16/5/92

The ferry bound for Flores left from the small fishing village of Pelabuhan Sape and we all caught dokkas (small motorized carts) down to the harbour from the town centre in Sape. Pelabuhan Sape was a tranquil collection of stilt houses with a backdrop of still water and hazy hills. We boarded the ferry, which had a very small area of seats and it was crowded with Indonesians and a good number of tourists as well.

The water across which we travelled was very strange. It was flat and calm and the water was the colour of obsidian with the same sheen and textures. Upwellings boiled to the surface and whirlpools contorted the water where currents rippled and roiled between patches of millpond calm water.

About 2:30 pm as we set a course through a maze of dry, steep hills, Thierry saw a small boat capsize. Our ferry turned about and steamed over to where 20 or so people with clinging, terrified, to the upturned hull of the boat. The ferry nosed against the boat and the survivors were brought on board. Several were resuscitated by a German woman who was a nurse. A small child was dead and two others were almost so.

Apparently, the boat was capsized by a whirlpool and one person had been sucked down. It was not the first time a boat had sunk in that area, which was known as Three Rocks after three pinnacles of rock protruding from the sea nearby and around which a fierce rip current was running.

About an hour later, after we had dropped some people off at Komodo Island, we sailed back past the Three Rocks where the current was so strong that the engines of the ferry could only hold it in one position for several minutes before slowly inching forward out of the rip. 

There was no trace of the capsized boat…

We arrived and Labuhan Bajo at 8:30 pm and made our way wearily up to the Losman Shea Felix where we met two other guys from the ferry: Dub, who was from Holland, and Dan, a New Yorker.

FOOTNOTE: We will meet Dan again in New York in 1994 when we set off on our next set of adventures. But that is another story…

15/5/92

From Bima, we went to Sape where we met up with the first four of the people who would eventually make up our group who would spend days in the waters around Komodo island. Sean and Trisha were from England, and Thierry and Ed were from Belgium and Holland respectively. Thierry, we had already met on the climb of Batur on Bali and we also had with us a Canadian girl called Michelle who we had met on the bus over from Lombok.

12/5/92

At 6 am we went down for an early morning swim in the funky surf which was so warm that the sand across which it was breaking was noticeably warm. We breakfasted expensively: our 11,500 rupiah room didn’t include breakfast but did include walls so thin that every conversation in the hotel could be heard. There was a man selling T-shirts outside the restaurant and I swapped my Simple Minds Streetfighting Years T-shirt for a LOMBOK PRIMITIVE one.

In the town of Ampenan, after a short cheap Bimo ride, we found the Hotel Sabir where a mouldy, insect-infested room was only R5,000 including breakfast and was, therefore, a much better value than the Senggigi Beach Resort. We passed the day somehow and arranged a bus ride to Bima, on Sumbawa Island for the following day.

11/5/92

We caught the 8 am ferry across to Lombok. As the vessel sailed away from Bali, the mighty cone of Ganung Agung rows above the land and the sea, with only the sky taller than its menacing grey and ochre flanks and broken summit, from which the island of Bali itself at issued over the dark and violent millennia.

The hazy coast of Bali was dotted with smaller cones: some perfectly symmetrical, others truncated and jagged, but each one subservient to the giant Agung, a king and his princes, a demon and his attendants.

The crossing of the mirror-flat channel took four hours and we docked on the green island of Lombok: it too a product of volcanoes and savage upheavals. A couple of tourist bus rides took us out to Senggigi Beach, which was horrendously expensive and I won’t waste paper describing it, save for a brief description of the sea.

The beach at Sengiggi was of coarsely-ground lava and coral sloping steeply down to the water. The steepness of the beach caused the swells to surge in and out in such a manner as I’ve never seen before. The water would rise two or 3 metres every time a wave came in, and when a breaker crashed onto the beach it sent shockwaves up through the sand which could be felt even while sitting in one of the bars 30 m back from the water.

Crossing to Lombok.

