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’
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