A dream ….
I'm sitting on the edge of an old crater.
A couple of hundred meters away the volcano
blasts lava fountains high in the air.
On the left the lava streams by slowly.
The heat is unbearable.
A dream ….
We've always had a "warm" interest in volcanoes. Over the years we have visited or even climbed a number of them: Poas, Rincon, Irazu and Arenal in Costa Rica, Mayon and Taal in the Philippines, Osorno in Chili and for this fall, visits are planned to Haleakala, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Kilauea with the active Pu`u `O`o crater on Hawaii. It's not unusual then that when the news is that the Etna became active again on July 17th, the evolution of this eruption is keenly followed. The internet in particular, turns out to be a great source of information. The next 2 satellite pictures were taken from the web: the left one shows a belch of ash, the right one various eruption sources.
One quickly discovers a site that covers the evolution of the eruption on a daily basis: (http://boris.vulcanoetna.com/ETNA_news.html ) and then heading the site www.videobank.it there is a livecam with spectacular streaming video and sound of the eruption.
Once the activity is sustained for more than a couple of days the idea strikes to take a look on the spot. It would be crazy: on the one hand to be willing to travel thousands of miles and hope to get a glimpse of an active volcano on Hawaii and then not to visit an eruption which is happening "just around the corner"! The internet is searched for vacant hotel rooms and as the situation on Sicily is not very clear, booking a hotel room in Nicolosi (the village that is threatened by the lava stream) would seem to be defying the Gods. Having looked without luck for a suitable accommodation in Catania, about 30 km from the Etna, we turn our search to an hotel on the slopes of the volcano, finally find a room in Viagrande, about 10 km east from Nicolosi.
On July 31st we fly to Catania. Luckily the airport had re-opened that day, having closed because of rains of ash. Arriving
at the airport, the mountain was barely visible, probably due to the amount of ash in the air. Since the Etna is 3300 metres high and has a diameter of 200 km
down the slopes, you just can't miss it in the mostly flat landscape.
Despite the ash in the air, we see blue skies and the temperature is 35 degrees Celsius.
We set off for the way to the hotel.
What strikes is the enormous amount of ash everywhere
(see the difference with the cleaned road in the picture on the right).
A look at the traffic sign shows that this is nothing new.
An airport employee tells us to drive to Piano Provenzale high on the North East side of the mountain. There the road leads through enormous lava fields: a reminder of previous eruptions.
En route we get a much better idea of the volcanic activity. As we had
already read on the website there are eruptions on five different locations. One
of the craters in particular, high on the mountain, explodes violently. Did the
website mention explosions every 5 to 30 minutes, now it's more every 5 to 30
seconds! Every explosion causes a huge ash cloud. Absolutely spectacular!
Unfortunately Piano Provenzale is located too high on the slopes to offer a good view of the activity closer to the summit and as it's about dinnertime (for us that is, Sicilians like to dine from 22:30 and we would have starved by then) we head back in the direction of Viagrande and look for a bite on the way. Between Milo and Zafferane we find a restaurant with a terrace that offers a beautiful view of the explosive crater. After sunset we notice that more than simply ash is being disgorged. Slowly the view unfolds into a spectacle of enormous lava fountains blown high in the air with every explosion and with pieces of lava rock falling down the slopes of the ashcone. We also notice two lava flows on the side of the mountain.
If we had any doubts coming here beforehand: this spectacle alone made our trip worthwhile. The activated camcorder is put on the table and we eat our pizza while gazing at this fabulous view. Eventually we drive back to our hotel. Even from there the lava flows are visible with explosions at times louder than the not-so-silent air-conditioning.
In the middle of the night I am vigorously waken up by Carla: "Wake up, wake
up!! There's an alarm, listen!"
Carla jumped out of bed, ran to the aircon and shut it down so we could hear.
What follows is a deadly silence ……
I die of laughter.
The next morning we drive to Nicolosi to find out if it is possible to get
close to the lava flow.
In the town itself – contrary to press bulletins – there's no sign of panic. People seem to be enjoying the event and in the town centre the atmosphere is relaxed. Just outside town we encounter a police road block and leave the car behind to continue on foot. An hour and four kilometres later we encounter a second road block which prevents further passage even on foot. To our surprise there's no curious crowd gathered here at all. Only a couple of interested tourists.
Ash rains continually and here the path of the lava flow is clearly visible at no more than a kilometre away.
Extraordinary – or just the contrary – is the fact that the active lava flow looks like an old cooled flow, you really have to look hard to spot some orange glow. This is not quite the orange stream you see on the Hawaiian documentaries.
All in all we still think we are much too far away.
On the side of the road is an old flow which helps us go a little bit closer, but it's still far away. When a couple walks this flow obviously intending to circle the road block and continue on the road leading up the mountain we watch closely for the reaction of the Italian police: none. A little bit later we are also "back on the road"....
Arriving at a crossroad and in doubt which way to go a couple of road workers
(oh yes, here people continue working, close to the lava flow and in the rains
of ash) show us the way and tell us that all the way up could be another 14
kilometres or so.... We continue for now.
