I’ve been toying with this all week but my will to live has been flagging and so the energy just hasn’t been there. I’ll keep it short. Or my version of short. If you want to visit an active volcano then good for you. Wifey and I went to Sicily a few years ago and although I wasn’t too fussed we did eventually think it would be a shame not to visit Mount Etna. As you drive up Etna you could be forgiven for thinking you were the only people going but when you get to the car park you instantly realise you are wrong. The place was packed with cars and bars and pop-ups and restaurants and oh so many people: we queued for roughly an hour just to join the queue. Fortunately for us Etna was in a good mood at the time so we were allowed to spend an exorbitant amount on tickets and then we queued for a cable car and then we waited for a big, weird, moon buggy bus kind of thing and eventually we were higher up the mountain than we were when we parked. We wandered around the corpses of vents and craters past and I filled a small bag with volcanic debris (didn’t feel guilty, there’s plenty more where that came from) and we noticed that a lot of people were walking past a do-not-pass barrier and marching up to get a closer look at the smoking hole at the very top. No-one was stopping them so the risk was theirs and theirs alone and I think, possibly, that you can see where I’m going next.
Mount Etna didn’t erupt that day. Or the next. We didn’t venture further up because we couldn’t be arsed and besides, my volcano tourism (as it is known) motto has always been – ‘if there’s a chance you’ll choke to death or have your feet melted off then it’s probably not worth doing’. And so we turn to White Island, off the coast of New Zealand: 8 dead and 9 others ‘unaccounted for’, which is a very stupid, in-denial way of saying ‘also dead’. By all accounts White Island has been blowing off steam for years but some thrill seeking dicks just can’t keep away. They pay for boat rides and helicopter tours and they doubtless justify it by saying that they’re supporting the local economy and that they have had the privilege of seeing the power of the planet at its rawest: the uncompromising belly of hell. You don’t even need to ask them nicely, they’re going to show you the photos anyway.
But the key word that some just don’t think about is the ‘uncompromising’ one. This planet of ours is uncompromising. It doesn’t care what happens to you or me or any of us (it does feel a bit mutual at the moment, much to our shame). Empathy is a one way thing, a by-product of intelligent evolution. If a lion wants to maul you it will maul you, whether you piss your pants or not. If a bush fire or an avalanche or a tornado sweeps away everything you own then at least be comforted in the knowledge that said force of nature won’t be at all ‘sorry for your loss’. Why should it, it’s a force of nature. And while there are very few guarantees in life there is a definite 0% chance that the White Island volcano feels at all bad for the 8 dead and 9 ‘unaccounted’ that litter its slopes. To that volcano those bodies are just meat; overcooked perhaps, but still meat. They’re not even enough to be an inconvenience. A volcano can take on pretty much anything and win: tank, nuclear warhead, a quick hand of Gin Rummy, the wisdom of Vanessa Feltz – volcano trumps all.
And so I am suggesting a complete overhaul of international volcano access laws. Give them a moment please, I think you’ll agree they’re much simpler now. Anyone, from anywhere, can visit any part of any volcano they wish, for free, at any time of day or night, and they can stay for as long as they want and if they sleep well at night knowing that their presence has supported the local economy (let’s not open the broader carbon footprint, Greta baiting, yaba-daba-doo can of worms just now) then that’s just fine. And the one condition is this – if they choke their lungs out or get melted or swallowed up by a pyroclastic flow or have their head removed by a volcanic bomb or find themselves clawing their way downhill with only 12% of their skin left then we can say it’s their own bloody fault and they should consider themselves very much on their own. No news reports, no drone footage, no rescue missions, no hospital beds. Life is already filled with enough horror; if you’re going to take a stroll round the rim of the underworld and peer over the edge then don’t be surprised to be surprised. You play with fire and this is what happens. The only reason we survived Etna is because I am a secret volcano whisperer.
G B Hewitt. 12.12.2019