“Like a child’s sand castle from which the bucket had been removed too early, earth slopped from the top of the mountain in swathes of dark ash.”
From a calm Milazzo we had taken to the Tyrrhenian Sea before 8am, calling at the aptly named Vulcano and touristy Lipari, before heading towards Europe’s most active volcano. The hydrofoil barely grazed the water as we travelled, instead bouncing high across the surface. Its strange motion lashed spray against the window, occasionally obscuring my view of each approaching island.
Bound for Stromboli
I enjoyed the unpredictability of the journey. With each juddering stop, hikers alighted and an ever more vibrant array of locals embarked. Some lugged boxes of fresh produce bound for the few tiny restaurants on their course. Others visited family on neighbouring islands, dragging reluctant children towards a weekend of smothering aunts and uncles.
After almost three hours at sea, Stromboli came into view. Like a child’s sand castle from which the bucket had been removed too early, earth slopped from the top of the mountain in swathes of dark ash. Its volcanic form was immediately obvious and I easily imagined its rise from the sea hundreds of thousands of years before.
Stromboli’s slopes may have been foreboding but the jetty that welcomed us was anything but sinister. Everyone seemed to know each other, although that was understandable on such a small island. There weren’t even any normal cars. Tiny painted trucks waited to cart us towards accommodation that, from what I could gather, was no more than a hundred metres away. Nevertheless, they darted down the little promenade with the urgency of rush hour traffic, creating a scene of needless bustle.
My home for the night was one of the whitewashed hotels along the shore. With a few hours to kill before tackling the mountain behind me, I watched a local tending to his boat from my balcony. His beard was as white as the sand was black. To my left, the beach turned a corner into nothing. Over my right shoulder, Stromboli towered.
The wild summit
The day was still warm at 5pm when I went to collect my gear from Magmatrek, an outfit that employs qualified volcanologists to guide hikers across Stromboli’s summit. However the look of horror on their faces at my arrival made me nervous: “You need many more layers. It gets very cold at the top once night falls.” I smiled apologetically and was thrown more supplies from the communal bins but the forewarning continued: “It’s beautiful down here but even we just never know what’s happening on the ridge”.
Suitably sobered by this serious lecture, I began the hike. I followed the guide as he steadily led us off the tarmac behind the church and began winding his way through dense shrubbery. Pinks and purples of countless flowers that were clearly enjoying the fertile soil took my attention. As I photographed them, and the view of the now tiny village below me, I momentarily forgot my angst for the journey ahead.
Very soon, even the distraction of the wildflowers dissipated and the ground around me suddenly became barren. Either side of my dusty path, twisted forms of ancient lava began to appear. Ahead, a single tree broke the line of the next ridge. The wind had also increased and ten minutes later I became all too aware of the steep drops that were now either side of my route.
It zigzagged steadily upwards towards the final ridge, now silhouetted against an encroaching sunset. Despite the wind, I was warm with exertion and adrenaline. I still had little concept of what I would see over the ridge, although I imagined the volcanic versions of geysers: Small, manageable craters a meter wide, with welcoming lava bubbling comfortably on their surface.
Then: the crack. My initial reaction was to look to the sky for traces of a storm. However what I’d heard was louder and closer than any thunder. My guide then pointed towards the hazy horizon. I had reached the start of Stromboli’s ridge. Its peak was only a few hundred yards ahead. The focus of my guide’s pointed finger was a smoking crater. Not a friendly meter wide hole on my path, but a gaping jagged edge several hundred feet below where I stood.
“Come on, this isn’t the main one, we must keep going before dark” he remarked nonchalantly. Donning our mandatory helmets and accompanying head torches we marched upward. A pensive silence overtaking the group as we all realised the strength of what we were about to witness. The smaller crater, now behind us, continued to smoulder and boom with the force of multiple lightning crackles.
By the time we secured our awkward perch on the edge of the highest ridge, darkness had almost fallen. The sea beyond exuded only the most navy blue of outlines against the night sky. Then we waited. It was difficult to get a sense of distance but our guide noted that all three of Stromboli’s largest craters were a few hundred feet below us. They were already glowing enough to show themselves. I waited.
What happened next was one of the most visceral experiences of my life. Following an unearthly rumble that I could just make out above the now driving wind whipping over the ridge, the crater to my far left exploded. It spewed lava and molten rock hundreds of meters into the night air, before subsiding back into its ethereal glow.
In the 45 minutes that followed I watched amazed, as each crater took turns to erupt. At one point, lava appeared to be constantly emerging, like a firework displays on steroids. Amid gasps and the constant securing of my unsteady, excited legs on the pitch-black ground in front of me, I tried to capture video of the scene. How foolish of me, I thought, to try to trap this moment to take it with me back down the mountain, when really, just being there was more than enough.
A long way down
When my guide’s shout broke my thoughts, I noticed that other hikers had started to descend. I felt immediately exposed to all the elements and panicked at the thought of walking towards an unknown slope with only a head torch beam for bearings. He instructed us to completely cover our faces with special goggles and dust masks. We would be returning to the safety of the village via Stromboli’s ash flow.
Feeling a little like a moon walker, with no sense of direction or peripheral vision, I blindly followed the boots in front of me. The ash was soft and sloughed away underfoot with every step, like a giant dune that didn’t have an end. Finally, after a long hour, the ground started to solidify and we stopped to catch our breath. It felt great to free my face from its trappings but in total blackness, we still had some hiking to do. I noticed all the stars for the first time that night. Against the bright activity of the volcano they had ceased to exist, however now they shone brightly over the still, black sea.
Eventually, the very few twinkling lights of the small town came into view. The narrow path weaved between bamboo and all manner of vegetation that I felt less enthusiasm for than a few hours before. My knees ached from the relentless downhill and my throat was bone dry from the ash filled air. Exhilaration had quickly turned to exhaustion and I was ready to return to the comfort of the narrow streets and tasty pizzerias.
As my boots hit solid tarmac, I tried to recall the scene I’d left behind. With no hikers’ torches and human gasps left on the mountain, would the craters still be putting on their show? For the second time that night, I was foolish. They had performed every night for over 2,000 years, why stop now?