As the road passes through woods we're no longer able to see the position of the lava flow.
After a while we spot some smoke rising on the right side and get the feeling that we are walking along the flow without seeing it.
Carla notices some fire fighters near a path in the woods and we decide to have a look. We encounter an Italian couple who tell us that the lava flow is behind the next hill, but that it's extremely dangerous to go there because of the risk of fire. We know better than to go there, but still continue.
On the other side of the hill we notice the lava flow about 50 metres below us and realise that the situation is extremely dangerous indeed. We're on a hill in the midst of undergrowth, below us the lava flow has collided with the hill, strong winds are blowing exactly in our direction and we hear sounds from below which are hard to define but might be from burning wood. Here it would be very easy to become toast. Carla takes a couple of pictures, I activate the camcorder for 15 seconds or so and than we start running. Puh.
We head back to our car. It's getting late and since we didn't plan a long trip, we only brought water.
On the way back we cross a dirt track where another couple of road workers gesture that we should follow the dirt track and indeed a few hundred metres on, the road is blocked by a ten to fifteen metres high wall of lava.
At first we think that this is an old lava flow, until we see smoke! We're actually on the cooler side of the active flow, that has reached the hill and made a right turn.There's no glowing lava in sight, only smoke. We are very happy to spot some fruittrees and have something to eat at last. Under the steady rains of ash we slowly become like chimney cleaners after a hard day's work. Finally, we take the road back, withour even avoiding the road block. The police do not react and why should they? There's no point stopping anybody coming from that side...
Just past the roadblock we meet some Dutch people, who tell us that when you drive past Nicolosi and take a right turn, you actually can drive your car up to the second road block. Shit! Than we did not have had to walk that 4 km and even worse would not have had to walk this 4 km back. Still it's good to know what's possible. They also told us that they had dinner in a restaurant in the neighbourhood, where the owner offered to take them up the mountain. He has family living there and may pass the road block.
Very jealous we start walking the long way back to our car.
After another disturbed night we need rest and decide to spend the day on the beach. Wherever we go: Etna and it's towering column of ash are visible.
In the evening we return – this time without walking 4 kilometre – to the
viewpoint at the road block near Nicolosi. In the dark, the lava flows glow
orange and the columns of smoke we saw during the day are transformed into lava
fountains. It's a really great sight!
A couple of hours later it's dinnertime again. We consider visiting the restaurant we heard about yesterday, but decide otherwise and settle for a cosy restaurant in Nicolosi.
Carla puts our travel guidebook, showing a picture of the Etna, on the table: "you never know, someone might react". Since that "someone" does not appear we crack our head as to what to do in order to get a better view without walking the 14 kilometres up the mountain.
Just after eleven two men enter the restaurant. Their black faces show that they could not exactly have visited the beach today. They sit down a couple of tables away and we overhear some German words and a telephone call in Italian. We get the feeling that it might not hurt to have a chat with these gentlemen.
When the restaurant becomes quieter we walk to their table and ask in German whether we would be right in thinking that they are visiting the Etna professionally and if they might know a way to get a closer look at the eruption.
After a first surprised look, followed by some big smiles, they tell us that they are volcanologists and that the road up the mountain is closed except for police, fire-fighters, some local inhabitants and of course volcanologists.
When we repeatedly ask if there is really no possibility, we get the answer: "The only thing you can try is circle the road block and continue on the road up the mountain for 15 kilometres. Tourists have absolutely no chance of passing with a car." Well that was nothing new. We thank them and leave a bit disappointed.
Outside the restaurant and chatting about this meeting we cannot give up the
idea that more should be possible. …..We go back inside and ask the two men if
they could take us with them on their next visit to the eruption. After an even
more surprised look than before, followed by even bigger smiles they think it
over for a moment and then agree under the condition that they would only pick
us up from a location beyond the road block.
We leap for joy and are invited to their table. The gentlemen introduce themselves as Peter Ippach and Boris Behncke . Boris Behncke lives in Catania and has studied the Etna for 12 years now. Peter Ippach is a friend and colleague from Germany who is visiting Boris for a couple of days. We make an appointment for the next afternoon 15:00. It's a close call, as the day after tomorrow Boris was leaving for Toscane and Peter returning to Germany, so they will only make one more visit which will be to the eruption on 2100 meters which – so they say – is best approached from the Zafferana side.
It turns out that roads up Etna start at Nicolosi as well as Zafferana and
both sides meet somewhere in the middle at the tourist complex Rifugio Sapienza.
There, however, the lava flow has crossed the road. We get an extensive update
on the current eruption status and are told that tomorrow they will be
accompanied by a Dutch geologist. Just to make sure – you never know what
happens – Peter gives us his mobile phone number. Lucky for us, Carla brought
her GSM! Pfff, we are really very fortunate to have met these two gentlemen.
All this excitement causes a really bad night's sleep.
