In my previous post, I discussed a couple of childhood experiences that gave me a fear of volcanoes.
However, that changed in 2014 when I visited Yellowstone and the nearby Craters of the Moon: Suddenly, I discovered that volcanic action could be more beautiful than dangerous.
Yellowstone: Like nowhere else on Earth
Yellowstone is one of the US’s best known national parks. In past times, it has been a massive volcano, and certainly could erupt again. However, right now it has constant geo-thermal activity on display in things like geysers, fumaroles, and bubbling pools.
My interest started in the very first car park we got to. There was a small, fenced-off area, and inside it we could see mud bubbling away. Personally, I found that pretty cool - how many car-parks around the world have an attraction like that? But it was also a sign that we were dealing with Nature as it was - the park rangers might have preferred not to have that feature there, but they could only rope it off, not stop it.
This was also shown in the general terrain: From a distance, areas with trees looked a lot like the nearby Tetons, but in the active areas there were often clouds of steam rising. Closer up, green areas and burnt out areas seemed mixed almost randomly:
This made it dangerous to put a foot wrong, as some parts had a very thin crust with scalding water or mud below the surface. There were boardwalks everywhere, and visitors were strongly advised to stay on them. Rangers told us that every week multiple people who left the path had to be rescued or treated.
This also means that it is a changing terrain. Pools can be very active for a few weeks, then peter out for months. Some things are fairly repetitive, with a predictable period of seconds, minutes, hours, or days. Others are almost completely unpredictable. I’m sure you could go to exactly the same part of Yellowstone two days running and get very different experiences. This also requires rangers to keep an eye on everything and change trails and signs as the attractions moved or changed.
Geysers are one of the most exciting features there, and probably the one most like a volcanic eruption. Old Faithful is of course the best known one, occurring fairly predictably every 1.5 hours or so (I saw it three times while I was in the area). Others are less predictable, including one we saw predicted to erupt at some point between 11:15PM and 3:15AM. But I did just happen to be near the spot for one which was more impressive than Old Faithful:
In the Old Faithful Visitor Centre they had a sign saying “The steam from 1/4 of the world’s active geysers can be seen from this window”. I don’t know whether Yellowstone was my favourite place on that US trip (though it was pretty close), but when people asked it was that sign that gave me the answer. All I had to say was that Yellowstone was like nowhere else on Earth, and they assumed it must have been my favourite.
The various bubbling springs and ponds were also fun to watch and sometimes very colourful. Grand Prismatic is the largest and most spectacular, though, like most visitors, we saw it obscured by steam. The different colours actually show different water temperatures that attract different extremophiles, and which does lead to nice effects like this:
Generally, though, my memory of Yellowstone is as a place where strange and unexpected things could and did happen. Maybe to school-me that would have caused even more fear, but to adult-me it made for a place of wonder:
The park even has its own Grand Canyon, which had impressive falls and really did look like a smaller and more sulfurous version of the Grand Canyon:
Basically, Yellowstone was a place where I got the sense there were powerful forces at work. While we couldn’t control them, we could try to understand them and live in harmony with them.
It seems to me that, so long as you’re careful, keep your eyes open, and follow instructions, you’re very unlikely to come to harm there. And I think the same is true of most volcanoes around the world.
Craters of the Moon: The lava field where astronauts train
Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho contains large lava fields from a number of eruptions, most recently around 2,000 years ago. It has the reputation of being black and ugly, but I personally found it both fascinating and beautiful. There’s just so much to see there.
For starters, there are a number of cones:
There are also lava caves, where parts of lava tubes have fallen in to give access. Some of these caves are large enough and enclosed enough that they maintain a constant temperature year round (we were there in summer, and there was ice at the back of one of the caves).
There are even tree-molds, where you can see the exact patterns of trees and bark caught (and destroyed) by the lava flow:
Looking into the distance, the terrain can seem somewhat monotonous and black:
However, close up there can be much more colour:
It originally got its name because it was thought to be similar to the Moon. Apollo astronauts have trained there. Then they went to the moon and found it wasn’t as similar as thought, but the name stuck.
NASA still use it for training today (for example, in the BASALT program). It’s been chosen because it is both a scientific analog (basalt rich lava fields are common on both the Moon and Mars) and an operational analog (it has some of the roughest terrain on Earth). They’ve even done exercises there with a 20 minute delay in communications to try and simulate some of the challenges of a human Mars mission.
Anyway, leaving aside the space connection, I found that Craters of the Moon showed the awesome power of volcanoes to rapidly change and shape the landscape, but it also showed a beauty and a wonder that I didn’t expect.
Closer to home
Growing up, I don’t remember hearing too much about the volcanic heritage of Victoria. However, within six months of getting back from the US I decided to explore it to see how it compared with Yellowstone and Craters of the Moon.
