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…

FRIDAY, MAY 1st

We rose at 4:30 am and went down to the Asiatic Hotel at the end of the gang (street) where our pick-up for Borobadur was scheduled for 5 am. The sunrise promised to be washed out by the thick clouds wreathing the hills, but the prospect of getting to Borobudur before the hordes of package tourists was worth paying for. 

The Borobudur temple complex was built between 750 and 850 AD and is one of the greatest Buddhist relics of Southeast Asia, along with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Burma’s Pagan. The monument takes the form of a massive stupa and is wrapped around the top of a small hill. The base is 200 m² and above this, six square terraces and three circular terraces rise in descending order of size. The monument was conceived as a vision of the cosmos in stone, spiralling up to Nirvana. Over 400 serene-faced Buddhas stare out from open chambers while 72 more sit inside latticed stupas on the top three terraces.

We both reached through the lattice of a stupa and touched the face of a Buddha which is supposed to bring good luck. The monument, empty of humans and surrounded by glowering and mysterious volcanoes, was an ethereal place indeed.

On the way back to Yogyakarta, we visited two lesser-known but still very important temple sites: the temple of Candi Pawan (which houses the dust of a cremated king), and the temple of Mendut, which houses a magnificent three-meter high Buddha sitting, western style, with both feet flat on the ground and flanked by the bodhisattvas (priestly attendants) Avalokitesvara on the right and Vajrapani on the left.

Back in Yogyakarta, we packed up our gear and walked for half an hour down Jalan Malabo to try to find the Bimo station for Kariulang but we ended up being shown to another place by a local and after a 10-minute ride on a city bus, we found the right spot and caught a van up into the mountains.

At Kariulang (900 m) we moved into the fabled Vogel Homestay and settled in. After a drink, we walked up to a swimming pool at the foot of the hill and swam there in the cold, clear water. As usual, it rained heavily in the late afternoon but sitting in the restaurant at Vogels, with the windows open and Nat King Cole playing on the stereo, was a very pleasant way to pass a wet evening.

The Lonely Planet guide had described Vogels Homestead as a magical place and the writer who compiled the guide had written that: “when the Nat King Cole song Mona Lisa came on to the stereo, with the windows open and the rain tapping on the foliage of the forest outside, we briefly ascended into heaven.”

At about 7:30, Christian Awuy, the hostel’s owner, came and said “anyone want to go and see the lava?” The six backpackers present lept up as one and Christian led us down to a field on the edge of the village where the shadowy bulk of Mount Merapi¹ could be seen against the black drape of the stars. On the western flank of the mountain, the incandescent glow with the lava shone out against the darkness and every two minutes or so the awesome spectacle of the molten rock rushing down the mountainside could be seen, as magma erupted from the summit came crashing down, sending showers of glowing rock into the year. 

The mountain was only 7 km from where we stood and the lava was, according to Christian, moving at 100 km/h so it could overwhelm Kariulang Village very quickly if it came that way. As we watched, a huge spurt of glowing magma spilled over the southeast rim of the crater and flowed down the slope, clearly visible against the black bulk of the mountain.

¹Gunung Merapi is a violently active stratovolcano. Read more about it in this Wikipedia entry.
Footnote: Vogel’s Hostel is still there in Kariulang and is still owned by Christian. A review on Booking.com noted that: The host is offering tours to Merapi since over 35 years. and still is highly motivated. He deeply cares about nature and has done a lot to make eco tourism more well known in Indonesia. He and his team know so much about the volcano and its legends. I can highly recommend to book a tour with them! It was raining when I arrived, but had a beautiful sunrise next day. The place is super clean, basic but all you need. Food is superb!

30 April

The Eastern sky was becoming orange1 when we arrived in Yogyakarta at 4:30 a.m. and walked from the station down to Gang 1 (in Indonesian cities, alleyways are called “gangs” from the nautical word gangway) where we found a cheap and quiet place to stay. After a mandi [an Indonesian bath/shower where you scoop water from a tank and pour it over yourself] we slept for a few hours, then spent the day quietly hanging out in the immediate area.

We booked onward bus tickets to Bali (R25,000 each) for Monday and also a sunrise trip to the Buddhist site of Borobudur2 for tomorrow.

1 An abiding memory of ours from that morning on the Senja Utama is that of the water-sellers moving through the carriages intoning the Indonesian word for water – “agua” – in low monotones like a collection of frogs: “agua-agua-agua-agua.”

2 Borobudur is one of the wonders of the world. Read an in-depth description about it on this Wikipedia entry.

Yogyakarta (Photo supplied.)

29 April

We spent all day hanging out in cafes while we waited for the evening Senja Utama Express to Yogyakarta [pronounced “jog-yia-karta”]. Most of the time we spent in a cafe showing Western TV programs. We watched Moonlighting, Sesame Street, Robin of Sherwood, and a hilarious episode of The Simpsons.

At 6pm we went down to the Station Gambier and boarded our train. Second Class was not very crowded and we managed to get two seats each. I slept on the floor for most of the trip.

The Senja Utama train, Java. (Photo supplied.)

28 April

The crossing from Sumatra to Java took 2 1/2 hours and we spent most of that time dozing in the air-conditioned second class lounge as the boat made its way across the mirror-calm water between the two giant islands. The coloured forms of thunder clouds over Java’s brooding, dark volcanoes made an impressive sight.

Between Sumatra and Java (Photo supplied)

We arrived in Jakarta at 8:30 p.m. after 36½  hours on the bus and, along with an English bloke that we have gotten to know on the boat, we took a tuk-tuk in to Jalan Jaksa, Jakarta’s version of Khao San Road and found a reasonably nice place to stay. 

Footnote: Jalan Jaksa, formerly one of the iconic backpacker haunts along the so-called “Banana Pancake Trail” through Southeast Asia, is no more. The scruffy backpackers have moved upmarket and the noodle joints and second-hand bookshops of Jalan Jaksa have been superseded by the internet and Snapchat stories. Check out this blog post by travel journalist James Clarke about the demise of Jalan Jaksa.

27 April

At 10 a.m. we boarded our super-duper-luxury-bus bound for Jakarta. The trip, although reasonably comfortable, was thoroughly unpleasant as the bus was crowded with chainsmoking Indonesians and contained an as yet an imagined horror of Asian travel: the non-stop karaoke video.¹

Sumatran Bus Station.

I passed most of the journey plugged into my Walkman and imagined what lay in the impenetrable blackness of the jungle.

¹Imagine this. It is night. You have just re-boarded the bus after a late dinner at some wayside joint in a jungle clearing. Every passenger, except you and your hapless companion, lights up a cigarette the moment they are seated…no notion of smoking outside while the bus was stationary. Now begins several hours of little Indonesian men screeching along to karaoke songs with the treble turned up to full. Your favourite horror is Winds of Change by the Scorpions, re-recorded by some local pop star who sings “winna-chain” instead of “winds of change.” 

But now the karaoke is replaced by some garish kung fu movie, with the colours all askew and the volume (and treble) up at full. Eventually, the movie ends. But the driver, more asleep than awake, leaves the video player running. The speakers emit a steady screech of static and white noise. No one else notices…they all fell asleep halfway through the movie.

You sit there, lost in a dark world of rage and hatred. Your girlfriend is asleep as well. Is this one of the circles of Hell? You rise, walk down the length of the bus and say to the driver, as politely as you can: TURN THAT FUCKING THING OFF!!