Bali’s Mount Batur

Night hiking
Night hiking


Andy’s version goes this way:


Hiking a volcano peak at 4am with flash lights is like walking in sand on your treadmill on a 30 degree incline on a pitch dark winter morning! Mt./Volcano Batur 1750m / 5741ft has been conquered, but the renowned sunrise preferred to snooze in the fluffy clouds. Sigh** at least our breakfast of steamed eggs and bananas in the volcanic rock was satisfying to our aching bodies.


But of course a facebook status can’t communicate quite the whole story. And of course we didn’t know any of that at the time. In fact, it started off a lot more like this:


“This isn’t so bad,” I said to Luiza. “I’m surprised there’s no one taking a motorbike up these roads.”


She laughed and said, for the ten-thousandth time, “Yeah. Now I’m sorry I wore my trainers. I could have done this in flip-flops.”


She meant running shoes. Luiza’s pretty British.


You see, shortly after Andy came to the US to marry me, her littlest sister packed up for England—study, then work, now career, soon citizenship. A break from the UK grind called for a visit to big sis, now in Indonesia, and what better way to relax than by shunning her morning tea and sun-bathing in favor of a volcanic trek in the pre-dawn dark?


And yes, beach time aside, we somehow we convinced her to go in trainers instead of flip-flops.


Our flashlights swung side-to-side across the gravelly road. It was wide enough for a truck, and climbed gently up toward the splattering of stars stretching across the horizon. Thick-trunked pines towered at our sides, and the crisp air was more refreshing than cold. Andy was already far ahead, chatting with the guide.


“Let’s go faster,” I overheard her tell him. “We need to get the best spot on the peak for the tripod.”


“She’s right,” I told Luiza, “Let’s get moving.”


The notorious trainers
The notorious trainers

This was the famous Mount Batur, the most touristy of Bali’s sunrise-volcano treks. And, given Bali’s stranglehold on Indonesia’s tourism, it’s possibly the most-climbed mountain in the entire archipelago.


The ride here, up from Ubud, was pleasant enough as well—a starlit jaunt over traffic-less lanes, through narrow bridges over rice-watering streams, through towns already setting up pre-dawn markets for the local crowd. As the highway began twisting up toward Kintamani, I kept glancing at the stars: a sky full of them; only the giant black mass of Mount Agung breaking their panorama.


“We picked a good morning,” I told Andy and Luiza. “Look how clear the skies are.”


“Perfect morning,” they agreed in sleepy mumbles.


In another hour I’d be changing my tune, though. We all would be changing our tunes.


In another ten minutes the motorbike-and-flipflop thoroughfare would condense to a trickle though tall grass, and then to a steep incline over jagged rocks. In twenty, the jagged rocks would sharpen to malicious spikes of fast-cooled splatters of lavas, the grade double, and all talk of flip-flops stop. In thirty, the clouds moved in.


And it got cold.


And we got tired.


But still we chugged along, shoving our way past gaggles of Germans and French and Aussies who were stopping for water or breath. “Gotta get a spot for the tripod,” Andy huffed. “Can’t slow down now.”   Even Luiza, who earlier had been bouncing up the trail and wishing for beach shoes, was silent in the uphill struggle.


The skies, I noticed, were graying further—not with sunlight, but with wisps of fog. “Maybe the sun will burn it off,” I told myself. “Maybe we’ll look down on these clouds from above.”


Flashlights kept their dance alive, swinging lightly over rocks ready to slash knees. Each step was a stair-and-a-half, and several places required handholds as well. Glancing uphill, and now down behind, a steady stream of swinging blue flashlights through the inky night showed exactly where the trail led.


Andy was too determined to stop. She was sweating, and her face was getting red, but, you guessed it, she needed that prime tripod real estate at the peak.


She kept on even when the guide stopped.


Halfway up the mountain, an idol stood in our path. Maybe it’s the mountain god, maybe another Hanuman, maybe another guardian demon, but all the guides stop here. They bow, they borrow a lighter—this time for an incense stick instead of a cigarette—and they kneel before the massive, scowling stone. They stoop and they stay.


