Saturday, 3 May 2014

Mount Batur: Bali's 'voluptuous' volcano

A massive natural 'pillow making factory' surrounds the peak of Mount Batur.
Fluffy sea: A massive natural ‘pillow-making factory’ surrounds the peak of Mount Batur.

A trek up sacred Mount Batur in Bali is a magical experience offering sparkling night skies, salmon pink sunrises and seas of cotton clouds.

A DEAR mentor once told me that Bali is an all-in-one paradise. Everything you could seek from nature – sea, lake, mountain, cliff, forest, wildlife – can be found on this island.

Her enthusiasm for this part of the world, coupled with scenes of Julia Roberts cycling in the paddy fields in the movie Eat, Pray, Love, inspired me to be at the foothill of Mount Batur in north-eastern Bali one morning at 4am, with my best friend.

Having woken up two hours earlier at Seminyak to accommodate the travel time, fatigue on our part was unquestionable. .

Our Balinese guide, Kadek, was a fit young man clad in jeans and a white cotton shirt. I myself confidently sported a sleeveless shirt (as I expected a lot of sweat), but I regretted my decision the second I stepped out of the car into the outdoor refrigerator.

The hairs on my body stood up weakly, trying to create an unsatisfactory blanket of heat. An entrepreneurial group of Mount Batur guides must have seen more than one silly tourist like me as they were ready at the trail head with jackets up for rent.

In desperation, I paid 50,000 rupiah (RM14) to get myself a thick one, which smelled strongly of detergent. It triggered my mind to imagine taut, clean sheets on a welcoming bed, and made me wonder what we were doing here, when the rest of the world was asleep.

As Kadek led us on the road to the volcano, our feet shuffled uncomfortably on paths full of loose black rubble and boulders. Rocks of various sizes teased the soles of our feet, painfully massaging them in odd, unexpected places.

1,000 marbles

Ever tripped on a marble? Now take a thousand of these, blow them up to produce a range of nuggets ranging from 2 cm – 10cm, and spread them randomly on a stretch of trail before walking through it blindfolded. My torchlight did not heighten my sensitivity towards these trippers. Many a time, I almost fell and managed to crack a perfectly pedicured toenail too. So they say fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

The writer (left) at the peak of Mount Batur above a sea of cotton-like clouds.
The writer (left) at the peak of Mount Batur above a sea of cotton-like clouds. Another volcano, Mount Agung, looms behind.

We passed through lush farms of tomatoes, chillies and garlic, a blessing from the rich volcanic soil here. It made me ponder life’s ironic game of give and take: while villages have been destroyed, the deadly spew of lava is the very thing which rejuvenates the surrounding land.

Kadek stopped at a shrine along the way, to offer up his canang sari, a square palm-sized basket woven out of leaves; consisting of flowers, crackers and rice. We observed in silence as he prayed and thereafter, let him adorn our hair with the blossoms.

We soon reached an open, flat space. The lack of light pollution (from city lights) provided a perfect view of the night sky bejewelled with twinkling stars. We stopped and stared for the longest time. All life’s secrets seemed written in the skies in a secret code, and we tried to make an imprint of that sparkling hemisphere in our minds.

As the ground began to prosper in steepness, so did Kadek in his sense of urgency. Not wanting us to miss the sunrise, he paced us hurriedly. Starting out as stragglers, we soon overtook several other hikers and were sweating so much that we had to lose the jackets.

We met a local who was carrying up a whole carton of Coke bottles, hoping to sell them to anyone who needed a kick of flavoured sugar syrup. Gassing ourselves up didn’t seem like a good idea so we continued until the 1500m (altitude) checkpoint, which was comfortably equipped with benches and tables and offered a great viewpoint for the sunrise.

But being firm believers of going all the way, we quickly squeezed through the crowds and almost jogged up to the peak, arriving just minutes before 6am – in time for the sunrise.

Golden yellow, glowing orange, soothing blue and salmon pink – it’s a queer combination, an awkwardly unappetizing clash of colours on fabric. But they didn’t seem so strange when spread out all over the sky, in such nice layered streaks no fabric could come close to replicating.

Fun finger framing of the sunrise at the peak of Mount Batur.
Fun finger framing of the sunrise at the peak of Mount Batur. 

Mother Nature had combed the pre-dawn sky with her brush strokes, and let the sun come up afterwards to fill in the colours. Given the science of refracting the different components of white light, we saw the hot colours (red, orange yellow) in the clouds, against a vast backdrop of cool blue light (which is more easily scattered).

Volcano-steamed food

Such was the awe resonating from the spectacular show of atmospheric optics up Mount Batur. It was art – naked, unpolluted, pure – atop an active volcano. All around, lay a massive natural “pillow making factory”. At that elevation, an endless stretch of cotton-like clouds rolled around. Lower down, ghostly mist crawled around the crater, making it look like a mystical bowl of steam.

The writer at Mount Batur's volcanic crater which is graced by wispy clouds.
The writer at Mount Batur’s volcanic crater which is graced by wispy clouds.

A warung (stall or mini eatery) kept supplying continuous mugs of coffee and toast while other tour guides cooked eggs and bananas for the hikers using nearby steam fissures. After the heat of the climb had worn off, I started feeling cold and my hastily rented jacket was put to good use.

Feeling snug, I looked around to see a group of men playing takraw, guides catching up with each other, people posting live Instagram updates and... a woman performing the yoga “salute to the sun”.

Satiated with the sunrise view, we beckoned to Kadek to begin our return journey. He took us down to the edge of the crater, which is actually considered sacred by the locals. There, sacrificial animals are thrown in during religious feasts for thanksgiving and appeasing purposes.

In the light of day, we noticed wisps of steam coming up from various spots around the volcano. Kadek got agitated as I inched too close towards a flower on the brink of the caldera. He pulled me away and warned how this could have been the bane of my life, as it had been for many others.

It is not a good idea to stay up the mountain for too long, unless one wants to be baked. As we descended, we were able to soak in the amazing views, sights we had missed in the dark pre-dawn hike.

Every once in a while, I glanced back to see the volcano breathe columns of steam into the air, which then dispersed into mysterious blankets of overhanging vapour. It made everything so mystical, so magical.

Batur’s background

LYING at 1,717m above sea level, Mount Batur is one of the more popular active volcanoes in Bali, Indonesia. Tourists and adventure seekers flock to this mountain for its famous sunrise hike.

The volcano is surrounded by two craters and has Lake Batur at its feet. The first recorded eruption was in 1804. More than 25 erruptions have occurred since then, some of them massive – causing deaths and altering the face of the surrounding land.

A big one in 1963 lasted for four months and created a huge “lava forest” of almost 6,000 square kilometres and spewed out 35 million cubic metres of lava.

Fit hikers will need two hours or less to reach the peak. Good headlights or torchlights are highly recommended as this will ensure a safer hike. Shoes with sturdy soles are advisable as hikers will often crash their feet into loose rubble along the way.

Mountain guides seem to operate in cartels, so it is difficult to negotiate prices. However, it is wise to at least ensure that breakfast (try to secure a banana and eggs set!) is included into the deal.

After the hike, some may decide to reward themselves in the hotsprings located around the nearby village of Toya Bungkah. Be warned that some of the places may be commercial gimmicks with disappointing lukewarm water in pools. Proper research always goes a long way and negotiation skills will definitely let one trade upwards while in Bali.

Tags / Keywords: Travel , Lifestyle , Trekking , Mountain Climbing , Hiking


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