Etna 19-26 May 2001

By Annette Kimmich

Day 1: In the beginning ... 

A 5.00 am start and 4 °C in Zurich, not exactly inviting for this first big trip. Meeting point Catania airport around lunchtime for most of the 15 participants. Temperature on arrival 34 °C, no luggage (Swissair just forgot to put it on the plane), and difficulties in finding everyone, but at least the transport was waiting. A couple of hours later, part of the group is on its way to base camp at Linguaglossa on the northeastern flank of Etna, where other participants have already arrived. The rest will join us in the evening, after a late afternoon flight from the UK. By supper time the group is complete. Due to the two factors, weather and volcanic activity, the programme is to be planned on a day-to-day basis, and day 1 is to be a short acclimatisation period with an outing to Taormina. Before turning in for the night I went outside for a breath of fresh air. High in the night sky, through the trees, a bright red glow, and as I grew nearer to the fence, Strombolian activity could clearly be seen from the summit of Etna’s Southeast crater as well as an active lava flow. Soon the whole group was at the fence, binoculars were making the rounds, and talk had turned to all things igneous. This was a great start to what would prove to be a very exciting and informative week on and around the volcano.

Day 2: Taormina

Taormina
Taormina

The weather was perfect. Late morning we all piled into the minibuses and headed for the coast. For a few the beach and sea beckoned, but a larger group took the cable car up the mountain to the village to visit the Greek amphitheatre. Some time was spent inspecting walls for fossils and a discussion started on whether the ashtrays, which were to be found in every souvenir shop, were really made of lava and finally it was decided that this was not the case. This proved incorrect, as a few days later we found postcards with pictures of locals at active lava flows, with forms to press ashtrays from the still fluid basalt.

After returning to Linguaglossa, Boris arrived. An introductory lecture had been planned for the evening, but Boris ordered us to the buses and we set off in darkness up the mountain towards the Mareneve road and the further we drove, the clearer the active lava flow, seen the night before, became. We stopped in a wooded area with a good view of the summit crater and watched the Strombolian activity producing explosions every few minutes, resulting in new surges from the vent in the SE crater. From this vantage point the flow, which had seemed very small from base camp on our first evening, was quite extensive, with two separate branches, the ends of which were fanning out. It was estimated at about 2 km long and was flowing into the upper part of Valle del Bove. After an hour or so of observations, we returned to Linguaglossa.

Day 3: the first attempt to reach the summit

The weather forecast had been reasonable and so it was decided to drive to Piano Provenzana on the north side of Etna and book a jeep to the crater area. On arrival the air was full of the smell of sulphur, as the wind was blowing the plume directly towards us. The drive up the mountain road was quite an adventure in itself in the vehicle, half bus, half jeep and specially constructed for the purpose of bringing tourists as near to the craters as possible. Cinder cones and extinct craters dotted the landscape, which was practically void of any vegetation. The road ended at around 2 900 m, although Mike and Bill could not agree on this, having different altitude readings on their GPS, which resulted in some light-hearted banter on who had bought the better one, and which one, if either, was giving the correct data. By the time we arrived the Scirocco, blowing over from N. Africa, was whipping up a storm and the air was full of dust, but it was decided to at least try to hike up further. However, the mountain guide we met, who had been at the crater area earlier, told us that conditions further up were even worse and an attempt to reach the craters would be very dangerous. By this time the whole group was black from the flying dust, not just faces, teeth too. Disappointed we turned back and took the jeep down again to Piano Provenzana, with short stops on the way on the plateau below the observatory, from which the lava flow was again visible, and at a very impressive crater from which one of the many flank eruptions had been generated. The afternoon was spent on a hike through the forest to a row of cinder cones.
Boris provided the evening’s entertainment with a video of recent paroxysms at the SE crater.

Day 4: Etna and man

Deserted farmhouse surrounded by lava
Deserted farmhouse surrounded by lava

he day was to be spent exploring the area and the evidence of the influence the volcano has on the lives of the people who live in its shadow. Lava flows from flank eruptions are the events that are feared most by the inhabitants. Activity at the summit craters, although not predictable, does not have the devastating effect of the flank eruptions, which can happen anywhere and without warning and are usually the culminating phase of long active periods. Farms, roads and even complete villages have been victims of these events. The many partially destroyed buildings bear witness to the destructive power. After losing homes, farmers leave fields unattended, sometimes with a chain across the entrance to denote ownership. The people become depressed and move on. Old lava flows, relatively young lava flows, islands of greenery amidst black rubbly hills, trees full of oranges and lemons, but nobody around to harvest.