Break time for these guys, but not for us
Break time for these guys, but not for us

I stayed too, to watch the guide—was he praying for safety? For the thickening clouds to clear? For his photo-guru client to slow down for a break? At my side, a middle-aged German couple had also paused for their guide’s prayers. They looked stoically on, trying to appreciate the gravity of the prayerful moment while internally longing to keep the rhythm of the steps and the breaths of the climb.


Glancing back to our young guide, knees in the dust before the shadowy menace, I had to ask myself, just what does he believe is True?


Bali, after all, draws tens of thousands of tourists not just for its beaches and not just for its mountains and not just for its rice fields, cuisine, and nightlife, but also for its culture. It’s a tiny enclave of staunch Hinduism set in the midst of an island chain of Islam. The most stalwart of Dutch and most Victorian of British missionaries made no headway here, though they managed to win over headhunters and cannibals elsewhere. Even Portuguese Jesuits had to settle elsewhere with their masses and rosaries. Bali’s offbeat Hinduism stood intact.


But here’s what I still failed to grasp—did these guys really think that Hanuman, this monkey warrior, was real?


Because that’s the tale that gets played out in the dances and the stories, the poetry and the legends Those are the figures carved all over their forests and their temples—the deity-monkey who led his armies out to reclaim the princess from the clutches of an evil sorcerer who had duped her away from the righteous prince.


It’s a tale full of archetypes and battles, of good-vs-evil, of enchanting fantasies dragging on into the flicker and crackle and heavy eyelids of the fireside hours.


It’s a fine, fine story. I mean, I’m a literature guy—I love these archetypes and the symbolism and the imagery of the savage monkey warriors and fiery swords and divine arrows and land-quaking giants and magical eagles.


But did it really happen?


For those millions who kneel before the stones and who set out offerings of crackers and blossoms and rice, who erect stone demons by their doorways and waft incense forever through their dwelling, do they see this as a legend and a myth, or do they think it really, historically occurred? And what has kept them tied to these fanciful practices through centuries of onslaught from the Muslims and the Christians and now the Materialism that laps constantly at its shore?


For our guide there that pre-sun morning, in that veil of fog and increasing shivers, in his fraying Chuck Taylor’s and leather wristbands, was this merely habit or did he think the stone invested of actual power over our climb? Was it a pious pantomime to the paying tourist who wants to witness something exotic?


Am I a scoundrel to be skeptical of another’s faith?


But the young guide had already risen to his feet, and we scooted past the middle-aged Germans trying to look affected through their huffing, and took ourselves back to the path. Soon we were climbing again, up and over the jagged rocks, up and into the thickening clouds that hid the trail from view. Mist and dew and rain wetted our hair and slicked our jackets. Still the caterpillar line of flashlights struggled toward the unseen peak somewhere above.


By now we were shivering and cresting a ridge. The climb tapered off into a flat stretch, and though the fog was thick, we somehow sensed the earth falling away beneath us all around. “Are we there?” we nearly asked in unison, and struggled off toward the shelter where other hikers were gathering in a blaze of flashlight beams.


“Coke or juice?” someone offered Luiza.


“Not the peak,” our guide corrected, “but we can stop awhile.” And then he turned to Luiza, already guzzling the Coke. “And you must pay for that.”


False peak
False peak

Of course we couldn’t stop—I wanted that tripod spot atop the peak just as much as Andy, and my watch was showing that the days’ first grays would be showing up soon. So we hit the trail again—this time down, down through sandy stretches of steep declines, punctuated with the vicious edges of those lava rocks.


Batur, you see, is and isn’t a typical volcano shape. Yes, it has a volcano’s hallmark resemblance to a giant green traffic cone—the steep, symmetrical, jungled slopes all around. But it’s a traffic cone set up in the middle of a kiddie pool: around the mountain’s base stretches a wide, green valley, punctuated by lava flows and a massive lake, before the topography juts up into another steep ridge rimming the mountain within a steep ring of an enormous circular ridge.


