Aug 29, 2014 in New Zealand 2014
Aug 27, 2014 in New Zealand 2014
Aug 27, 2014 in New Zealand 2014
Aug 21, 2014 in Vanuatu 2014
I got a truck from Ulei to Endu, and there I found a guide to show me the way to Marum volcano. It took us about three hours to get to the edge of the ash plains, another hour or so to get to the East Camp, and 45 minutes from the camp to the crater’s edge. It was cold and forbidding up there, and thick clouds were swirling around. I got a few minutes of clear air to look down onto the unbelievable sight of the churning, boiling lava lake of Marum.
Aug 19, 2014 in Vanuatu 2014
Aug 19, 2014 in Vanuatu 2014
Aug 19, 2014 in Vanuatu 2014
Aug 19, 2014 in Vanuatu 2014
Aug 18, 2014 in Vanuatu 2014
Aug 20, 2012 in Pucón 2012
Sep 25, 2011 in Chile
I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time.
It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains.
But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light.
At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn’t get our money back if we didn’t make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.
We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.
We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn’t seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn’t very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn’t think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides’ advice. Reluctantly we turned around.
Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.
That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I’d seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I’ll be back before long to try and see it up close again.
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view.
It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two scarves and a hat, I still felt freezing.
I climbed up a small hill and listened to some Sigur Rós on my mp3 player. The epic music made the epic view even more impressive. But all too soon it was time to head back down. Árni gave me a shout at about 10pm, and I headed back to the jeep. I slipped on some ice on the way, smacking my shin on a rock and giving myself a souvenir bruise to take home. With a last glance at the show, I reluctantly got back into the jeep, ready for the long journey back to Reykjavík.
Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I got the bus back to the airport at 5am. I watched the Icelandic scenery in the morning sunshine, not really wanting to leave. At the airport, I checked in, and then walked outside the airport for one last look at the country. The airport car park did not seem likely to provide me with a nostalgic memory, but to my amazement, in the far distance, there again was Snæfell. My totem for this trip had shown itself once again. It was a sign, a clear and unmistakable sign that this would not be my last trip to Iceland. I was looking forward to the next one already.
Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
Early the next morning I got up and left. The word yesterday had been the the wardens would try to stop anyone setting off who didn’t have a GPS system, the weather was that bad. I didn’t have a GPS; I just had a map, a compass, three days of supplies and a wild desire to trek. So I looked shiftily about, saw no wardens, and hurried onto the trail.
I set a blazing pace. The early part of the trail was extremely familiar and I felt like I remembered every footstep as I crossed an old lava flow, to a heavenly meadow on the other side where I remembered thinking it would be awesome to camp. In 40 minutes, I was at the ignominious spot. I passed the spirits of three defeated youths, reluctantly picking up their too-heavy packs to trudge back to the hut. I gave a thought to my younger self and pushed on into unknown parts.
The trail climbed. Soon I had incredible views over ancient lava fields and hills coloured red and green and all sorts of colours that rocks normally aren’t. I passed Stórihver, a hole in the rocks which belched out jets of steaming water, and soon reached places where snow lay on the ground. Higher and higher the trail went, and eventually I reached the clouds. Cairns marked the route but occasionally I had to wait for a few minutes for a break in the thick fog to show me the way ahead. I slogged across what seemed like a huge snowy plateau, cairn by cairn, and the cloud was so thick that I almost walked into the Hrafntinnusker hut before I saw it.
Jan 27, 2006 in South America 2005
Our plan had been to go to Alausí to get the train to Riobamba, via the famous Nariz del Diablo switchbacks. But time was now so short, and the train schedules so inconvenient, that we had to skip this. We headed instead to Cuenca, where the main interest for us was a place that did really good coffee, an interesting visit to the studios of Argentinian artist Ariel Dawi, and the fabulously named German-owned pub, WunderBar. After Cuenca, our target was Baños but we had to spend a night in Ambato on the way after thick fog delayed our bus by a few hours.
The reason we’d come to Baños was to see if we could see the eruptions of Tungurahua. This towering volcano, just a few kilometres outside the town, began erupting in 1999 after 80 years of dormancy. The first eruptions led to the evacuation of Baños and other nearby villages, but when activity stabilised, the people returned, and the town now thrives on the tourism generated by the volcano, and the geothermal pools which give the town its name. The pools were a good place to spend a couple of hours while a cool drizzle fell. In the evening, we took a trip up to a nearby viewpoint, which we’d been told has good views of the volcano. But we spend most of the time in thick cloud, unable to see even the lights of Baños below us, let alone the glow of lava from above. We met some locals there who were going to a club later on, and they invited us to join them. We had a fun night out at Club Leprechaun, which the locals pronounced ‘lepre-chown’
The next day the weather seemed to be changing for the better. We went for a walk in the hills behind town and saw a spectacular rainbow arc over the valley. With the sun threatening to break through, we decided to hike back up to the mirador and see if we could see the volcano. We had a chat on the way to a friendly guy called Carmelo, who had lived in Europe for a few years. He told us about the evacuation of Baños, and said that people moved back not because activity was really declining but just because they couldn’t stay away from their livelihoods indefinitely.
Once we reached the mirador we found ourselves in thick cloud. Everything was wet and we couldn’t see more than ten feet. But I had a feeling we might have some luck, and so we hung around. Occasional breaks in the mist gave us hope, even though the few other people who came to see what they could see had left pretty quickly. Gradually, it seemed to us that we could see more of the mountain, and eventually we were sure we could see the summit. What looked like black smoke appeared to be billowing from the top, but it was hard to tell whether it was rain cloud or volcanic ash. But a few minutes more and there was no doubt – we could clearly see the volcano, and it was clearly erupting. For me it was quite impressive, but Dave had never seen an erupting volcano before and felt that he hadn’t really seen the full show.
Sadly we couldn’t hang around. I had two days left in South America, and so that night we got a late bus to Quito. After almost four months and eight thousand miles on the road, I was almost at my final destination. Ever since Christmas in Bolivia I’d been feeling like the trip was almost over, and now that it really was I could hardly believe it.
Jan 10, 2006 in South America 2005
I didn’t sleep that much, and lay awake for much of the evening, dreading the midnight call. Luckily it wasn’t too cold, and when the call came I managed to rouse some enthusiasm. I checked my pack and my headlamp, and put on my warm clothes. We had some jam sandwiches for breakfast, and Roy cooked up some mate de coca. I’d had this traditional Andean drink a few times already, but despite its reputed stimulant qualities I hadn’t found myself running up mountains after drinking it. But remarkably, this time I did. I don’t know what Roy put in the brew, but before long I was feeling absolutely fantastic. The pace seemed easy and my pack seemed light. The skies were incredibly clear, and we saw a couple of bright meteors. The climb was going very well. Johan was climbing strongly as well, but the Peruvians seemed to be struggling. The German was also not looking at all happy, and they all decided to keep on going at a slower pace. Johan, Roy and I headed on up, keeping up a good rate.
Climbing at night was a strange experience. It was quite easy to follow the trail, but the darkness made it impossible to tell how far we’d come or how far we had to go. The summit loomed above us, its silhouette against the stars unchanging. Far below, the lights of Arequipa twinkled. By 3am, the zodiacal light was very bright, and it didn’t seem long at all from then until the first hint of dawn appeared. We could see the Peruvians still climbing, a few hundred metres below us, but before it got properly light we saw that they’d given up and were heading back to the campsite. At 5.30am, the sun rose stunningly over the nearby peaks of Chachani.
By now I was feeling a lot less fantastic than I had done, but still pretty good. Johan was beginning to feel the altitude, though. I began to lose track of time, and concentrated only on keeping on plodding up the mountainside. At 7am we realised we were very close to the top, but by then I was seriously feeling the altitude, and we spent 45 minutes covering the last hundred metres to the top. And there we were, just over 5800m above sea level, in the middle of the Andes, standing by the gently steaming crater of El Misti. The countryside was wreathed in mist, which was lit up spectacularly by the morning sun.
