8 - Central Axis (Mt. Agung, Bali, Indonesia)
My first of many volcano hikes. Might as well start at the center of the universe, right? This was a nice introduction and whet my “Ring of Fire” appetite.
by Mr. Nos T. O’maniac
GOING TO INDONESIA WITHOUT CLIMBING a volcano would be like going to Las Vegas and not dressing like a preacher, getting stupid drunk, and gambling like an asshole. I lost my “Ring of Fire” virginity on Mt. Agung, a still active stratovolcano in east Bali. It’s legendary, believed to be a replica of Mt. Meru (the central axis of the universe), and the site of Bali’s most important temple, Pura Besakih. At least seventy festivals a year are held there (a year being 210 days on the Balinese calendar). It’s jamming constantly.
There are two routes up the mountain, the long arduous way beginning at Pura Besakih leading to the highest point, or the lite version starting farther up the hill at another temple on the east side, Pura Pasar Agung. I wanted the “pain-in-the-ass” route but it was closed for a ceremony. Of course it was. Hindsight being a bastion of illumination, I suspect I may have been told this to save prospective guides the trouble of going the hard way.
Cynicism and instinct. Catch the fever.
Wayan, my guide, fetched me at 2:00 am. That’s right, 2:00 am. How else can you reach the top in time for the sunrise? I love the sunrise as much as the next bloke, but it was the rainy season. Chance of sunrise panorama? Somewhere between slim and nuh-uh. Everyone departs at 2:00 am regardless of ability. My thoughts? Party of one. Reasonably fit and limber. Motivated. Right gear. Right attitude. Why not push blast-off to 3:00, or (insert big gulp here) 4:00? Then again, who am I to protest? Nobody. That’s who. I wrote it before. I’ll write it again. The sunrise is paramount. Fucking paramount. Get some.
Every guide must pay the proper respect to Agung through prayer and offering. Wayan was no exception. His pre-hike ceremony captured my undivided attention. I imagined Agung’s spirit holding its breath as the interlopers begged forgiveness for the intrusion. Part of the offering included incense which was too wet to burn…Omen #1. It rained hard the day before, but I was told it was normally okay in the morning. I was also told if it was raining before we left, the climb would be postponed. I’m pliable, so no biggie. If I had to wait another day, I could adjust fire.
Wayan wore jeans…Omen #2. He had to tinker with the wires in his headlamp to get it working…Omen #3. And so we began in the rain…Omen #4. I didn’t think rain was a big deal, but I sensed Wayan’s unease. Forty-five minutes into our climb, we spotted lights above us and heard voices. Voices? Who’s coming down at 3:45 am? The goddamn Russians, that’s who. Following me? Hmmmmmm…
So, apparently, a 2:00 am departure was cutting it too close? Sassy. Like I said, sunrise or die. But, alas, the rain was too much for them…Omen #5. Now, granted, they were wearing tennis shoes and light jackets. I might’ve thrown in the towel myself. Then again, this was rain, not a torrential downpour. Buck up, I thought. The contagion spread. Their guide spoke to mine in subdued Indonesian.
I attempted my own assessment but was at a loss. Clearly, Wayan didn’t want to keep going. He didn’t say it, but I felt it. We stopped repeatedly to see if the rain would stop. He said clouds would obscure the view. Also, too windy. He asked if I would consider returning and offered to call when the time was right.
We’ve come this far, I thought. Wind? Rain? It is a mountain after all, right? Were we in danger? Didn’t feel so, but this was his wheelhouse. Did he not want to hike in the rain, or was there legitimate danger? He hoped for the green light to abandon the trek. I couldn’t relent and saw no reason not to stick it out a bit longer.
I’m guessing Balinese folk feel no compulsion to climb a mountain for the hell of it. Just a job, right? Not a task undertaken for giggles. Danger or inconvenience? What discouraged him? I wasn’t sure. So, I fibbed and told him I didn’t know when I could return. I also pointed out I wasn’t concerned with the view, that I enjoyed hiking for its own sake. He loved that response. Loved it.
I didn’t force the issue. I merely failed to acknowledge his clear signals of ambivalence and mounting concern. Had he been more adamant I would have relented…probably. Am I an insensitive poopshoot? Perhaps. Did I mention the heat lightning? I heard no thunder, so I figured it would be okay. Apparently, I’m an aspiring meteorologist. We spent the better part of an hour sitting and waiting for the rain to stop. And?…It did. Reluctantly (at least on Wayan’s part), we trudged onward and upward.
In the end, all was hunky-dory. We emerged from the tree line to the sun poking through the clouds. I had a crisp view inside the caldera. Our reward for braving the elements? Solitude. It was just the three of us: Me, Wayan, and Agung. I mean, you can’t expect to get to the center of the universe without some ass pain. Wayan’s prayers. My dickishness. Agung’s hospitality. Good things come to pricks who wait.
Moral of the story? Fuck the omens. Well, not really. I suppose it could’ve gone either way.