We had begun our ascent from within that ridge, where the lake and mountain meet. But now as we neared the top, we began to get the idea that we weren’t just hiking any simple cone. Our steps slipped through sand on both up and downhill grades. Our shoes filled with sediments, the clouds showed no sign of letting up, and Andy and Luiza were still arguing, through huffs and grunts, about the merits of buying an overpriced Coke halfway through a mountain hike.


“I thought it was free! He just came and asked which one I wanted.”


“Of course it’s not free! Is this your first day in Indonesia? You think he hauls them up here just to give them away?”


“Well, I need the energy.”


“Caffeine will dehydrate you.”


The climbing was getting tough—we had definitely slowed our pace—but we were still passing groups left and right. Whenever one stopped a moment for a breath or to adjust their load, we sprang into the open spot on the trail. Grinning to my weary thoughts, I kept imagining they would get to the peak looking for a sunrise snapshot, only to find us smugly snapping away from our glorious tripod’s magnificent angle. That thought kept us going through the swirling mists of cold fog, through the thick drops of water that soon coated hair and jackets and shoes, through the sandy-shoe trudge up and up.


Yes, the sand started in earnest—thick, coarse, globulous volcanic sand spread in generous doses over all the rocks and paths and steps we needed to climb. In the faintest gray of the fledgling light, we struggled uphill and uphill again—each step up dropping us another half-step down in a mini-avalanche. It poured into the tops of our trainers. It grated underfoot, and the first weak volleys of the sunrise had me hustling even faster for the top.


“We gotta get there quick,” Andy and I pushed each other through heavy breaths. “We gotta keep going.” We didn’t come all this way to miss our sunrise pictures.


“Fifteen mone minutes,” our guide announced, again. Of course it was. Every time we asked him, it was fifteen minutes. How much longer? Fifteen. “How long until the peak? Fifteen. Where can we drop off the glass Coke bottle Luiza had long since emptied? Fifteen minutes. How far have we come? Fifteen minutes.


Either we had wandered into a space-time vortex precisely fifteen minutes from everything on the planet, or he wasn’t shooting us straight.


The faint light was growing above, and the thick foam of fog casing us in showed no signs of letting up.


Fifteen more minutes.


I was beginning to worry that maybe the sunrise wouldn’t be quite as glorious as we thought.


No time for that, now, though, we had left behind the last wind shelter without so much as a pause, and though we could hardly see three feet in any direction, it became apparent that we were negotiating some tricky ridges in the dark and fog: the peak’s crater on one side, the long, sharp tumble down the mountain on the other.


Yet even so, a strange mirage of sameness settled into a foggy climb. The flashlight scrambled over rocks each different than the other, yet somehow the form showed all the same. Each cotton ball of cloud we trudged through was unique in the history of the world, yet they all became so much the same to us. Each step full of sand, each ubiquitous gray glow on the horizon, each labored breath of our lungs was at once unique and at once all the same, all so much the same, that we could hardly see where we were headed.


But that shouldn’t be so surprising—it’s mostly the story of most of our lives. It’s mostly how we always walk through life.


What was much more surprising was when we came across the goose-squawk chatter of a gaggle of hikers in another lean-to. “Here,” the guide said, handing the water-slicked tripod back to Andy. “I go make breakfast. You wait here.” And he disappeared into the fog.


We had made it.


Smiling up top
Smiling up top

Red-faced and sweating, but somehow still frigid, we had made it. In the ghostly glow above, we had somehow come to stand atop the pinnacle of Batur. Yet for all the view afforded us, we may as well have been back in the parking lot. Yep, fog.all around. We snapped a quick picture, and I sent the girls off to the quickly-filling lean-to: no heat, but the huddled, shivering mass of fellow sufferers did one well. Commiseration offers at least the illusion of relief, though it does little to bring circulation back to clattering extremities.


Yes, this was the peak of the Mount Batur: cold, wet, shivers, and a tripod arranged and aimed at a stubborn mass of bleak clouds.


So much for the glorious sunrise.


Porters were hawking hot tea and coffee at fares that more closely resembled stadium prices than any local range. “But hey,” Andy shrugged, “they did have to carry it all up here, so it’s kind of OK.”