Johan was feeling very unwell with the altitude, so he and Roy soon set off down the mountain. I stayed at the top to explore for a bit, and it was an incredible feeling to be alone on top of a huge mountain, so tired from the climb but feeling energised by the daylight. The crater was clearly quite active, with extensive yellow sulphur deposits and lots of volcanic gases gently rising. I took a lot of photos, and felt that whatever it is I look for while travelling, there was a lot of it up here.
At about 9am I decided to head back down the mountain. This involved ploughing down a scree-filled gully, which was so steep that I felt in constant danger of triggering enormous landslides. I had to constantly lean back to keep my balance, and after an hour or so this started altering my perception so that whenever I stood up straight, the horizon seemed to curve upwards. I carried on down in silence, becoming slightly paranoid that I might have got the wrong route, but eventually I saw Roy in the distance. By 11am I was back at the camp, where I found that everyone but Johan had long gone. We wearily packed up, and then trudged back down the trail. This seemed to take forever, and by the time we reached the road we were exhausted. There we met a group of hikers on their way up, and it turned out Roy was guiding them, so he set off back up the mountain. I hoped he was earning good money, because he had been an excellent guide.
I was possibly more tired by now than I’d ever been before, but also ravenously hungry. Appetites tend to disappear at high altitude, and so all I’d eaten since my jam sandwiches at midnight had been two bananas. By the time I got back to my hostel I was in terrible straits because I couldn’t decide whether to eat first and then sleep, or vice versa. In the end I slept for a bit, then went out for food and ate two main courses. That evening I looked up at the mountain and could hardly believe I’d been standing on its summit just hours before. I felt like I owned it.
Jan 09, 2006 in South America 2005
I arrived in Arequipa just after dawn on a beautiful day. Confronting me as I arrived, soaring into the deep blue sky with a dusting of snow on top, was what I had come here to climb – El Misti. My South America plans had always involved climbing at least one big mountain, and El Misti is one of the easiest ways to do that – it’s a popular climb from Arequipa, and it doesn’t get at all technical. The main thing that stops people getting to the top is the fact that it’s 5822 metres tall – just over 19,000 feet. But I’d been acclimatising to altitude for more than a month, and it was time to put that to good use. I got down to business quickly, booking a guided trip to climb the mountain the next day, and then shopping for energy food. The extremely friendly owner of the Sillar Negro hostel where I was staying was a keen climber himself, and when I told him I was doing the climb, he came out with me to recommend good food to buy.
At 8am the following morning I was at the offices of the climbing company, getting kitted out. There were nine of us climbing that day – me, a Swede, a German and seven Peruvians. We sorted out who was going to carry what, met our guides Roy and Angél, and then drove up to the start of our climb, a few kilometres outside Arequipa and a few hundred metres higher. The climb was to take two days, the first taking us to a campsite 4400m above sea level. I took it quite easy to get there, but found the last hundred metres or so very tiring. This was the highest I’d ever brought myself on foot, and we were still 1400m below the summit. We cooked up some dinner, and then received the shocking news that we were going to set off for the summit at midnight. Apparently, the crater was emitting a lot of volcanic gas later in the day, and it was safest to get there as soon as possible after sunrise. We set up our camp, mostly in cloud but with occasional breaks revealing the summit high above. At 6pm Johan the Swede and I tried to get some sleep, but the Peruvians had a more cavalier attitude to proceedings, drinking pisco and talking loudly until late.
Dec 01, 2005 in South America 2005
Pucón is a popular place to go in Chile, with all sorts of adventure sports happening in the surrounding areas. For me, the big draw was Volcán Villarrica, a perfect Fuji-like snow-capped conical mountain to the south of town, which has an active lava lake in its crater. I wanted to climb it, and get closer to lava than I’d managed on previous trips to active volcanoes in Sicily and Central America. I’d seen lava fountains at Etna, watched glowing house-sized boulders tumble down the mountain side at Arenal in Costa Rica, and listened to the roar of Volcán Santamaría as I camped on its summit in Guatemala, but here I had the opportunity to stand on the rim of an active crater.
Disturbingly, I was woken on my first morning in Pucón by wailing air-raid sirens. Not quite knowing what was going on, I looked out of my window half expecting to see a cataclysmic volcanic eruption underway, but Villarrica was just gently steaming and the sirens stopped as soon as they had begun. They went off several times during my stay, and I never worked out what they signified. Around town there were various signs detailing the procedure should any volcanic emergency occur, but they didn’t mention air-raid sirens at all.
At 7am the following morning I was in the offices of a climbing company, kitting myself up along with two Germans and four Spanish women, getting ready for the climb to the top of the 2,850m mountain. I’d watched an amazing sunrise over the volcano, and the weather looked like it was perfect for climbing. By 9am we were at a ski station at the edge of the snowline, getting on our crampons and setting off for the top. Wearing heavy rigid boots suitable for ice climbing made the going slow at first, but I soon got used to them and wanted to up the pace a bit. Unfortunately the Spanish women proved to be appallingly unfit, and although we had two guides with our group of seven and could have split up, our guides kept us all together at the slow pace. I got more and more frustrated, to the point where I started talking to the Germans in German to slag off the Spanish women. The three of us agreed that they shouldn’t have been allowed to climb, and united in our anger we trudged on up the ever-steepening slopes.
I could see clouds coming in from the east, but we continued at our interminably slow pace. The Germans taught me useful insults and we cursed our way up. By 2pm we had only a few tens of metres to go, but had to wait while one of the Spanish women overcame terrible laziness to motivate herself to carry on. At about 2.30pm we finally made it to the crater’s edge, at the same time as the clouds, and for a few minutes I was speechless with rage as visibility was reduced to zero. Luckily it was patchy cloud and soon after the summit was uncovered, revealing a small patch of glowing lava, steaming away. Soon a small explosion sent lava spattering around inside the crater, and then a much larger explosion hurled glowing chunks to some height above the crater rim. We could feel the heat strongly, and despite my annoyance with the Spaniards I was enjoying this.
We walked a little way around the crater to a better viewpoint, and I took as many photos and videos as I could. Unfortunately the cold meant that my digital camera batteries ran out ridiculously quickly and I only managed to catch one small explosion on video. Then suddenly the earth shook and the lava lake fountained out a huge spray of molten rock, which covered the area we’d been standing just a few minutes before, and sent some other climbers running for cover. “We’d better get out of here”, said the guide. Having climbed for five hours I’d wanted to spend a little bit more than 20 minutes at the top, and I told him I’d wait until I’d seen one more explosion, and would catch them up. The Spaniards set off down, I saw one more good explosion and felt the tremendous heat from the molten rock, before reluctantly heading down.
I was still in a bit of a bad mood, but when I realised that our plan for descending a mile and a half back to the snowline was to sit down and slide I got a lot happier. The slopes were so steep that we quickly built up tremendous speed, and I had to use my ice axe to stop myself from sliding out of control. Although I feared that it would result in me picking up fragments of optics and electronics at the bottom of the mountain, I decided to take some footage of the descent, and managed not to drop the camera. Barely 45 minutes later we were back down at the snowline, and even though the Spanish women even managed to be really slow at sliding down icy slopes, we returned to Pucón pretty pleased with the day. I spent the evening watching the mountain top glowing red in the distance from the shores of the lake at the edge of town.
The next day I realised that despite my best efforts with sun block, I’d missed a bit. The sunlight reflecting off the ice had burned my septum, and it was astonishingly painful. I spent the day moisturising intensively and trying not to breathe through my nose. I was aching from the climb despite its slow pace, and spent most of the day relaxing by the lake. But I had to move on, and at 5pm I headed for Temuco, to catch the overnight train from there to Santiago.
