The Awesome Power of Mount Etna

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photo by Pete Heck

In April of 2010, while Pete and I were living in Baños, Ecuador, we experienced the wrath of Mama Tungurahua. The most active of Ecuador’s 31 volcanoes, she roared to life and shook us out of our sleep.

For weeks she rattled our windows, jerked the ground beneath us and stole our breath. We got to know the taste of ceniza and saw panic in faces of the locals. We stood our ground though – as we watched others file out of town, we stayed for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We got used to Mama’s frequent roars and her incessant need to remind us of her power just when we thought she was fading.

Mount Etna

And when she finally settled down, I found that I actually missed her.

She made our stay in Baños a most memorable one, and thoughts of her will always hold a special place in my heart. I was sure that no matter what, no other volcano could impress me as much as she had. I thought she had ruined all other volcanoes for me.

That is, until I met Big Mama Etna.

Johnny, our driver and guide from Catania, rattled off dates as he pointed at random craters and lava flows all around us. 1892, 1983, 2003, and many more. Mount Etna is not your typical single smouldering crater, she has a total of four massive craters at the top (the largest being 600 meters wide), and a series of 315 smaller ones that have all exploded at different times. In the last 11 months, she has erupted 18 times, and is easily one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

The nearby city of Catania has been completely obliterated 7 times, most recently in 1669. And Mama Etna is just getting started – translated to human years, she is only 10-12 years old. She hasn’t even become a nasty teenager yet.

I asked Johnny why it is that so many people live in Catania, why people haven’t fled in fear of the volcano’s awesome power.

We love Mama,” he said, “she gives much more than she takes. She has given us many clean rivers, we can grown anything here from the nutrients in the soil. We are the richest province in Sicily thanks to her.”

She is truly magnificent in her bounty, the beauty of her landscape, and her reminder of nature’s power. I was once again significantly impressed at how tiny we are as humans, how our lives can be enriched or broken in one fell swoop of Mother Nature.

Mount Etna surprised me. I guess I have room in my heart for more than one giant, noxious-gas-spewing, lava-bomb-hurling, city-destroying Mama.

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  1. Oh my God. This one is totally devastating and I remember the time that Mount Tominobo in the Philippines erupted. Lots of people suffering due to the major tragedy.

  2. Hi,

    this experience is AMAZING…. I never experienced that, and I would love to….

    I have to New-Zealand and I hiked the TONGARIRO, one of the most famous volcano over there…

    Now I am in Japan, and I do want to go to the south of the country because there is a great and famous active volcano on an Island…

    Anyway guys, you had so much “luck” to experience that

  3. It never would have occurred to me that there were benefits to living near a volcano. I just assumed that all the people living around them were crazy, you know, kind of like you guys in Ecuador.
    I love your last sentence though. Up until “lava-bomb-hurling” I thought you were taking a shot at Pete.

    1. Haha, yes, he has his own toxic gases as well! I thought we were kind of crazy in Ecuador as well, at least at first, when I was woken every few minutes by the bed and windows shaking! But, it was pretty cool overall, and I’m glad we stayed!

  4. It’s amazing how attached to a location people get – to the point that they’ll stay even with such a danger looming nearby. Crazy about the guy setting dinner out for Mama! That’s love right there.

    1. I guess if you’ve grown up there, and you’re used to the constant rumbling, perhaps it’s not such a big deal (in Ecuador we definitely were used to it after awhile). And the lava flows are typically very slow so they would always have a chance to leave.

    1. Hmmm. Good question that I wish I would have asked our tour guide! I can’t say that our few weeks beside an exploding volcano made us feel particularly more alive. It was just a very cool experience to live through!

  5. I remember this house on Mt. Etna. I’ve been there couple of years ago and it was amazing. I still have some lava stones here at home which I took with me!!!

  6. This post really captures the enormity of volcanoes and how majestic they can be! I love the respect that the Sicilians have for their Mama!

    1. They have nothing but respect for her, she does do so much for them! I had no idea the enormity of Mt Etna, I was so shocked when I heard all that she had done and is capable of doing. Amazing!

    1. Tungurahua tends to blow every 6 months or so, but when we were there, it was the worst she had rumbled in 10 years or so. It was pretty incredible!

  7. Wow! I haven’t heard of this volcano before. We were in Banos in 2009 but never got a chance to see the volcano because the weather was too cloudy and overcast. We did get to hike up to Cotopazi, which was pretty cool.
    Love the second pic, it looks like another planet!

    1. Thanks Cam! We did the hike up Cotopaxi too – well, sort of. There was a blustery snow storm and the guide kept telling us that once we got up there, we would be “above the clouds” and get to see a nice view. Yeah, that never happened. 🙂

    1. I know!! And just down the road, we saw another house that the lava missed my mere meters. You never can know what can happen I guess, but this guy just hedged his bets and wanted to welcome her! 🙂

  8. When I was in Iceland that was the closest I’ve ever been to a recently active volcano (Eyjafjallajökull) and it wasn’t even active at the time. Its on my bucket list to see an active volcano, very cool that you have seen more than one 🙂

    1. I’m beginning to become a bit fascinated by them in general. Also saw some bubbling mud in Bolivia. They are just so cool and unpredictable! Perhaps we need to get to Indonesia next… 🙂

  9. It’s interesting to read about people actually being grateful for a volcano, since I definitely only think of the danger and destruction. I’d love to visit, but I think I’d be a little too nervous to live there.

    1. I wasn’t expecting much out of my Mt Etna visit (you know, seeing as my heart was already stolen by another volcano), but was so impressed with it. Very worth a visit.

  10. I love the perspective of the local villager!- “We love Mama,” he said, “she gives much more than she takes. She has given us many clean rivers, we can grown anything here from the nutrients in the soil. We are the richest province in Sicily thanks to her.” Gratitude is a blessing.

    1. You are so right Mary, it really is, and it is something I was surprised to hear from him given how often their lives are turned upside down because of it. Loved his positive perspective.

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