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Sunday, 25 November 2012

Travels: Failed First Time? Try Again!

In my younger days, I have found that there were parallels between travel experience and living a Christian life. And in this article I would like to share two different occasions where the first attempt ended in failure but when I decided not to give up but have another try, wow! I did it.

Travel is something I always loved doing. In one of my recent blogs, World Travel - How I Loved It! posted on November 4th, I wrote about the car trips to Italy taken as a family when I was young. There were just two places in Italy I got acquainted with; Torino, where we stayed with Nonni, and Rome, where Dad drove to see his older sister. With Rome, at least I had the chance to see the Colosseum as well as communicate with my Aunt, who spoke English. In Torino, our maternal Grandparents and I could not speak each other's language, hence boredom quickly set in.

However, this may seem odd at first glance, the rest of Italy was practically unknown to the whole family, as they were not inclined to explore their own country. But I think I have an idea where that might have come from - after all, I have been as far away as Los Angeles and San Diego in California, and Brisbane and Sydney in Australia - but so far I have not visited the UK cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Warwick or Glasgow, nor for that matter, Belfast in Northern Ireland.

Yet there are many interesting places in Italy one could visit. And when I was old enough to travel independently, I was able to take full advantage by means of backpacking. Or at least that is what I called it, as I define the term as traveling from one destination to another, usually spending at least a night or day at each venue. Back in the early days I carried a suitcase rather than a rucksack, and I stayed in small hotels or pensioni, not hostels. I didn't start hosteling until 1985, when I was introduced to it here in the UK by a friend who virtually grew up hosteling and camping, such as being a member of the Boy Scouts in his younger days.

So one Italian city I visited for the first time ever was Napoli, way back in 1973, when I was a twenty-year-old fledgling backpacker. As I left the Central terminus station, it did not take me long to find a hotel right in the city itself and asked if there was a room available. I was assigned a room straight away, where I was to spend the next few days. During my stay in Napoli, I spent a whole day at i scavi of Pompeii. But also what I wanted to do was to climb to the crater of nearby Mt. Vesuvio. After visiting Pompeii, and learning of its destruction in AD 79, along with its sister town of Ercolano, I was curious to see for myself the instrument of God's judgement on those cities when the volcano blew its top in August of that year, after remaining dormant for centuries. You see, by the summer of 1973, I had been a believer for just a few months. The result was I was newly acquainted with the Bible and God's ways at that time and I was eager to learn more.

Mt. Vesuvio from the air.

On my first attempt to reach the crater, which was (and still is) 1,281 metres high from sea level, I alighted from the Circovesuvio train at Ercolano station and started to walk along the road signposted for Vesuvio. But by the time I was a considerable way up, in fact not far from the crater rim, the weather closed in. Not only did the cloud totally obscure the summit, but it also started to rain. Not the light moderate rain that occurs in the UK, but a torrential downpour with each raindrop the size of small beach pebbles. I was drenched within seconds!

A ran to a natural alcove in the red lava cliff along the road to take shelter. It must have been just a couple of minutes before a car drove downhill to the level of the alcove and a blast of horn alerted my attention. Two cheerful young men inside beckoned me over.

Dove voi? asked the driver.
Il cratere, I replied.
Oggi non posso, he stated, and invited me in for a lift back to the city, which by then I was more than willing. So my first attempt to see the crater was a failure.

The next day was bright sunshine and the whole mountain could be seen from the city. Again I boarded the train for the short run to Ercolano, and began my walk. It took a while, but it was so rewarding. Over Napoli, a heat haze sat over the city, making the otherwise clear sky a milky blue. But as I approached the crater, I suddenly came out of the haze, the sky was rich blue and the sunlight stronger. As I recall, there was little or no wind. The road ended at a coach and car park, and a footpath, about 150 metres long, took me to the rim of the crater.

Inside the crater of Vesuvio.

Back in 1973, access to the crater rim was free. At present, by checking Google, I found out that there is now a fee of 6.50 euros to get to the rim. As in all things, times have changed. As I stood back then at the chasm, I watched a tour group leader cooking some eggs over the hot rocks. Afterwards I was able to warm my hands at the heat rising from the volcanic strata. Below, the throat of the vent was blocked by a plug of gravel and sandy material which, should another eruption was to occur, would be blown with great violence miles high into the sky. As I stood on the rim, looking down, I thought, "Not today, please!" As it was, the whole crater was in deep silence, as if in respect for all the human lives it has already taken.

The following nine years saw me visiting Israel, particularly Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee, and two trips across North America, which could not be more different from life in the Middle East. By the late summer of 1982 I was back in Italy again as referred to in my last blog, Class and Racialism - Crushed! posted 18th November. Here I set sights on Mt. Etna, an active shield volcano which was then 3,308 metres high, (but since then had risen to 3,329 m.) - The highest European mountain south of the Alps and more than twice the height as Mt. Vesuvio. As a shield volcano, similar to Hawaii, the sheer broadness of the base lessens the effect of its height. In 1982, a plume of steam rose from what was then Cratere Centrale.

Distant View of Mt. Etna.

I stayed at a small, family-owned hotel in Siracusa, just outside the station. Therefore this made it an excellent location for local travel, which was accomplished using the national Ferrovia de Italia pass ticket, allowing me to board trains without further payment. Catania, some way north of Siracusa, was the second largest city in Sicily after Palermo and the starting point for the ascent to the mountain's summit. By this experience, I soon realised the incompatibility in attempting to reach the summit on foot from Catania with reaching the summit of Vesuvio from Ercolano. Instead, two regular buses a day left Catania for Refuge Sapienza, at the village of Nicoloso, well up on the mountain slope.