Oct 21, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had been told that the temperature at the summit was usually around -5°C just before dawn, and we could well believe it as we emerged from the tent at 5.30am to find an awesome view before us. Pre-dawn colours dusted the sky, towns and villages glowed far beneath us, and a mighty plume of steam rose gently from Volcán Santiaguito. A continuous jet-engine roar could be heard from the volcano. Our friends with the fire came over to make sure we were up, and we watched with them as the stars were engulfed by the rising blue of the sky. It was a perfectly clear and still morning. The effort of carrying all our camping equipment up here had been rewarded.
We could see Guatemala’s chain of volcanoes stretching away 100km in either direction: as far as Mexico to the west, and to Fuego and Acatenango in the east. Between us and these two were the volcanoes around Atitlán. It was only a week since we had been at the top of San Pedro, and I still felt like I owned it as I looked back at it from here. It was a truly beautiful moment when over this awesome scene the sun appeared, and we basked in its rays as the temperature very slowly began to rise. To make the moment perfect, Volcán Fuego chose that moment to erupt a small cloud of ash.
But the best moment was still to come. I walked round to the west side of the summit, and was amazed to see the perfectly straight-sided shadow of the volcano stretching away to the horizon. This was beautiful in itself, but then I climbed onto the very peak of the volcano to get a better view. To my astonishment I could then see my own shadow stretching away into the distance as well. It was an amazing moment, and looking back, probably ranks as the outstanding memory of the trip.
After this incredible sunrise, we walked over to the south side of the volcano to look down on Volcán Santiaguito. It was incredible to look down on, and hear, this erupting volcano while 100km away we could see another volcano erupting at the same time. We sat there silently for a long time, gazing at the view which stretched away before us to the Pacific. At 9.30am, though, the peace was shattered when a group of climbers arrived at the top. They were out of luck, getting just a few minutes of the view we had been enjoying for hours before the clouds rolled in below us. We had seen what we came to see, and so after we had eaten a breakfast of Rice Krispies in hot milk, we broke camp and reluctantly set off down the mountain.
As on the way up, we took it slowly, and after almost three hours we were at the bottom of the steep section. Here we rested for a while, and had a chat with a farmer who was on his way to his fields. He was very friendly, and talked to us for quite a while, asking us where we were from, what England was like, what the weather was like, whether there were farmers like him in England, what tools the farmers used, and what the word for ‘Machete’ was in English. We shook hands heartily as he headed off to work. After another hour’s walk, we were back at the road, from where we got a bus back to town.
Oct 20, 2000 in Central America 2000
Volcán Santamaria stands 3772m tall, just south of Xela. It had never been known to erupt before 1902, but in that year it underwent the third-largest eruption of the 20th century. The cataclysmic explosion ripped away the southern flank of the volcano, leaving a huge gash in the side of the mountain. After 20 years of calm, new eruptions began in this gash, forming a new volcano, Santiguito, which has been erupting ever since.
Santamaria is a popular climb among visitors to Xela, and every morning a minibus took climbers to the start of the trail for 5.30am. Along with 7 other travellers, we got this bus, and so before the sun rose we were already making our way up the lower slopes of the volcano. Me and Moh were the only ones planning to stay at the top, and so we were carrying much more weight than everyone else. For the first hour or so, on the gentle lower slopes, we kept up with the group OK, but as the path got steeper and the forest thicker there was no way we could keep up, and so the fast guys disappeared into the undergrowth. We knew that at the pace we were going we would be unlikely to get a view when we reached the top, but we also knew that we were staying the night and would get the view in the morning. So we just took our time and didn’t push too hard.
The air had seemed thin when we climbed Volcán San Pedro, but here it really began to have an effect. As we climbed to well over 3000m, we found that we needed to stop for rests ever more frequently, and after four hours or so, we were only progressing short distances at a time. At about 10am we were overtaken by a group of young Guatemalans, who told us we were about an hour and a half below the summit. We pressed on, and at 11.30am we met our group coming down. They told us it was another half hour to the top, and with renewed energy we pressed on to the top. I arrived just after midday, with Moh following a quarter of an hour later. The Guatemalans who had passed us earlier were there, and gave us each a round of applause. We were relieved to have made it to the summit: after six hours, we began to believe it didn’t exist.
As expected, it was cloudy, so we couldn’t really tell we were on top of a huge mountain. As well as the young Guatemalans, we were sharing the summit with some Mayan worshippers, who were chanting and praying. We chatted to the Guatemalans, who turned out to be students at the university of Quetzaltenango, and they shared their biscuits with us. They were a lively bunch, and the summit was very quiet after they headed down at about 2pm. We set up our camp in a sheltered spot, and made ourselves feel at home. Despite the long hard climb we felt exhilarated. It was cold and cloudy but we were camping at 3,772m (12,572ft) in Guatemala, so all was well and we were happy.
We rested in the tent listening to the Mayan people singing for a couple of hours, emerging to watch the daylight fade at about 5.30pm. By this time, the worshippers had gone, and we were sharing the summit with six Guatemalans who had arrived during the afternoon. They had built a camp fire, and called us over to join them. As we stood around the fire, the clouds momentarily parted to reveal a livid red sun sinking beneath the horizon, the city lights twinkling far below us and a huge column of steam rising from the unseen cone of Santiaguito. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and we became soaked with dew as we stood around the camp fire. We chatted to the Guatemalans for a while, but soon there came a pause in the conversation when our Spanish could take us no further.
After a few seconds silence, one of the Guatemalans asked us if we liked football. We said yes, and the conversation started again. ‘Manchester United!’ said one. ‘Tottenham Hotspur’, I rejoined. ‘David Beckham’ said another. I risked ‘Watford FC’, but to no great surprise they’d never heard of the mighty hornets. We exchanged a few more player and teams names, before we left the fire to go and cook dinner.
When you’re camping in the wilderness in Central America, simple foods become culinary experiences, and we had a spectacular ravioli con carne from a packet, followed by potato soup. We bedded down for the night at about 7pm.
Oct 14, 2000 in Central America 2000
And so long before dawn on October 14th 2000, we set out for Volcán San Pedro. We climbed in the enjoyable company of our group of 11, which consisted of me and Moh, Ashley from Australia, Mike and Aasta from Alaska, Will and Chad from Oregon, Greg from the UK, Steve from Canada, Julie from France and Julie from Germany. An almost full moon lit our way until the sun began to make its presence felt, and we reached the end of the road just as the sun rose from behind the hills across the lake. After pausing to appreciate the view, we headed into the forest and began the climb in earnest. The going was reasonable at first, but it was not long before the relentless uphill began to get tiring. Our guide, Clemente, was enthusiastic, though, and kept us all going. After about an hour, though, Julie from France dropped out, and Mike from Alaska chivalrously accompanied her back down to the village.
The rest of us carried on up. After another half-hour, self-confessed old fat guy Steve from Canada dropped out, and the eleven were now eight. Now it was down to the hard core, and we continued doggedly. The path got ever steeper and slipperier as we climbed, and the air was getting noticeably thinner. After about three hours, Julie from Germany tried to give up, but Clemente said we had ‘only’ an hour’s climb to go, and persuaded her to carry on. At 9.25am, after four hours of climbing, we emerged from the forest to find ourselves at the 3020m summit.
The view from here was almost unbelievable. The sun was shining brightly, and far below us we could see boats beginning to ply the waters between the villages around the lake. Many months before, I had discovered the music of the Afro Celt Sound System, and as I planned this trip and read about Lago de Atitlán, I had a sort of vision of myself on top of a mountain looking down on the lake, listening to a song called ‘Dark Moon, High Tide’. I had carried my walkman and the Afro Celts tape all the way from London to here without listening to it, preserving it for this moment. I listened to the awesomely atmospheric music and felt like I was tripping.
Too soon it was time to rejoin the real world and leave the summit. We picked ourselves up and began the long descent back to the village. The 45° descent down the slippery path was, as I wrote in my journal, ‘a total knee-fuck’, and we all fell over at one time or another. I got a long and bloody cut to the arm when I tried to save myself from a fall by unwisely grabbing hold of a thorny tree. After a hard three hours, we were back in the village.
