Birthday climb in Bali timed to reach summit at sunrise
By DEBRA BRUNO | Special to The Washington Post | Published: April 2, 2020
I decided for my birthday I would like to hike a volcano. In Bali. In the dark, so I could see the sunrise from the mountaintop. As one does.
The volcano, Mount Batur, is technically considered active, but it’s not currently spewing ash and lava, which makes it safe to hike. At the same time, it’s not completely dormant, either.
Batur is not the highest volcano in Bali. That one, Mount Agung, at 9,940 feet above sea level, has been closed to trekkers because it has been quite a bit more restless than sleepy Batur. In fact, Agung last erupted in June. As of early March, Agung was at warning level 3 with a 2.5-mile exclusion zone around the crater, reports the Mount Agung Daily Report, including a “near-continuous venting of steam and gases” and some mild tremors. Or I totally would have trekked that one to mark turning an otherwise unsexy and unexciting 63.
I should admit here that I’m not actually cool enough to make a special trip to Bali just to hike a volcano for my birthday. My husband, Bob, and I were visiting our son who is based in Jakarta for a few months. We decided that even though Mount Batur is 730 miles southeast of Jakarta, we were generally in the neighborhood, by Asian standards anyway, and we were eager to see parts of Indonesia beyond the traffic-clogged capital.
My feisty Australian friend Bryony, who owns a villa in the bustling seaside town of Seminyak, lined up a hiking guide company called Bali Trekking Tour to lead us up the volcano. Mount Batur is 5,633 feet above sea level — significantly smaller than Agung. We had been told the hike would be relatively easy if one was fit.
“Why do we need a guide?” Bob asked. “Can’t we just follow the path?”
One answer, we learned, is that for starters, this trek called for us to be picked up at our Seminyak villa at 1:40 in the morning. Another answer is that this hike was taking place during Indonesia’s rainy season, a period when brilliant sunshine could give way to downpours that looked as though the heavens had turned on a faucet. A third answer is that having a guide discourages, to some extent, on-the-spot guides plus touts selling trinkets like bracelets made from volcanic rock.
Knowing the alarm was going to ring at 1:20 a.m. meant that I went to bed at 9. I checked the clock at 9:30 p.m., was awakened by a short but powerful rainstorm at 10, and then checked the clock again at 11:30, 12:30 and 1. In other words, I got almost no sleep. On top of that, my stomach had been a little off since we arrived in Indonesia. I’m sure the spicy red snapper we devoured at the beachfront restaurant didn’t help either, so my stomach gurgled and flipped all night in a mild case of “Bali belly.”
The trekker van was right on time. Our cheerful Balinese driver drove us (OK, careened us) through the darkened streets of Seminyak, narrowly avoiding bar-hoppers making their way home from the beachfront nightclubs pounding with techno music. As we drove north to the interior of the island, the van’s swerves and curves got tighter. Bryony wondered if she might need to ask the driver to make a vomit stop.
The year before, when Bryony and another friend had tried to hike Mount Batur in March (also during the rainy season), the rain had been so strong that they gave up halfway up the mountain.
“Pray that the rain doesn’t hit this year,” Bryony said.
The hiking fee was nonrefundable at the last minute, rain or no rain. (A nervous hiker can cancel up to three days before the trek, but the weather in Indonesia — and even from village to village in Bali — is so changeable that panicking about rain is fruitless.) Plus, I’ll admit I’m a cheapskate. If I pay for something, I’m almost certainly going to do it, if I can. Added to that, I was playing the “birthday” card big time, so Bob agreed, with a certain amount of whining over the early hour and the good chance of rain, to join me. Our son Daniel was a hard no, and I knew better than to push my luck with him on that front.
So our group included me and Bob, Bryony and Bryony’s 22-year-old daughter, Thalia.
After the evening storm, the skies were clear, the stars were beautiful and we drove for more than an hour to reach the mountain, closer to the northern tip of the island. The goal was to hike in the pitch dark (with flashlights) so that we could reach the summit for sunrise. We were advised to bring a jacket for the breezy top, good hiking shoes and water. The guide provided a flashlight and extra water. Some hikers who don’t feel comfortable scrambling up a fairly steep ascent use headlamps to keep their hands free, either to use hiking poles or to grab rocks or trees going up.
