Some years ago, while I was on holiday in Malta, an enthusiastic holiday rep tried to persuade me to take a day trip to Sicily, via hydrofoil and coach, to “see the sights”. Initially, I was quite disinterested; I’d reached a really good bit of Les Miserables, I didn’t fancy spending eight hours on a coach with a bunch of elderly people (I was in my late 20s at the time) and I wanted to see if the bloke in the bar was pulling my leg when he said it was possible to walk the length and breadth of the island in a day. But then the rep played her trump card and sold me the trip in one sentence – “You get to climb Mount Etna”. I never looked back.
As it turned out, Etna was starting to show signs of activity – there was a small eruption the following year, as I recall – but I got about three quarters of the way up before the guides started making disapproving noises. I remember the trip vividly; looking out from the roadway across a bleak grey landscape to see a bright red roof or top third of a church steeple sticking out of the ground, where entire villages had been engulfed by lava in previous eruptions. And the smell – I never knew I would immediately recognise hot sulphur, but I could. Perhaps that’s an inbuilt survival mechanism previously unexplored?
Given half the chance, I’d climb Etna again. Mind you, given half the chance, I’d climb Vesuvius, Fuji, Popocatapetl and Krakatoa, but I’d better do those before I’m too old and decrepit to get to the top under my own steam. So I can really appreciate how Alexander von Humboldt must have felt when he heard that Cotopaxi in Ecuador was erupting, but his passage to Mexico was leaving the following week so he wouldn’t be able to go and see it. That’s something I would have loved to see and I don’t possess a fraction of his intellect. I can also imagine how excited he must have been when, while visiting his brother in Naples, Vesuvius obligingly erupted. He spent six days in the vicinity, risking life and limb to collect scientific readings and promote the discipline of volcanology.
There is something primal about a volcanic eruption. It may well be the combination of noise, smell, heat, fire, violence and danger, but I can fully understand why they were considered gods that needed to be appeased. I have seen Mother Nature in a bad mood – violent storms, earthquakes, wildfires – but none of them really compare to the sheer power of a volcano at full blast. There’s a terrible magnificence that doesn’t seem to be matched anywhere else in nature that I can immediately think of. And this is a feeling shared by a man that I am rapidly coming to consider one of the greatest scientific minds since the Enlightenment.
Sadly, neither of us will ever get to climb the biggest volcano known to man, as Olympus Mons is on Mars and the Powers that Be still haven’t worked out a decent commute. I can only imagine Humboldt’s excitement if he’d had opportunity to ascend that. It’s just a dreadful shame he doesn’t seem to have made it to Iceland…