We were exhausted. We spent the rest of that day, and the next as well, relaxing in the hammocks at the hotel, occasionally buying a loaf of banana bread from the Mayan children who came to sell it at the hotel, and generally waiting until we could walk normally again.
Oct 12, 2000 in Central America 2000
Another grey day followed, but we didn’t have the time to wait for sunshine so we decided to climb Volcán Pacaya. This was another spot notorious for armed robbery, yet another legacy of Guatemala’s violent recent history. From Guatemala’s independence in 1821, the government has generally been a dictatorship. The dictators have generally been military, and have ruled in the interests of the wealthy classes. Briefly, from 1944 to 1954, Guatemala had a democracy, and elected liberal leaders, but things were soon back to the usual order.
The first democratically elected leader, Juan José Arevalo, began a modest program of social reform. This was continued and accelerated by his successor, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who also started a massive land reform program. Huge areas of land owned by the United Fruit Company but left fallow were to be nationalised and redistributed, and the UFC would be compensated at the value they had declared for tax purposes. This was a fraction of the true value, and the UFC was not happy. However, they had friends in high places in the American government, and in 1954, a US-backed coup forced Arbenz into exile, and the land reform out of the reckoning. The young Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was in Guatemala at the time, and later said that this was the moment he became a revolutionary.
The coup returned Guatemala to a military dictatorship, and over the next few years, laws were passed which made voting rights dependent on literacy, disenfranchising three-quarters of the population. The secret police became powerful, and opposing the government became dangerous. In the early 1960′s, guerilla groups began to form, and by the middle of the decade the country was embroiled in civil war. This continued for the next thirty years, reaching a peak of brutality in the 1980s, when the government, believing that the indigenous people were all in league with the guerrillas, simply wiped out any village where they believed the guerrillas to be. In the 1990s, dialogue between the government and the rebels finally began, and in 1996, peace accords were signed, ending 36 years of war, during which 200,000 people had been killed.
The problem when we arrived four years after the peace accords was that there were still an awful lot of guns in Guatemala, and endemic poverty. The pace of the change since the signing of the accords had been too slow, and as the number of foreign visitors rose, the incidence of crime rose too. But when we were there, a lot of tourist excursions were accompanied by armed guards. Volcán Pacaya had been well known in the past for its armed robberies, but the tour groups were now accompanied by two armed guards, and no problems had been reported for a while.
We took the tour at 1pm, and after a dramatic two-hour drive to the base of the volcano, we set out along the trail for the top. It was not very hard going, and the weather was better than it had been. We had spectacular views of the volcanoes around Antigua and the surrounding countryside. After a couple of hours walking, we reached a shoulder about 200m below the summit. The weather was now closing in, and we were soon in thick cloud. After this point, the climb also became much more difficult. Pacaya’s frequent eruptions mean that the upper slopes are a barren cone of loose rock, and climbing the last stretch was very much a case of two steps up, one step down. The wind was fearsome as well, making it an extremely arduous final push to the top.
We got there, though, only to find that we couldn’t see more than three feet in front of us. Had we been able to see down into the crater, we would have seen lava flowing on the crater floor. All we got, though, was a scorching wind blowing out of the crater. I reached over the edge to pick up one of the sulphur-covered rocks, and I had to be quick to avoid burning my hand. All around the summit, there were steaming hot vents, and the whole area was warm to the touch. We stayed up there for about half an hour before returning to ground level.
The descent was a lot more fun than the climb, and we virtually ran down, creating landslides as we did so. This was the first summit we reached on the trip, and though the weather had let us down, we were still pleased to have made it. We decided we would try and climb Volcán Acatenango the next day.
Oct 11, 2000 in Central America 2000
When the Spanish conquered Guatemala, they founded their first capital in 1527 at a site known today as Ciudad Vieja (Old City). Situated on the fertile flanks of the huge but extinct Volcán Agua, it seemed like an ideal place for a city. It lasted for just 14 years, though, before disaster struck. After weeks of heavy rains, the lake at the summit of the mountain breached the crater walls. A huge torrent of water and rock swept down the mountainside and ploughed through the city, completely obliterating it. A new capital was founded two years later, further from the volcano, and (so it was hoped) out of danger.
This city, known in full as La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala, thrived as the capital for 230 years, before disaster again struck. A huge earthquake struck the region, and the city was all but flattened. The present capital was established at Guatemala City, and the old capital, now known as La Antigua Guatemala (The Old Guatemala), no longer an important place, was very slowly repopulated.
Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes. Volcán Agua towers above the city to the south, while Volcán Acatenango and Volcán Fuego stand slightly further off to the west. Volcán Fuego is one of Central America’s most active volcanoes, and had been erupting every few weeks for many years, while slightly further away from Antigua, Volcán Pacaya is another very active volcano, which made the news here in January after a particularly large eruption.
We wanted to climb Pacaya and one of the three big volcanoes, but on our first day it was overcast and much colder here in the highlands than it had been at sea level. The clouds hung low, and we could only see the stumps of the three volcanoes, so we spent the first day just exploring the town. It was a beautiful town, with its colonial architecture and lively markets.
The next day was also grey, but we wanted to do something, so we decided to climb Cerro de la Cruz. This is a hill to the north of the town which was once notorious for armed robberies. Very few people ever went there, because if you did you were almost without fail relieved of all your belongings. However, these days, the Antigua police accompany anyone who wants to go up the hill. They are well armed, and it costs nothing, so we took advantage of this service and went up the hill. Despite the clouds it was a good view of the city nestled between the volcanoes, and we took many photographs.
Oct 05, 2000 in Central America 2000
The next day we wanted to go to one of the most active volcanoes in the chain, Cerro Negro. It didn’t exist before 1850, when a steaming crack in the ground suddenly began to exude lava, but now stands 600m tall, black and steaming, above the surrounding countryside. We took a bus to the town of Malpaisillo, from where (so my guide book told me) it was a 4km walk to the base of the volcano.
We struck out along the road from Malpaisillo, appreciating the fantastic weather. The temperature must have been at least 35°, but by now we were used to it, and we enjoyed it. After about half an hour we caught sight of the volcano, its black slopes dramatically contrasting with the lush greenery surrounding it. We quickened our pace, and after a couple of hours we reached a path which looked like it was going in the right direction. We passed a guy on a bike after a short way, and asked him if we were going the right way. He confirmed that we were, but told us it was a 10km walk to the volcano. This was a blow – to walk all the way there and back would take at least four hours, by which time it would be dark. Buses stop running long before sunset in this part of the world, so we decided we couldn’t go all the way, but we decided to walk as far as we could.
Initially our friend on the bicycle left us, but after about 10 minutes, he reappeared, and said he would walk with us. It was nice to have some company, but communication was difficult. My attempts at Spanish seemed to go down worse than usual, perhaps because very few travellers come this way, so foreign accents are a rarity. The cyclist spoke no English, so we mostly walked in silence. But I managed to establish that it was always this hot here, that there were often earthquakes, the volcano had erupted two years earlier, and that there were not many snakes around, but they were big. Lobi grinned disturbingly as he said this.
We walked for about an hour and a half before deciding to give up. Disappointingly, for most of the way we couldn’t even see the volcano, but it had been interesting. We saw no snakes, thankfully, though we did see one enormous, foot-long lizard. At about 4pm we reached the main road, and waited for a bus back to León.
Oct 04, 2000 in Central America 2000
We decided then to abandon all hope of climbing up Volcán Masaya and move on instead. Our next destination was Nicaragua’s other old city, León, and to get there we needed to get a bus to Managua, make our way across Managua, and get another bus across the outside. We had heard horror stories about Managua from many different people, and were not too keen to see what it had to offer. I was guarding my pack with extreme paranoia as we got off the bus at Managua’s central market. As we expected, there were plenty of taxis about, so we got a taxi across the city. It was a sunny and hot day, and the city didn’t actually look that horrible. It seemed a bit concrete and soulless, but then vast swathes of it were levelled by a huge earthquake in 1972.
