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A towering inferno

The Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily, were formed from ancient volcanoes. William Fiennes climbs Stromboli, the Lighthouse of the Med

William Fiennes | July/August 2013

The MV Laurana left Naples at dawn in a judder of blue-and-white steel panels. The ship was almost empty. Labourers slept on benches in the saloon; a woman strolled the promenade deck, pausing every few yards for her dog to piss on the lifeboat davits. I was restless too, counting the hours until we could see the volcano. We gathered at the prow as a mountain rose from the water in the distance, a stratovolcano with the bold Fuji outline, 1,000 metres high, cloud trailing from its summit like a judge’s wig catching the wind.

Stromboli. The flanks plunged so steeply that even a ship as substantial as the Laurana could sidle up to a beach of black sand and aerated pumice-like stones and discharge its few passengers into the huddle of flat-roofed white-washed houses. Signs at sea-level pointed out escape routes in case of tidal waves caused by earthquakes. Geologists refer to the Calabrian Arc, a zone of seismic and volcanic turbulence where Eurasian and African plates collide beneath southern Italy and the Tyrrhenian Sea. This meant Vesuvius and Etna, and Stromboli, in the Aeolian Islands, known as the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean for its eruption habit of mild, near-continuous explosions.

Early April, lemon trees in the yards, two hoopoes angling their black-tipped mohawks among fig leaves. No cars, but a buzz and whirr of Vespas, Piaggio three-wheelers and white-canopied golf carts. Above the white houses, the volcano was grooved with lava channels, the lower slopes fuzzy with gorse, broom, fennel, cistus and spurge, one vagrant swift cutting overhead like a sickle blade flung loose from its handle. The crater was still hidden in cloud, but that night I could hear itthe rumble of an old man snoring, the muffled slams of someone shutting lids on chests full of blankets, the whoosh and phwut of sailors launching distress flares, a sense of some vast living presence high up in the darkness.

Next day, the clouds had gone. At three o’clock, guides handed out blue construction helmets and lab-technician goggles, a dozen of us turning right at the church of San Vincenzo and starting to climb, peregrine falcons gliding on updrafts. Sara from Seattle was six months pregnant, but Lorenzo said it wasn’t a problem; he had taken Björk up the volcano at eight months. But we soon stopped talking. The wind grew stronger as we gained height, pulling on fleeces and windproofs, passing from the shrubby green zone into a lunar region of dust and scree, the town shrinking to a map of itself far below.

We had to gather close to hear Lorenzo. The scirocco ripped across GoreTex hoods at 40 knots, thick with cinder and spiculae. We put on our helmets and goggles and processed single-file along the summit ridge, the weather station’s instruments and solar panels wrenching at their fixtures, the Tyrrhenian Sea glittering round Panarea and Lipari in the west. Perched on the ridge at 1,000 metres, we gazed into the crater: a small black otherworld, vapour leaking from fissures and vents. Some of these were invisible openings in the blackness; two were distinct chimneys, like the ventilation nozzles on plans. You could smell the sulphur, gases from the magma chamber expelled in belches. I thought of conduits connected like elevator shafts to the gourd of molten rock, a ghostly Ingrid Bergman stumbling into the crater at the end of Rossellini’s "Stromboli".

A major eruption in 1930 had launched blocks weighing up to 30 tonnes in a two-mile radius of the island, concussions shattering almost every pane of glass in the two villages. But such cataclysms are rare. The scirocco kept tearing at our backs. Steam kept puffing from the vents below us. We kept watching. Ash churned and billowed from an explosion at the right-hand edge of the crater as if quarrymen had just blasted the dynamite. Then, without warning, rocks and red-hot magma burst from one of the vents in a sudden fountain, pyroclasts soaring 300 metres into the air. The sound lagged behind, so for a moment it seemed to happen in silence, in the gap between one breath and another, until the shower of lapilli came down, and the three or four blocks that had flown highest returned to earth in their own time like Apollo modules. My heart was thumping. I thought how easy it must have been for awe like this to slide into worship.

We dropped on the lee side, almost running down the ash slope, the shadow-hills of Calabria across the sea, just visible in the dusk. Even now, I keep imagining it: the scirocco and sulphur; the spurt of lava, like a whale spouting fire.  

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