Seven spots for thrilling volcanic activity
Hiking up a volcano and dunking in natural hot springs should be on everyone’s bucket list. If you’re yet to get up close and personal with lava, and the only geysers you’ve encountered are down the pub, might we suggest one of these memorable experiences?
Hiking by Stromboli’s lava flows, Italy
Stromboli is the most active volcano in Europe, and on clear nights its worms of red lava are visible from many kilometres away. If there was anywhere mankind was not meant to go, surely it was the crater of an active volcano. And yet the lure was irresistible.
The steady, three-hour climb to the top proved not to be difficult. We walked through aromatic maquis, passing wild roses, fig trees, prickly pears and clumps of capers. The sky was clear, the sea blue and the breathtaking view spanned Mount Etna and Calabria. Abruptly, the vegetation ended. We stopped to don heavy clothes and helmets, and follow the final ridge. At the top, all I could see were clouds of steam. Then, suddenly, four spouts of fire threw up a fountain of glowing boulders that drew tracks of light across the sky. Mario chose that moment to start talking on the radio. A panicked thought: we were in danger. But no, this was Stromboli, and things were normal – he was discussing dinner.
Climbing Stromboli is permitted only with a registered guide. www.magmatrek.it has details.
Entering Kverkfjöll’s ice palace, Iceland
As you approach the entrance to the Kverkfjöll Glacier Caves, in Iceland’s stark interior, you may begin to understand why local myths of trolls and mystical beings are given a surprising amount of credence. Beneath a drooping archway of ice, a shadowy cavern is partly obscured by wisps of sulphurous steam – an eerie, almost magical scene, but one entirely of nature’s doing. Lurking deep beneath is a frighteningly active volcano whose intense heat melts ice from the base of the glacier, creating rivers of warm water that burrow through the ice as easily as a hot knife through butter. The tunnels and caverns etched by the rivers are enthralling frozen palaces that stretch for over 2km into the glacier.
Inside the air feels muggy and slightly intoxicating; given the heat, it’s surprising to touch the cave walls and find them numbingly cold. Every surface is dimpled like a choppy sea, sculpted by heat and steam, but as smooth as glass. Slowly your eyes adjust to the light, and you are struck by dazzling shades of blue, from ultramarine to the deepest blue-black. As you make your way in, following tunnels that twist and turn, filtered light gives the ice an unnatural glow. Above the noise of crampons and the echo of running water you can hear the groans of the ice as it is slowly moulded by pressure and geothermal heat – the elements, not trolls, hard at work.
The tourist information centre in Reykjavík (www.visiticeland.com) can provide information on guides and tour companies.
Trekking through the Valley of the Geysers, Russia
Penetrating Kamchatka’s remote and rugged terrain to discover one of the world’s most restless regions of seismic hyperactivity has never been easy. With no roads or nearby settlements, the spectacular Valley of the Geysers wasn’t discovered until 1941. Not even Russians were permitted to travel to this far-eastern peninsula until after the fall of communism. Today, a trek through the Kronotsky Reserve on the peninsula’s eastern edge leads you into this land of fire and ice, and brings you face to face with the full range of Kamchatka’s volcanic phenomena.
You’ll be dropped into the heart of the million-hectare bioreserve by helicopter, cruising over several of Kamchatka’s 29 active volcanoes along the way; your trek involves ten days and 130km of moderately strenuous hiking. As you navigate this landscape down to the Pacific shore you’ll circuit active glacier-flanked volcanoes and encounter piping fumaroles, belching mudpots and bubbling cauldrons. From a forested ridge you descend into the Valley of the Geysers along the steamy banks of the River Geyzernaya. Over twenty major geysers fill the narrow valley, each performing on its own timetable: some erupt every ten minutes, while others take 4–5 hours between show times. Some pulse in an erect column while others surprise you with a side shot – stick to the boardwalk or you might be nailed by an unexpected burst of scalding water.
Kronotsky Reserve is accessed by helicopter from Petropavlovsk; entrance is restricted and by permit only. The Valley of the Geysers is closed from mid-May to early July to protect breeding and nesting activity.
Hiking Ijen volcano with the sulphur miners, Indonesia
The ragged-edged smoking cone of the Ijen volcano defines the extreme east of Java. It always pays to get up before dawn if you’re climbing volcanoes, so you can reach the summit before the clouds roll in. But even if you start hiking Ijen at 2am you’ll have plenty of company, for this peak defies its Indonesian name Gunung Ijen (“lonely mountain”). The volcano spews out sulphur, which is hacked out of the steaming caldera by hundreds of freelance miners, who get up at an ungodly hour to collect the foul-smelling yellow element. Only those who rise early enough are able to amass enough of the limited sulphur to make a day’s pay (US$5).
