Rocks the size of body parts fly above us in an orange fizz. The earth rumbles and a pungent mushroom of sulphur puffs up from the abyss. Hiking Stromboli may not be as difficult as climbing Kilimanjaro but there hike is quite astonishing.
We are standing on the lip of Stromboli volcano, a temperamental volcano in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of mainland Italy watching the cauldron erupt below and hoping that our yellow plastic helmets will be enough in case a boulder the size of a car is spat in our direction.
While Armani and the Italian president are lounging on the black-sand beaches below for their summer vacations, I am interested in something a little more heart-thumping than tanning to the colour of one of Giorgio’s nice leather handbags.
I sign-up with Magma Trek for an evening ascent of the volcano that is 918m above the town.
It’s the only place where it is possible to watch the explosions from above.
Our group is lead by Lorenzo, an Italian biologist who has been leading treks to the summit of the volcano for 14 years.
We are ankle-deep in the fine volcanic sand coughed across the entire island as we walk.
Lorenzo sets an easy pace and pauses to pick clumps of wild absinthe that grow where the vineyards used to populate the slopes above Stromboli town.
Until the 1970s Stromboli had a population of 5000 (and healthy wine industry), though with the continuous explosions rattling the nerves of the locals, all but 300 left.
As we hike Stromboli, the crumbling switchbacks to gain altitude Lorenzo explains a little more about our target.
Stromboli is a baby in volcanic terms, with only 5000-10,000 years on the clock.
While we are climbing the 918m to its summit today, Stromboli is actually 2800m, though two-thirds are submerged under the ocean.
The magma chamber is under the water and when chemical reactions occur, it is just like the gas in a bottle of champagne bubbling from the neck when the cork is popped.
These explosions happen every 20 minutes, 365 days a year. This isn’t a natural attraction that can be harnessed though.
There are volcanologists (no relation to Star Trek aficionados) who monitor the activity constantly.
Occasionally Lorenzo tells us that a parosystic explosion can occur, which has no warning and can be especially vicious.
In 2007 a blast created a 2-kilometre long smoke cloud and ejected rocks ranging from 500 kilograms to 3 tonnes that destroyed two houses below in the village.
I scuttle to the front of the group and ask Lorenzo what we do in case there is a ‘big’ explosion.
He raises his voice for the whole group.
“Stay where you are, keep your eyes open….and try to avoid massive boulders,” he says with no hint of a smile on his face.
We pass a crater from Stromboli’s 2007 indigestion that is 3 metres across and I decide now is a good time to attach my flimsy yellow helmet. It might just be mental protection, but it’ll have to do.
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Cliffs of Strombolicchio
We continue walking up the incline, seeing the Aeolian Islands of Panarea and Lipari close by and the brooding peak of Mount Etna on Sicily across the Straits of Messina in the twilight fuzz.
In the distance, I see the sheer cliffs of Strombolicchio, a volcanic neck that is approximately 300, 000 years old.
A lighthouse sits atop this picturesque little island off the shore and apart from day-trippers, it is well known from Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 film Stromboli.
The star, Ingrid Bergman, and Rossellini had an affair during production and they are said to have conceived their child in the lighthouse, according to local fishermen anyway.
Strombolicchio shrinks in the distance as we go higher.
The climbing tears at my calves as I plod along the track behind my fellow trekkers.
As if to taunt my faltering fitness levels I see wild goats clambering up vertical slopes with ease to grab the few clumps of grass that survive on the plateau.
We hike higher and the gnarled vegetation thins out to nothing.
Apart from the volcano, the lack of freshwater makes it difficult for much life to prosper on Stromboli.
Lorenzo tells me that Peregrine Falcons, kestrels, ravens and the rare Eleonoras Falcon from Madagascar are a few of the bird species that call Stromboli home throughout the year along with goats, reptiles and rodents.
We circle the cone of the island and arrive at our base of 900m after three hours of walking.
The temperature increases as the sulphur bubbling from Stromboli warms the air.
Lorenzo tells us that Stromboli actually has three active craters, the most interesting is the Sciara del Fuoco, or Stream of Fire, which is a depression-prone to bleeding lava into the ocean below.
As if on cue, sparks fly from the volcano and orange streaks of fire follow the rocks shooting into the air.
As it booms Lorenzo excuses the sneeze of Stromboli with a ‘Bless you!’ and indicates we should leg it to the ridge, as we’ll now have approximately 20 minutes until the next explosion.
Using our head torches to navigate we find our perch above the abyss.
As we wait over the crater, my heart thumps and my sweaty hands fumble with the buttons of my camera.
Possibly to calm us Lorenzo says that Stromboli’s biggest explosion was eighty years ago in 1930, when rocks bombed the villages below and lava flowed between the houses and into the ocean, killing six people in the process.
Lord of the Rings
I feel as if I am Frodo standing above Mount Doom as I watch vapour escaping from the fissures.
The smoke turns dark and dirty and moments later a deep grumble erupts from the earth.
Like a gunshot, the pressure is released and rocks explode into the air with a tail of white-hot fire closer to us than is comfortable.
Not wanting to tempt fate any further Lorenzo ushers us off the lip and back down the other side of the volcano.
After seeing the craters and the power of these relatively minor eruptions I’m happy to get out of the firing line.
Using the moon and the streak of the Milky Way to guide us we trudge back through the knee-deep black sand.
The thunder-crack of the volcano shudders above us every twenty minutes during our descent and I occasionally glance up to see if there are any rogue boulders flying through the air, though in the moonlight it is impossible to tell.
We arrive back to Stromboli town late and it isn’t till I’m in my guesthouse and under a roof that I remove my little yellow helmet.
I’m exhausted and covered in a film of sweat and dust. I ask Giovanni, our guesthouse owner if he ever worries about living on the edge of an active volcano, “ha, not at all….when it erupts all the lava runs down the other side of the hill….over there!” he says pointing across town.
The lava goes down the other side of the hill, how silly of me to worry.
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