When you travel with Exodus, you never know who your fellow travellers will be. This is part of what makes this style of holiday a cut above your average sizzle on the beach experience. Every group is different and contains a variety of characters. And so it was with the volcanoes of Sicily and the Aeolian islands; as I climbed up each one during the Sicilian Volcanoes trekking trip, I had time to muse on their various personalities.
The trip is well named; it’s all about walking on and up the volcanoes whose summits protrude from the sea to form the Aeolian Islands plus Etna, which is on Sicily itself. As well as the treks, there is lots of time to relax and enjoy the sumptuous Italian cuisine, something both I and my mixed bag of soon to be volcanic veterans were keen to discover.
First up was Vulcano – the volcano from which all others take their name. Unassuming in stature, Vulcano nevertheless possesses an absolutely perfect ‘geography textbook’ crater. Dramatic, vertiginous slopes of loose rock and ash plunge down to an innocent-looking flat centrepiece. Trekking up any volcano requires some effort but Vulcano has a little trick up (or perhaps that should be down) its lava tubes to remind visitors that its calm exterior is just a smokescreen for the maelstrom below. On one side, fumaroles vent noxious gases into the air. Breathe at the wrong moment and the inside of your nose starts to burn and you are obliged to cough out the choking fumes. But don’t worry - this volcanic adolescent is just reminding you who is boss. Don’t linger too long and he won’t hurt you.
A short hydrofoil journey away sits Lipari, a pretty little volcanic island with a lively main town. Lipari has long since retired from active volcanic duties but in retirement provides visitors with pretty coastal paths complete with an array of beautiful flowers. The paths are deserted and we were spoilt for choice with scenic picnic spots and photographic opportunities. Back in the main town, a tangy granita made with Sicilian lemons was particularly refreshing after walking on a hot day.
Next up is Stromboli – restless but full of pent-up energy with an artistic temperament – calm some of the time but prone to sudden fiery outbursts (sound like anyone you know?). Stromboli has been erupting continuously for over 2000 years and is yet to tire of sporadically vomiting rocky projectiles into the air. A two and a half hour sunset climb to the summit created some suitably sweaty and dusty individuals. As darkness approached, Stromboli was ready for action, working up to the first of five dramatic eruptions. Lava flows are rare here but she has got spitting rocks off to a fine art. The sight and sound are surreal; surely there is a team from the Italian tourist board somewhere below turning a giant release valve?
The descent of Stromboli is almost as exciting as its eruptions. In complete darkness, head torches are a necessity but the visibility gained is quickly lost by the clouds of dust kicked up by fellow walkers, ensuring that you will never know the true extent of the steep drops below. Halfway down, a rest stop revealed a stunning scene behind. In the distance a row of bobbing torches were set off perfectly by a rising crescent moon peeping through a rocky cleft. Hot, sweaty and dusted with a fine layer of ash – I’ve never been so happy to get so dirty.
It’s hard to imagine what could top Stromboli but the dark, brooding and immense form of Etna comes close. Etna’s bulk dominates everything for miles around so that even when she is quiet, she cannot be ignored. Those who go to her summit will be rewarded by a landscape that would not look out of place on Mars. To reach her summit you first get a helping hand, covering much of the distance by cable car and 4WD before completing the journey on foot.
Trekking through loose ash and over recent lava flows, the thinner oxygen levels bite on the steeper sections. Finally you emerge at the rim of the main crater - a yawning chasm almost 1km wide. Swirling cloud and steam obscure the depths but occasionally they clear just long enough for you to realise that Etna’s crater is of immense proportions. She hides her size well, but you can never escape the feeling of formidable power that emanates from every inch of this volcanic giant.
Walking back down to the cable car station where we had started our ascent of Etna, much fun was had striding down steep sections of deep ash with resultant boot emptying stops. A break for refreshments at the bottom gave me a moment to thank Etna for not erupting that particular day. If I had to pick a favourite amongst the volcanoes, it would have to be Stromboli. This wild child shows no signs of wanting to retire or even grow up and gets top marks for entertaining her guests so brilliantly. Maybe I should go back next time Etna is erupting….