Eating sand

Pizzerias love to call their most spicy pizza ‘The Stromboli’. Makes sense. Stromboli is the name of an active volcano off the coast of Sicily. If you want a pizza that will burn off your taste buds, you know what order. Lava to go.

Stromboli (the volcano, not the pizza) produces clouds of ash while escaping gases push up lava and rock in, and around, the crater. Several years ago the activity created a lava trail down the side where it eventually found the sea and generated massive plumes of steam. The boulders getting chucked down the side were the size of cars or small houses.

The island locals don’t seem to mind living a daily lottery. There are signs that tell you to run up the volcano in case of a tsunami. They are posted directly above signs that tell you to run to the sea in case of an eruption. If both happen at the same time, head for a bar, or a church.

This place is a trekkers paradise. People come to hike 900 meters up the volcano, hoping to capture some of the fireworks around the crater before heading back down. The evening treks are the most popular as the darkness creates a dramatic backdrop for the bright orange lava when the volcano gets indigestion. There are also boat tours that anchor off the coast hoping for a lazy man’s view. I remember my parents-in-law went on one of these boats and came back with a dramatic photo of blurry orange light and tales of a noisy eruptions. They confessed later to sparking a lighter in front of their camera.

On several slopes, centuries of hardened lava has eroded over time into rough grains of sand. Imagine slopes that resemble a very steep, black, Sicilian Sahara.

Dario is a friend who runs his family’s Porto Bello restaurant on the island of Salina. We have been kindred spirits from the day I saw him cliff diving years ago. Chatting over lunch in 2016 he mentioned that someone had tried to snowboard down the lava sand of Stromboli. What?! Do you ever get an idea in your head that you know will persistently re-surface in your consciousness until it’s realised? I didn’t know when I would try this, but I knew the day would come.

For the past two years I occupied myself with long distance swimming, expeditions to Nepal, snowboarding down volcanos (on snow), and surfing in Australia. This Spring, when I had run out of ideas, I could hear the lava sand of Stromboli beckon.

A guide is required for all trekkers heading up to the crater which seems sensible. No one wants to see charred birkenstocks. The very first time I went up Mount Etna, my guide was a great guy named Paolo. I especially liked him because he carried my snowboard on his back to the summit; seemingly without effort. As luck would have it, he was on Stromboli for a stretch and agreed to be my snowboard Sherpa for a repeat performance. He did need to check if snowboarding down Stromboli was legal (not sure I ever got a definitive answer.) He also warned me that I would have to snowboard down on my own because he would never do anything quite so idiotic.

On Monday morning, I left Salina in ‘Cool Runnings’ (our family boat named by my daughter) and headed northeast for the one hour trip to Stromboli. A friend named Janice was taking the hydrofoil back to Sicily that morning after a short stay at the house and took a photo of me from the quay to post on Facebook. She wrote: ‘the last known sighting of Graham Covington’.

Paolo works through a trekking agency that takes groups up to the crater. I eventually got the boat moored off the black beach and walked into the agency office to meet the boss. He said to me ‘you’re not going to break anything, right?’ I’m not sure if it was a threat or a question. I got the feeling he much preferred the hoards of geriatric French and German tourists to my little project. I blindly signed the waiver to cheer him up, but even granting him complete absolution didn’t lighten the mood.

As Paolo and I set out from the agency walking through the town of Stromboli we passed one local, who seeing the snowboard on Paolo’s back, joked ‘I had no idea it snowed last night.’ Hardy har har.

The trail rambles from town upward through a band of trees, bushes and other flowering plants. At 500 meters the green disappears abruptly, replaced by a desert of rock and sand. The transition is not subtle. The feeling is of walking through a doorway from one world into another. The trail continues upward zigzagging across the slope of the volcano, past chutes of black sand marking the riverbeds of lava that stopped flowing centuries earlier. On three occasions we heard loud booms from several hundred meters away; the sudden release of gas hurling the contents of the craters into the air.

The summit of Stromboli, at 920 meters, is the ridge of an ancient crater which collapsed long ago. The three active craters on the northwest side are about 100 meters below the peak. Paolo and I approached the top by walking into a cloudy mist with a strong wind behind it. We could hear the activity in the craters, but we could see absolutely nothing. I regretted wearing a bathing suit when the wind picked up.

We stood at the summit for about 20 minutes hoping for a break in the cloud. To occupy ourselves, we dug a hole about 10 inches deep where the earth was hot enough to cook an egg. Eventually, the sulphur spewing from the volcano, mixed with the mist, started burning our throats and made us cough. It was time for the main event.

The chute of sand that is ideal for snowboarding is a slope on the southeast side of the volcano (‘ideal’ is perhaps the wrong word; ‘least likely to cause lasting injury’ might be better.) It’s called the Forgia Vecchia (the old forge.) We had to hike down the top third of the mountain because the chute at that elevation is more rock than sand.

When we reached a point where snowboarding might not result in death, I exchanged my bathing suit for a pair of ripped jeans. Before leaving the house In the morning I wasn’t going to bring any trousers and ride wearing my bathing suit, but in hindsight, the jeans were a really good idea. What followed can only be described as activity bordering on lunacy. Snowboarding on sand is an experience akin to strapping your feet onto a cement plank while speeding down a very steep slope. Turning is completely impossible which is extraordinarily inconvenient when your direct line goes through rocks.

The plan was for me to ride my board, with Paolo following on foot taking pictures to record whatever happened. My first attempt ended in fairly spectacular fashion, and Paolo was in stitches. When he caught up with me lying in a slump, he managed to stop laughing long enough to ask if I was OK. In exchange for hauling up my board, the least I could do was provide entertainment for the rest of the day. Which I did.

My helmet now had sand embedded on every visible surface, and I have to say, sand found its’ way into crevasses on my body that I didn’t know I had. If you ever want to know what lava sand tastes like, I can tell you. I’m not sure how much enamel I have left on my teeth.

This initial tumble was followed by a several more (I didn’t keep count, but it felt like quite a few.) By the time I reached the beach I swear I was getting the hang of it. I had a swim to return as much sand as possible to the sea before sharing my key learning with Paolo: don’t turn and you won’t fall. He thought this was a good strategy for staying upright, but he also speculated that the final stop might be more than any human could survive. We’ll see.

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