Go with the flow: Ride volcanoes

Surfing started with big waves and wooden boards. Then it moved on to ski slopes and sand dunes. But those are nothing compared to the latest thrill – riding active volcanoes. Simon Usborne reports

When Captain James Cook and his lieutenant, James King, landed on Hawaii in 1778 they were struck by a strange sight in the surf. Men with "oval pieces of plank" were riding waves that "sent them in with a most astonishing velocity". The passage in King's log was the first recorded account of surfing. Little did he or those early daredevils know how many extreme sports it would spawn. The latest addition to a list of boarding prefixes that includes kite, sand and horse (no, really): volcano.

Yes, volcano boarding is the hottest thing on the Nicaraguan backpacker trail. Intrepid travellers are hiking up the precipitous Cerro Negro, near the western city of León, before hurtling back down its rock-and-ash slopes at eye-watering speed. Adrenalin junkies at the Bigfoot Hostel are provided with orange overalls and plywood sleds. More experienced daredevils use adapted snowboards. Either way, balls are not provided.

"The volcano is active," says the hostel's owner, Phillip Southan. "But the biggest risk is getting scratches if you fall off." And those scratches are likely to be big – volcano boarders regularly reach speeds of up to 60km per hour. "It's hot, dusty, a little scary – and crazy enough to be fun," says one of thousands of backpackers who have taken on Cerro Negro, which has erupted 20 times since it first blew in 1850.

All board sports can trace their origins to surfing, a pursuit rooted in Polynesian culture centuries before Cook rocked up on Hawaii, but whose exact origins are shrouded in the mists of time. It was then all but forgotten until the early 20th century, when Duke Kahanamoku, a champion swimmer from Waikiki, led a revival that soon swept the world.

But surfing is a slave to the weather, not to mention proximity to a coastline. It was bored surfers in Los Angeles who, on an unrecorded day in the late 1940s or early 1950s, screwed wheels to small pieces of wood and invented skateboarding. Those wheels were ditched and the boards fitted with a rope at their tips by a Michigan man in 1965. His "snurfer", a surfboard for snow, sold by the million. One fan by the name of Jake Burton screwed bindings to his and cut the rope. Snowboarding was born.

The big three board sports – surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding – have been joined by a host of evolutions. Wakeboarders get towed by speedboats, kiteboarders use the wind and sandboarders take on dunes. We've even seen videos of surfing hamsters and skateboarding cats, but horseboarding?

Daniel Fowler-Prime is chair of the British Horsesurfing Association, a group that uses horses to tow them on boards through shallow surf or, with wheels, along the ground at speeds of up to 40mph. At the end of this month, the Association is hosting championships at its base in Harefield, West London. "We're doing drag races where boarders and horses go head to head," Fowler-Prime says. "Some have called it the world's first team extreme sport – you have to work with the horse to go as fast as you can but you can't go flat out because even the best pros will get spanked."

No need for horsepower on Cerro Negro, where volcano boarders have almost brought the sport full circle. The Polynesian pioneers were not content to ride waves. They developed a sport that has much in common with the exploits of backpackers in Nicaragua. "He'ehölua", or mountain surfing, is as old as its aquatic counterpart. More than 2,000 years ago, men used 12ft sleds to careen down manmade courses of hardened lava or grass to honour Pele, the goddess of fire. Or they did it for the thrill. As King observed of surfing: "[It] must, I conceive, be very pleasant; at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this exercise gives." Whether you're being dragged by the wind, a horse or plummeting down an active volcano, some things haven't changed.