9/5/92

We spent the morning at a small beach just around the headland from the Padangbai Harbour. The beach was steep and composed from pure white sand enclosed by stark black lava reefs between which the ocean surged up to crash on to the beach with an unpredictable force which made swimming too dangerous to risk. A couple of people braved the surf but I was content to stand and let it buffet me and suck it my legs with such a strength that could easily pluck and unweary person off their feet. Back in Padangbai later on we swam in the more docile waters of the bay then ate at another of the beachside restaurants.

8/5/92

Linda, Marty our Canadian friend, and I made an early start getting up for a 6:30 am breakfast. Marty was a little the worse for wear after a night on the arak (ARAK-NOPHOBIA!) but after a cup of tea and some fruit salad he perked up and we were on the road at 7 am.

We hitched a ride on the back of the truck up the hill to Penilokan and then down to a village called Bangli. The day was fine and sitting in the wind on the deck of the truck is it sped down the hill through the jungle was refreshing. At Bangli, we took a bimo van down to Gyanyer and then another out to Padangbai on the East Coast of Bali island.

We had a drink at a rumah makan (café) I can then went off and searched for place to stay. Marty was catching the 12PM ferry to Lombok but Linda and I reckoned on staying in Padangbai for a couple of days as it seemed a quiet picturesque place, with a beach sweeping around at the head of a calm blue inlet and rows of brightly painted fishing boats pulled up on the crystal white sand.

The Padangbai Beach Inn had the best value rooms at R8,000 including breakfast for two. Marty and I went for a swim in the wonderfully cool, clear water which swelled up onto the beach with a strong gentle force.

When Marty left to catch his ferry, Linda and I went down to one of the mini small restaurants on the beachfront for lunch and then relaxed on the beach for the rest of the day.

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.

SATURDAY, MAY 2nd

Linda and I got up at 3:30 am and along with two girls from Holland, we set off in the darkness to climb up to the observatory overlooking Mount Merapi. When we got to the park at the top of the road we spent a few confused minutes scrambling around in the darkness trying to find the right path in the pitch blackness, but eventually, we found it by the light of our three torches and begin the steep climb up through the forest.  

It was quite humid and we were all sweating heavily as we toiled upwards, but as climbs go it wasn’t very hard and we were atop the small forest-clad hill by 5:15 am, just as the first colours of dawn began creeping into the sky to the east of the black cone of Merapi.

Merapi Dawn.

Our first glimpses of the volcano were incredible! The summit was wreathed in a cloud of fumes venting from the fumaroles below the summit and the glow of the lava could clearly be seen reflecting off the roiling clouds of smoke and gas released from its passage down the mountain. As the sky lightened, the huge lumps of semi-cooled lava could be seen on the slope and everywhere on the summit of the cone a maelstrom of rising smoke and twisting clouds of gas swirled around.

The sunrise was only mediocre: but with an erupting volcano, the solid green mass of the jungle, and the orange disc of the sun muted by hazy cloud, the whole picture was primaeval and eerie. We spent an hour on the hilltop until the sun was fully into the sky and the view of the mountain was becoming hazy. Descending the hill, we paused for a rest about halfway down and as we stood amongst the trees, a massive rumble came from the mountain as a stream of molten rock and semisolid lava crashed down the southwest face, raising a cloud of smoke and continuing down almost to the tree line on the far side of the valley from where we stood.

We followed a fork leading off the main trail round to the right which took us through a series of steep, densely-forested gullies to a group of caves. We explored several of the caves, one of which contained some clusters of small bats, squeaking eerily in the darkness and flapping out of the cave entrance in fright as our torchlight disturbed them.

The caves were all approximately the same dimensions, and the two at the far end of the track, which petered out in amongst a tangle of streams and vegetation, were sealed with locked doors. That evening Christian told us that those caves were evacuated by the Japanese in 1944 and had been used for ammunition storage. These days, the same caves that the Japanese had kept their ammunition in, now house seismic equipment for monitoring the rumblings of Merapi.

Street Market, Yogyakarta.

We left the volcano to its machinations and headed east again, first to Jogjakarta then overnight to the green tourist island of Bali. We lingered not in the tourist hell-hole of Denpasar and chartered a Bimo to take us up to the mountain town of Ubud. 

Far from being a quiet haven from the tourist rabble of Kuta, Ubud was a boomtown of hotels and restaurants, souvenirs and touts. We fled into the hills…