A Volcanic Experience

volcano picture

A Volcanic Experience: Mount Batur Volcano, on the Island of Bali, One hour’s drive from Ubud.

The journey up Bali’s Mount Batur volcano begins in a silent cornfield under the moonlight. There a Balinese farmer wearing flip-flops guides trekkers across jagged lava beds. In the silence, the crowing of roosters, the bell-like sounds of gamelans and even the voices of villagers can be heard clearly at 1,717 metres above sea level.

As you reach one of the three spectaular peaks, dawn breaks, laying out an ethereal panorama of pink and purple skylight above a green valley, black lava beds, and glittering Lake Batur below.

This is a piece of Bali, that’s a bit farther from the beaten tourist track, with accomodations minimal enough to seem improvised. Mount Batur, considered sacred by the Balinese, is a fairly easy journey up one of the world’s most active volcanos leading to a strange pristine wilderness.

A tour can be arranged at any restaurant in the area or at the little hotel at the shores of Lake Batur. Any of Bali’s hostels, hotels and resorts can supply a driver for the 3:00 a.m. jaunt at a cost of about $20 for the ride to the volcano–about an hour from Ubud–and another $30 for the guides up the top.

The strenuousness of the 700-metre climb to the tallest peak and the pre-dawn start time keeps crowds fairly small; the trash-and graffiti-free slopes seem to validate that. The journey up the tallest crater takes anywhere from one-and-a-half to six hours, and can be completed easily by anyone in good physical condition. Entire Balinese villages ascend the peak for religious rites, so it seems willpower is more important than physical strength.

“I nearly gave up three times,” laughs a jubilant Phil Gallegher, a graphic designer from Adelaide, Australia who recently conquered the peak at sunrise on his first try with two American companions. “The crater had fissures and there was a huge dry cave as well. It looks blown out rather than made by lava.”

At the top of any of the three craters, Batur is a frightening testimony to the power of nature. The long sharp arcs of blown-out rock attest to violent volcanic eruptions, some as recent as 1994. A walk to the smallest peak leads to the site of recent activity, with huge plumes of billowing steam overhead and the sight of molten red lava down the caldera. Steam eruptions heave and crash like the sound of ocean waves and the earth underfoot rumbles restlessly.

“Volcanos are dangerous,” says Wayan Sadu Antara, a Balinese guide. “It’s a holy mountain. And for us it’s still difficult to live here. No one knows when it will explode. The worst was in 1926,” he continues, “where one of Batur’s eruptions levelled a village. Three hundred people died, because many wouldn’t leave,” he adds, pointing to the vast lava graveyard in the valley below. “The next crater was formed in 1963. Then 1974, and 1994, and some activity last year.”

In 1997, the Dutch government, which colonized Indonesia for 347 years, sent pictures of the old destroyed village, Wayan says. “We made big pictures from them and put them in the temple.”

And yet, the Balinese look upon the volcano as an ultimate blessing for its enriching effects on the soil. That aside, he notes, eruptions bring tourists, in particular, a lot of curious Italians.

For tourists, the greater danger lies not in unexpected eruptions, but in making the trek without a guide, especially alone. The slopes, covered with an exotic combination of alpine lichens, jackfruit trees, bamboo, areca palms, poinsettias and pine trees can be treacherously slippery and narrow, and the vertical crater walls below can be unexpectedly steep. One guide says he knew of a tourist hiking alone who died when he fell from a rain-slicked trail into a slippery gorge. He wasn’t found until weeks later.

Balinese guides will hold your hand all the way up the mountain if you need it–no one wants trekkers to go alone. Steam rises from crevices and broken rocks at the top of all three peaks. There’s an indescribable elation that comes with arriving at the top of the craters and viewing the surrounding ring-of-fire caldera–the remains of a volcano that blew apart about 50,000 years ago. If you’ve worked up an appetite, the volcano and its guides can accomodate you. Eggs are actually cooked in the steaming holes with a little dried grass piled on top, and after a few minutes, come out perfectly hard-boiled.

And somehow, it doesn’t take nearly as long to descend the peaks as it does to climb them–an hour at most. With the right shoes, the volcano can be almost “skiied” down on the small crunchy lava pebbles. There are actually some treks down some parts of the slopes that feature “lava skiing.”

Slide down the lava slope that takes three hours to climb, hop on your guide’s Megawati-stickered motorbike back to the waiting car, and you cannot help but feel you are flying home.

December 1, 1998

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