We made it to the Mercado Bóer bus stop without being robbed or assaulted, and, still guarding our belongings fiercely, we boarded the bus to León. We had a great run up there as the sun set behind the chain of volcanoes which form a spine along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, arriving just after the sun set.
In the morning we headed for León Viejo (Old León). León was originally founded on the shores of Lago Managua, in the shadow of Volcán Momotombo, and for the next 86 years was the capital of the colonial district of Nicaragua (part of what was then called the Captaincy General of Guatemala). In 1610, however, it was destroyed by an eruption of Momotombo, and the city was moved to its present location. The ruins of the original city can still be seen, and it was to here that we headed.
After a typical Nicaraguan bus journey involving crowds of people selling goods ranging from soft drinks and snacks to disposable razors and hair clips, and a bone-shaking run down some very badly maintained roads, we arrived at the village of Puerto Momotombo. It was quite a surreal place, with just a few houses, and no roads to speak of, just dusty tracks. There were very few locals about, and it felt like we were the first outsiders to visit the place in years. We walked down to the shores of Lago de Managua to have a look around.
It was a strange place down there. The black sand beach was covered in straggly plants, and there were a few stumps of long-dead trees on the shore and in the lake. Across the water, the towering red cone of Momotombo was steaming gently, and in the distance we could see a village woman washing clothes in the lake water. The only noise was the buzzing of the insects. We sat for a while, appreciating the tranquillity and solitude, before heading back up the track to the village, and looking for the ruins.
Where there are no roads, no signs and no people, it is quite hard to find what you want to see. We searched for some time for León Viejo, before finding someone, asking the way, and discovering that we were right outside the gate. For the entry fee of about 75p, we got a guided tour of the site, which was great. I’d only been learning Spanish for a few weeks but I felt like I understood a decent amount of what we were being told. The ruins were not really much to look at – just the foundations of a few large buildings, the rest completely obliterated. But the history was fascinating, and it was incredible to imagine that this was one of the earliest settlements in the New World.
What made the place really impressive was the views. From a small hill in the middle of the unfortunate city, there was a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. This north western corner of Nicaragua is dominated by the Cordillera de los Maribios, a range of volcanoes which frequently erupt (there had been at least six eruptions in the five years before we were there), and from the hill, we could see six volcanoes, three of which were steaming. This formed the stunning backdrop to the forested plains and Lago de Managua.
We signed a guest book on the way out. The entry above ours was from almost a month before.
Oct 03, 2000 in Central America 2000
The next day dawned fine, and, with an Australian traveller called Ashley who was staying at the same hotel as us, we got an early bus out to Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya. However, our luck was not in and by the time we got there it was once again hammering down with rain. We nonetheless decided we would give the volcano a go, but the park ranger told us the path was closed, both because of the weather, and because large amounts of poisonous gas were being given off by the volcano. We were forced to leave it for another day.
We decided to visit the nearby town of Masaya, and got a bus to the outskirts of town, and walked towards the centre. The rain was still ludicrously heavy, and the roads were flooded. Progress was slow, as we had to find safe places to cross the roads. Drains in Nicaragua often did not have grilles on them, so stepping off the pavement into fast-flowing muddy water was quite a serious risk. However, we made it safely to Masaya’s Mercado Central about an hour later, and had a look around. While we were in there the rain finally stopped, so we walked to the end of town, to look over the tranquil Laguna Masaya to Volcán Masaya itself. The sun once again forced its way out, and mist began to rise from the lake. The volcano could be seen steaming away, and we were determined that we would make it to the top.
We thought we were in luck the next day when we found that it was bright sunshine. The papers said that a Red Alert hurricane warning had been declared, but we decided to give Masaya one last try. It stayed fine as we approached the entrance to the Parque Nacional, and we had great views of the steaming cone. But once again the trail was closed. Apparently the heavy rains had percolated through to the hot rocks below, and the result was that the volcano was emitting large quantities of highly acidic gas. So again we were denied.
Sep 27, 2000 in Central America 2000
Ometepe was certainly fascinating just in terms of its recent history. But it’s also a very beautiful place. Though their tops were invariably covered in cloud while we were on the island, the two volcanoes make for a great setting. The larger of the two, the active Volcán Concepción, looms right behind Altagracia, while the smaller, Maderas, can be seen far away to the south-west. Early on our second day, we set out to see what we could do about climbing Volcán Concepción.
We set out along the road south from Altagracia, looking, as our guidebook told us to, for a cemetary on the right after a mile and a half, past which ran a trail up the volcano. We walked for a good three miles before deciding we’d gone too far, and headed back. Fortunately our Spanish (well, mine at least – Moh was still trying to master the phrase for ‘I don’t speak Spanish’) was up to asking for directions, and we found the path. It was about 7am, but already I was dripping with sweat. We headed up the path, first crossing some plantations, before getting out of the cultivated land and into the forest. We climbed for about an hour and a half, occasionally getting a good view over the island, but mostly being in thick jungle. Unfortunately we hadn’t been able to buy any food, and having not eaten breakfast we were forced by hunger to turn back at about 8.30am. We were back in town by 10am, and ate a hearty breakfast.
We were staying at the Hotel Castillo, mentioned in all the guidebooks as being a great place to stay. We had good rooms for only £3 a night. The reason the hotel was so recommended was that the family who run it were said to be exceptionally accommodating, sharing their wealth of knowledge about the island with anyone who asked them. Sadly the legendary Señor Castillo, who had lived on the island for eighty-odd years, was not around when we were staying, but instead there was a friendly guy called Neftali, who worked on a banana plantation during the day, but came to the hotel most evenings to chat to the guests, practising his English and sharing his knowledge of the island. We spent a long while that evening chatting to him about the island and Nicaragua in general.
Sep 24, 2000 in Central America 2000
The next morning, we set out to explore the mountain. Rincón de la Vieja is at the centre of a region of great geothermal activity, and the evidence for subterranean heat is everywhere. A well-trodden trail winds past many geothermal features, and we set out along it. Before long we were temporarily out of the forest, and all around could see steam rising from the ground. It was quite a sight, and we set off in search of what was steaming.
Over the next three hours or so, we passed hot pools of water, gently simmering and glooping pools of mud, warm streams, and a steaming hole in the ground which was rumbling and groaning ominously. We also saw a fearsomely boiling pool of mud known as Volcancito. It was quite a sight, and we couldn’t help but wonder just how far below us the magma here was.
After seeing all that we could on the trail, we returned to our tents and had a magnificent pasta, tomato and tuna meal, before breaking camp. We had arranged to be picked up at the park’s other ranger station, 8km away, and we had four hours to do it in. We wanted to stop at some hot springs on the way, so we thought we’d leave plenty of time.
It was pretty hard going, though, with the first four kilometres being almost entirely uphill. Moh at one point complained that his legs weren’t working, and promptly fell over. However, we were making very reasonable time. With about an hour and a half left before our driver was to pick us up, we arrived at the trail which led to the springs. A quick kilometre and we were there, and it was truly wonderful. Hot water emerges from beneath some rocks, and flows into a cool stream, and where they mix is pure heaven. I sat with my feet in the cool water and the rest of me in the hot, and relaxed.
But all too soon we had to be on our way, and we set off renewed for the final 3km. We set a blistering pace, and arrived at the ranger station at the same time as our lift, although Moh was looking somewhat the worse for wear. ‘Bue…nos…di…as’, he said to our driver, wheezing terribly. ‘You look terrible’ replied our scrupulously honest driver. We had a great run back to Liberia in the fading light of day, and on arrival back at our hospedaje, we drank about a gallon of water each and I had the best shower ever.
