Do you remember the Carl Barks story, where Donald buys an airplane by accident and travels to Volcano Valley (Das Land der Vulkane)? I found out that this country really exists and is called Nicaragua! 19 volcanoes are sitting near the pacific coast, coughing up poisonous gas and waiting to go off big time. I took Donald’s happy good-for-nothing approach and headed straight towards the peak of the Telica, one of the highest and most active volcanoes here, for an overnight hike. Let’s say I came to the conclusion that I have less endurance than a lazy duck….
The chicken bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. „Out now, quick!“ shouted my guide. I grabbed my backpack, shoved myself through a dozen Nicaraguan workers and jumped out of the back door. Before my feet touched the asphalt, the bus was already moving off. I caught my breath and looked around. A potholed road, some shrubs on the side, depleted fields surrounding us. My French guide for the Nicaraguan volcano landscape, led the way. We went through a hole in a fence and looked up to the mountain range, home of the Telica volcano. It looked awfully far away.
The night before the volcano hike I decided to go drinking. Just before I left, I skipped lunch. I haven’t exercised in months and my backpack was absolutely overloaded with food, drinks and too many clothes. Already sweating and feeling queasy, I started walking.
The first stage was a long walk through a barren no man’s land. White sand, leafless, brittle trees waiting gnarly in the heat. The dry season in Nicaragua is from January to June, and in late February the countryside is pure savannah.
I did not know that. I had expected green hills and lush vegetation providing shade. After a while we passed some baked cattle skeletons. I brushed a thorny plant for a second, and my hand was immediately attacked by a squad of tiny aggressive ants.
It Gets Worse
After a while we reached the first slightly hilly part. We walked through a small canyon, along a dry river bed. The terrain got bumpier but at least there was a bit of shade here. Termite nests were strewn all over the lifeless trees, geckos and other lizards escorted us upwards.
After this nice and easy walk it started to get tricky. One of the other many things I did not care to look up or ask was the fact, that the hard stages come at the end here. Officially the Telica is 1.061 metres high, and we started in about 2-300 metres altitude. The steep parts would come when I am already depleted.
Forest Fire and Blackout
After a couple of hours I started to feel exhausted and the 35 degree midday sun did not help. We did some breaks but not more than 2-3 minutes. There was some pressure to reach the top before nightfall. At one point we looked over to the Santa Clara, the inactive volcano next to us. Smoke clouds. When we looked closer we could see bright orange flames five or six metres high, eating through the dried out flora. We could hear the cracking of wood. No way of stopping it.
Usually there are no people on the Santa Clara volcano so we didn’t worry too much. But we didn’t wish for the wind to turn. Other smaller columns of smoke already started to appear beneath us. At first I believed that the urge of having to run away from a bushfire would lend me the vital energy I need for the ascent, but nope. I fell into a state of near collapse. My legs started to hurt and I had to stop more frequently. At one point I sat down and tried to stand up again but I couldn’t. My sight went black and my body refused any more movement. I sweated profusely and laid down in the dirt. The guide looked worried. He gave me a candy for extra sugar. I spat it out. Nausea. „Please don’t die here.“ he said. It didn’t sound like a joke.
I hate to admit it, but my brave guide had to carry my backpack for a few hundred metres because I couldn’t do it. He insisted. We passed a yellow sign in the middle of the woods, about three square metres in size. It said something like: „Danger! You are now entering the critical zone of an active volcano. Continue at your own risk!“ Kinda cool, but I just wanted this march to be over.
We arrived just in time. They always say that the view from the top is worth all the suffering but I just felt miserable.
Our camp consisted of a wooden structure which might have been a pavilion at one point, a fireplace, a table and two benches. A gaunt old man collected a small entrance fee and sold beer cans from a cool box. The place was located in the middle of an old volcanic crater, right next to the real thing. It took just a few small steps to look into the steamy depths. We waited until nightfall until we got up. (Well, I lied down and missed the sunset because I was a total mess.) Walking up a boiling volcano is kind of intimidating, and standing on the edge, looking down, even more.
On the Edge
There was no promise that I would see lava. The crater emits huge amounts of sour smelling gases and usually the steam is too thick to see the glowing. But not this day: I had to crawl onto the edge to see it, but down there in 120 metres was a deep red pit of lava. Tricky place to get some good selfies. The sight of the red heat got me into some stupefied state. And there is no sound like an active volcano. A constant deep humming to the bones, only disturbed by crackling explosions. Just like a bonfire, but instead of small twigs, rocks the size of people are bursting under the heat. I thought about how those things used to destroy cities, and probably will again. After about twenty minutes of inhaling a thick mixture of sulfur dioxide, methane and other wondrous volatile substances, we headed back down.
My guide brought me a sleeping bag. No tent. I put the bag on a patch of grass and lied on the stony ground. My guide hung up his fully closable hammock somewhere between two trees. There was a small group of Norwegian girls (they are everywhere here) and maybe 7-8 other people spending the night there. I was the only one without any sort of roof over my head.
Stars and Chimeras
Not long after darkness fell, everyone went to sleep. I was enthralled by the cloudless star spectacle above me. No light sources within the next 10 kilometres or so. I catched five or six shooting stars, then I tried to sleep. I wasn’t really successful.
Although the temperatures dropped significantly and I was a thousand metres over sea level, I was still feeling the heat from the day. I guess that even with a tent I would have chosen to sleep under the naked sky. Additionally to that I got more nauseous. My head and every muscle hurt. I diagnosed myself with a sizeable sunstroke and fantasized about people having to carry me down. I felt the urge to spew. I got into the puke purgatory where you think about vomiting but are too stubborn to admit that you really have to stand up. In my case I was in the middle of a strange rock landscape, fevered, and no light except the stars. I guessed that I had to walk at least fifty metres so not to disturb the others.
While I was planning my regurgitation I heard a noise behind me. Some rustling sound. At first I thought of some male camp neighbour having a little volcano whack-off, but no. It was an animal. A big one. I turned my head right and saw a long black shadow about 8 metres away from me. At first I thought it was a huge hellhound but its movements reminded me more of a pig. Friendly house piggy or wild aggressive boar on the loose? Fuck.
Just some side note: In the Museo de Leyendas and Tradiciones (or the nightmare prison, as I call it now) there was a puppet of a large black pig: The Pig Witch. Certain Nicaraguan women – the spiteful, heart broken, jealous kinds – can seemingly invoke the devil and turn themselves into the shape of an evil boar. In this form they chase after drunken and womanising men, mauling them until they faint and stealing their money. This only happens after ten o’clock, according to the legend…
22:45 – The black beast scanned the area with his snout and vanished in the shadow of a tree, ten metres away from me. There it stayed. I dropped my plans for the evening and tried to keep my eyes closed.
I actually awaked in my sleeping bag somewhat rested. I did not need to puke and I did not need any helicopter to take me off that steaming rock. I could even enjoy the sunrise! I learned about the scorpions on the ground much later.
The fact of having spent a night on top of an active volcano
Actual cool reason to wear a shemag: Fending off volcanic gases
Getting back without any permanent damage (Well, I got this strange infection, but it went away after a month or so)
Myself, for being naive and totally out of shape (just for a while)
Steep sandy ascends in the sun
The way back. If you think the way back is always quicker, you are wrong.
- Learned about proper hiking preparation the hard way
- Gazed into the depths of hell
- Saw more stars then ever
- Collected rocks from my first volcano (sulphur, phosphor, oxidated iron, basalt)
- Got to know some of the native plants
- Observed termites and leaf cutter ants for the first time (knowingly)