We still didn’t buy any. The Coke had been enough.


When the sun finally split the horizon, we couldn’t have cared less. No discernable effect could be seen from the cloud-swathed peak. It was all the same, same gray. Besides, the breakfast bakers were much more interesting.


Included in your guide fee are eggs and bananas and bread—a strange combination, you’re probably thinking. But a little snooping reveals the secret: the guides leave you to your sunrise and sneak off and over the crater’s rim. A short, muddy scramble a half-dozen meters into the smoking cone leads you to their magmatic kitchen: a shelf of oven-hot rock and earth. Here, a stick replaces a spatula for the utensil—the guide breaks free a clump of soil, pokes the eggs and bananas deep into the cavity, and closes it up. The hellfire trapped in the rocks does the trick.


Breakfast in nature's oven
Breakfast in nature’s oven

I’d read about this, actually, but I thought the strange range of food would be roasted over barren rock amid a wasteland crater, little a caveman’s griddle. Not so: it’s really the steam from the moist soil that does the trick.


But it’s more than a novelty, it’s actually kind of a filling meal. “But after this climb and the cold,” Luiza said between mouthfuls of boiled-egg-and-steamed-banana sandwich, “anything hot would taste good.”


She speaks truth—even when half-frozen and mostly-soaked atop a drizzly Bali peak.


Gradually, the crowds gave up on the sun and started the trudge back down. We stuck around and chatted with the guides. “Every day,” the man with calves thick as hams told me. “From April till October, I climb this every day.” That explains the Ironman legs. After another drag on the cigarette, he expounds. “But in the rainy season, it can be very hard. Maybe we help with the sand.”


Batur sand, it seems, works for more than merely impeding your trek. This is one of the island’s three sand mines, so rich in natural volcanic siftings that it’s merely scooped into trucks and carted off over the crater rim and into the waiting foothills below. I told him that was a cool use of the natural resource—but changed my mind after being stuck behind a dozen lumbering trucks when we later tried to leave.


But that’s later—a few hours later, to be exact.


A peak at glory
A peak at glory

The first was spent waiting for the stubborn globs of cloud to part—which they did, for about twenty-six seconds of hazy quasi-glory. For a half-minute of brilliance to hint itself to us, to half-reveal the hazy lake in glimmers and luminescence, the valley splayed for the golden strike of sunlight, the wondrous arcs and streaks of heaven vaulted over all. It was nearly enough time to grab the camera and snap a picture.


The second two were spent stumbling along the ridges and ravines, the knife-edge crests and crater rims, the lava spurts and shoots from so many different eruptions that I stopped keeping track of them—suffice to say the Batur leaks lava from more than a few pores. Yes, it was a full tour hours stepping carefully along narrow footpaths cresting steep and unstopped tumbles down your right and the left. Winds whipped clouds past at a clip well-suited to yacht racing, but not so much to mountain traversing. Eventually these spiky trails calmed down into slips and tumbles through slopes of scree and sanding wash. And eventually even these calmed into the knee-jarring slams of too-tall steps down and down and down again the smoking cone. Monkey showed themselves and begged some food. Clouds moved up and let us view the valley unobstructed.


Walking the straight and narrow
Walking the straight and narrow

And then, there we were, back in the Mr. Wayang mini-bus of glory, puttering along the switchbacks winding us out of the giant volcano valley, stuck among the traffic of those lumbering sand trucks. I grumbled moment and fell asleep in half a moment more.


We had done it, alright—the Batur sunrise.


In the end, was it so bad? Well, the pictures might no prove it great, per se. But yet, something about finishing that hike—and quickly enough to stake a claim to prime tripod real estate—about grabbing that volcano by the throat and pulling it in close and steaming eggs and bananas inside its heat vents, left me—and Andy and Luiza—feeling more than satisfied.


It wasn’t so bad.


It was cool, actually.


But we’re not going back.


We stopped for a hot tea and an enormous lunch on the ridge: a fitting commemoration of the clouded victory.

Up and down and back for lunch
Up and down and back for lunch


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