Sep 23, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had spent enough time around Arenal, so the next day, we moved on to our next destination, Rincón de la Vieja. Situated in north western Costa Rica, this is another active volcano, which last erupted in 1998. We hoped to climb to the top and camp the night there. We made our way to Liberia, via the towns of Tilaran and Cañas. During the three-leg journey, the weather got ever hotter. As well as talking to a crazy young Costa Rican called Jorge, who would occasionally lean out the window and do tarzan whoops as we passed through the forest, we met two Austrian travellers, Andi and Eva, who also wanted to go to Rincón de la Vieja. We decided we’d all go up together, and decided to try and find a way there the next day.
There is no public transport to Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, but the owner of the hotel Moh and I were staying at had a 4WD, and said he’d take us to the park and pick us up the next day for $10 each. We hired him, and after we’d bought food and fuel, we set off.
It was an awesomely bumpy but beautiful drive up to the park. We arrived at about 11am, and after paying our park fees, we decided to go hiking. We left our backpacks by the ranger station and set out for Catarata de Cangreja (Crab falls), which the park ranger told us was the best of the many waterfalls in the park. It was a marvellous walk through the tropical dry forest (it’s a technical name – it really isn’t dry at all), and after about three hours we arrived. Much like the waterfall we visited near Fortuna, it was a perfect tropical cascade plunging into a shimmering blue pool.
We gladly swam, as it had been a hot and exhausting walk. By the time we set out for the return leg, the afternoon rains were approaching. The rains turned out to be light, but there was thunder so loud it made me duck. But we made it back to the ranger station OK, only to find that disaster had struck. Before we had left for the falls, a friendly racoon had wandered right up to us. He was quite an endearing little fellow, we thought, but when we got back, we found that he had opened Eva’s backpack, eaten all her bread, and just for a laugh, thrown her dried pasta everywhere.
Fortunately, Moh and I were unusually well prepared, and our contingency stocks were more than sufficient to feed us all well. We set up camp a few hundred yards into the woods, and as it got dark we cooked a marvellous meal of dried pasta and vegetables. Simple food, but when you cook it over a tiny stove in a jungle wilderness on a volcano in Costa Rica, it seems like the best food in the world.
Sep 20, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had met two Germans, Colom and Sylvia, down by the falls. Colom had a pickup truck, and when we saw that the volcano was visible, he said he would drive out towards it after nightfall, and invited us along. We gladly accepted.
When darkness fell, a distinct orange glow could be seen over the volcano, and when Colom called around with his truck, we leapt keenly aboard. It was a spectacular drive out along the road past the volcano, with the wind in our hair, fireflies flashing around, and the volcano glowing high in the sky. However, as we watched, the clouds began to lower, and the volcano disappeared from view. Soon it was pelting down with rain. We sat inside the cab of the pickup until it had eased off, and then drove on.
It was not long before the top of the volcano emerged again, and we decided to stop and watch it. All the rivers which run off the volcano are heated by the magma, and several places along the road here channel streams into pools. We stopped at one of these and sat in the thermal waters, watching the truly awesome sight of the volcano erupting.
Eventually we had to leave. We stopped at a café by the roadside for a bite to eat and watched the volcano from there, but now we were round the other side from the eruptions, and all we could see was the glow. It had been an amazing sight, and we hoped we would see it again.
The next day, we planned to hike back along the road, and make our way to a viewpoint we had seen signposted the day before. We were going to watch the eruptions from there as the sun set. We bought food and drink and were all set to go, when suddenly Moh was afflicted by what they call Montezuma’s Revenge in these parts. We had to give the walk a miss, but later on when it was dark, the eruptions could be seen again, so we went for a walk around town, and took some photos.
Much later, I learned a painful lesson from the photo here. Someone asked me if they could publish it in a book. I was very excited by this and agreed. Sadly, the person concerned never paid me as promised, and also lost the slide. So, all I have now is the poor-quality highly compressed JPEG from a budget scanner that you see above. Ah well – I’ll just have to go back to Arenal some time.
Sep 17, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had intended to depart for San Jose early the next day, but Jose said there was a great fruit market in Alajuela, so we went to that. It was a vibrant, colourful affair, with a beer tent and live music, and we had a great time buying lots of weird tropical fruits. I got horrifically sunburnt for the first time on the trip, but it had been a fun day so I didn’t mind. Eventually at about 4pm we left for San José.
This meant we arrived just after dark, and it was raining. This is not really a sensible time to arrive in a big bustling Latin American capital, and it wasn’t long before we attracted unwanted attention. ‘Where you going?’ said a shifty looking character. ‘We’re looking for the Tica Linda hostel’ we said. He strode off purposefully, beckoning to us to follow him. Having no better plan, we did just that. He introduced himself as Patrick Fernandez, and said he hoped we’d enjoy Costa Rica. Friendly enough, but when he began walking down very dodgy looking streets, we began to worry. Then he walked into a dark unlit park, and we began to really worry. We made it out the other side unscathed, though, and saw a sign saying ‘Hotel Rialto’. We sent Patrick on his way and checked in. Only much later did we realise that ‘Tica Linda’ means ‘pretty Costa Rican’, and we could then guess where Patrick might have been leading us.
We managed to avoid any further dodgy situations that evening, and after a very noisy night at the Hotel Rialto, which had paper-thin walls, we got a bus the next morning to Volcán Irazú. At 3432m, it is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, and like Poás, is a well-developed tourist attraction. However, unlike Poás, we found that the summit was cloaked in thick cloud when we got there. We walked to the edge of the crater, but we could see nothing, so we went and ate a rice and beans breakfast in the food shack near the top. However, about an hour later, things were brightening a bit, and we walked back to the crater edge. The cloud was thinning rapidly, and suddenly we could see green far below, and a few moments later the view was clear.
Irazú erupted last in 1965, but has been quiet since then. It is less lunar than Poás, and the lake is green, but otherwise it’s much the same – a rather safe, touristy, and unadventurous destination. Impressive, but we were eager to get on to more remote areas, so the next day, we got a bus over the mountainous spine of Costa Rica to Volcán Arenal.
Sep 15, 2000 in Central America 2000
Day 2, mission 1. Most of the population of Costa Rica live in a fertile valley in the central highlands called the Meseta Central. About 1500m above sea level, it is ringed by towering volcanoes. Some of them are active, and one of these is Volcán Poás. It stands 2704m tall in the middle of Parque Nacional Volcán Poas, and it last erupted in 1994, destroying what park facilities existed at the time. Since then, though, the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica every year has quadrupled to more than a million. Volcán Poás is a prime attraction, so they have rebuilt everything and put a paved road right to the very top.
We went to the bus stop in Alajuela early in the morning, and got the bus to the crater. Our first sight of Costa Rica in the daylight was impressive – the fertile farmlands of the Meseta Central with dramatic cloud-capped peaks rising behind. After an increasingly bumpy two hour bus ride, we were at the top. A short walk led us to the edge of the crater, and far below was Poás’ amazingly turquoise crater lake, surrounded by a barren lunar landscape. The lake was steaming gently, confirming that the volcano has not shut up yet.
After we had taken all the photos we could, we walked through the cloudforest (it’s like a rainforest only at high altitude) to Poás’ other crater, called Laguna del Botos. This one has not erupted for thousands of years, and is a beautiful green colour. Lush forest surrounds it, and it would have felt very remote, but for the families with their picnic lunches sitting around. The name comes from the Botos indians, who inhabited this area before the Spanish arrived.
It had been a beautiful morning, with plenty of sunshine. I’d never been to the tropics before and It had seemed strange to see the sun directly overhead, but now it began to cloud over. We were to learn over the next few weeks that it does this without fail during the rainy season in these parts. By the time we had walked back to the park museum building it was hammering down. We bought a coffee and waited around. The rain didn’t stop, though, and eventually we had to brave it and go and catch our bus. This done we enjoyed the run down. The rain was heavier than I’d ever seen before, and raging torrents were forming by the roadside. Lightening was striking incredibly close by, and the thunder was so awesomely loud it was scary.
