A few years ago I travelled around the world for a year. By the time I returned home, I was in love with volcanoes.
We visited Bandera Crater in winter, and so there was a generous layer of snow on the rutted, blackened lava fields and the strange, twisted trees that flanked the path. Several trees had fallen over, the convulsing roots of one looking a lot like a warped butterfly. Apart from the deep crater from an ancient eruption, there were vast ‘lava tubes’, created when the outside of a surge of lava had hardened into rock, and the molten inside had flowed away, leaving something like a giant pipe.
In one of these tubes was a plateau of ice, but this was not the result of the cold weather. This was an ice cave, and some of the eerily greenish ice had been there for over three thousand years.
On a good day, strolling up Pacaya is apparently really easy and pleasant. The day we climbed it wasn't good, it was full of wind. The wind in its turn was full of grit and tiny black stones which it threw into our eyes and mouths until we couldn't see, think or breathe. I remember Pacaya as an enormous steep mound made entirely of shifting black gravel that continually gave under my feet and tried to swallow them, whilst a lacework of clouds skimmed crazily across the sky. In the end, just to keep the stones off my face, I wrapped my scarf around and around my head until I looked like a strange black-wrapped mummy.
Going down a slope like that is a lot faster, though not necessarily easier. You half run, half ski, sending mini-avalanches of shale shooshing down the slope ahead of you.
Pacaya is a live volcano, but there was too much mist for us to make out lava when we reached the top, just the edge of a great charred crater.
So, how could I tell if the volcano was about to erupt?
“Keep an eye on the guides,” somebody told me. “The best way to survive a Pacaya eruption is to start running when the guides do.”
He may have been joking…
According to Maori legend, Taranaki was something special – a volcano so fiery and troublesome even the other volcanoes couldn’t get on with him. He fell in love with Pihonga, the wife of another male volcano named Tongariro. There was a terrible fight and Taranaki lost. Tongariro remained with a cluster of other volcanoes including his wife, but Taranaki stormed off to live by himself, wrapping his head in clouds and rain so that he could sulk.
Sure enough, when we went to visit Taranaki there he was, the only mountain for miles around, with his head wrapped in cloud. We drove up the little road through his forests as far as we could, but the cloud was so thick that we couldn’t see where we were going. So we wound down the window and tried to cheer him up. We told him that there were probably lots of pretty female volcanoes who would like a fine, strapping conical volcano like him, but the cloud stayed exactly where it was. I don’t think he was listening.
Some volcanoes are active, and some are downright skittish. We never seriously considered climbing Arenal. Instead, one night we stood in a clearing some miles from the mountain, and watched it as green fire-flies flickered around us. Sure enough, every now and then we would see the gleam of some great flaming boulder dropping out of the clouds shrouding the summit, and bouncing down the sides of the mountain.
From the shore, the silhouette of White Island looks a bit like at trodden trifle, albeit a trifle with a long column of white steam rising from it. In fact it is a very sizeable volcano – it's just that all but the tip of it is hidden beneath the sea.
When we caught the boat out to the island, we were given a gas mask for the sulphurous fumes, but our guides didn't seem to think they were really necessary, and told us a boiled sweet would probably do just as well. Then they told us lots of comforting things like 'if the volcano erupts, there will probably be boulders flying around at the speed of bullets – throw yourself flat so you're not such a big target. And don't bother running for the boat because it'll be steaming away as fast as it can.'
Once you walk into the crater itself, you can see that “White Island” is a very poor name for this strange and alien island. There are vivid yellow and white sulphur mounds above which the searing air quivers, and small copper-coloured streams. The scored and ravaged slopes are streaked with reds, yellows and ochres. Half-shrouded by its veil of white steam is a large jade-green crater lake.
There are also remains of an old sulphur mine works, and the buildings where the workers used to sleep. Apparently the only thing to survive when the volcano erupted under them was the mineworkers' cat…
In the winter people ski on Ruapehu, and even in summer you can catch a ski lift up the side of the mountain. From the top cabins, you can walk over the boulder-strewn terrain right up to the edge of Ruapehu, and stare down towards the crater lake. Unfortunately, Ruapehu's lake has a history of refusing to stay in its crater. Several times it has escaped in a lahar, a great mud-torrent of water, ash and rocks racing down the mountainside, ravaging trees and buildings then setting like concrete. Lava may sound scarier than volcanic mud, but lava is generally slow. You don't want to find yourself trying to outrun a lahar.