Thursday, February 13, 2014

Mama Tungurahua erupts

It's funny how quickly the human brain can adapt to the idea of instant destruction.

As I drove into Ambato a billowing mushroom cloud - red against the evening sun - cast an apocalyptic shadow over the city. Tungurahua, Ecuador's monstrous, active volcano, was feeling fiery. The name in Quechua means 'Throat of Fire'... so I can't say I wasn't warned. The horizon from Ambato looked more like Bikini Atoll.

Mama Tungurahua is Ecuador's fiercest volcano and standing at 5,023 metres she's no shrinking violet.
Mama Tungurahua over Ambato
All of the mountains in Ecuador have rich legends associated with them. They all have sexes and personalities and are part of an extended family group. For example, Mama Tungurahua was the wife of Tayta (father in Quechua) Chimborazo, the daddy of all volcanoes.

Anyway, here's the goss. Slutty Tungurahua was having it off behind Chimborazo's back with the youthful mountain Carihuayrazo. One thing I can tell you about Chimborazo is he doesn't take kindly to other blokes banging his bird. Some grass tipped him off about his wife's assignations and he exacted a fitting revenge. He bashed Carihayrazo so hard on the head it smashed into three separate peaks.

I know it all sounds a bit unlikely, but I was skeptical too until I saw the broken peaks of Carihuayrazo with my own eyes, so it must be true.

Most of Tungurahua's friends and family shot their ultimate lava load many thousands of years ago. And thankfully so! When nearby Quilotoa went pop it was estimated with a force of 12 times the strength of the most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated.

After a day under the shadow of dark volcanic ash which blotted the horizon and I was itching to get closer with my camera to take photos.

It's been a year or so since Tungurahua erupted with this much anger and I'd already missed her most violent eruption a few days earlier.

To take a decent photo of an erupting volcano the stars need to align. Tungurahua is often shrouded in cloud so I needed a rare, clear day. To make things tougher, it needs to be clear between 6-9am or 4-6pm otherwise the light is bleaching and flat. Finally, I needed her to erupt.

The first day was so cloudy I wrote it off and went to photograph vicunas at Chimborazo instead. However, yesterday was beautifully clear at 4pm so I jumped into a cab and headed for the lofty mirador that overlooks Ambato. High in the blue sky the white face of the moon was already shining and the late afternoon sun was beginning to cast a magical shadow over the city.

Panorama of Ambato, Ecuador and Volcano Tungurahua
A panorama of Ambato under the shadow of an active volcano (spot the moon, top left)
Unfortunately Tungurahua was only coughing relatively small plumes of ash compared to two days earlier when ash ascended 32,000 feet into the atmosphere. Every five minutes she blew another lungful of ash like a wheezy, old smoker. It's amazing the speed the ash rises into the air, as though the volcano was exhaling. The ash cloud is much thicker than a classic cumulonimbus and has a slightly amber hue.

Ash from the volcano is already falling onto the south of Quito, over 100km away. When I rode my motorbike from Ambato to Banos last week the road was coated with Tungurahua's ash nearly a foot deep in places. It forms thick clouds as the 4x4s race over it and makes for treacherous travel.

It sounds odd, but watching the erupting volcano on such a perfectly clear day I couldn't help wishing for that ultimate, cataclysmic eruption. I had the perfect view, the light was ideal and my camera was poised to capture (what would almost certainly have become) the final moments of quarter of a million people. I'm worried this sounds a bit psychotic.

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