We made it back to Alajuela safely, though, and spent the evening waiting for Moh’s backpack to be delivered. Warren was there as well, waiting for a fried chicken that he had ordered to arrive, and as we all waited, we found out what Warren was doing in Costa Rica. It turned out that he had driven down from Nevada. He was about 65 and retired, but somehow he had got himself employed to drive a car containing seven Chihuahuas from Nevada to Costa Rica (what for, we never discovered). Despite knowing no Spanish at all, except for ‘No Espanol’ and ‘Shervaza’, which was his poor attempt at saying cerveza (beer), Warren had done OK, driving through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, crossing the borders without trouble.
It began to go wrong for him when he entered Nicaragua. The Chihuahuas had been getting their documents stamped all the way down, but somehow one was overlooked at the Nicaraguan border. Unaware of this, Warren drove on, but when he got to Costa Rica, the border guards naturally asked where he’d got the other Chihuahua from, and when he couldn’t answer, they impounded his car. In the confusion, Warren didn’t get his passport stamped. He had made his way to Alajuela and was trying to get in touch with the owner of the Chihuahuas, who had not yet paid him, and seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. So Warren was now illegally resident in Costa Rica, with no money and no car. Despite this, he was quite a cheerful fellow, but he was also a complete lunatic. Just as he began to talk about his wolf spirit guide, Moh’s backpack thankfully arrived.
Sep 13, 1999 in Iceland 1999
Day 23, Monday September 13th, was an amazing day. After recovering from the aurora-watching of the day before, we headed over to the airport to hire a plane over Surtsey.
Surtsey is one of the better known bits of Iceland. It wasn’t there before 1963, but in October of that year, a fishing boat saw plumes of black smoke pouring from the sea. Thinking it was a boat on fire, the crew hurried to the source of the smoke, only to find that it was a new volcano, exploding from beneath the sea. Film crews soon arrived from all over the world, and the birth of the new island was captured on film. It grew rapidly, and soon reached 100m above sea level. During the early months of the eruption, the sea had easy access to the erupting lava, and violent explosion hurled large rock up to five miles from the craters. As the land grew, however, the sea was eventually blocked out, and the eruption became much calmer. Lava flows ran out over the loose piles of volcanic debris, putting a hard cap on the island, and making it a permanent fixture on world maps. The eruption gradually waned during 1965 and 1966, and in 1967, when the island was 1300 metres wide and 174 metres high, the eruption finally ended.
These days, access to Surtsey is restricted to scientists, who are researching how life begins to gain a foothold on new land. To see the island, we had to fly over it, and this we did. We walked back out to the airport, this time entering from the conventional direction, and ordered our plane. Within twenty minutes, we were taking off in a small, 5-seater light plane.
We headed out towards Surtsey, over Storhöfði, the windy southern peninsula of Heimaey. The turbulence was impressive here, with the plane rocking alarmingly. We flew then over the rest of the Westman islands. Strung out between Heimaey and Surtsey, these small rocky affairs are home only to millions of birds, and the occasional puffin hunter.
Having passed these by, after about 15 minutes we were at Surtsey. The experience was indescribable. We had the most incredible view of the island that it is possible to have, seeing wonderfully the craters and lava flows, and comprehending the unbelievable energy behind the formation of this island. We made several flybys, some high and some low, before heading back up to the mainland via a steep banking turn over Eldfell. When we were landed we all agreed that the flight had been one of the highlights of the trip.
To celebrate our great day, we had another meal out that evening, spending some £55 on a modest pizza. In the mood we were in, we could have a lot more quite easily. On the way home, we took part in another Vestmannaeyjar tradition: every year towards the end of the summer, the baby puffins that nest around the island leave their nests and head out to sea. Some of them, though, are unfortunate enough to accidentally head towards the town. They flap about hopelessly on the roads, at the mercy of cats and cars. The children of Heimaey run around with cardboard boxes, capturing the hapless birds, feeding them and keeping them warm overnight, before casting them into the sea in the morning.
On our way home, we encountered a baby puffin, who was tripping over his wings in his haste to get away. We caught him, took him back to the campsite, and fed him John’s can of tuna, before putting him in a waste paper basket for the night. He seemed quite happy, and after he had eaten another lot of tuna in the morning, we took him to the coast, and cast him into the stormy North Atlantic.
Sep 11, 1999 in Iceland 1999
We woke up the next day to the sound of torrential rain and high winds. This put something of a dampener on our plans, which we quickly rethought. We decided to go to the Volcano Show, which is indoors and dry. It showed spectacular footage of the recent eruptions, which made us very keen to explore the area. However, it was far too horrible outside to even think about going for a walk.
Fortunately, the second day on Heimaey was a bit better (though not much). Intermittent drizzle was irritating, but didn’t stop us doing stuff, so we climbed Eldfell. A two-mile walk from the campground took us over much of the lava field to the base of the mountain. Here, the earth still steams with the heat of the lava, and gusts of warm air seem to come from nowhere. A cross stands as a memorial to the one person who died in the eruption. We set off past the cross up the hill.
It was much harder going than we expected. The hill is made of loose fragments of rock, and so is much like a slagheap. Two steps up, one step down is the situation as you progress upwards. The scenery was very impressive, though, with huge boulders brightly coloured in yellow and red strewn all about. As we approached the summit, we passed many steaming vents, and the ground was distinctly warm as we sat on the peak. From the top, we had a good view of the southern end of the 1973 fissure, and the ancient volcano Helgafell just to the west. It was clear from up here how threatened and vulnerable the town was.
On our return to ground level, we decided that it was about time we had a meal out. We had originally budgeted for eating out about half the time, but self-catering turned out to be much easier than we had expected, and eating out much more expensive. However, we had been self-catering in shifts on our single stove for 21 days now, so we decided to go for it. We went to a lovely little place, and had the local speciality, Puffin. We also had their cheapest bottle of wine, a modest desert, and a slightly outlandish Drambuie coffee to finish. This came to £100.
After this outrageous profligacy, we rounded off the evening by going to a party. The people in the restaurant had told us that there was a big do in town to celebrate 80 years since the end of a volcanic eruption, although they were unsure as to which one. We decided that our mission should include going to this party, and so off we went. Several different bands were playing Icelandic folk music, and everybody was riotously drunk, and singing along enthusiastically. And I really mean everyone, from ages 15 to 90. We would have joined in, but we couldn’t possibly afford the 400 kroner cans of beer, and we didn’t know the words. So we went home at about 1.30am, and slept very late the next day.
Sep 03, 1999 in Iceland 1999
The first thing to do is cross the lava flow behind the hut. This took about an hour, and led us to the foot of Brenninsteinsalda, an active volcano with many steaming craters on its slopes. One in particular, right next to the path, looked very dramatic, with brightly coloured minerals occasionally visible through the steam. We stopped to take stock of the situation, and it began to hail. We decided to walk on for half an hour, during which time sleety rain began to fall.
We were feeling somewhat dubious now, because we were some 500m below the highest point on the first day. The snowline wasn’t too far above us, and the cloud layer was coming down rapidly. We sadly decided that it would be at best very unpleasant, and at worst dangerous to continue. We sat dejectedly by the crater for a few minutes, and then picked up our packs and went back to the hut.
We were sat in the kitchen, feeling a bit disappointed, when the warden came in. “Oh, hi guys! What are you still doing here?”. We told him the story, and he nodded sympathetically. “So where are you going to stay tonight?” he asked. Here, we said, a little uncertainly. “Sorry, guys, the hut is totally booked out tonight. You’ll have to camp.” The hut was completely empty at this point. He was smiling, and so we replied in jest. He insisted, less jovially, but it was only when he had taken our money and ushered us firmly out of the door that we began to think he was serious. “And I don’t sing for campers!”, he shouted, slamming the door.
This was not good. Waves of lashing rain were now arriving every 10 minutes or so, and it was very cold. We set up our tents, and ran back to the hot pool. After about five hours, we had to face reality and admit that we couldn’t stay in there all night, and went to camp.
Fearsome wind and rain during the night had left some of us slightly damp. After a morning spent back in the hut, warming up and cursing the group of Swedes who had booked it, we decided to leave this place, and get on with the holiday. We took the bus out at 1.30pm, and went to Selfoss.
