boy, when my fa­ther would lis­ten to the news and when­ever there was a storm he’d bun­dle us into the car and we’d head off in search of it. I was well aware of the dangers but was drawn to the thrill, and later, as an adult, I turned my love of it into a job when I started tak­ing video footage and pho­tos and sell­ing them around the world.

When did your fo­cus shift from storms to vol­ca­noes? In 1995 a vol­cano erupted on the north is­land here in New Zealand and I went straight there, climbed up to it and got some great footage. I got into a spot of bother be­cause it had been cor­doned off and I wasn’t sup­posed to be there, but I was hooked. The more I got into vol­ca­noes, the more fas­ci­nated I be­came, and when I found out about lava lakes I wanted to be the first per­son to get some close-up shots.

How did you go about this? I spent about 15 years and mul­ti­ple at­tempts try­ing to get down into a crater called Marum on a vol­canic is­land in Van­u­atu. It’s ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to get to, the weather’s usu­ally ter­ri­ble, and it’s dif­fi­cult to get down in­side the crater to get close to the lava lake. One of the hard­est parts is de­scend­ing 400m in­side the crater to get down to the lake, es­pe­cially with all the heavy gear and breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus you need. There’s also a con­stant worry of a rock tum­bling down and hit­ting you.

What was it like when you even­tu­ally got down there? Within a few hun­dred me­tres you can re­ally feel the heat, but when I got down to a ledge at the edge of the lava lake the heat’s al­most in­de­scrib­able. You can only stand there a few sec­onds or you’d be dead be­cause it’s over 1,000˚C. I put on my fire suit, which I got from a friend in the fire depart­ment, and with that on I could pretty much stand there in­def­i­nitely, although it still felt like be­ing in an oven.

Was it all you hoped it would be? Oh, and more. I was look­ing down at the heart­beat of the planet. You’re watch­ing some­thing so pow­er­ful that it’s turned rock to liq­uid and makes it fly through the air like it was bub­bling wa­ter. There’s noth­ing like it – it was the great­est mo­ment of my life.

How do other peo­ple re­act when they see it? Well, I’ve done a few dozen trips now and I al­ways know peo­ple are go­ing to say the same thing – that it’s the most amaz­ing thing they’ve ever done. Re­cently, we had a guy there and, while he was in the crater, a 500kg boul­der fell on him and tore a hole in his leg. We man­aged to re­pair the mess and he went down to the bot­tom to see the lake. There was no way he was go­ing to miss it.

Sounds dan­ger­ous! Well, we know what we’re do­ing and we man­age the risks the best we can. You’re not go­ing to fall into the lava, but fall­ing rocks is a dan­ger and we do ev­ery­thing we can to min­imise the risk of that.

How does be­ing in­side a bub­bling vol­cano com­pare to chas­ing tor­na­does or wait­ing for a flash flood? They’re all up there on the ex­cite­ment level, but in terms of dan­ger, you’re more likely to be in­jured in a car ac­ci­dent while chas­ing the storm or driv­ing to the vol­cano.

What’s the go­ing rate to get some­one down into the belly of a vol­cano? It de­pends on the size of the group – gen­er­ally to do a moun­tain ex­pe­di­tion like that you’re look­ing at about $50,000 (Dh183,500), which may sound hor­ren­dous, but if you can split it be­tween 10 of you it’s only $5,000 each. Bear in mind that it’ll cost you up to $100,000 to climb Ever­est, plus there have been thou­sands peo­ple to do that, whereas if you get close to a lava lake you’ll be one of just a few peo­ple to have done so. It’s an ex­clu­sive piece of real es­tate.

Which city is sit­ting on a vol­canic time bomb that you think might go off within the next 50 years? Prob­a­bly Naples in Italy: a seething city of mil­lions. Right un­der­neath it is Ve­su­vius, which is one of the most volatile vol­ca­noes in the world. There are nu­mer­ous other places, though.

Was there any way the Pom­peii tragedy could have been avoided? Well, no one can out­run a py­ro­clas­tic flow that spews out of an erupt­ing vol­cano and thun­ders down the side – they move at a cou­ple of hun­dred kilo­me­tres an hour and are a mix of 1,000-de­gree gases and boul­ders. Back then they prob­a­bly wouldn’t have known the signs that an erup­tion was im­mi­nent, whereas we would to­day – the signs are al­most al­ways a flurry of earthquakes be­fore the erup­tion.

Where are you tak­ing clients next? Prob­a­bly a lava lake in the Congo that I did a recce for on be­half of a client last year to see if it was OK to climb there. There was a shoot­ing on the moun­tain and then an­other shoot-out near the ho­tel, but apart from that, ev­ery­thing was com­pletely safe!

Does any­thing scare you? Yes, it does – the thought of old age and sit­ting in a re­tire­ment home star­ing at the ceil­ing.

The only thing that seems to frighten Ge­off is the thought of not be­ing able to go on any ad­ven­tures

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