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Searing pain shot up and down my legs and I was gasping for breath in the middle of Gunung Agung’s dense forest. It was a night of dun darkness where the starry sky was obscured by a veil of mist hanging above our heads. Or perhaps it was the volcanic ash. I was limping on the sacred slopes of Bali’s highest volcano wearing an ill-fitting pair of brand new hiking shoes. A friend and I found ourselves in this situation on pure impulse. I arrived in Bali for work (Foundry Photojournalism Workshop), after which I dreamt of lazing around on picture perfect beaches. Instead, I gave in to the temptation of an unusual yet tough climb up a volcano.
|❝ If you are feeling miserable and questioning your decision at least once, you can be sure it is going to be an adventure to remember.
I was surely having one. ❞
Our guide Madé, or second born, as all Balinese people are often named according to the order of their birth, was a frail but spirited man with a toothy grin and a tattered pair of shoes. He met us at the famous Pura Pasar Agung, Bali’s highest temple at the ungodly hour of 2am in the night. The mist and a faint glow emanating from beyond the temple’s candi bentar, an ornate and symmetrical roofless split gate that’s typical of Balinese temples, filled us with a false sense of confidence in tackling the mammoth task ahead of us. In reality, we knew nothing about the volcano or its unforgiving slopes.
Mount Agung or Gunung Agung in Balinese, is the highest of the four volcanoes in Bali rising nearly 10000ft(3031m) above the sea level making it the island’s highest point. After 120 years of dormancy, the last time Gunung Agung erupted was in 1963-64 when it claimed more than 1500 lives. Today it is still active but not as the fierce lava spewing annihilator that it once was. Instead it stands tall as a stark reminder of gods and their anger. Staunch believers in the sanctity of the volcano, Balinese people see natural disasters as the wrath of gods brought upon by mortal misconduct.
Despite living in the shadows of furious volcanoes, Balinese people and Indonesians in general, do not resent volcanoes. Volcanoes are revered instead, for they are a life giving force that bestows the island’s largely agrarian community with fertile soils. If a volcano rumbles, they’d try to appease the angered gods and make peace. It wasn’t too surprising then, that the first thing Madé did before setting off on our trail was to light a bunch of incense sticks at the temple praying for our safety.
A cool breeze wafted the heavy scent of the incense sticks mixed with the earthiness of the volcanic soil. I wondered if the temple’s 5000ft felt this chilly, the summit’s 10000ft was going to be frigid. But the excitement of an imminent adventure drowned whatever doubts I had in mind. Following the feeble light from our headlamps, we followed Madé into the forested patch beyond the temple. The darkness of the night blessed us with a tunnel vision that demanded our rapt attention.
Mountain: Gunung Agung
Height: 3142m / 10300ft
Type: Active Volcano
Elevation Gain: 1300m/4270ft in 4-5 hours
(Pura Pasar Agung to Crater Rim)
Total time: 12-14 hours
Location: Bali, Indonesia
Switchbacks serve a grand purpose and are a hiker’s best friend. Vertiginous inclines can be particularly challenging which is why most trails going up the mountains neatly zig-zag across the slope. In Bali, however, it seemed the best path up the mountain was along the line of sight that relentlessly goes straight up. The first half an hour of the climb was atrocious. My calf muscles were burning and my stomach was aching. I almost felt like throwing up and coming down with cramps. However, nearly an hour into the hike, I fell into a familiar rhythm of the comforting lull that follows initial panic.
The downside of impulsive decisions, ignorance, is also its most redeeming quality; it miraculously lands us in situations we wouldn’t have otherwise found ourselves in. Had I known how daunting the climb to Agung would be, I would’ve probably never signed up in my right mind considering it’s been nearly a year since I went hiking. Yet, here I was huffing and puffing.
As the night progressed, fierce winds lambasted us on the open volcanic slopes without the protective, if slightly claustrophobic, cover of the forest. On one side, clouds enveloped the valley and on the other side, the delicate arch of the galaxy spread across the sky over the faint city lights of Bali. Torchlights of other hikers flickered behind us and they were so high up that they almost looked like the stars. Mt Agung summit was somewhere up there.
Nearing dawn, Madé started singing to keep himself awake. He does this hike at least thrice a week, which was obviously taking its toll. Only the mumbling songs of our ever-cheerful guide punctuated the eerie silence of the stagnant night. His exuberant disposition turned out to be a vital force in motivating me to keep one foot in front of the other religiously despite the thinning air.