And maybe it’s not quite as impressive: There were no active volcanic areas, and the lava flows were generally less visible than at Craters of the Moon (of course, in reality this is a good thing, because it means that the area has recovered).
However, I still love the area, and it’s way more accessible to me (while I haven’t returned to the US since 2014, I was able to revisit the Western District last year). Perhaps the most beautiful volcanic area I saw on that second trip was Tower Lake, where lakes conceal a multitude of craters, and the views stretch to the nearby ocean:
However, there were two places that particularly stood out for their variety: Budj Bim in Western Victoria, and Mount Gambier just over the South Australian border.
Budj Bim’s crater now sports a lake, justly called Lake Surprise because it’s not visible from outside the crater.
There is also a good circuit walk, which passes the high point of the hill, a natural bridge (a lava formation), then later follows the path of an ancient lava flow.
There are also two lava caves on this trail, which are fun to explore. They go far enough back that you can be completely in the dark if you want to be. In fact, I nearly managed to get stuck following a narrow tunnel with lots of tree roots coming through the roof. Be careful in caves!
Mount Gambier & Mount Schanck
Mount Gambier is the site of the most recent eruption in Australia, around 5,000 years ago and clearly attested in Aboriginal legends. It’s actually a fairly extensive precinct with a number of craters and outlets, including the crater lake Blue Lake. In this case, the crater is deep enough to expose the underlying limestone aquifer, and the lake is also part of Mount Gambier’s water supply. It gets its name from the colour of the water, which turns a vivid blue as it warms up, typically in November, then turns grey again in autumn.
However, I find the Valley Lake area more interesting (it’s even got a frisbee golf course!)
Above the Valley Lake area is the Centenary Tower, which is actually a reasonably large tower, but looks tiny compared to the hill it is on. It was initially built in 1900 to celebrate the centenary of Mount Gambier first being sighted and named by the crew of the HMS Lady Nelson in 1800. The management boast panoramic views from the tower (it wasn’t open when I was there last year, but I think I took the previous picture from the top of Centenary Tower in 2015).
Fairly near Mount Gambier is Mount Schanck, which has one of the best kept volcanic craters I know in Australia. For some reason, I didn’t think the crater walls were that steep, and so when I got to the bottom I started to climb out again. It turned out to be steeper than I bargained for, but at least I made it to the top. Then the person who started climbing after me climbed it at least three times faster and made it look easy…
Distinctively Australian wildlife
While I love the lava flows, craters, and volcanic action, those aren’t the only things you can find in a volcanic area. And here is where Australia has things that the US doesn’t: Yellowstone may have bison, wolves, and elk, but there’s not a marsupial or a gum tree to be seen. For the areas I’ve mentioned:
Mount Gambier’s Valley Lake has a specific wildlife conservation area that’s worth a visit:
Tower Hill is a game reserve. Probably the most notable Australian wildlife I’ve seen there are the emus, though it’s also the only time I’ve seen blue-tongued lizards in the wild. One emu in particular caught my attention by jumping up and down to try and get to the leaves that were out of its reach, a thing that I’ve never seen before or since. I don’t have any photos of that, but this is perhaps a more typical scene:
At Budj Bim I’ve seen more koalas in the wild than anywhere else in Australia. It was also there that I first learned to recognise the call of the koala, which I have never been able to describe properly, but do find very distinctive.
More volcanic action for Victoria?
I started my previous post talking about childhood fears of a volcano growing in my back garden. As an adult, I know that this almost certainly won’t happen in Melbourne. However, I can also see that volcanic action was a big part of what made Victoria what it is today.
So, could we have another volcano in Victoria any time soon? Well, experts have been saying for a while that the next one could be just round the corner (in geological time). As an example, consider this article, which suggests that it’s more likely volcanic action won’t be in our lifetime, but that if it does happen it could be very disruptive.
One of the things I did shortly after getting home from the US was to re-read Volcano Adventure - yes, the book that made me scared of volcanoes in my childhood. And yes, the protagonists got into dangerous situations, but I found the setting appealing rather than scary. Which I think was what Willard Price intended for the series all along.
Of the various places around the Ring of Fire that they visited, the two that stood out in my mind were Japan and Hawaii. I also know that New Zealand North Island has volcanic action and is much closer to home, while the history of Italy appeals to me, which includes Vesuvius and the devastation wrought at Pompei.
Going back to the eruption of Parícutin that caught my attention in childhood, Wikipedia says it has become a tourist attraction. It does sound interesting, would show the effect of volcanic action on real lives, and it could be nice to finally lay the ghost of an ancient fear.
Maybe I will visit some of these places one day. Or maybe I won’t.
However, I think volcanoes are a powerful reminder of how our world is changing, in ways that my former fundamentalist self didn’t really appreciate. They can be dangerous and scary, and they do show the power of the earth and the fragility of humanity. However, I think they can also be both beautiful and fascinating to watch. And I think that, if you’re careful, the beauty outweighs the danger.