THURSDAY, 7 May – VOLCANOES, CORPSES AND COCKS.

At 4AM, Linda and I, along with a Flemish bloke called Thierry, set off to climb Mount Batur. [Ganung Batur is another of Indonesia’s many active stratovolcanoes. Read more about Batur and its surroundings here.]

We turned off the road just outside the village and made our way upwards in the pitch darkness into the fields above the road and we were soon lost amongst a tangle of dead-end paths and thick forest. We met a group of four Germans, who were also lost, and we all began to systematically search for the right path up the mountainside. Before long we were being followed by a bunch of “guides” offering to show us the way for varying sums of money but we refused to be “led” and concentrated on finding our own way.

After a while, the German party went off on their own, and not long after that we found the correct path and began the climb itself at 5:10.

The route lead steeply upwards through the stands of pine forest and the loose scoria-type soil made the going quite tricky. The path was badly eroded in places and we had to take care not to slip or step into potholes. We were sweating freely and Thierry seemed quite fit so we told him to go on ahead of us.

The sky was just beginning to lighten in the east when we emerged from the trees and a cool breeze flowing across the slope helped to make the ascent easier as we made our way up the steep, tussock-covered slope.

As the light came into the sky, the thunderheads towering above the crater began to pulse with colour – from indigo to crimson and from vermillion to grey – and we reached the first shelter at the lower lip of the crater at 6:10, just as the sun was rising behind the clouds cloaking the brooding cone of Rinjani over on Lombok Island. Cloud hugged the bulk of Agung (Bali’s other big volcano) which stood, grim and menacing beyond the rim of Batur’s caldera. Below us, the waters of Lake Batur shone like a burnished shield. 

The crater of Batur itself was a steep-sided pit, picked out in a dozen hellish colours from red to yellow.  Steam issued from vents around the edge and from down in the rubble-strewn floor of the crater. I left Linda to climb to the summit at her own speed and set off up the crater rim. The path was through steep black ash and spiny plants and was very hard going.

The view from the top, however, was without equal. Batur’s outer crater rim was the boundary of an amazing spectacle of green and grey and black. The lake lay serenely beneath the highest edge of the rim and around it were arrayed the mosaic greens of forests and fields. The lava flows spread to the south and west like a cancerous growth on the land, and the slopes of Bali’s other volcanoes could be seen far beyond in a sea of grey and crimson. The sky above the crater was a deep, peaceful blue and the sun was already asserting its heat into the air.

The crater rim ran in a jagged arc around to the left and in places along its length, steam was furiously rising. The lower slopes of the crater floor were cloaked in green but the vegetation became sparser as the floor dipped to the edge of the pit at the southern lip.

When Linda arrived at the top we bought a glass of hot lemon each from one of the stalls atop the volcano(the ingenuity of the Balinese for making money seems to know no boundaries) then we set off to walk around the crater rim. It was an eerie and slightly unsettling experience to walk along the knife-edged rim, with hot steam rushing out of the rock beneath our feet and the crater itself steaming below us. The view was quite magnificent, however, and the whole area had a primaeval aura to it. 

We waited at the top of a steep drop-off to the lower lip of the crater for some other adventurous souls that we had got to know on the top, and we all set off as a group down the treacherous black rubble where a slip would mean a nasty fall. On the lower rim of the crater, we assembled a bunch of people for the descent, comprising us two Kiwis, a Canadian, three Aussies, a Flem, a Dutchman and an American. [Footnote: we will encounter the Dutchman, Ed Snoek, and the American, Dan Dorsky, later on in this story and again in 1994!]

The climb down was much less wearying than the ascent had been and we were back at the Losman only 60 minutes after we left the steaming heights of the mountain. Linda and I packed up our gear and then, along with three Aussies and the Canadian guy, we set off down to the village of Kedisan on the back of a small truck. We took a room at the Segura Bungalows, where the others were already staying, and had a snack before we all set off for the next adventure of the day: to see the corpses of Kuban.

