The Nisyros Volcano

It’s hot and the sun is beating down on me. The cool breeze does not penetrate into this place. A sulphurous smell permeates the air, and the dry, acrid rock fractures under my feet. Each crack reveals a layer of bright yellow rock, sulphur, crystallised from the steaming gasses. Small droplets of water are visible on the sides of irregularly shaped yellow vents, surrounding dark holes that form twisting passages into the super heated core.

I am standing in the crater of a very young volcano, still active with hydrothermal eruptions, but formed by magmatic activity. It emerged from the sea only 150,000 years ago, and now forms the island of Nisyros, part of the Dodecanese. Legend has it that Poseidon chased the giant Polyvotis across the Aegean sea, used his trident to cut a chunk of rock from the island of Kos and threw it at the giant. The rock buried Polyvotis and formed the island of Nisyros which continues to shake, grumble and steam as he tries to escape.

Modern science say it’s a volcano.

We arrived on Nisyros at 7.30 in the morning after a remarkably pleasant 14 hour ferry journey. Sailing towards the island we could see the tall mountain with a rugged outline, a layer of cloud hanging above it. Our plan had been to get a taxi to a village near the rim and walk down into the caldera and then back to the main town of Mandraki where we were staying. But of course it is March, and still very much out of season. Not a taxi to be seen, let alone a bus service. Even finding some food required a 20 minute hunt around a small town.

But I was not going to be thwarted again, so there was only one alternative, to do it all on foot.

The route up followed a combination of roads and trails, zigzagging our way up the side of the mountain through olive groves and past layer after layer of neat terraces. Every inch of the fertile slopes cultivated and managed. Goats roamed freely, laying claim to the warmth of the roads, and navigating the terraces and rock slopes with ease.

At the end of the road stood a small white monastery, silent and still except for the distant toll of the goat bells. Small tracks led off in different directions to side craters that exist outwith the main caldera. We followed a rocky path that passed alongside steep terraced slopes towards the base of a deep circular depression. All the sides were covered in brown scrubland vegetation and at the base of the depression was a clearing with bright vibrant green grass. This was the first vent, and we didn’t realise we were in it until we were almost at the base! No sign of a steaming giant here, it was peaceful and silent with the exception of the ever present goats.

We continued along the rapidly deteriorating trail towards the road that would lead to the main crater, contouring around the edge of the hill, passing ancient stone dwellings built into the sides. I wondered what life must have been like for those shepherds, living in this remote, beautiful, but harsh landscape. We were probably experiencing it at its most gentle, a warm day in spring, the grass growing and the wild flowers in bloom.

The path disappeared as we crossed a scree slope and worked our way down the incline inside the rim of the caldera, trusting our own navigation within a large copse of spiky trees. Suddenly Jon froze. I stopped as he turned and started walking purposefully back towards me. Behind him, out of the dense bushes, a wild boar emerged and ran across our path, his impressive tusks focusing my attention. Do boars come in herds, I wondered? We decided not, and continued tentatively on our way. Two minutes later Jon said in a certain tone of voice “I think we should go this way” and switched direction. This just made me wonder why, so I peered in the direction he was originally headed and saw a flash of movement as a female boar and her young piglet ran into the undergrowth. We were now standing between an adult male and his mate. At this point I no longer cared how rocky the terrain was, and we moved fairly quickly and directly towards the road which, thankfully, was only about 200m away.

Safely out of the woods and on the road we got our first view of the inside of the caldera. You really would not know you were in a volcano. The steep sides were covered in green terraces, and a couple of villages could be seen up on the rim, their white buildings shining like a beacon against the blue sky. The caldera is pear shaped, and we had emerged over the rim at the narrow part in the north, where it is most green and fertile. We continued walking along the road down the centre of the valley floor, the further we got the more the landscape changed. It became more barren, with huge piles of white deposits on the side of the valley floor. The smell of sulphur getting stronger with every step. And then the valley floor fell away in a precipitous drop revealing a huge circular vent. 300m wide and nearly 30m deep the crater was an empty, inhospitable sight. Steam was visible escaping from cracks in the surface. And a large pool of water covered part of the base. I walked down a highly eroded path into the crater itself, every time my hand touched the sides the rock crumbled and fell, it was barely held together. I walked onto the crater floor, alone, isolated. It felt like I had entered into another world, a world that did not welcome me. I stepped onto one of the craggy mounds on the floor of the vent and looked at the rocks under my feet. They were pale in colour and were not as heavy as I expected when I picked one up. I stepped further onto the mound and felt the rock crack beneath my feet, leaping back and off the deposit I saw where the rock had broken revealing a bright yellow layer under the white surface. Looking around I could see steam escaping from parts of these craggy mounds, from dark holes with bright yellow rims.

After 30 minutes in the crater the sulphur was becoming too much, so we walked back out and up into the welcome breeze. Circling around the top of the vent we climbed back up the rim and viewed the whole caldera from the south, the opposite end to where we had entered. A vast expanse (2-4km wide), formed by violent geological processes, creating a unique environment. Not a relaxing place to be, but an environment that makes you aware of how small and insignificant we are.

The walk back down to the town followed a different path, somehow it managed to involve an hour going uphill before we started our descent! But it did return us to the village in time to enjoy an ice cream before the sun started to set. After 6 hours, covering 21km, and 700m of ascent, it felt like we had completed a proper expedition and seen parts of the volcano that most people don’t see. We could have waited a day and got the bus to the edge of the main crater, but that would have missed the whole point.

We didn’t just see the crater, we experienced the volcano.

— Gaynor

The Nisyros caldera

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