Our gapper explores the volcanic birthplace of the Galápagos’s Isabela island with a day-long trek to the Sierra Negra crater.
By Ruth Holliday, 30 Oct 2008, (Go To Source) Telegraph.co.uk
In geological terms, the Galápagos Islands are relative infants. My current home, Isabela, is less than a million years old and still growing.
Within its ring of white sand beaches, the island is a snarl of jagged black basalt, bubbling up from a tectonic fault in the ocean depths.
Lava flows in suspended animation ooze along the shorelines, up the roadsides and through the barren black gardens of tiny breezeblock homes. Isabela is a raw place, still in the process of creation.
Looming over the island is Sierra Negra, a vast and active crater volcano. Its last eruption in 2005 churned out enough ash and lava to threaten several species of giant tortoise, not known for their powers of speedy escape.
I am one of 12 volunteers living in this uncanny and exquisite setting. We are mostly British, share a single house and divide into two groups – one helping at the island’s tortoise sanctuary and the other teaching basic English at a local school.
Together, we decide to tackle the trek to the crater. The head of our host family, Adolfo, drives us in his pick-up to the volcano’s base.
At this time of year the lower reaches are shrouded in mist and for the first hour we see very little, picking and stumbling our way over a track of hardened, rippled mud.
Other tourists pass us on horseback – a shrewd choice for those who prefer not to walk five-and-a-half miles (nine kilometers) uphill in the baking heat. We are glad of the exercise – heavily bloated by the Galápagos diet of fried fish, fried bananas and mountainous heaps of white rice.
The further we climb, the more sunlight seeps through the mist. By the time Adolfo leads us off the path and towards the first viewpoint, arms and faces are beginning to burn.
We crowd on to a rocky ledge and overlook the crater. Its size takes a few moments to register. More than six miles across – a vast black crust circled by a rim of rock: a gigantic bowl of lava soup filled to the brim.
It is possible to walk most of the way around the crater. We do only a couple of kilometres, taking a route lined with thriving small trees and jumping with giant grasshoppers, Galápagos finches flitting from the branches as we pass.
It is a further five miles to Volcán Chico (Little Volcano). Adolfo assures us it is worth seeing and we trek on across an undulating and increasingly extraterrestrial landscape. The trees disappear, replaced by large cacti and occasional clumps of long grass, fighting their way through the crust.
The lava fields are an alien, lifeless place. They are also scenes of violence, of huge physical forces acting on the molten rock, cracking it into fissures, forcing it into peaks and gullies. We pick up handfuls of shattered lava, gleaming with pyrite. It is sharp and brittle, crumbling like cinder toffee.
Adolfo points out an inconspicuous looking hole in the ground.
“Feel,” he says. “Heat from the volcano.”
We reach inside cautiously. The sensation is like sticking your hand into the steam flow of a boiling kettle.
As we near the sub-crater, the landscape changes once more. We pass a clearly defined boundary where the Martian red of the old lava meets a wave of newer, jet black basalt.
It is not an easy walk to Volcán Chico. Horses can go only as far as the main crater of Sierra Negra, meaning exercise-shy tourists must miss seeing the other face of the volcano.
The sub-craters themselves are relatively small – essentially just blowholes where the colossal crater lets off a bit of excess steam. But they are an impressive sight nonetheless – bottomless chasms ringed with layers of lava in blacks, reds, pinks and greys.
Visiting Isabela’s volcanoes is little like meeting the island’s parents. The family resemblance is clear. Like the rest of the Galápagos they are spectacularly diverse, a showpiece of planet Earth’s creative power. I came here for the animals, egged on by Attenborough. But in this unique, incomparable place it seems that they are only part of the magic.