The fee for chartering a boat to the villages of Kuban and Trunyan (which lay on the opposite shore of Lake Batur) and back was an extortionate 36,500 Rupiah, but the price was government-controlled to protect weak tourists from the rip-offs of the past. So between seven of us, it worked out at around R5,000 each and we piled aboard one of the long rickety craft lined up at the pier. The ride to Kuban took about 20 minutes on the choppy lake with the green wall of the caldera rising steeply to our right with terraces and fields sloping down to the very edge of the water. 

Kuban definitely had the aura of a tourist trap with a bunch of local layabouts waiting to give us “information” for 5,000 rupiah, and a man wearing an expensive watch collecting the R500 admission fee: no doubt to pay for the flash toilet block that recently been constructed on the narrow strip of land formed by the beach of a small cove which had cliffs at either side and the wall of the crater rising sheer behind.

The people of Trunyan, the village just back around the bluffs, for some reason, leave their dead out to rot in the open instead of cremating them, and although this is been done for centuries it still seems as if they do it mainly to attract mobs of ghoulish tourists…like ourselves. There were eight corpses laid out under bamboo cages, all of them in various stages of decomposition. One of the guides told us that two of them had only been there for six days, while the others were almost gone: reduced to a few mildewed bones and a skull lying amongst a litter of dead leaves and branches. It was actually quite a shabby place, with rubbish lying around everywhere and the ground littered with bones and skulls upon which everybody was walking. 

They were about 30 skulls and an assortment of femurs stacked up on a table beneath a nearby banyan tree, their eye sockets staring unseeingly at the dappled forest surrounding the place. Of course, we all wanted to get as closest as possible to the youngest corpses, and an Indonesian tourist, his mouth and nose covered against the sweet smell of putrefaction, was busy shoving the lens of his video camera into the cage to film the rotting face within. Most of the body was covered by saffron and white robes but the face was uncovered and the flesh black and slimy, with sightless eyes and mouth gaping. Small creatures moved around on the face, scurrying from a nostril to the mouth, feeding on the blackened flesh: living from the food of death. Such is the human being reduced from a living thing to soil. The other fresh corpse had rotted to a shapeless mess of putrescence, its jaw agape, the flesh gone, its white hair still visible clinging to the shrivelled skull.

The guides pressured us for money but we refused and left. Trunyan was a filthy, hopeless little town accessible only by boat and filled with filthy, hopeless people and children screeching for money. Back at Kedisan, we went to the restaurant at the Sigara Bungalows for a drink and a snack then, at 4:30pm the four men set off to find a cock fight which was rumoured to be happening somewhere around the village.

We hung around in the vicinity where we thought it was until a young man came and fetched us to an alley next to the temple where a group of locals were gathered for the cockfight. We were welcomed by several and it seemed they were pleased to have us there.

The first fight soon started. Each rooster had a 4-inch scalpel tied to his leg and before the fight began, a lot of money was being a bet on each cock. The fight lasted only a couple of minutes and the loser was sacrificed in quite a cruel way. Its leg bearing the razor was chopped off, then the razor was plunged into its heart and the creature was left to die in the centre of the ring and then dismembered. 

There followed a protracted debate on which cocks should fight each other next, with rival birds being teased and shown to each other until everyone agreed which birds were equal and the next fight could begin. Marty and Justin bet 1000 Rupiah each on one of the birds and once again a lot of money changed hands amongst the gathered mean. While all the debating was going on, several card games are also in progress and a few kids moved amongst of throng selling snacks and cigarettes.

The second fight took longer, as the cocks were quite evenly matched, and soon it became apparent that it would be a draw so they were placed in a cage. The roosters fought viciously for a few seconds before one of the owners threw in the towel and the fight was over. Neither cock seemed injured, which pleased Marty and Justin, who won 1,200 Rupiah each without a rooster being killed or maimed.

We left the place then, and even though the locals, pleased we had won some money, asked us to stay, they were quite happy for us to leave. After a meal later that evening, we were grateful to fall into bed and get some sleep.

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