Gunung Api: How Was the Hike?

Wild orchids basking in the Banda view
Wild orchids basking in the Banda view

Palms waved slowly under the stars. Scattered across the veranda in arm chairs and couches, sipping hot tea in the slight breeze, our group listened to the chirps of tropic crickets and distant frogs. Sleep was settling slowly into our weary limbs; we sipped tea slowly in the soft light, laughing at the stories swapped around the table, waiting to slip off to a quiet sleep.

Lazy quiet fell on our tiny crowd.

I held my breath. I hoped they would skip us. I hoped it wasn’t coming to this.

Surely enough, a voice from the darkened patio asked, politely, “How was the hike?”

I groaned; here it goes.

Crossing the channel for the volcano hike
Crossing the channel for the volcano hike

They told us it was tough, though the facts looked otherwise: a mere 666 meters to climb, a hill that looks impressively peaceful from a distance, a sunshine-and-cloud mixture of warmth and cool, bright and shade. It looked like a peaceful little jaunt up the picture-perfect hill ringed round by a half-dozen peaceful little isles.

But the devil, as they say, isn’t in the material facts; he’s in the details.

“We’re going,” we had told the other tourists over last night’s dinner. “We heard the view is great. We want to take some pictures.”

“And if it rains?” The clouds had been anything but predictable this week, swooping in to drop buckets of rain, flying back out to leave summertime sunshine, repeating the cycle every hour or two. Rain was practically certain.

Andy and I looked at one another, then at the group, then shrugged: “We’ll just hope it won’t last all day. It won’t be our first hike in the rain.”

The morning found us lacing up tennis shoes, tossing bottled water and rain jackets in a backpack, and setting out for the wharf under a blanket of gray clouds and light drizzle.

Ten minutes and fifty cents later, we had ferried across the harbor and stood gazing up the mountain before us. It suddenly looked steeper. The forests blanketing the slopes looked thicker. We were along on a muddy path in a tiny clearing.

The trail--kind of jungley, kind of vertical
The trail–kind of jungley, kind of vertical

“OK, well, let’s find the trailhead.” I tried for an optimistic voice.

“Did we bring bug spray?” Andy asked, swatting an early mosquito.

The good news is that the trail was incredibly easy to find. The bad news is that it had no switchbacks, as a reasonable, responsible trail ought to. It doesn’t even have a slight curve. No, Gunung Api features a no-nonsense, straight-up-the-mountain kind of trail. It plows up a slope with all the practicality of a Swiss math teacher and the sense of humor of a Russian mortician. It sways ever so slightly to the right or the left only when the inevitable erosion from such an ill-conceived trail has violently torn out huge swaths of the path. These gaps are often taller than your head. They are most likely vertical. And what you take for a nice trail-bed paving of volcanic rocks is, in fact, just a smattering of loose stones trickled down the mountain trail from the stony summit area.

The end result is a bit chaotic.

Hiking Gunung Api involves grabbing fistfuls of ferns on the trail edge to keep yourself from tumbling back down. It involves spilling rocks the size of fruits onto the heads of your trailmates following your lead. It involves slips and scrapes and a thousand jerking balance-corrections that keep you teetering on the edge of falling back down the trail like a boulder-sized chunk of volcano.

“It’s not the steepness that makes it tough,” I found myself huffing to Andy. “It’s that you can’t get any good footing.”

“Stop,” she gasped, “and give me some more water from the pack.”

We were red and sweaty and frustrated, and were scarcely a quarter-way up.

The next day, by the way, a villager told us there’s a different trail to the top. “It’s a little longer hike,” he explained, “but much, much easier. You see, this path is—”

“We know. Straight up the mountain.”

“Yes, and that’s more difficult because—”

“Erosion. Steepness. Falling rocks. Poor footing. Oh, we know all about it.”

“My friend and I used to swim across, hike the good trail up mountain, and come back down, and swim back home. If you want, tomorrow I can show you—”

“No.”

We were too bruised and scraped and sore to even consider hiking it a second time. But more on that later.

“If you had brought a guide along—” he tried, “it would have been easier.”

We sighed.

The fern forest above the tree-line.  And the clouds, lots of clouds.
The giant fern forest above the tree-line. And the clouds, lots of clouds.

We had ditched the guide as a matter of saving ten bucks, and because Lonely Planet explained this route to us. Lonely Planet, faithful guide for so many trips, had steered us wrong this time.

Lonely Planet, in case you haven’t traveled these regions, is something of a kingpin around this part of the world—all the guests in our homestay carried a copy, and we often find ourselves quoting facts or recommending places to each other based not on what we had seen for ourselves, but on what we remembered reading somewhere before. It was always Lonely Planet that we had read before.

We all thought the same hotels and the same restaurants must be good, because Lonely Planet speaks of them. All impressions of the islands and the sites are colored by the Lonely Planet lens.

For example, we snorkeled offshore of the old lava fields cascading down the north of Gunung Api, and we later stopped off the coast of Pisang Island. The first is lauded and the second scorned by the universal guide. And guess what the guests found themselves saying? Exactly the same.