Starting from the isolated national park post at Pos Paltuding, a steep trail ascends the shoulder of the mountain, passing through tropical forest that’s home to gibbons and patrolled by eagles. You’ll pass a steady stream of miners, who joke and chatter as they balance loads of up to 80kg across their backs in bamboo baskets, their steady progress fuelled by a diet of kretek (clove) cigarettes and black tea. The path switchbacks higher and higher until you emerge above the tree line and a spellbinding view of the neighbouring volcanic peaks of Merapi (2802m) and Raung (3332m) opens up. It’s possible to descend into the crater itself where the miners harvest sulphur (the “brimstone” of biblical times), which is mainly used by the cosmetics industry, and is added to fertilizer. Be warned: the vapours can be overpowering.
Banyuwangi is the nearest large town to Ijen. The tourist board here (+62 (0) 333 424 172) can organize trips in a 4WD.
Watching the sunrise on Mount Bromo, Indonesia
It’s not the most famous, the most active or the biggest volcano in the world, but Indonesia’s 2392m-high Mount Bromo is one of the most picturesque – in a dusty, post-apocalyptic sort of way. The still-smoking and apparently perfectly symmetrical cone rises precipitously out of a vast, windswept, sandy plain. This is the Sea of Sand, actually the floor of an ancient crater (or caldera), stretching up to 10km in diameter and with walls towering some 300m high.
Though the locals will try to persuade you to take their horse, it’s an easy enough walk to the summit, with no climbing ability required. Setting off an hour before sunrise, you follow a path across the Sea of Sand to the foot of Bromo’s vertiginous cone. A small matter of 249 concrete steps leads to the crater rim and a view down onto the fumaroles belching noxious sulphuric fumes. But the rewards of climbing Bromo are not olfactory, but visual: if the gods of climate and cloud-cover are on your side, a flamboyant golden sunrise awaits, casting its orange glow over the vast emptiness of the sandy basin, with Java’s lush green landscape stretching to the horizon beyond.
Mount Bromo is the main attraction of East Java’s Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park.
A volcanic trip up Mount Yasur, Vanuatu
The walk up to the continuously erupting Mount Yasur on Tanna Island takes about ninety minutes. A notice at the bottom warns against approaching the crater when there’s a particular level of activity; usually it’s safe to move on. The climb goes through tropical forest: rainwater trickles down every tree, then gushes down the path.
Yasur announces itself the closer you get. Every few minutes, there’s a loud boom, then a few lesser booms. Just below the summit, a battered letterbox proclaims itself the world’s only Volcano Post – it’s quite literally a chance to send postcards from the edge. At the rim, a pleasant waft of heat rises up and drives the mist away. But booms accompany tremendous eruptions of red-hot rocks – pyroclasts – that crash into the edge of the crater, and either fizzle or explode. The louder eruptions cause the ground to shake. Often the balls of fire soar high into the air; you’ll have to guess where they’re going to land. Most people, it seems, get lucky.
For links to tour operators offering trips up Mount Yasur visit www.vanuatu.travel.
Taking a trip to hell on Earth, New Zealand
You’ll smell Rotorua before you even reach the city limits. It isn’t known as the “Sulphur City” for nothing, and the unmistakable bad-egg aroma gets everywhere. Thankfully you get used to it after an hour or so. The whole city sits on a thin crust of earth underlain by a seething cauldron of waters and superheated steam that seem desperate to escape. Walking around you’ll see puffs of vapour rising out of people’s backyards, and stormwater drains venting sulphurous jets. Crypts predominate in the cemeteries as graves can’t be dug into the ground, and on the shores of Lake Rotorua gulls are relieved of the chore of sitting on their nests – the earth is warm enough to incubate without assistance.
Close to town are a dozen or so dramatic geothermal wonders. Tourists have been coming for over a century to see the Pohutu Geyser, which regularly spouts to 20m; around the turn of the millennium it performed continuously for an unprecedented 329 days. It still spouts several times a day, a spectacular show that’s heralded by the smaller Prince of Wales Feathers geyser (10m). Weary bones are also well-catered for in Rotorua – just about every motel and campground has a hot pool in which to soak. Make a point of seeking out genuine mineral ones filled by therapeutic geothermal waters, whether it be hydrothermal pampering in sophisticated resorts or back-to-basics natural pools out in the woods under the stars.
Visit www.rotoruanz.com for more information.
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