The next morning we take it easy, buy some bread and have an extensive brunch near Zafferana. There's very little wind which means there's also very little ash in the air, but then it's also very hot. We talk about how long we will stay up there – Peter and Boris tell us that they will only be returning late in the evening – so shall we walk down or do we wait for them to take us? Of course the view is probably at it's best when it's dark. We can't decide and so leave it to chance. With no idea how close we're going to be and it could be said that there was no real danger though we still had the shivers.
At 14:00 I call Peter to check if the appointment is still on: Yes it is.
14:15. At Zafferana we drive the road up the mountain. Just before we arrive at the roadblock there's a side path into the woods. Well that makes it really easy for us! We park the car on the side path, circle the roadblock through the woods until we are back on the road and sit on the side just around a corner, so we are not visible from the checkpoint.
14:45. We are really on time.
15:00. Nobody in sight.
15:15. They must be a little bit late.
15:30. Will they have fooled us? If they are still not here at 16:00 I'm gonna call Peter again.
15:35. A car is coming – nobody we know.
15:40. Again a car is coming: this time it's Peter's green van, with a Fiat Panda behind. When Peter spots us, he points his finger at us and cries out of the window to the Panda "there are these Dutch Volcanofreaks". We don't deny anything and get in the van.
Steady it goes up the mountain. There's a lot of ash on the road so the
hairpins have to be driven carefully. After 15 minutes we are already very happy
not to have walked all this way. The distance to those smoking craters
diminishes with the minute. After lots of bends we suddenly see a very steep
hill on the right, with a couple of people on top and just behind them an
enormous column of smoke. It looks awfully dangerous and I nudge Carla and point
at those idiots that really must have a death wish. The next moment we're told
to leave the car. We're almost at the top and it's better if nobody sees that we
had hitched a ride.
So we walk the last corner... and are on the spot where the lava flow has crossed the road. On the left some cars are parked and among them the van and the Panda. On the right is the steep hill and in front ….. nothing but streaming lava. Dazed we walk to the flow. What's the width? 200 metres? 300 metres? The heat is not as fierce as might be expected. On the other side shovels try to keep the lava away from the Rifugio Sapienza. The air above the lava is shimmering and visibility is blurred. On the right a house is half submerged.
Wow, it's hard to believe that we're standing here just beside the flow. How close did we want it!
Just as we have recovered from the shock, Peter approaches: "Will you join us?"
"You mean ….."
"But isn't that very dangerous?" (near Nicolosi we were warned of falling lava rock, and that was kilometres from here!)
"Well no, it's not dangerous"!
And before we realise it we are climbing a steep path up the hill to "the idiots up there". We are glad that the path is a couple of metres wide, because the lava flows here just beside the hill, slipping here won't be fun.
It's a long climb up through the loose lava sand. The rains of ash are a lot thicker here than near Nicolosi and those towering ash columns look threatening. The heavy breathing/moaning sounds from above, every now and then accompanied by an explosion, makes the whole scenery not exactly reassuring.
Finally we reach the top of the hill and have an overview: the hill is not a hill but the edge of a crater from a previous eruption. The top of the edge is between one and two metres wide, pretty small in comparison with the height (100 metres?). But what really takes our breath is the view of another crater some 150 metres away. From here comes an enormous column of smoke and we see lava pouring down. You can actually hear the lava boil inside the crater and from time to time there's an explosion which hurles a lot of stones in the air that come down with dull thuds in a layer of ash a couple of centimetres thick.
Hmmm, when one of these explosions is a little bit heavier we can expect something from above…...
In the meantime it's past five o'clock.
No way we could have a quick look and then leave. This spectacle is
unimaginable, what would it look like when its dark and the lava flow is
An Italian volcanologist descends from the crater's edge and approaches the flow below (picture on the left). The side of the flow has cooled and doesn't move anymore. A bit further on, however, you can see the lava moving by slowly. The Italian seems to defy fate by testing where she "still can stand". Everybody thinks she's totally crazy. The lava has a temperature of 1200 degrees Celsius, so one miscalculation and her footing would be lost.
We sit down on the crater's edge and in the middle of heavy rains of ash, poisoned gasses, threatening sounds and explosions we absorb the pictures.
From time to time a whirlwind is created above the lava flow, which every now and then also reaches our position and causes a small dust storm.
A couple of hours (!) later the sun sets.
Carla takes pictures and I operate – under an umbrella - the camcorder.
Long before it's completely dark, the lava starts to glow orange. Now too we see that the explosions are accompanied by lava fountains. This is incredible to witness so close.
Viewing is not the correct word here. This is the ultimate experience.
How was it again?
A dream ….
I'm sitting on the edge of an old crater.
A couple of hundred meters away the volcano
blasts lava fountains high in the air
On the left the lava streams by slowly..
The heat is unbearable.
A dream ….
We stayed on that crater's edge for over five hours.
And that website that made us travel to Italy turns out to be built by ….. Boris.
Carla & Henk
Many thanks to David Glassey for the correction of the English Version.