Last Friday, Mount Etna in Sicily erupted. It has been keeping an uneasy calm these past two months. The volcanic peak that straddles the African and Eurasian Plates had previously spewed fire and ash on the night of May 30, and burst into life the next day spitting molten lava high into the night sky over the next three days, treating onlookers to a visual and auditory spectacle.
We, a group of 43 friends from five different countries but originally from Chennai, had visited Etna two days before the eruption.
After a good round of golf in Kerkyra (Corfu), Greece the previous day, we boarded the cruise ship Koningsdam for Catania in Sicily. We reached Catania the next morning, but disembarked only by 11 am as it took a while for the ship’s officials to complete the formalities. Our single-point agenda in Catania was to visit Mount Etna. Even for those of us from Chennai, the weather was hot. We boarded a bus and set off for Mount Etna.
Our guide, Manuelo, was a friendly and funny man, who should be given an award for non-stop chatter, although whatever he said was most interesting. He even sang ‘O sole mio’ in a beautiful tenor voice, and was surprised to hear his guests singing harmony for him (most of us are singers).
The drive took about two hours on mountain roads. Etna is about 3,326 metres high and is the highest peak in Italy South of the Alps. It is two-and-a-half times bigger than Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii. Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanoes and is in an almost constant state of activity. The fertile volcanic soil supports agriculture, vineyards and orchards spread across the lower slopes and the broad plains of Catania to the South. Sicilian wine has a unique flavour since the terroir, I suspect, comes from the bowels of the earth.
As we drove higher, the slopes were devoid of vegetation. All one could see were miles and miles of black dried lava. The little bits of foliage were completely different to what was seen on the lower slopes. Spruce and pine were making their appearance among the lava.
The bus stopped at an inevitable tourist trap — a restaurant and gift shop with a view of Catania and the Mediterranean Sea below. What caught everyone’s attention were the different curios and little toys in the shop, which were made out of lava. The difference in temperature when we boarded the bus and at this point was a huge contrast. We were freezing at almost 2 or 3 degrees Celsius in a matter of two hours. It is said, in Sicily one can ski on the slopes and swim in the sea on the same day.
- Indonesia is known for its volcanic activity and the country is said to have the highest number of volcanoes, with some reports stating that there are more than 400, of which over 100 are active.
The next stop was at a parking lot for buses, from where we could walk a few hundred metres to the crater. Eruptions of Etna follow a variety of patterns. Most occur at the summit, where there are currently (as of 2019) five distinct craters, among them the Northeast Crater, Voragine, Bocca Nuova, and the Southeast Crater complex. Other eruptions occur on the flanks, which have more than 300 vents, ranging in size from small holes in the ground to large craters hundreds of metres across. Spectacular is an understatement when one looks at these craters. They showed no signs of erupting two days later.
Reluctantly, we left Mount Etna and drove towards our ship and the Ionian sea, singing all the way. Being among lava from the core of the earth elevates the spirit. No, we didn’t have Sicilian wine on the slopes of Etna. Not till we came down anyway.