On this particular day the bus I was on pulled into the coach and car park at the refuge, near a building where one need to hire thick, protective mountain clothing before boarding the jeep to where I thought would be the summit. The whole experience was pricey (in those days the Italian currency was the Lira, not the Euro). There was payment for clothes hire and payment to board the jeep. At last we reached our destination - a windswept wall of black basalt on the slope of the mountain with absolutely no views - none of the crater, and none of the Sicilian panorama. Instead, thick cloud enveloped the site and I could barely see my own hand, let along beyond. Two or three jeeps full of people arrived, forming quite a crowd. But as I perceived the experience, it was a total waste of time and money.

I arrived back at the hotel feeling disappointed. Yet I was determined to get back up there. I was  wondering whether this whole tourist industry was something of a rip-off: money, money, money without getting what you pay for. Refund for a wasteful time? Their explanation would be that the fog was an act of God and therefore making them free of any responsibility.

Whether it was the very next day or two days later, I can't fully recall, but on this beautiful crisp morning I once again found myself on the bus heading towards Nicoloso. At one point of the journey, a single young man, very tall and lanky, boarded the bus, and took a seat just behind mine. Out of sight, I gave him no more thought.

As with the previous visit, I once again hired a mountain suit and boarded one of the jeeps. I was unfortunate to arrive at Etna in 1982, because the funiculare to the summit was destroyed during the 1970 eruption, along with the observatory. As I looked out of the jeep, I saw bits of metal struts lying on the black ash, the remains of the cable car. The jeep was the only way up.

We reached our destination, the same wall of clinker I had been to already. I discovered that it was way below the summit, but at least there were fabulous views of the Sicilian coastline, itself very breathtaking.

We arrived at the wall of basalt, way down from the summit.

While I was admiring the views, the young man on the bus approached me, and began to beg me to accompany him to the summit proper. He certainly wanted value for money, and he made sure he was going to get it. Judging him to be somewhere between 18 to 20 years old, I thought, why not? After all this was my wish, too.

We saw a footpath leading away toward the summit and the two of us began what is to be a dayhike. With myself leading, we passed a large sign which read, MOLTO PERICOLOSO and we continued on, despite the warning of danger. We were also expecting a shouting call back to the group we had left behind, but all was silent as we trekked along the path.

How far we trekked I cannot be sure, but the hike looked to be a couple of miles. Presently we came to a crater with smoke issuing out. That itself was quite a sight, but it was just a curtain raiser for what we would come to next.

We reached the summit, dominated by Central Crater. Immediately the ground we stood on took on a different texture to the rest of the mountain, and gas explosions within the crater were responsible for the huge plume of steam rising out and blown away from us by a southerly or southwesterly wind. The ground was actually shaking like an earthquake and the air reeked with the heavy smell of sulphur, threatening to choke us.

At Central Crater, Etna.

The young man, after carefully tying a scarf over his nose and mouth, then stood behind me and taking out another scarf, proceeded to tie over my face, pulling at the ends and securing it in place. As I submitted to his care, for a moment I was a child again and enjoyed being mothered. An almighty crash of thunder inside the crater caused us to momentarily flee, but we made our way back to the edge and we stood there, a little too much to take in. To our right was an incline, and the young man beckoned me to see what was above it. But this time I said no, something which I began to regret afterwards once we were back down.

What made me refuse his latest invitation? The thought that a sudden wind change would cause the steam plume to change direction, literally blocking our exit and leaving us marooned on the summit. With the sulphur so thick, if we tried to navigate through the steam plume, we might have passed out with asphyxiation. Not very clever for those who would have had to rescue us, not forgetting the huge fee for the rescue to be paid afterwards. Yet I still regret the decision. The climb over the incline might have given us views of the Cratere Nord-Est, and possibly Bocca Nuova, neighbouring live vents which would have resulted in more exciting photography.

As the two of us were on our way back down, I was literally trembling from head to toe. The young man was happy and satisfied. I thought, Heck! What have I just done?  At the basalt wall we joined unnoticed at another group who were about to board the jeep, and made our way back to Refuge Sapienza without a single look from any in that group.

This is a true story I am willing to share, because our walk with God can be like that. There are times when the Lord would beckon us to venture out into unknown territory, and often we can botch on our first attempt. But instead of God rebuking us or giving up on us, he'll say, "Okay, let's try again." And if we persevere, we would be richly fulfilled and satisfied. But if we turn back or hesitate at the last hurdle, our joy can be mingled with a feeling of regret afterwards. But in such cases, we will not be condemned. Feeling having missed out on something, perhaps. But never condemnation.
There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1. With a promise like this, it is encouraging to keep going.


  1. What a wonderful parallel, Frank, between your attempts to see the crater and our attempts to go where God leads us. It is frightening to step out of our comfort zone, but He is faithful, and we can rest in the promise that i=f He has called us to it, He will see us through it. Even better, He will not condemn us for our failed attempts, but will encourage us to step out once more. Thanks as always for the great post, & God bless!

  2. Thankyou Frank for that very interesting tour. My husband and myself visited Sicily and I thought it was beautiful. Like you say, our fears to venture out into unknown territory are fully understood by God, there is a time for everything, and He is a God of second chances who always encourages us to 'keep climbing' til we reach the summit.

  3. Amen, Frank. So many settle for stopping half way and seeing just what everyone else sees, rather than going the whole way and seeing what God has for them.

  4. Brilliant Frank; yet more exciting tales of your world travels. I could honestly read about it all day.

    You wrote: 'There are times when the Lord would beckon us to venture out into unknown territory, and often we can botch on our first attempt. But instead of God rebuking us or giving up on us, he'll say, "Okay, let's try again." And if we persevere, we would be richly fulfilled and satisfied.' God is merciful and He knows we hesitate and that we make mistakes. There is always another time and a second chance with God.