I have many things on my bucket list but camping on the side of an active volcano isn’t one. However when the opportunity for such a trip arose I knew that I couldn’t say no.
One of the group volunteers in the Galápagos National Park office and he had managed to get clearance for the trip, which had never been done before. When I was told I had to submit my passport number so they would know who was missing if the volcano erupted, I thought it was a joke. Sadly it wasn’t. The Sierra Negra volcano erupts usually in October every 2-3 years, and it hadn’t erupted for 3 years.
On Friday afternoon our random gang piled into pick-up trucks and headed off into the lush countryside. After a steady climb for an hour the trucks stopped and on the side of the road were 4 horses and 2 cowboys. We handed over our back packs which were loaded into huge sacks that were then tied to the horses, to be transported to the camp site.
We then unloaded our mountain bikes at the bottom of a narrow lava covered track and started, quite simply, to cycle up the volcano. The ride was so gruelling that I momentarily wondered whether I had accidentally entered myself into the final leg of the Tour de France without realising it. My arms were aching and my legs were burning, and that was even after I actually had learnt to change down the gears.
Clearly no risk assessment had taken place before our trip as we didn’t have helmets, there was a sheer cliff face on one side and we were cycling on slippery lava. The fact that we were actually cycling through the clouds by now, also meant it was raining and we were in thick fog.
I decided I had to just get a grip of myself and plough on, or rather up. Being the ‘Group Granny’ put me under an additional pressure. Not only did I have to get to the top, but I had to make sure I wasn’t the last there. I spent more time pushing my bike than actually riding it, even so I was at the point of total exhaustion when suddenly the mist cleared, the rain stopped and the sun came out. There I was above the clouds and peering down into the vast crater of the smoking volcano. To add to my elation, I realised that I wasn’t the last to arrive.
The view was breathtaking and I just stood in awe looking across the horizon to the tips of other volcanos above the sea of clouds. As the sun began to set, the sky was painted with orange, then red, then deep blue. The sound of hooves alerted me to the arrival of the horses carry the supplies and tents. Nightfall came in a split second and we lit a camp fire to fend off the bitter cold.
There were nine people in the group and three small tents. My Herculean efforts in getting to the summit meant that by 9.30pm I was shattered. I climbed into the nearest tent and braced myself for a terribly uncomfortable night. A hard bed is meant to be good for a bad back but I think lying in a sleeping bag without a ground sheet, on lava, is pushing it. I finally managed to doze off and was woken by two more bodies climbing into the tent. When I looked, I realised that I had the very handsome 26 year old Swedish guy, Rafael lying 4 inches from me. All I could think was ‘Jesus! What would my husband think if he could see me now, lying on an active volcano next to Mr Sweden?’ And then I drifted off to sleep. Chuckling…
Unsurprisingly, we all got up early the next morning, complaining of various lava related ailments and it was time for the morning’s activity; a 1 hour hike down into the crater. Steep was not the word, but as I fell most of the way I think I reduced my descent by about 20 minutes. We then donned breathing masks and headed into bubbling sulphur mines that emitted an eye watering steaming acid. Fortunately before anyone actually dropped dead our guide turned back, and we started the hike back up out of the crater.
A good hour later I reached the summit and was just going to lie horizontal for a well earned rest when I told to ‘hop on’ my mountain bike for the 2 hour descent. If going up was tough, coming down was almost impossible. The fog descended, the path was vertical and it was raining, again.
When I did finally make it to the meeting point I collapsed into a heap, thrilled that I had actually slept on a volcano. Furthermore, I knew that if I never worked out again between now and Christmas I had done enough exercise for the year…