Mt Batur is the second highest peak in Bali, and an active volcano. Climb for the sunrise, for the steam rising from vents, for the fear of the caldera that blew a previous Mt Batur entirely away, aeons ago.
Travel is a selfish obsession. Even the poorest of us is a rich westerner looking for distraction, excitement, enrichment. How many of the hordes of travel bloggers could continue to travel, let alone replace their camera phones, if their income was less than $1000 a year. That’s the average family income in the major travel destination of Madagascar.
Average – meaning half the families live on less than $1000 a year. I wonder how many Malagasy are travelling the world and blogging about their experiences on a nice new mobile phone?
Me, I like remote places – mountains, distant valleys, cold air, high passes. Also ancient stone structures and civilisations, and an occasional dose of comfort. And so I found myself in Bali, staying at the Bali Dream Resort outside Ubud to avoid the crowded beaches and bars of Kuta, and being driven round to see the sites by the excellent Wayan Wijana.
Hindu temples, teak jungles, wonderful carving, rice paddies like pandan layer cakes, and views of distant volcanic peaks. Distant peaks you say…and I burrowed through the tour lists. I didn’t have time for the multi-day trek to the summit of Mt Rinjani on Lombok island, but the Mt Batur climb called to me.
The mini-bus picked me up at 3am, and then a few young travellers from their hotels nearby, then we followed our headlight beams into the night. Cresting the caldera rim we could make out the dark bulk of Mt Batur in the night beyond, blocking out a pyramid of stars.
We pulled into a crowded car park where we met our young local guide and sat on rickety chairs in a café made of sticks and straw for a breakfast of coffee and fried banana. Travellers hung around the café like flies round a naked bulb, chattering, shivering in the cool of the morning, eager to be off, their average age less than half mine.
The cups and plates were quickly retrieved, the guide finished a cigarette, we turned on our torches and our group of 10 headed into the dark, with torch-lights ahead and behind like a string of fireflies. In places like this, adventure comes in crowds.
The track was dusty, the trees bare-limbed and dry; grasses tugged at our socks, couples chatted as they walked. The sky was lit with crowds of stars like tiny lost fireflies.
Soon the walking became climbing. The ground was sometimes rocky from recent lava flows, sometimes dusty volcanic ash that sagged under each step. Mt Batur last erupted in 2000 and is still an active volcano. That might be of concern to some, but Batur sits in the centre of two huge calderas formed by truly massive volcanic eruptions, the last one just 28,000 years ago. I wasn’t worried about Batur, but I sure hoped the caldera didn’t decide to let go that night.
When you have a lot of people on a single track, some people are slower and some are faster, so there was plenty of passing and resting and panting and chatting, and occasional swearing as ankles twisted on lava stones, or dusty ground subsided and filled a shoe with grit.
The torchlight string kept snaking upwards though, collecting into groups occasionally, especially at a shelter half way up where our guide insisted on stopping for a cigarette. We ground our teeth and hoped we wouldn’t miss the sunrise.
Walking up mountains is all about just keeping on going, breathing in time with your steps when you can, finding the rhythm of your heart and your weary limbs.
Eventually the upwards ended and we found space at the rim of the volcano and looked to the east where the glimmers of morning were changing the rim of the sky to a steel grey above a lake of clouds.
I sat on my jacket, peeled the volcano-steam boiled egg provided by the guide, and crammed it down with a slice of soft, sweetened bread and glugs of water.
Then the sun lifted gently into the morning – out from behind the clouds that lifted skyward from distant Mt Rinjani, out of golden horizons of mist that half-filled the caldera. It blazed over the far fields of cloud, and lit our smiling faces as we over-photographed. Capturing moments all too soon gone into another day’s passing hours.
Soon the sun warmed our skin and we gathered to head down. The young local guide asked me how old I was, and I said ‘63’. His eyebrows raised. “Wow, in my village, people who are 63 are old and bent and tired.”
“They probably had harder lives than me,” I suggested. I am not sure if he heard. He was already heading down the hill, eager for his next cigarette and to do a day’s work in his family’s few small rice fields.
You will need – a torch (headtorch is best to keep your hands free), sensible footwear, warm clothes for the summit, a camera for the sunrise, sun-screen if you need it. Reasonable fitness helps, but slobs will probably make it. Take water to drink or you can buy it along the way at higher prices than you might pay in town. Make sure your tour starts early enough to get you there for the sunrise. It’s worth it.
Mt Batur climb guides – most hotels can arrange a tour involving a mini-bus ride to the start, then the driver will hand over to a guide at the start of the track. I have read of people getting a car there and negotiating with a guide at the start of the track. This might keep the costs down. You walk up on your own, but the guides know the tracks and you are supporting the local economy.
Sunrise Trekking can take you there in a private car if you prefer not to share a mini-bus. Others are Bali Trekking Tour.com, Bali Trekking Tour.net, Sagita Bali Trekking Tour and Tours by Locals. Some like Voyaga offer a less crowded path, but they can’t give you a less crowded summit.