It’s 1am on a moonless night at the Pasar Agung temple, on the southern flank of the volcano, and the wind is howling. My plan is to climb to the rim of the crater, but Mount Agung has plans of its own.
“Experience tells me if the wind is this strong down here, it will be much stronger at the top. So if you want to cancel, do it now. I won’t charge you if you do,” says Wayan Dartha, a local guide who has led tourists up the active strata-volcano that dominates Bali’s east since 2005. (He charges US$50 (S$67) per person, or US$35 for people in groups, for single-day climbs.)
There’s no talking me out of it, but before we start Wayan must appease Shiva, the most important of all Hindu gods, who is believed to dwell in the volcano. After sprinkling petals over a shrine below the Indonesian temple’s towering gateway, Wayan lights incense sticks and holds them in his palms while reciting a Hindu psalm in a deep, guttural voice.
“My prayer was for our safety,” Wayan says, as we trudge up a damp watercourse that cuts a path through the thick pine forest at the rear of the temple. “I didn’t ask Shiva to stop the wind because that would be asking too much. I simply asked him for the best opportunity for our journey. Humans cannot tell the gods what to do. The gods decide what is best for us.”
Those decisions have not gone in Wayan’s favour in recent years. In November 2017, Mount Agung erupted five times, spewing plumes of ash and smoke up to 4km (2.5 miles) high. Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport was closed for three days, leaving tens of thousands of tourists stranded and causing monthly visitor declines of up to 30 per cent.
But it was the people on the foothills of the volcano who suffered most. Some 120,000 of them had to evacuate their homes.
“My family and I stayed in a refugee camp for six months; after we came back, life was never the same,” Wayan says. “Before the eruption, everyone in my village made good money taking tourists to the top. Now we must farm to survive.”
Mount Agung kept on rumbling for 18 long months, with the last significant eruption and disruption of commercial flights logged in June 2019.
Another year and a half would pass before Indonesia’s National Geological Agency dropped its alert status to Level 2 and Wayan and his neighbours could return to work as mountain guides. But by then, Covid-19 travel bans had brought Bali’s tourism industry to its knees and nobody much noticed the volcano was open for business again.
The owners of hotels, restaurants and day spas in Sidemen, a village at the base of the volcano where tourists generally spend a night or two before or after their climbs, have also seen their businesses collapse.
“We don’t know when tourism will return to Bali,” says Wayan. “But we all remain positive. It’s the only thing we can do.”
The wind continues to howl as we make our way through the forest in the dark, but dies when we reach the end of the tree line – at an altitude of 2,100 metres (6,900 feet).
“We’re very lucky tonight,” Wayan says, as we stop for water and some home-made chocolate. “Last month, I tried to take an ambassador from Jakarta to the top but we only got this far because of the wind. The same thing happened in December, when I brought a group of Lithuanians and a thunderstorm struck in the middle of the night.”
The best time to climb Mount Agung is in June and July, in the middle of the dry season.
At the next rest point, on the bare face of the mountain, I take note of the terrain. There’s not a single bit of greenery, only fungus and rocks.
“Before, there were trees up here and lots of monkeys,” Wayan says. “But the trees were all killed by ash in 2017 and the monkeys moved down the mountain. Now they eat everything we grow. Some farmers use nets but the monkeys are smart; they know how to find weak points in nets.”
Wayan’s solution is an old-fashioned trap baited with sweet potato. When the trap is sprung, he calls the government to take the animal to another part of the island, even though monkeys are sacred to Balinese Hindus and normally should not be disturbed.
“If I have a tree with 10 bananas and the monkeys eat two or three and leave me the rest, that would be OK. We could survive,” he says. “But the monkeys eat all the bananas – even the trees. If they don’t respect us, why should we respect them?”
Four hours after setting off we reach the rim of the crater, at an altitude of 2,827 metres – 204 metres below the peak, which is accessible only via a route on the volcano’s west flank that remains closed to visitors.
Dawn has broken but our vision is limited to a few metres by a thick band of fast-moving cloud that swirls and hisses around rocky outcrops. To help clear the clouds, Wayan pays his respect to Shiva again at a small shrine – really just a collection of stones.
“You must be patient up here if you want to see the view,” he says, as the wind and cloud whirl and whip through the air.
Our 60 minutes at the top is nearly up when the sun bursts through a gap in the clouds and the crater becomes visible. Within minutes, we can see most of Bali and across the Bali Sea to the
Nusa Penida Archipelago, three satellite islands off the south coast.
My spirits could not be higher as we begin our descent. The surface is a mess of tectonic junk – beds of jagged slate that rise from the ground at every conceivable angle. Yet I make quick work of it with my two walking sticks, passing Wayan, who inches slowly down the volcano.
However, at the halfway mark I get into trouble. My thighs have been working overtime for two hours and I start to wobble, losing my footing a few times. Soon, every step becomes torturous, increasing volumes of pain shooting up my legs and lower back.
At the three-hour mark, I can no longer stand, collapse on the ground and pass out. But Wayan won’t let me sleep, saying it’ll be even more difficult to resume the journey later on. I press on using my hands and knees, dragging myself along the ground, ripping my pants and gloves to shreds.
When we hit the tree line, I use my arms to pull my near-limp lower body from branch to branch. I sigh, growl and swear but mostly I laugh, to deflect the riveting pain that has now gripped every limb. When we finally reach the temple gate marking the start – and end – of the hike, I am broken.
As he helps me into my car, Wayan says: “People always underestimate this mountain.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.