We met our guide, Gunawan, in a parking lot. It was there that we realized we weren’t the only hikers making the trek in the dark. In fact, during the busy season, hundreds make the same dark ascent, Gunawan told us.
We started along a rocky path strewn with porous lava rocks, past small farms where roosters crowed their annoyance that humans had disturbed their rest.
As we reached the beginning of the ascent at the foot of the volcano, Gunawan asked Bryony, “Do you want the easy way or hard way?”
“Easy,” she immediately answered. That was odd, I thought. But I kept my mouth shut and let her make that executive decision.
Before long we were going up. I was almost immediately grateful for the “easy” option. The daytime weather had been in the 80s, with at least 80 percent humidity. I don’t think the night cooled off one bit.
In addition, this was no gradual ascent but a rigorous uphill slog over volcanic rocks, tree roots and mud. Thalia and Bryony sauntered ahead like they were going for a stroll while Bob and I gasped and sweated. At this point, sunrise was still hours away, so all we could do was shine our flashlight down at the path before us, trying not to stumble over a rock or root. If this was the easy hike, I was having a tough time picturing what hard would feel like.
Many mountain hikes use switchbacks, those gradual back-and-forth paths that allow hikers to catch their breath and move at a more civilized climb until the next push up. But this was not that hike. I started wondering whose idea of birthday fun this was. What, exactly, was I trying to prove? And does my struggle mean that I’m officially old?
An Indonesian man whose name translates to “Last Born” — one of the locals who was tagging along in hopes of selling us a beer — kept holding out his hand to help me up the steep parts, but I refused. To be more precise, I slapped his hand away. “I can do it!” I said, over and over. My snippiness was not in keeping with traditional Balinese hospitality, but I was in survival mode.
Even more enterprising Balinese took “hikers” almost all the way up the muddy paths on their motorbikes, for a fee, of course, forcing us to step aside each time we heard an engine revving up the slightly muddy path behind us. And no, that option never occurred to me for a second.
Gunawan kept calling out words of encouragement. “If you go for 10 more minutes, you can have a rest!” he would say. Toward the top, he kept up the cheerleading. “Just 20 more minutes now!” Then, 20 minutes later, “Only 10 more minutes!”
We started hearing the whoops of joy as other groups, faster and younger than we were, reached the summit.
We finally made it, a good while before sunrise. Gunawan sat us on a bench and brought us coffee and tea. The coffee, made with instant granules, was crunchy and overly sweet, but I drank it along with an overpriced warm beer that Last Born had carried up in his backpack. I figured it was the least I could do to apologize for my rudeness.
Finally, the sky started to lighten. We stood up and looked around to find ourselves at the top of a mountain as tropical and verdant as a scene from the movie “Avatar.” The mists slowly blew away, and the sunrise opened up the sky. We could see over to Mount Agung, towering over the landscape to the southeast. We looked down at Lake Batur, along with rolling hills, rice paddies and misty clouds that floated beneath us.
Hikers cheered, posed for silly photos where it looked as if they were holding the sun in their hands and wandered around for the best views. I may have announced to everyone that it was my birthday.
Gunawan brought us a breakfast of eggs, steamed by the volcano, and sliced bananas nestled in soft white bread, plus an assortment of TimTam cookies and litchis still in their shells. One banana sandwich and an egg was about all my stomach could handle.
He then led us to a spot overlooking the crater at the center of the volcano, where long ago lava had burst up from the Earth’s core and covered the land.
“Put your hand next to that crack in the rock,” Gunawan said. It was as hot as the burning steam from a teakettle. He handed me an incense burner. “Blow on that,” he said. As I blew and leaned forward, the steam wafted over my face. This was a nice treat: a volcanic facial for my birthday.
Nearby, a colony of monkeys who thrived in the steamy warmth and free food from hikers jumped around. One landed on Bob’s head, taking in the view from the top of his Washington Nationals cap for a brief moment before vaulting over to my shoulders and then off to see who else might have food or a good perch.
The hike back down in the early morning was steep enough that Bob ended up using a stick. As we reached the bottom, we saw hikers preparing to do the ascent in full daylight. I’m sure that was fun, too, but I was glad we did it the sunrise way.
In all, it was a magical day. It was certainly a memorable birthday. Next year, though, I noticed that my birthday falls on Mardi Gras. All of a sudden, drinking rum punch in New Orleans seems a whole lot tamer.