After exploring the extreme heights of Mount Etna briefly, we wanted to spend some time at slightly lower altitudes and see what else this fascinating area had to offer.
Armed with our inscrutable German map, we made a vague plan to spend the next week or so driving around Etna’s flanks, doing some walks along the way. We left the car park at Rifugio Sapienza, and headed onwards. A few minutes later found us weaving our way through more of the rough grey landscape of broken lava, and through patches of birch forest in absolutely stunning orange and golden hues — great, fuzzy swathes of it that left us breathless.
We came across a wide gravel side road that appeared to be the site of the first walk we had in mind, and we turned in and pulled over. It was beautiful — a small silvery wood of bare birch and chestnut trees beside us, and ahead of us, past where the road thinned and turned out of sight and towards Etna’s peak, was a ridge in amazing autumn colours with mist sweeping over it. When the clouds parted, we could get a glimpse of the black and white of Etna’s upper reaches.
Considering ourselves pretty fortunate to be able to spend a night in a place like this, we settled in, admiring the view out the window.
The next day we had some online errands to run. The mobile coverage wasn’t good enough where we were, so we ended up backtracking a little down the mountain towards a spot we had noticed full 3G coverage the day before (one tends to notice these things when living like we do!).
On the way, we had some moments of gut-wrenching terror when, as we descended the switchbacked road, the smell of smoke started to be apparent, and the brakes started to fail. Luckily, there was a convenient place to pull off the road while I jumped out and peered under Nettle’s front left wheel. There was quite a lot of smoke. Fortunately, there happened to be mobile coverage where we were, so we jumped online and I did some googling, visions of expensive tow-trucks, difficult language barriers, and remoteness from mechanics spinning round our heads. It should’ve been obvious really — just brake fade. I read up on guidelines for driving large vehicles down slopes, and followed them religiously from then on. Phew. Queue the exhilaration of having avoided a tragedy!
Our errands ended up taking way longer than expected, so by the time we returned to our beautiful wild-camp, it was too late to start the walk. We did a mini-walk instead, a preview of the larger walk to come, and started down the gravel road.
This took us past some abandoned-looking huts, overgrown fields and moss-covered rock walls with deep drifts of autumn leaves blown up against them, past beautiful birch wood with bare silvery trunks above a thick orange carpet of leaf-litter, and eventually, to the edge of the world, or so it seemed: The huge expanse of lava that is the Valle de Bove, glimpsed through a wood of silver-and-orange.
It took our breath away. As Katherine put it, just when we think we’ve seen the most beautiful place ever, something even more amazing comes along. We were on the ridge we’d spotted from Etna’s upper reaches the day before, feathery reds, golds and oranges meeting the dull grey-brown of the lava flow.
We wandered around through the trees on the top of the ridge, awestruck and delighted, until advancing evening forced us to start back to Nettle with a hearty appetite to explore further the next day.