Aug 31, 1999 in Iceland 1999
Early the next morning, we left for Laki, a 25km long fissure, which in 1783 unleashed the largest and most devastating lava flow known to man. Over 10 months, it covered 200 square miles of land, completely filling 2 river valleys. The huge amount of volcanic gas releases poisoned the land and the sea all over the south of Iceland. Three-quarters of the livestock perished, and in the ensuing famine, a quarter of the Icelanders died. There was talk of evacuating them all to Denmark, but they resisted.
We were getting the last bus of the season, up another road shortly to be closed for the winter. Strangely, the bus driver laughed heartily when we asked for a discount with our Circle Passes, said no, and then charged us half of what we had been expecting anyway. Once on the way, we passed by the usual spectacular scenery, this time an amazing canyon, and a beautiful waterfall, Fagrifoss (which actually means Beautiful Falls).
On arrival at the fissure, the first thing to do was climb Mt. Laki itself. At 818m high, it affords a magnificent view of the fissure stretching away into the distance front and back, and the mind-boggling expanses of lava fields. The weather was a little unpredictable, with very sombre skies giving way to bright sunshine every half hour or so. Brightly lit land beneath ominous clouds lent the place the air of menace that it deserved.
Once we were down from the mountain, we had time to quickly look inside the largest crater of the fissure, before the bus took us twenty minutes down the road to look at some other craters. This time, the driver, who couldn’t speak much English, drew some diagrams in the sand to indicate that we should follow the marked trail while he drove the bus around to another crater to meet us. And so the seven of us on the tour strode off into the wilderness.
The landscape here was incredible. Inside the first crater was a beautiful lake, very placid and calm. Everything was covered in squidgy moss, which made it feel like you were walking on air and made it look a bit like the set of the Teletubbies. The surreal rock formations all around lent it an other-worldly air.
We walked over hills and through valleys, wondering if we would ever be seen again when the path went underground, but eventually we met up with the driver again. He led us onward into a small clearing, hesitated, and then said, or gave the impression that he had said, be means of exaggerated confused facial expressions and repeated shrugs, “But where is the bus?”. Fortunately, this was merely Icelandic humour, and after just half an hour of panic, he led us around the hill to where he had parked. We headed back to Skaftafell.
Aug 28, 1999 in Iceland 1999
On day 5 we went to Askja. It must be said here and now that Askja is fearsomely remote. Deep in the interior of Iceland, temperatures average below freezing for 8 months of the year, and what is laughably called the road (it’s a track scraped into the dust) is passable for only 3 months a year. We caught the penultimate tour of the year down there, and made sure that we had packed all our warm clothes. In fact, though, the weather was quite nice. The sun shone brightly, and when we stopped for lunch near Mt. Herðubreið, we had lunch in the sun on a picnic table outside the mountain hut there. After another stop at the side of the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum (the same river which plunges over Dettifoss), we got to Askja at about 2pm.
The first thing to do was explore the caldera. A caldera is formed when a volcano has a huge eruption, and the magma chamber underneath is emptied. The mountain above then crashes into the ground, leaving a huge crater. Askja did this in 1875, expelling enough volcanic material with enough force for some of it to land in Scotland. The volcano collapsed in on itself, leaving a 50 square kilometre crater. The former flanks of the volcano now form a ring of mountains known as the Dyngjufjoll.
The deepest part of the crater is filled with Iceland’s deepest lake, Öskjuvatn. On the day we went, the placidly shimmering reflections of the snow-capped mountains in the still waters of the lake made it hard to believe the destruction behind the beauty. A swim would be tempting but for the near-freezing temperature of the water, and also the fact that two German researchers once disappeared without a trace while out on the lake in a small boat.
More inviting is the lake inside Viti, an explosion crater formed during the most recent eruptions at Askja, in 1961. Not to be confused with the Viti at Krafla, this Viti contains a hot, opaquely blue lake, apparently ideal for swimming. However, you have to negotiate a steep and slippery slope down into the depths of the crater, and even at the top, the smell of sulphur is overwhelming. Even though there were completely naked Swiss girls in there, we gave it a miss.
The weather stayed nice for the first two days at Askja. This brought out the midges, but the magnificent desolation of the beautiful wastelands more than made up for that. A spectacular canyon cut deep in the mountain just behind where we camped, and a hill nearby afforded a stunning view all the way to the volcano Snæfell 40 miles to the east, and Herðubreið 30 miles to the north. Lava from 1961 snaked across the plains, and several ancient craters could be seen. The land for miles around was covered in light, fluffy pumice stones from the 1875 explosion. I took one large piece as a souvenir but it crumbled into dust long before it got anywhere near leaving Iceland.
We spent two days hiking about in the wild mountains, and the place left a profound impression on us. Here, we were as far from civilization as we had ever been. The nearest town, the nearest shops, the nearest help, were a gruelling 6 hour journey in a 4WD vehicle away. Within fifty miles of us, there were probably no more than a few hundred people. Within fifty miles of London, you’d find perhaps 20 million people.
On the second evening, though, the weather took a turn for the worse. Rain fell as the sun went down, getting heavier as the night went on. By one in the morning, half an inch of water had found its way into one of our two tents. By the time the bus passed by at 4pm on the third day, we were not distraught at the prospect of leaving. We passed by Herðubreið, by now enwreathed in cloud, and thanked the Norse gods for the good weather we’d had.
Aug 24, 1999 in Iceland 1999
Day four, mission two. Krafla volcano is not really a volcano at all, although there is a hill with that name in the area. What in fact happens at Krafla is that the ground is pulled from both sides by continental drift. Every 200 years or so, it suddenly gives way about 10 times over a decade or two. Each time it does, vast fissures open up, sometimes over 20 miles long, and lava spurts out along the entire length of them. The last lot of eruptions at Krafla occurred between 1975 and 1984, but geologists believe that the eruptive series is not over. The ground has swollen upwards by about half a metre since the last eruption, indicating a very full magma chamber, two miles beneath the surface. Fearlessly, we set off into the heart of it all.
We first walked around the 320m wide explosion crater known as ‘Viti’, meaning Hell. A lake of very blue water fills the bottom, and it would be very tempting to go swimming, if the sides of the crater weren’t so steep and loose. We had fun starting several mini-landslides by kicking a small stone over the edge.
By the side of Viti are several mud pots. Throughout most of Iceland there is seldom a sign or a barrier to warn visitors about any danger, but here there were warning signs to say that getting too close to the mud pots would be a very bad idea because the crumbling ground might give way. We stood close enough to watch them bubbling and glooping. During the eruptions of 1724-8 in the area, they used to spurt up to 10m high, but now 10cm is about the best they do. They still look nice.
From Viti and the mudpots, we walked through the lava flows from 1984. The centrepiece here is the crater Leirhnjúkur, which is full of startlingly blue, awful-smelling water, which bubbles continuously. Brilliantly coloured mineral deposits fringe the pool, and steam rises from various hot points. The smell was unbearable, and sadly it didn’t deter the midges, so Leirhnjúkur was best appreciated in small doses.
From Leirhnjúkur, we walked through the still-hot lava from 1984. Steam was pouring from cracks in the surface, and occasionally the rocks were warm enough to heat the air into disconcerting patches of sweltering heat. From there, it was a short walk back over some cracked earth back to the car park, from where we could have got a bus back to Mývatn. We, however, fancied a walk back in the sunshine.
It was a good three-hour walk back to the campsite, but the weather and scenery were good. The only other people we saw on the way were two German cyclists. It’s a strange thing that almost every German you meet in Iceland is cycling across it, and almost every cyclist you meet is German. As they struggled up a large hill, we detoured via some hot springs at Námafjall. It was warm enough not to need hats and gloves on. Somewhere along the way my hat fell out of my pocket. I hoped that the weather would stay fine for the next three weeks…
Jan 30, 1998 in Sicily 1998