I emerged from the Pisang waters confused—Lonely Planet said this wasn’t as good as the Lava flows. But… here I saw coral just as great, probably greater, in variety and health. Here I saw fish far more plentiful and even more variegated. Here, I ran across my first shark-in-the-water experience. Here, the squid were bigger, and much closer the surface. Here I found myself completely absorbed in all the coral and life, and when the others woke up from their naps and came in the boats to grab me, and when they asked me how it was, and when I stopped a moment and did not give them the expected Lonely Planet line about the lava flow being amazing and Pisang something to be skipped, when I instead said that this was good—very good—perhaps even the best of the day, they all looked at each other with glances that said, “Really?   Looks like someone hasn’t read their Lonely Planet.”

The peak comes into view
The peak comes into view… barely

That’s the danger of the guidebook, though. In fact, that’s the danger of ever having an absence of a dissenting opinion—we all start thinking the same things. We all end up having our experiences colored by the same plates before we get to decide for ourselves.

In the case of Gunung Api, we had rejected a guide because, in the opinion of Lonely Planet, this little mountain could be knocked out in three hours, reached by a ultra-cheap public ferry, and left little danger other than a tricky descent.

Maybe the guide would have led us up the simpler route. Maybe instead of shooting straight across the harbor and straight up the stumbling slope, we could have sailed around to the back side of the island, taken a trail with a reasonable incline and with far fewer mosquitoes, and with less hanging for dear life onto the trailside vegetation.

But all that is in hindsight.

From where we sat at that moment, we were a half hour in and quarter of the distance up. And the rain was settling in.

I was just in the middle of telling Andy that the good thing about this path was that for every meter forward we also climbed a meter in elevation. The mountain stands 666 meters tall, but the trail couldn’t be longer than 700 meters total, when the dark wash of gray cut the sun from sight and left us in a drizzling mist.

We sighed yet again. No choice but to climb on.

Hikers know that after a mile or two, a rhythm kicks in. Legs toggle over to autopilot, breaths come so standard you could set a metronome to them, and all the scene around you blurs into a surly film of hazy recollections. Despite the torments of Gunung Api, I found this to be true. For the next hour, all I remember is wet leaves, wet socks, dark shadows, tall canopies, and a couple stops for water.

Then, came the clearings. We could finally see below to the harbor. Then, we reached the rock fields. We could glimpse the peak among the scuttling clouds. Then, we reached the crater rim. We were accosted by sudden gusts of warmth, as if standing next to giant cow huffing her hot animal breath on our hands.

These were the steam vents—dozens, no hundreds, of cracks and slats bubbling all around the crater, and all within it: a thousand pores leaking steamy sulfur into the midst of the cool mountain wind. The hot breath of the mountain pouring out of cracks all around us.

A glimpse at one of the steam vents.  See the sulfur gas?
A glimpse at one of the steam vents.

“Isn’t this dangerous?” Andy asked as we pressed on in the cloudy fog and the sulfur steam. “I don’t see any warning signs posted.”

“Well, I don’t think it will erupt,” I said, straining to see the peak among the clouds. “We’re more likely to die from inhaling a burst of the poison gases, I think.”

“That’s comforting.”

Strangely enough, flowers flourished in those sulfurous cracks and crevasses. Maybe it’s the warmth. Maybe something in the gases nourishes them. Maybe the sulfur protects them from the grazing pint-sized deer locals claim inhabit the mountain. Regardless, it’s part of the irony of life that even Lonely Planet misses out on—that even in the spots closest to death, life flourishes.

That’s the strange paradox of volcanoes, though. You see it clearly here in Banda—in the way the all-devouring lava creates a nutrient-rich habitat not only for the coral offshore, but also the fertile soil of each of these islands: coral flourishing in twenty years more enormous than centuries-old colonies, soil that sprouts jungles abundant and spice by the barrelful. Here, the warmth of the steam and the mist of the cool-hot condensation keep flowers vigorous and strong, though they sit in the wind-whipped heights of the island.

Perhaps this paradox applies to the hike as well—that after a trek so harrowing, after standing atop a primeval power that could blast you from existence in a moment, the thrill of the summit is much more sweet.

I hoped so, because at the moment we finally reached the cloud-shrouded peak, the thrill of accomplishment was about the only thing going for us. The mystical views that had been promised were swathed in gray cottony thickness. The surrounding isles of fantasy and bliss revealed themselves between small swatches and gaps in the fickle clouds.

We sat down next to—but not too close to—a warm vent, and pulled out the snacks.

Reached the peak
Reached the peak

Sure, an easier hike would have still given us the gorgeous glimpses when the clouds finally parted: the string of green spikes and ridges splitting the cool blue canvas of the sea. An easy hike would have let us bubble in those same panoramas that crave more than even a fish-eye lens can capture. But it wouldn’t bubble from the same depths—it would lack the vibrancy of the moment, the triumph of the unending, methodical, single-minded step after step past the broken skin and aching joints. Yes, perhaps the contrast in the joy and the pain leaves the picture more meaningful for the mind.

Perhaps we all need some pain and some hardship to make accomplishments worthwhile.

