Mount Agung

Well, my birthday came and I had no concrete plans. I was staying in this town named Candi Dasa which is supposed to be cheaper, but I'm not sure. They messed up the beach, they used to have a beautiful white beach, but they mined out the coral to make concrete to build hotels. The coral was protecting the beach. All that's left is these concrete barriers, with some whisps of sand here and there, and a whole street full of hotels and restaurants with very few tourists. So at least it's not crowded.

So I rolled out of bed and looked at my guidebooks and decided to check out this local town that's "bali-aga", people from before when the Javanese were chased onto Bali. Supposed to be a real authentic villiage but they had like motorbikes and TVs.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali map I went on to see Mount Agung, the highest mountain on Bali at over 3000 meters. All of the mountains here are volcanic, and this particular one blew its top in 1963 and killed a lot of people and destroyed a lot of stuff. The guidebook said there were two ways to climb it, and they seemed similar. You take the road up to the Hindu temple, then you get a guide (a guy who shows you the way and makes sure you don't kill yourself), then you take the trail to the top. You have to start early in the morning, like shortly after midnight, to get to the top by sunrise. Clouds mess up the view other times of the day.

Two roads, two temples, two trails to the top. One way was less touristy than the other, so I decided that maybe I just drive up, and see how far I could get by driving. And maybe take along my hiking shoes.

(The map here is some completely different hill in sulawesi, sorry. Agung is a lot larger. But you get the idea.)

I've got a rental car now, actually a sortof covered jeep, they call them Jimneys. Driving on the left side is crazy, and the drivers are crazy, and it's a standard transmission, but I've gotten used to it.

The last town before you go up the mountain is Selat and I turned there and made my way up the road. It's full of potholes in places, but in other places you can go fast. It's single lane of course. It started getting steeper and steeper, and in one place my car stalled and I had to roll back down and attack the hill again.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali parking lot There were some villages along the way, and more than one well where people came to fill their water buckets. I think running water is more common in the hotels than among the villagers, and a lot of the hotels had their own water towers. At one point they had a - thing, I dunno, like a monument or an opening statue, with banners that reached fifty feet in the air, and some tall hay-colored fronds of some plant or tree, blowing in the wind. I kept on driving and I finally got to the parking lot. Big parking lot with just a few cars in it.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali upstairs Stairs led to the temple. A lot of them. I thought it would be 272 steps the way it was in Kuala Lumpur, but I counted up past 300. Right after I got past 300, I was going up the final staircase to the temple, and I was stopped by an old man.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali near temple No no no you can't go in like that, he motioned. I had to wear a sarong to enter the temple, he motioned by wiping his hands on his thighs where his sarong was. That's just a piece of cloth you wrap around like a skirt. I didn't have one so he took one off himself and wrapped it around me. I knew he'd ask for money eventually, everybody does.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali temple stone
The temple was very majestic and amazing, especially with the mountaintop in the background, with clouds billowing by in the wind. (Unfortunately all my pictures on that roll got messed up.) This was one fo the best kept Hindu temples I had seen. The sarong cost me 1500 to rent. (The next day I bought one for 6000.)

I put on my sneakers and asked around for where the trail to the top was. I wanted to do just a little bit of hiking up, but it was hard convincing the people in the temple that. They kept on calling out to be my guide. I said back "Satu jam", one hour, I'm just going for one hour, I don't need a guide. They were yelling back "500 rp", "300 rp", a tiny rate for a guide, but it was silly to hire a guide for an hour.

The reason for a guide became immediately apparent; there's a number of trails and it was a bit confusing but I asked the people there and I got going in the right direction. For some reason the trail seems to go by the trash heap for the temple. I walked up a ways, looking for a clearing, maybe I'd have a snack with a view. But there was no clearing so I just sat down on the trail. At some point some of the locals came down the trail past me, wearing their white outfits and white kerchiefs on their heads like headbands (i don't know what they're called). By the time I made my way down to my car again, I had decided I had to make the morning climb all the way to the top.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali staircase In Lonely Planet it said to stop by the police station in Selat to get a guide and arrange a hike. The police couldn't speak much english, they directed me to this guy, walking into the parking lot. He knew english, and he could arrange a guide. In fact he was a guide, and he ended up being my guide. His name was Lanang, and he had very good english, and we stood in the police parking lot, talking and joking. He lived just two doors down from the police station and was good friends with them.

