Sean, Thierry and I made an early start to climb up to the summit of Keli Mutu¹ in time for the sunrise. We left the Losman² at 2:50 AM and walked up the road to where a path led down to a small stream and a waterfall then began to climb steeply up the mountainside. Thierry set a cracking pace up the narrow path which initially led up through farmland and a couple of small villages, still asleep at this hour. We had torches to help light our way but the moon was almost full and gave plenty of light to see by.
After about 20 minutes of manic climbing, I had to stop for a breather as the pace Thierry was setting was too fast for me. Sean went on but stopped up ahead and waited for me while Thierry carried on without us, evidentially trying to prove something or other to himself!
Sean and I reached the summit road at the six-kilometre mark at 3:40 AM and it took us another hour to walk from there up the seven kilometres of easy-graded tarmac to the summit of Keli Mutu. The air was cool without being cold and it was quite a pleasant climb under the soft silver glow of the moon and the brightest stars shining in the violet sky.
Further up the mountain, we entered a forest. The moonlight threw psychedelic patterns of tree ferns and bamboo down onto the surface of the road. As we approached the summit the road began to level out and the rainforest gave way to pines. The air was tainted with the unmistakable smell of sulphur. The trees began to thin and open out onto a barren plateau. Above us and to the right, silhouetted against the sky, was the crater rim. We climbed up and peered over the edge, down into the pit where a lake of mercury shimmered in the moonlight.
The entire scene was surreal, other-worldly. Beneath our feet was a skin of loose, rubble scoria and pumice, eroded and scoured by wind and water, and dotted with stunted bushes. The crater’s edge stood jagged and abrupt, dropping almost vertically to the limpid pool of the crater lake. Above us, the sky was a velvet dome, distant and cold yet seemingly close enough to touch. The silence was almost complete save for the gentle murmur of the wind across the volcano’s summit and it was easy to believe the local legend which says that the spirits of the dead find refuge beneath the surface of Keli Mutu’s crater lakes.
Thierry, waiting for us on the very top of the mountain, signalled to us with his torch and we made our way across the summit plateau to a concrete platform overlooking the two main crater lakes. It was chilly on the top of the mountain and the wind rapidly cooled the sweat we had worked up on the climb as we sat in silence and watched the stars begin to fade. The sun flew its colours on the eastern horizon; to the west, towering thunderclouds, piled into the stratosphere and lit from within by lightning, glowed pink and purple.
As sunrise approached the peace and solitude of the volcano’s summit was shattered by the arrival of two bus-loads of tourists including Linda, Trish, Ed and Michelle. As it turned out, the sunrise itself wasn’t particularly spectacular. But given the location, atop a volcano with the water of two crater lakes changing colour from silver to green to grey and, finally, to a pale shade of turquoise, it was an amazing spectacle. Behind us, also in a deep, sheer-sided pit, the third of Keli Mutu’s crater lakes was a sinister black, its water opaque and glossy, its viscous surface hiding secrets known only to the spirits of the dead.
When the pressure of the tourist crowd and the jabbering of the bus drivers and flunkies became too much we moved from the main summit to another vantage point on the very lip of the crater where a narrow point jutted out above the jagged ridge of crumbling rock separating two of the crater lakes. The colours of the two lakes were almost identical but the northernmost lake carried a slick of poisonous-looking sulphur and, indeed, the water would probably be acidic enough to peel off the skin of anyone unfortunate enough to fall into it.
We took turns standing out on the point for photos then Thierry, Ed, Michelle, Linda and I set off to walk around the path leading along the crater rim past a sign which read: “Danger ouse. Do not go.” The path wasn’t in the least bit dangerous although if you happened to step over the edge there would have been no stopping a plunge of 100 feet into the lake.
It would have been nice to spend all day exploring up there on the summit of Keli Mutu, but Linda and I had to get back down to Moni in time to catch a ride back to Ende. So, we said goodbye to Thierry on the rim of the volcano and it seemed an appropriate place for friends who have shared such adventures⁶ to part: with handshakes high on a volcanic mountain with a shimmering crater lake behind us and an endless sky above.
We set off down the road through the trees and caught a last glimpse of Thierry on the ridge above us. The walk down took two hours and was pleasant on the upper slopes but by the time we reached Moni at 9 am I was quite worn out. We hastily packed our gear and caught a passing passenger truck that was headed down to the town of Ende. The trip was quite speedy being downhill and we were back in the Losman Iklas in time for a mid-day meal. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and were in bed early as our flight to Kupang, in Timor, was scheduled for 7 am the next morning.
¹Keli Mutu is a 1,639-metre volcano on the island of Flores in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago.