Getting under Sicily’s skin

Removing the mountain’s skin is like exploring Sicily. This place needs to be dissected with a sharp implement to cut through all the layers of history, culture and society to uncover its raw heart.

Carving up the mountains is impossible, and slicing through Sicily’s different elements of life will prove to be just as tricky.

I want to discover what is underneath. I see these mountains before me, which sustain the weight of the world, who sigh at night when they rest, groan with the heat of summer and shiver in winter.

The mountains are alive; they breathe, express desires and witness the truth. They have seen everything before us and will see everything after us. These mountains outlive us all, and there is no way to get below them. I can only stare at them in wonder.

The mountainous landscape in Sicily persistently challenges me. The high slopes disorient me; they dominate the horizon. When I go hiking down steep hillsides, I am continually holding on for dear life, grappling white-knuckled onto the flimsiest blade of grass in my reach.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sprained my ankles or fallen’ head over arse’ as Australian’s colourfully and aptly say.

My native piece of Western Australia is very flat with a small range in the distance affectionately called the ‘Darling’ range. I am used to seeing more sky than land on the horizon; at times, I feel a little stifled by the Sicilian peaks surrounding me.

Here in Sicily, he landscape is still evolving before my very eyes as every time I look; I notice something different. Entire houses leap out at me, old country mansions suddenly reveal themselves, and I’m always asking my husband: ‘Hey, has that always been there?’

Geologically Sicily is considered a very young country. Etna, at its heart, spurts out lava in regular eruptions and regular tremors and earthquakes, which gives Sicily the nickname of the terra ballerina, literally the dancing land.

I’ll never get used to the mountains. I will always be afraid of the one car width wide country roads carved out of the side of the rocks. There is only a flimsy guardrail, if anything at all, separating you from certain death. It is easy to see yourself plummeting down the rest of the precipice if you were to swerve or be hit by an upcoming car.

An old family friend of my husband fell down a mountain road as he swerved to avoid a truck along a curvy highland road near to where he lives. His car leapt over the railing, and the driver door flung open (of course, he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt as thick-headed Sicilians don’t do safety devices.)

Our friend was thrown out of his four-wheel-drive car, falling through the branches of some chestnut trees, finally landing in the arms of some small hazelnut boughs. At the same time, his vehicle continued to roll down to the bottom of an abandoned gully way, way, way below the road.

Thank goodness he was tough enough to save himself as his phone was resting in what was left of his car. So our friend dusted himself off and climbed back to the road with blood pouring down his face from a thirty stitches wide gash on his scalp.

He tried to flag down a car but no one stopped when they noticed he also had his shot gun slung over his shoulder (since he also managed to save his beloved huntin rifle which was in the back seat of his car).

He simply walked home and went to the emergency room the next day to have himself stiched up.

The bits and pieces of his car were recovered and sold for spare parts ten days later.

My fear of mountains is continually reinforced; every year, there is a new story to add to the accidents, hitting closer to home each time.

My sister in law became another victim of the dangers of Sicilian roads. In general, there is a minimum level of maintenance for infrastructure in southern Italy. Even major highways are falling apart.

She met another car, shifted over to the side and the little fiat 500 she was driving slid over, rolling down a steep drop and throwing her out on its way down. She managed to call for help, then was airlifted to Messina and spent a month in the hospital.

Now, whenever I pass the spot where she fell, I get goosebumps.