From a distance, Mt Etna – Europe’s highest and most active volcano – seemed mysterious. She sat surprisingly quietly in the background as people wandered the streets of Sicily’s port city Catania, just the occasional wisps of steam floated above her.
Up closer, her smoking was more pronounced and the landscape changed from lush greenery to scraggly brush and the cold hardness of black, frozen lava flows. Tree stumps had been left blackened and void of life. Mt Etna (3329m tall) is one hell of a beast.
The zigzag drive the afternoon before to the refuge half way up Mt Etna had started to spark the trepidation of coming face to face with the monster. Seeing the photo on the wall of the refuge surrounded by flaming lava did nothing to stem that feeling, and neither did the documentary we later watched.
The next day, rearing to go, we took a cable car up over the alpine flowers and ancient lava flows and then boarded monster jeeps with giant wheels that bumped and zigzagged over the black volcanic surface. Etna’s smoking summit summoned us as we drove higher.
The final push was a single-file trek over friable lava scree. The air is thin at this altitude and I struggled to keep pace with the mountain guide. My heart raced and I came over all light-headed, and when I breathed I wheezed like an old man who smokes too much. I was not impressed with myself.
As we drew nearer to the crater summit – there is actually a series of craters – we were told to cover our mouth and nose because of the sulphur fumes. But that only made sucking in oxygen even harder. Several of us discarded this idea.
And then we reached the giant crater; a sea of volcanic rubble rimmed by jagged lava frozen in mid-flow. The stench of rotten eggs filled the air as sulphur gas streamed out of vents. One man pulled out a bottle of grappa and handed round shots in plastic cups.
The mountain guide picked a route around the crater rim but the wind changed and we became enveloped in a whirling pungent mist. Despite a mask over my mouth and nose I could still taste the sulphur and felt it burn my throat. Panic set in among the group as we lost sight of the guide and found ourselves choking on the poisonous air. The only option was to turn around and run back to oxygen-thin air, which we breathed in in great gulps.
The crater rim walk abandoned, we set off down another path. We passed second crater, this one red, and continued to follow a route similar to the 2001 eruption, through a lava channel and across a giant, black plain.
It was deathly quiet as we crossed the barren landscape, which seemed to belong to another world. And then suddenly we were in the tourist shop with its volcanic rock ornaments and a cable car back to the refuge.
Mt Etna was volcano number six of 40. She was beautiful and evil all at once. And that is exactly the lure.
I travelled independently as a tour with KE Adventure Travel and all opinions are my own. This blog is part three of three on the Sicily volcano series – my adventures on Stromboli can be found here and those on the Aeolian Islands Vulcano and Salina can be found here.