Well, Lanang was what they called him. I know, it's not one of the four Balinese names. I didn't understand it. It was probably a nickname.

There was a big religious hindu thing going on in a few days that was three days long. So really the only opportunity was tonite or tomorrow nite. I would show up the following evening, 6pm, get a guest house room, and we would leave Selat at 2:30 in the morning. This would be my 40th birthday celebration.

I drove into town the next day, and even before I got to his house, I saw him driving a motorbike, with a white guy as passenger. I pulled around the corner and parked in front of his house. I asked the people there if I could park there, and they said OK, but there was something wrong.

In a minute he showed up with his motorbike. The guy on the back was an American named Josh, from New York. He was going too. It was all a little bit funny because I had turned onto a one way street, the street in front of the police station, and I was going in the wrong direction. It's pretty much one loop of one-way through the middle of town, I just turned the wrong way to park. Well, Lanang is good friends with the police, and it was apparently OK, and good for a laugh.

Josh and Lanang had been driving around looking for banks so that Josh could get some money. He was in some sort of bind, sortof like I was in on the Togian islands, where whatever kind of money he had, they didn't like it, or they couldn't change it, or they ran out of money or something. Small town bank. Lanang was actually helping out, for free, sortof a fringe benefit of having a guide, or maybe just this is what you do for friends. It's the kind of thing that just doesn't happen that much in this country.

Lanang was impressed with how much Indonesian I had learned. (In Sulawesi, there wasn't much choice.) I had picked up a book on Balinese for my own curiosity, and he kept on trying to teach me and Josh some Balinese.

It was all really just a joke, as Balinese is all ritualized; there's actually three different languages depending on your caste, the caste you're talking to, whether they're a child or an old person, bleah, I dunno. Maybe there's five or six different dialects, I dunno. I had scanned the book when I got it, and it was apparent that many of the words were the same, or similar, in Indonesian and the dialects of Balinese. Sometimes the Indonesian would agree with the high Balinese, or sometimes the low Balinese, or sometimes all four words were the same, sometimes all of the Balinese would agree but were different from the Indonesian, it was inconsistent. What a mess. The book was for English speakers who were fluent in Indonesian; frequently it would explain a gramatical construct by saying it was the same as Indonesian except..., and sometimes it would just ramble on for paragraphs in Indonesian to explain one thing or another.

When you meet Indonesians, you engage in a bit of smalltalk. Almost always one fo the first questions to come up was "Darri Mana" where are you from? Lanang taught us to say "I'm from California" and "I'm from New York" in Balinese. It was good for a laugh when we went to dinner at a place down the street.

When you say something in Indonesian, the locals are usually pleasantly surprised that you're not just another ugly american, you made an effort to learn. But that's Indonesian, the language dictated by the government as the common language for the whole country, 366 ethnic groups. For most Indonesians (who haven't been displaced from their original homeland, which the government does also), daily conversations happen in the local language, Balinese in this case. When you learn the local language, usually they're taken off guard. Usually they don't understand it because you're mispronouncing it and they'd never suspect what you are trying to say.

At 2:30 Lanang came to wake us up. We stumbled out to the car. The drive up to the temple was unrelenting; this was the second time I drove it and it struck me again how much altitude was covered and how steep it was. Selat was already a town that was high up. Once again the car stalled but in a different place. There was three people in the car now, but Lanang said to back up to a part that was less steep, and we kept on going. We got to the temple, and got to the front steps of the temple. In the dark, Lanang went to a stupa on the side of the stairs and made some motions and sprinkled himself with water. He called me over and sprinkled some water on me, it was some sort of flower woven out of reeds that he used to do it; they do that around here. He did the same with Josh. Then he told us to stay put while he went up and prayed. The guidebook said to be respectful; you need everything going for you.

