When volcanoes erupt most people run away as fast as they possibly can. Volcanologist John Seach is not such a man: he runs towards the 2000 degree lava flows. For Seach, a self confessed “volcano chaser” who owns an adventure tour company called Volcano Live, there’s nothing better than liquid rock, steaming earth and the sulfurous smell of freshly made land.
It turns out he’s not alone. A growing number of people are actively seeking out the drama of volcanic landscapes for some seriously hot holidays.
Dr. Tom Pfeiffer, a fellow volcanologist who has turned his love for lava into an adventure tour outfit called Volcano Discovery, thinks the appeal is in the immediacy of the experience. “Most geological processes are so slow that you can’t see them. With volcanoes you’re actually watching the land being made.
The geological formations that result can be understood by people with no training at all in geology.” Each volcano is distinctly different and, according to Dr. Pfeiffer, each exhibits a unique personality.
“I love Hawaii because it’s very gentle and powerful,” he says. “It’s like a whale: it rarely harms anything. It doesn’t need to be immediately spectacular. I also love Mount Etna because it’s very capricious — like the Italian character.”
In many cultures volcanoes are revered as gods. Warren Costa, a native Hawaiian guide who conducts personal tours of Volcano National Park and surrounding areas, makes a point of schooling his guests in native culture as well as geology. “We consider the lava to be the actual body of the god Pele. You don’t want to mess with it in a disrespectful way like throwing quarters or roasting marshmallow,” warns Costa. It’s a case of look, touch but take absolutely nothing (lest you want some bad karma courtesy of Pele). “Every day The National Parks and the hotels get packages from tourists returning rocks they took on vacation,” says Costa.
Even benevolent gods have bad hair days, so it pays to be aware of the dangers inherit in volcanic zones. “The most common injury is cuts where people fall on the razor sharp pahoehoe lava,” says Costa, adding that the most hazardous place in Volcano National Park is where the lava meets the sea. ”The steam cloud is made up of hydrochloric and sulfuric acid with little bits of volcanic glass in it,” he warns. It’s a nasty cocktail to inhale.
“I’ve been hit by flying rocks a couple of times,” says John Seach brightly. “We were filming a documentary for Discovery Channel and took shelter in an abandoned building on Mount Etna. I was speaking to camera and was knocked to the ground by a chunk of cold lava. It was only the size of a golf ball but it had been ejected from the vent about two miles away,” he says, adding “I also melted my boots on Lopevi Volcano in Vanuatu.”
Our list of ten great volcano adventures was compiled by consulting tourism experts around the Pacific Ring of Fire, Africa and beyond. No matter how wild or mild the adventure, the added presence of a volcano is always a humbling force. “Gazing into the caldera,” says volcanologist Tom Pfeiffer, “ It feels like you’re looking into the mouth of hell.” Now, that's a trip.