Looking for Lava

Mt Etna erupts and re-ignites my lust for lava.

At the top of Bromo with the sand sea in the background.

In 2008 I came close to achieving my dream of seeing lava. I was travelling through Indonesia and saw plenty of volcanoes in Java and Bali, but at none of them did I have any chance of seeing lava.

Not until Merapi that is.

Merapi, in Java, is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. I stayed at a hostel from which tours leave (you have to have a tour guide) and at about 3 o’clock in the morning we left by torchlight to climb the volcano to hopefully get a view of lava glowing in the dark and then watch the sunrise before climbing down again.

We walked through the village and began climbing the forest covered lower part of the volcano. This was the ‘safe’ zone, but we could feel it rumble under our feet.

The dam on the right hand side is one of many built to stop the flow of lava if Merapi erupts again.

Climbing higher we entered the ‘danger zone’. This is the bit you’re not supposed to enter without a guide. Every now and then we’d hear a sound like distant thunder rumbling and the ground would shudder.

The lava gorge in Kaliurang, Merapi

After several hours we reached the limits of the danger zone and were not permitted to go further. The top part of the volcano – the ‘forbidden’ zone – is completely off-limits, even with a guide.

Christian Awuy, the world expert on Merapi, in the lava gorge. He also owns the hostel.

We got a good viewpoint and waited for sunrise. As daylight started to spread its tentacles over the volcano we could see the smoke belching from the top. There were more rumbles and shudders, but not a speck of lava to be seen.

Apparently there was lava that day. Why didn’t we see it? Because it was flowing down the other side. How disappointing is that?

Smoking Merapi. The smoke was coming off the lava which was pouring out of the wrong side so I didn’t get to see it.

I might not have seen lava in Indonesia but even the thought of it ignited a spark and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.

Smoking Merapi

The following summer I spent a month in Iceland, home of a multitude of volcanoes including some extremely active ones.

I did a full circle of the country and spent time in the middle too. I saw plenty of volcanoes and walked across blackened landscapes that were still warm underfoot. Did I see lava? No.

Iceland lava rock
This used to be lava. It’s often still warm to the touch.

Then, as though it was thumbing its nose at me, Eyjafjallajökull blew. Remember that one? The one that stopped flights throughout half of the world leaving people stranded everywhere? The one with the name newsreaders couldn’t pronounce and so it gained the moniker ‘E15’ (the initial E and then the number 15 to symbolise the remaining 15 letters)?

This was in 2010, less than a year since I’d left Iceland. I’d spent a week walking by myself in Luxembourg (rather a volcano-less country) and hadn’t seen or heard any news. As I was flying home from Antwerp airport in Belgium (another country that doesn’t have much in the way of volacanoes), I’d travelled there the night before and stayed in a hostel.

Mývatn, Iceland.
Black on black on black. Near Mývatn, Iceland

The following morning I had a walk round Antwerp before heading back to the hostel at lunchtime to collect my backpack.

As I was leaving I turned to the guy on reception and for some reason rather than just saying ‘bye’ I said,

Bye, I’m leaving for the airport now’.

He looked puzzled, ‘Why?’

‘Because I’m flying home.’

‘But it’s closed.’

‘What do you mean it’s closed? I have a flight booked.’

‘Because of the volcano.’

‘But there aren’t any volcanoes in Belgium.’

‘No, the volcano in Iceland.’

‘But I’m not going to Iceland. I’m going to England.’

He had to get the news up on the internet for me to see before I could even begin getting my head round it.

What ensued was an unexpected extra week’s holiday in Antwerp, a city I thought I’d just be passing through. There were several people in the hostel in the same position and we got to know each other quite well. CNN was constantly tuned in and we’d gather round the TV set having another a coffee (morning) or another beer (evening) watching incredulously.

Mývatn, Iceland.
All shapes and sizes of volcano as far as the eye can see. Near Mývatn, Iceland.

I didn’t spend a week in front of the TV though. I made the most of my unexpected holiday and got to see plenty of Antwerp. So although I was rather upset at Eyjafjallajökull for waiting until I’d left Iceland before erupting I was quite grateful to her for my rather pleasant week in Antwerp.

The following year, in 2011, I started my blog. I began on Blogger and called it 60 Things To Do Before I’m 60′ because it revolved around a list of, yep, you guessed it, 60 things I want to do before I reach the grand old age of 60. Of course, having been thwarted in my lava quest and yet having a week of my life affected by it, seeing lava had to be one of the challenges on that list.

Askja, Iceland
Thermal pools in Askja’s calderas in the central highlands of Iceland.

I still have the list, even though my blog has evolved away from being purely about it, and I still think about the challenges I have left to achieve.

I’ve still to achieve my lava quest and I’ve had Sicily in the back of my mind as a place to go to see lava for quite some time now. Mt Etna seems rather active and is not too far away and so will be relatively easy and inexpensive to get to. The TV series Montalbano may also have something to do with it.

Gunung Bromo, Indonesia

My memories of Sicily as a 19 year old inter-railing around Europe are not pleasant. The scenery from the train window looked stunning as we chugged from the mainland over to Sicily and down to Palermo. From the second we left the train though, we were not left alone. Men were cat-calling, staring and generally being extremely creepy. Some were even slowly driving alongside us in their cars. When we nipped down an alleyway to try to shake them off we’d exit the other end to find they’d driven round and were waiting for us. We got the train out of there later that same day and I haven’t been back since.

My desire for lava may make a trip worthwhile however. And I’d hope that one advantage to being of a more ‘mature’ age now would be that I wouldn’t attract so much lecherous attention.

The thing that’s really got me thinking about Sicily though is the footage I’ve been watching from Etna over the past few days.

Tangkuban Prahu
Walking around the rim of Tangkuban Prahu, Java, Indonesia

A BBC film crew and a group of tourists were on the volcano when it unexpectedly erupted last Thursday. The films on the internet are really hair-raising. Although I’m desperate to experience lava, I don’t want to get that close! Some of the people were injured last week, but it’s amazing that no-one was more seriously hurt or even killed. Especially when you see footage of a huge hole in one woman’s jacket caused by flying molten rock!

In case you haven’t seen any of this footage I’ll link to it below. Then I’m off to search my already full diary for a space to fit in a trip to Sicily.

This BBC camera woman kept her camera running even as she ran back to her vehicle. You can see where she falls as rocks rain around her.

BBC Newsround, which is a children’s version of the news has a page on the eruption and includes several videos, including one with journalist Rebecca Morelle showing her jacket with a huge hole burnt through it.

This is another version which seems to have been filmed from slightly further away.

Have you seen lava? Do you want to? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Author: Anne

Join me in my journey to live a life less boring, one challenge at a time. Author of the forthcoming book 'Walking the Kungsleden: One Woman's Solo Wander Through the Swedish Arctic'.

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