Baptism of fire
Scroll down to watch a video of Anton’s epic descent
“Ok chicos,” says Erla, our guide, “you’re now standing on the most dangerous spot in Nicaragua.”
We’re at the summit of Cerro Negro to seek the high-adrenaline thrills of volcano boarding. But what makes this place so dangerous is not only the fact that we’re about to go hurtling down the black ash on nothing more than a flimsy wooden board. Just to make things a little more risky, we’re also standing on the ring of fire. That’s the chain of 450 volcanoes and sites of seismic activity that rims along the pacific coast of the Americas and down the eastern coastline of Asia.From here, we can see five of Nicaragua’s 19 active volcanoes, most of them strung in a line along the west coast. Cerro Negro, born in 1850, is the young firebrand of the group. It erupts on average every 15 years.
“But the last eruption was 17 years ago,” says Erla with a wry smile. “So it’s late.”
Brave new world
Amazed and a little unnerved, we hike along the top of the volcano to our launch off point. Up here, the surface of the volcano resembles a polarised moonscape. The sun-bleached sky contrasts with the hot, black ash at our feet. Nothing grows up here, but tiny white butterflies flutter over the surface like visitors from another planet. On every side are panoramic views over Nicaragua, from its chain of fire-breathing volcanoes to the distantly glimmering ocean beyond.
We reach the 728m summit after a 45 minute hike with our canary yellow boards on our backs. Mercifully, a little cloud cover eased our ascent up the steep and uneven black stone. Now, as we stood at the edge, suits on and ready to go, the sun was beating down. Our group was made up of three couples – ourselves, one from the States, and another from Nicaragua. “Do people fall off?” Anton wants to know. Erla smiles knowingly. “All the time,” he says calmly. We press for details. The worst injury he’s witnessed is a broken collarbone. We all nod and shrug, fancying our chances. I mean, no one’s died, right?
Erla gives us a volcano boarding briefing, showing us how to sit on the board and, crucially, how to control our speed. It’s pretty simple, and he runs through it quickly. “Most people forget everything, anyway. Just don’t lean back.” That can cause the board to flip apparently. Flipping sounds bad. Next, we lay down our cards in the game of who goes first. Heads began to shake and sidelong glances are passed. From substantial experience of doing things that scare the crap out me, I know that the longer you stand on the edge, the harder it gets. And so, I volunteer to be the guinea pig.
As it turns out, volcano boarding is actually much more like sledding. What better way to spend December in a hot country? It all seemed strangely appropriate. The board is a simple wooden contraption not a million miles from a traditional sleigh. You sit on top, hold the rope handle and away you go. Braking can be achieved by digging the heels into the ground, thereby creating sufficient friction. So far, so good.
Having a blast
Conscious of the many months of travel still ahead of me, I opted for caution over speed demon antics. In fact, I ended up going far too slowly on the first part of the slope. But as I gained confidence, I undug my heels and started to loosen up. Below, the descent was dark and daunting. On each side, gorgeous vistas whizzed past at a 45 degree angle, getting faster and faster. I glimpsed left and right, trying to achieve the heady task of taking it all in and not stacking it.
Being first to the bottom is great. You get to watch everyone else come down. Anton was next, and after a worryingly long gap, I spotted him right at the top of the hill. At first, it was hard to gauge his speed. But as this moving blob resolved itself into human form, it became apparent that he was flying down the hill like a flaming bat out of hell. His legs were straight out, meaning zero braking was underway. His knuckles were clenched around the taut rope. A great plume of smoke trailed behind him. He looked like the Roadrunner tearing along at full speed. Evidently, the board was teetering on the edge of control. Even feet away from the bottom, I was sure he would crash and burn. But somehow, he made it. Perhaps it was time to start believing in miracles.
The post mortem
The rest of the group descended one by one, at various speeds, but all ending with a universal yelp or hoot. The girls, myself included, agreed that we could have gone faster. The boys all agreed they’d pretty much abandoned control half way down. So much for smashing gender stereotypes. We all stripped from our boiler suits, which were reaching just that temperature on the inside. Black dust clung to our skin and clothes. After removing our googles, we looked like a gang of coal miners returning from the pit, our faces charcoaled thick with dust. Somehow, Anton had managed to get dust inside the turn-ups of his shorts. When we got back to our hostel, I found some more lurking in his collarbones and belly button.
A strange encounter
As we shook ourselves clean, Erla ran down the breakneck slope with astonishing agility. He carried our cameras and phones – everything we couldn’t be trusted with on the way down. The volcano towering above us sucked in the light like a black hole, making it impossible to distinguish its precise height and inclination. While we gathered together our belongings and humped our boards up onto our backs, a strange sight greeted us. A chestnut stallion rose up from behind a dip in the black earth. His rider wore a camo jacket and a backwards cap. A rifle was slung casually across his back. We stared as they traversed the foot of the volcano, then mounted a slight incline and disappeared over the top, the man saluting us with his free hand.
The finer details
Our tour was booked via the Surfing Turtle Lodge in Leon. (You can read about releasing turtles at their beachfront lodge in this post.) The cost was $30 and included a ‘free’ t-shirt and beer at the end of the day. The tour leaves at 8am or 2pm, so we wisely opted for the afternoon slot to avoid the vicious morning heat. By the end of the day, we were able to watch the sunlight mellow to a deeper orange, bringing out the various textures of Cerro Negro’s black mass. Just before we set off on the hour-long trip back to Leon, we were lucky enough to see a gorgeous sunset over the surrounding countryside, darkening the skies from Papaya orange to rich, deep reds. A mellow end to a red-hot, adrenaline-fuelled day.