We drove on to the Alcantara Gorge to the northwest. Here, the geological highlight was the columnar basalts. It used to be possible to wade through the ice-cold water along the gorge, but the water level has been raised, making an extended tour impossible. Before returning to Linguaglossa it was decided to drive to Aci Castello to see the pillow lavas on which the old castle stands. On the way we drove through a thunderstorm and the roads were awash, but we finally reached the coast. The pillow lavas have been uplifted and are interspersed with columnar basalt. To end a very interesting day, Boris gave a lecture on the tectonic setting and eruptive history of Etna.

Day 5: The second (successful) attempt

Etna crater area. We made it!
Etna crater area. We made it!

We woke to perfect weather and were soon on the road towards Piano Provenzana. Again we climbed the volcano in the jeep and disembarked at the end of the road to start the climb to the crater area and this time with no wind. The hike took us over old lava flows and snow fields. After a good hour’s hike, the crater area was reached, with a first view of the very deep Voragine. A first group returned after a brief visit to the craters and the main group made itself comfortable for a long wait until nightfall to get a closer look at the active lava flow. This meant staying until ca. 21.00 hrs and then hiking 8 km back to the minibus. However, the spectacular views of active SE crater certainly made up for this. The group finally arrived back at base camp around 2.00 am, eagerly awaited by the others, and requested that the bar be opened!!

Day 6: Etna and man (ctd)

Baked soil below a lava flow, with typical rubbly material below the flow and on top (not seen in picture).
Baked soil below a lava flow, with typical rubbly material below the flow and on top (not seen in picture).

Another day around the volcano, inspecting lava tubes, derelict buildings and ancient cones, this time on the south side. At one point on the newly-built road, a halt was made to see the damage caused by newly-opened fissures, which had caused a wall to crack in two places, forming a picture-book graben. The fissures have their origin at SE crater, and have propagated downhill at a speed of 1 km per day. The new road had been cut through a lava flow, which could thus be seen in cross-section, with the red burnt earth below. Boris had to leave later in the afternoon, but we would be seeing him at our farewell dinner next day.

Day 7: Siracusa

Our last full day had been planned as a day of relaxation after all the hard but enjoyable work. Our destination was Siracusa, around 60 km south of Catania, to visit the archaological park and for a change we were soon driving past limestone scarps instead of lava, and the incredible colourful flora. A pleasant day at the park with its Greek and Roman amphitheatres carved out of oolitic limestone ensued, and towards evening we headed back along the autostrada to celebrate a successful week by food and wine at a restaurant in Acireale, where we would be staying overnight. Boris joined us for this feast, during which we managed to eat our way through practically the whole menu, including an excellent mixed grill of meat and fish, cooked over Etna lava stones Æ a fitting end to an unforgettable adventure.

At this point I would like to thank those who helped to make this first big trip for OUGSME such a success: all the group participants for their good-humour, ideas and constructive criticism, our drivers, who brought us to all venues with no mishaps, despite having to contend with the erratic driving practices of the Sicilians, Mike Molloy for his prudent management of our collected funds and of course Boris Behncke, our Etna expert and, by the end of the week, good friend, who gave us a detailed insight into the workings of this amazing mountain and its impact on the lives of the islanders. I sincerely hope that we will be able to repeat this trip very soon.

More pictures

Alcantara Gorge, columnar basalts
Alcantara Gorge, columnar basalts
Etna and man. You can bever be too careful where you build!
Etna and man. You can bever be too careful where you build!
Mike on the edge of the active flow
Mike on the edge of the active flow
Boris and Steve
Boris and Steve (photo: Steve Jarman)
Alcantara gorge
Alcantara gorge
Etna just below the summit craters
Etna just below the summit craters
Fumaroles at the crater area
Fumaroles at the crater area
Lava flow
Lava flow (photo: Steve Jarman)

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