Madé shouted at us struggling on the surreal landscape of muted browns and greys shaped by gnarly columns of lava flow that streamed down the northern slope. His eager bellows became my war cry. I was acutely aware how climbing or any intense physical activity is more a mental game than physical. Shockingly, given how exhausting every step turned out to be, we made it to the crater rim (2866m) just in time, minutes before sunrise. When Mount Agung blew it’s top in 1964, more than 100 meters of the mountain was obliterated during the eruption leaving behind a deep caldera. Barely 30 of us hikers packed the narrow strip of even surface along the serrated crater rim of the volcano readying ourselves to watch the sun rise above the sea of cotton clouds surrounding us.
When the sun finally appeared over the horizon as a red fireball casting a golden light over the deities guarding the crater rim, Madé and every other Balinese guide took turns lighting up incense sticks and offering prayers thanking gods for protecting us. I too was thanking the gods, but for the sweet relief of sunny warmth that finally ended the freezing spell of the extremely windy summit. The actual summit was about 100m above where we were. But this turned out to be a happy accident, that we booked ourselves on a hike to the crater rim rather than the summit, as the latter is an even brutal hike.
|(Clockwise L-R) At 10000ft, Agung's summit is high above the treeline; The brutal descent through seemingly endless forest stretch towards the end; Incredibly steep lava slopes that require a lot of clambering while going up and are super tough on knees while descending.|
Content with enjoying a gorgeous view of the island that few ever see, we thought the worst was behind us as we got down. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The muscles already worn out from the exhaustion of the climb couldn’t get a moment’s respite; the knee-pounding steep slope put a throbbing pressure on the limbs. My ill-fitting pair of hiking boots was proving to be fateful as were my unclipped toenails. Descent’s ever-faithful companion, that feeling of incredulity surfaced as we went on.
“Did I actually climb all of this in the dead of the night?”
It was a painfully laboured descent, particularly annoying was that it seemed like there was no end to this agony. Open volcanic slopes gave way to dry grasslands that further extended into the dense forests typical of pristine tropical islands. Towards the end, there was no joy left in passing through mist-covered enchanted forest full of ginormous ferns. There was no war cry anymore; only one thought was ringing through my head.
The last step in gaining freedom from the self-inflicted torment was the torturous climb down the numerous steps of Pura Pasar Agung temple. Arriving at the parking lot, we all but collapsed. Comparing notes with fellow hikers in the parking lot, we learned Agung is hard on everyone. It even has the reputation of being the toughest volcano climb in all of Indonesia.
Although, along with the visceral pain came an immense satisfaction now that we were in the safety of comfort. That seething pain was a wonderful souvenir of pushing boundaries both physically and mentally. The reward for being spontaneous and ignorant was a timely reminder of what drove me to travel in first place - uncertainty and unfamiliarity. I was drowning in all the digital data under the pretence of researching a destination for best deals and best sights. Without even realising, I was indirectly eschewing the true spirit of travel.
Back in Ubud 12 hours since setting off on the hike, I trimmed my toenails first (which I eventually lost in a month) and collapsed in a heap. Two days later I was on my way to hike up a bigger volcano on the neighbouring island, an aching body and oversized shoes notwithstanding. If climbing Agung had taught me anything, it was to embrace the unexpected. ※
|Mt. Rinjani (3726m) on neighbouring Lombok island as seen from Mt. Agung's slopes. Exactly 5 days after, I was standing atop Mt. Rinjani, I decided to hike up Rinjani right after I got down Agung, an aching body notwithstanding. Impulsive decisions, FTW!|
Hike & Guide Arrangements
Midnight hikes up Bali’s volcanoes aiming a dawn arrival at the summit are gaining much popularity of late. Hikes can be arranged through one of the several travel agents in Bali’s popular places such as Denpasar, Ubud, Kuta or Seminyak. The hike to Agung and back will take approximately 12 hours starting midnight.
Depending on the number of people and quality of guide, vehicle etc, a complete package including a guide, light breakfast at the top and pick up as well as drop from hotel in a vehicle can cost anywhere between 500000 IDR (approx. Rs. 2500) to 1000000 IDR (approx. Rs. 5000).
There are two routes up Agung. One is the shorter and more popular hike to the crater rim (2866m) starting from the Pura Pasar Agung temple (1563m). The other route to the true summit of Agung (3031m) starts from the mother temple, Pura Besakih (1000m) and is considered a much more tougher climb than the one to the crater rim.