Perhaps we all would do well to stop coddling ourselves and step out into the unknown and the yes, probably painful, to get something done.

Perhaps I sat too long in the noxious fumes.

The next couple hours found the clouds thinning and views improving. We forgot about the hellish trail and the Lonely Planet and even the pulsing ache of our feet. We scampered over and around the sulfur vents, fought for footing along the steep summit slopes, and took picture after picture that ceaselessly failed to capture the magnificence of not just the view, but the experience. The blues deep and vibrant, the sun-struck green leaping from its contrasted palette, the boundless sea stretching to each horizon—and there we stood in the midst of it, taller even than the capricious clouds that came swarming by.

Clouds starting to part; the Bandas coming into view
Clouds starting to part; the Bandas coming into view

What else can I say? The views were nice, even nicer than Lonely Planet led us to believe.  From here, you see all the Bandas–all ten of them–in all their glory.  You sit atop of their tiny little world, and you gaze across from a mapmaker’s crows’ nest and study each in turn.

When we finally drank our fill of the peak, we realized that would be about the only thing we’d be drinking on the trip back down: our water was nearly gone, our lunch back at the guest house had been skipped in favor of waiting out the clouds, and we somehow needed to negotiate inclines more suited to mountain goat hooves than tennis shoes.

But we were still bubbling and still smiling—we stopped for pictures, now, with the wild orchids and path-side pineapples, sunning on slopes filled with larger-than-life ferns filled with larger-than golf ball buds; we skipped rosily down the boulder fields and rock trails, laughed when we realized that we lost the trail, wandered around awhile longer until we found it, then started our suffering.

And then the real view
And then the real view

Yes, the descent was the hardest part. Overstaying the peak drained both our water and our energy. Re-entering the forested slopes reminded us of the precarious footing, of the jagged rocks’ tumbling, of the mini-cliffs that had to be negotiated clinging to feeble branches and sticks. The path was steeper than a roof, and slicker than a floor full of ball bearings and bacon grease.

And then the mosquitoes came.

I guess they’re late sleepers on the mountain. I guess they needed a chance to set up an ambush. I guess they gave up chasing other prey. Whatever the cause, our descent featured not merely me and my lovely little wife, but also a thick clouds of parasites forever swarming us.

Well, to be fair, they mainly stuck to Andy.

Starting the descent
Starting the descent.  Can you see the steepness?

I swatted a few, sure, but Andy stumbled down the mountain slapping and flapping and screeching at the brown bubble of bugs engulfing her like a mobile Easter egg of the tropics. Normally, she gets more bites and more swelling than me. Normally, we just say it’s ‘cause she’s sweeter and spray a little repellent. But this time, it wasn’t normal. It was ridiculous.

We emptied the bug spray to no effect. I assured her she wouldn’t wind up with malaria. She sipped at the scanty water remaining, while I fought the nasty hordes of skeeters off her ankles.

It was starting to get miserable.

Then, Andy took a nasty spill and cracked her toes against the rocks and roots. Collapsing on the trail to nurse the wound, she was a helpless victim to the mosquitoes who swooped in and attacked her mercilessly. In ten seconds, her legs were bubbling in bright red blotches, the itching was horrendous, and with the rain jacket hood scooped over her head, toe throbbing to red hot pulses, she was ready to melt into tears.

Wild pineapple, anyone?
Wild pineapple, anyone?

“C’mon, babe,” I tried to somehow assure her. “Just a little bit more. Look, down through the trees—we’re almost halfway down.”

Then, I think, she really wanted to cry.  She would have, maybe, if it hadn’t been for her searing urge for revenge against the mosquitoes.

In the end, what else could we do? I couldn’t carry her down that steep of an incline. I couldn’t make the bugs all die. I couldn’t even go for more water. We just had to limp on.

So, well, we did. We limped and we slipped and we scraped and fell back down that accursed mountain. I muttered blistering insults against the makers of this foolhardy trail. How ridiculous was a trail straight up the mountain? How ignorant do you have to be? How lazy and how underfunded?

Of course, that was all before I found out that another trail, a better trail, (supposedly) exists on the other side of the volcano.

Andy and I consoled one another with thoughts of the pictures we’d have from above, with thoughts that we’d overcome the miserable, with the idea that we would somehow come to laugh about this later, and with planning revenge on all the mosquitoes across all the globe.

We limped back to rickety wharf, scooted a couple quick minutes across the harbor to Banda Neira, and trudged our swollen, muddy feet back home.

Andy jumped in the shower—no hot water. I jumped in the harbor to look for Mandarin fish–no luck. We rejoined at dinner and spoke little.

That evening, all the guests lounged together around on the porch, sipping tea and swapping stories of their adventures of the day: the beaches, the boats, the dives, the spices, the sunshine. Palms waved slowly under the stars. Lazy quiet fell on our tiny crowd.

After a silent moment, someone noticed we hadn’t told our story yet.

In the stars, in the palms, leaning back in the breeze, they asked us what we hoping not to relive.

“How was the hike?”

It's got to be one of the best views in all Indonesia
It’s got to be one of the best views in all Indonesia
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