“I guess I should be grateful that I’m actually on my way to see a volcano,” I thought as the ‘Yellow Bus’ hurtled through the Azorean countryside, passing fields of maize and languid dairy cows.
It had almost been a no-volcano day after a caffeine-deficient, panic-fuelled morning. I’d arrived in the Azores – the volcanic archipelago off the coast of Portugal – the night before rearing to tick off four more volcanoes in my #40by40 challenge.
But it didn’t start the way it was intended to.
As the clock struck midnight, I’d been dropped off at the wrong hotel by the shuttle guy. Lights from a seedy gentleman’s club a few doors down spilled onto the road.
I had surveyed the dark streets, the bright neon sign and the group of men smoking beneath it.
With eyes on the lookout I had found the number for the correct hotel, calling to explain my predicament.
Ten minutes later I had been picked up, whisked to the correct hotel and was deep in conversation about the distinct lack of public transport on Sao Miguel and how unhelpful that was for tourists.
As the clock neared 1am (2am London time), I realised the next day’s original plan was going to have to be binned as there was no way I was physically making myself catch a 7am bus to the little village of Furnas. Indeed, as the online bus time table glowed on my mobile phone screen, I realised the vast majority of my volcano-climbing plans were going to have to be altered because of infrastructure and logistics.
“Welcome to paradise,” the shuttle guy had first said when I’d entered the van. I wanted to snort now. Paradise? Ha!
Depression and a sense of failure set in as the four volcanoes I had planned to hike began to look more realistically like three, and maybe even just two. With heavy heart I retired to bed with the only plan that made sense for the morrow – visit the tourist information office.
A sleepless and fraught night ensued, followed by almost an hour in the morning searching for coffee and (ironically) giving my big toe a blister.
On the verge of tears and thoroughly pissed off at the world and myself, I returned to the hotel. And was saved again by the owner.
Take the Yellow Bus, he said; a hop-on, hop-off tour that left every hour. Today’s destination – Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire).
I had sort of set my mind on a fairly difficult walk from the south coast to Lagoa do Fogo. But it was clear this original plan was out the window, with a much tamer alternative in its place.
As I wasn’t anticipating much of a walk, I dressed in sandals.
Soon I was hurtling through the countryside in a bus that seemed to have health and safety alarm bells ringing, having no windows nor seatbelts, with a driver who liked the accelerator pedal. One wrong move and I’d be flying out into space. I gripped the seat in front, my knuckles turning white.
We zigzagged up the volcano, getting higher and higher. Then on our left the most amazing vista came into view; a lake so exquisitely blue it was like a gem, surrounded by a rim of green-coated mountains. This was it, the Lagoa do Fogo crater lake.
The girl in front of me encapsulated the scene in one word: “Wow,” she exclaimed.
Wow indeed and, even better, there was a trail down to the lake’s waters. Perhaps I’d get some walking in after all.
I found the steps the driver had directed me to and began to descend the steep, dusty path, passing puffing people on their way back up. I chided myself more than once for wearing sandals; such an inappropriate choice of footwear for an activity like this.
Slowly I weaved my way down the trail to the lake, walking through gloriously green but muggy foliage.
Half an hour later, a carpet of rippled blue spread out in front of me, mountains rising up around it. Tourists, represented as ant-like black dots, stood on the distant rim above taking photos. On the beach, people slowly meandered the lake’s shores, some building sculptures and words out of volcanic stones.
I set out strolling towards the less occupied part of the lake. There was a reason for this, I soon discovered. The wet mulch squished over the top of my sandals and between my toes. I cursed my fashion choice for the hundredth time.
Deciding this was about the limiting of my mud walking for the day, I took a seat on a rock warmed by the sun and observed life and nature around me.
Echoes of tourists talking and laughing off yonder flowed across the lake, while in the bushy hills behind me birds chirped excitedly. A fish snapped in the water as it sought out its lunch and a fly droned lazily around my head.
The fly started to get annoying, taking its chances at dive-bombing different parts of my body. Had I intruded too long in this corner of muddy paradise?
I squelched back through the mud – darn the sandals – and started the ascent back to the crater rim.
These steps had been made for giants, I thought between puffs, as sweat started to trickle down my back and my heart began to pump ferociously.
In a recess in the back of my head, a thought formed. It started to query my decision to walk the length of New Zealand. It niggled me in time with my heart beat. I tried to ignore it.
It was only when I reached the top, red-faced and sweaty, that the evil thoughts disappeared. They were replaced by triumph at ticking off another volcano.
It hadn’t been what I’d intended but it was enough, at least to me. And that’s all that counted.