We had been noticing another car coming up the hill behind us, another set of headlights. I kindof wanted to have a small group; hopefully we could get going quickly and not have a long procession of people on the trail. After Lanang came out of the temple, two people came out of the shadows and up the stairs to meet us. One was a woman from Norway, the other was an indonesian, obviously her guide. The balinese guides chattered away, probably in Balinese, and we learned that really the guide was not qualified to go up the mountain; she would go with us and there would be four in the group. Her "guide" would wait here and sleep.

Then they were chattering more. We caucasians knew something was up. Lanang turned to me and said "He wants to sleep in your car". After a pause and a laugh, I gave him the key to the doors (but I kept the other keys).

We went on up the trail, through the shadows. We went along the ridge I had gone on before. The flashlight I had had pretty much run out of batteries, so I changed them on the trail. At first I was zipping ahead of the rest of them. Maybe it was my mountain biking in Marin, maybe it was just denial of my age (i was the oldest one in the group).

At one point I found the trail narrowing down to nothing. It seemed like the right thing to do was to go upward, but it got more and more like random forest, not a trail at all. I decided to wait for the others to catch up. I listened until I heard them, and then called out to them. "Meester Allan, wherre are you going? You are going down de wrong way." I backtracked until I found them and continued up with the group. It turned out I had taken a wrong turn.

A bit further up I slammed my knee against a rock and it hurt. "Hati-Hati", be careful, Lanang said. "Hurti-Hurti" i replied. No permanent damage but the kind of thing that hurts an awful lot in the moment.

We were walking up a ridge. If you walked fifty feet off the trail to either side, you'd be sliding down the hill, but the ridge was full of vegitation and it didn't seem dangerous at all. Just steep. You know in the west we all wimp out and have these switchbacks. At one point Josh asked Lanang, "Which direction now? No, lemme guess, straight up." The trail was relentless, straight up almost the whole way, no unnessary distance traveled.

About a quarter of the way up the trees started to thin out and a half way up the vegitation thinned out to the occasional tuft of grass. The moon was almost full and we put away our flashlights and climed on rock. In addition, the sky was getting lighter, and it became apparent which direction the sun was going to come from. It was getting steeper closer to the top. But unfortunately there was always an illusion that the top was very close. At least this was encouraging in the short term.

At some point Lanang said that there was another party ahead of us. He flashed his flashlight up the mountain, and sure enough he got a reply: a flashing signal back to us from way, way up. Seeing the flashlight that far up made it more apparent how much farther we had to go.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali above clouds As it was getting lighter, we were breaking into rock climbing, frequently on all fours. Rocks that you would dislodge would roll down the hill for ten or thirty feet, and I knew I'd roll at least that far if I made a mistake. At the same time the sun was coming up and it was becoming apparent that we were going to miss the sunrise. Josh was particularly motivated by this, but we all had our own physical limitations. It was refreshing for the faster ones to wait up for the slower ones.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali sun coming up At some point Lanang told us we had to start heading to the right. This seemed beyond our ability somehow, but we did.

At one point there was a sortof ridge going down the mountainside, basically a ten foot cliff we had to get over, in our rightward travel. This is on a mountainside that's already at a 45 degree angle. It's steep enough and now you have to climb up this crag to proceed further right.

My patience was wearing thin and I said "How the hell do you get up that?" He went over to it, stuck his feet in some crags and outcroppings, and I saw that in this one spot there was just enough features in the rock to scamper up. "You have to be very careful". He had this way of understating.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali hike to summit

The sun was coming up and I gave up hope of watching the sunrise from the top when my comrades pointed out over the island. You could see the shadow of the mountain cast upon the cloud layer and the green landscape below. You could look down and see the temple, surrounded by vegitation, but all of that stuff looked like it was all on the same level, like there was hardly any hill at all down there.

We finally got to the peak, climbing over big rocks, and it was spectacular.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali wandering around the peak

Volcano Mount Agung Bali clouds

Click for big picture.

