It was a lovely clear Sicilian morning when I made the perverse decision to take a trip up Mount Etna. I began to wonder why as the coach zig-zagged up the narrow road through the lava-strewn lower levels of this 3323m (10,902.2 feet) mountain which also happens to be the world’s biggest active volcano.
It is pretty enough from the distance, I decided, looking at the fumes rising from its two principle craters.
I knew the seriousness of this mighty monster when we passed the ruins of a house that was engulfed by a lava flow in 2002. Etna is still a dangerous place to live and, people were saying that it has been extra-rumbly of late. History tells of massive disasters when Etna spilled her worst in 1169, 1329, 1381 and then in 1669 when Catania, Sicily’s second city was wrecked under molten lava. It wasn’t very nice in 2002 either. I hoped it would behave today.
Then it was time to leave the coach in a car park that had been destroyed several times by lava – so Mario, the driver told me just to cheer me up. We were in the foothills of Etna where green grass and trees are a distant memory but before i got used to the idea, it was time for horror number two: cable cars. I have always hated the idea of being suspected over a drop on a slender piece of wire but I got over most of my phobia going up a mountain in Fujian, Southern China a few years ago. It was time for a repeat experience.
Actually it was quite exciting as we rose higher and higher through this barren, lava rock landscape before having to change, bizarrely, onto a little bus with very tough tyres.
We were now a long way up the mountain and there was now not only no greenery but that blue sky was gradually disappearing too in the vaporous atmosphere that reminded me, not that I’ve been there, of Hell.
When we had travelled through almost impenetrable vapour for a considerable distance and at a very upward angle, there was a break in the clouds and we had arrived at the next stopping point in the long ascent. It was time to meet our mountain guide.
He was quick to point out just how spectacular the view had become. Well, I think my Italian just just about good enough to understand what he was saying.
There was still a long way to go but his tough mountain-man manner lulled me into what I suspect was a false sense of security as we started the rest of the climb on foot.
We were walking on a crunchy substance consisting of recent particles of lava.
Unexpectedly, well what do I know, we saw pockets of snow and reminding me that we were now a long way away from the beach.
It was here that I also began to think I was very unfit. A few more visits to the gym were needed I suspected. I am usually fine on a hill walk but suddenly I found myself gasping for breath like an old man climbing stairs. It was a moment before I realized it was not me, it was due to the increasingly thin air at this altitude and a lot of people were struggling with me. Then I saw my first crater which was belching sulphour fumes reminding us that here the earth is open to its core. A thought that was nearly as scary as those dots on the horizon because they are people and that was where we were headed.
Those dots got nearer. I thought of a Bergman movie – we were all walking single-file to our doom.
Naturally, the higher we got, the more amazing the views……and the longer the drop….
… but vertigo-wobbly as I was, I decided to, sorry, go with the flow…..
…I had, after-all, never been anywhere like this before.
Gradually we were inside the clouds with not a hint of blue anywhere – these photographs are in colour, believe me. We were walking along that narrow path with what felt like a long drop on either side.
Once there, a bit breathless still and not sure whether I was brave enough to look, I had reached the highest point that visitors are now allowed to go and it really was worth the walk.
We were not far from the edge of the main crater but no one has been allowed on that final section since 9 people were killed there in 1979. This was enough for me, I can tell you.
It was a magnificent experience but I felt most of my body telling me to get the Hell out of there and I was happy to begin the long descent. When we got down to the cable-car station, I took some time out to do a Kungfu pattern just to, er, let off steam. It also, it occurred to me, might be the first time Kungfu has been attempted on Mount Etna but then only an idiot would try it.
Tomorrow the Sicilian adventure continues – join me then.