Volcano boarding in Nicaragua, TNT magazine
Is there anything more adventurous than balancing on the edge of an deathly volcano crater – with only a bit of wood for rectal-protection – in preparation to race down a 50-degree lava bed slope of molten rock at speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour? Apparently there is: someone did it backwards once.
In the city of León, 100 kilometres north of Nicaragua’s capital Managua, a couple of Australians have come up with something no other country on earth would have been crazy enough to try – well not when sober anyway. Despite the obvious lack of a Krakatoa or Mount Vesuvius outside of Wagga Wagga, Darryn Webb and his partner Kim, a couple of adrenaline hungry tour guides have pioneered volcano boarding, a stomach-emptying, trouser-filling adventure sport. “When we saw the volcano, we just had to do it,” Kim tells me with thermonuclear enthusiasm. “How could we resist?”
The afternoon I join the tour, excitement is in the air, the sun is shining and the group I am part of is in a confident muscle-flexing mood. Called Cerro Negro, the volcano we are to board is the youngest in all of Central America, and also one of the most active. Although it hasn’t erupted since 1999, the possibility – no matter how remote – only adds to the excitement. Nestled in the Maribios Range, Cerro Negro forms part of a chain of smoking volcanoes, which light up northern Nicaragua like premium stubbed out cigars. Admittedly, I’m already feeling the nerves and – as we swap the city highway for a remote sand track on the back of an open-top 4×4 – I start to regret my Cuba Libre-fuelled decision the night before.
“Normally the girls are better,” warns Kim from behind the steering wheel. “They have more balance so the boys fall off more often.” More important to me, however, is that a blacker-than-death volcano is starting to loom into view, just like the Death Star at the end of Star Wars. I’m sure someone somewhere says, “Look at the size of that thing,” but my mind is elsewhere considering smashed testicles, broken egos and days in a Managuan hospital. Up close, the volcano is the real deal: it is shaped like a mountain made of spiky black Lego bricks sculpted by nasty chisels and even-scarier chainsaws. I guess that if the devil had a favourite sport, it would be volcano boarding.
Stopping at its base, we unload our sled-style boards made of metal and reinforced plywood, and begin our ascent. At altitude, it is a slow 45-minute climb and as I trudge up the hillside, I contemplate the padded-cell lunacy of what I am about to do. To date, my closest encounter with volcano boarding was a failed attempt to slide down a sand dune on Australia’s Fraser Island in a bin bag. The word novice is far too flattering for me. As we reach the top, Kim points to a bundle of luminous Guantanamo orange suits, a pile of chemistry set goggles and to the devilish slope, which beckons to us like an easygoing prostitute. I admit that I am terrified and wetting myself could be a distinct possibility, but it is too late; I know there is no way back.
Apparently, the fastest way down a volcano is to sit feet first, lean back on the board and – crucially – switch of your brain for five minutes. The current speed record is held by a now legendary Schumacher-style German traveller who hit the lava strewn boulder field at a rate of 68 kilometres per hour. Perhaps he thought he was driving a Ferrari.
Five minutes later, Kim is prepping and persuading one of us to go first. “Don’t worry,” she says, sensing that the machismo has disappeared, perhaps fleeing to the nearest beach hammock with a refreshing lemonade. “This will be the most fun you’ll have all year, I promise.” Andy, a traveller from Dundee, has no qualms and, breathing in his chest like Braveheart, volunteers immediately. Within seconds, he disappears over the volcano lip in a comic book sketch of scrawled dust, flailing limbs and – with a squeaky “f***ing hell!” – we see him no more.
Despite the adrenalin-fuelled urge to scream frenzied expletives whilst bouncing towards the apparent ends of the earth, Kim reminds us to keep our mouths closed during the ride or a vocal surfer will be left picking rocks out from between their teeth. Bizarrely enough, I find out later that Andy is actually an out of work dentist.
With sulphuric fumes blowing into my sweaty face, or it may be a Latin American Diablo breathing down my neck, I get myself into position. At a speed of some 30 kilometres I project myself down the slope into the unknown, blinded by wind, sun and dust. It is in my eyes, in my tousled hair and in my lungs and I will never forget it: I am riding a board down a volcano and – with AC/DC’s Highway to Hell riffing in my head – I am cool for the first time in my life.
I career past waves of crashing rock, which belch out both smoke and mimicked laughter, and slide down into a quarry of dark dust and debris, under a burning plate of aquamarine sky. There is no doubt that the view would be intensely beautiful but beneath my mad professor goggles all I can see is a ski-jump drop before me; I close my eyes and glide straight over it.
I crash land at the bottom like a drunken swan on roller-skates but have the biggest grin I’ve had in years. Rampant horns blare, I am showered in flower garlands and the little devil on my shoulder givers me the thumbs up. Well, that’s how I imagine it in any case. Other than having enough volcanic debris in my underpants to build a small summer
barbeque and picking up a hairline scratch along the way – which may turn into a crocodile wrestling scar at a later date – I have a smile as long as the road that stretches out back to Leon, where there is a victory mojito waiting for me. It’ll make the perfect bar story and I can already hear it now: “So there I was, looking death right in the eye – I nearly lost a limb, you know…”