There was another party ahead of us with four tourists; they left soon after we got there. Their guide had taken along his three year old son. The problem was that the tourists couldn't climb as fast as the guide and his kid were used to. The kid was getting cold. And of course when they got to the top, they weren't moving at all. They had built a fire to warm themselves, in a crag maybe 30 feet below the top.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali casual conversation

Volcano Mount Agung Bali clear skies

Click for big picture.
The weather was amazingly perfect when we were up there. You would think that the winds up there would be oppressive, but in fact it was like being in your back yard on a sunny, cool autumn day.
Volcano Mount Agung Bali hanging on for dear life

Me at the top --->
"ok, step back, step back further...
now don't sneeze..."

The inside of the caldera was pretty anticlimatic, relatively, other than being big. But it was really big. You didn't want to fall into it. Rainwater must collect in it. Volcano Mount Agung Bali look into crater

The view was spectacular, I took lots of pictures. You are way above the clouds, and you can see everything. You turn around and the crater is right there, probably a thousand feet deep. Watch your footing!

Eventually we had to climb down. Lanang was the most anxious; you know, it's like yawn, here we are again, looks the same as a few days ago. It was getting on into 8 or 9 am.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali climbing down thumb

what it's like to climb down.

Walking down was actually the hardest part I think. My legs had turned to rubber, and the easiest parts of the trail that I had walked on six hours ago suddenly became dangerous as I would slip and start sliding. The same thing was happening for the rest of us. We were stumbling and making uncharacteristic mistakes every few minutes. Fortunately it was less steep towards the end and we all got down without a lot of damage.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali watch horizon level
I took this picture at an angle. Note the horizon in the background.

I asked Lanang if he had ever had anybody go rolling down the hill; the nightmare of the guide, just start tumbling and keep on going. He told of this one time when he had a guy who made it down the hill by jumping. You just jump down and it's faster than taking a half dozen careful steps. Unfortunately it was also more dangerous. We confirmed this in the moment by experimentation. This guy apparently jumped and lost his footing and rolled maybe a dozen or two dozen feet. It would not be pleasant; unlike Batur, this mountain was entirely rock, with sharp edges.

This is the same picture, leveled out in photoshop.

Volcano Mount Agung Bali watch horizon orig

Volcano Mount Agung Bali back in the woods

I thought of taking pictures of the temple then, but I was exhausted. Clouds obscured the mountain.

My recommendation is to climb the mountain exactly when they say to; that's the best view.

By lunchtime, we got back into town. Josh and I wanted to go to Ubud, sortof a main arts/tourist town in the center of Bali; I would give him a ride. Meanwhile Lanang needed a ride to some relative's place; he would guide us over the highways and leave us off going in the right direction. All we needed was some gas for the car; going up the mountain and back drinks up the majority of a tankful.

Being a small town, there wasn't a real gas station the way we think of them with pumps and all. Instead there was a warung. A warung is like the indonesian equivalent of a storefront, sortof. It's more like, when you were a kid, your mom and dad remove the front wall of the house and open a restaurant, or a store of some sort. It's the tropics so it's ok if one wall of the house is just not there.

This was a gas station warung and it was closed. Or at least nobody was around. Josh goes, "Great. Indonesia. The banks have no money and the gas stations have no gas."

We went to lunch and came back later and they were open again. Not knowing exactly how to do it, I asked them for 30 liters of Premium. They had Premium and Solar, I dunno, Lanang said to get Premium.

So this girl comes out, probably the daughter of the family that runs it, with one of those big red plastic gas jugs. She sticks a funnel in the gas intake of my car and starts pouring.

That was 10 liters. I saw what they were doing. Inside they had gas in these big metal drums. Think of oil drums, with hand pumps stuck in the tops. Or maybe they just had ladels, I can't remember, and just spooned the gas into the gas jug. Whatever, it was really crude. But I got my gasoline. That was 24,000 rups. 800 rups per liter was a bit high, but this was in a remote area so you expect more. That's about $1.18 per gallon, in an oil exporting country. You can see why indonesians use so many motorbikes.
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