In the Shadow of the Volcano

To be spared by the thing that would devour you: that’s all I could think of when Karak explained the small island of trees marooned in the black sweep of stone. Stone that had once flowed, flared and burned. Stone that had been the colour of hot coals, all boiling and blistering in the dark night, wheezing with creeping, incandescent heat as it scorched down the slopes in a fan of raging fire. And then to have peered into that molten inferno and be saved by the volcano itself.

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Karak and I rode his motorbike before first light, twisting our way through farmed fields on the lower slopes of Mount Batur. Reaching the trailhead for our ascent, we set out wrapped in freezing sleeves of cloud. Bali’s central uplands are far colder than the lush valleys and coasts of the island, influenced by circling currents of chilled air that cling to the interior’s ridges. Nearly a quarter of a century my junior, Karak jigged up the ashy slopes like a goat released from a shepherd’s concerns. He lived in the shadow of the volcano, helping tend his family’s plots when he wasn’t leading tourists into the clouds. I’d walked up through the fields of onions, tomatoes and chillies the evening before, the plots of earth regained from old lava flows. It was dust country that I crossed, the ancient igneous rocks pulverised by wind, weather and time to fertile powder. I raised a billow of ash with each step.

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We’d arranged to walk the rim of the volcano’s cone, but by the time we’d reached the lip of the crater there was little to distinguish this place from any other. We were clouded over completely, left a circumference of visibility so small that Karak seemed to lack definable form, appearing instead as a spectre in the scrolling white world despite being a few metres ahead of me on the path. I had to rely on his intimate knowledge of the landscape to guide us step by step on the narrow, wind-harried rim. Within minutes, though, a well of strange light had enveloped us. The obscuring clouds had thinned enough for stunted trees to resolve into stark silhouettes as the sun burned through the haze like flame through paper. And then the volcano clarified out of the mists, one of numerous active cones on the Ring of Fire.

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Indonesia straddles the western arc of the Ring of Fire, a roughly horseshoe-shaped belt of seismic and volcanic activity produced by the extensive movements of tectonic plates. The vast majority of the planet’s earthquakes and eruptions occur in this zone, including the colossal detonation in 1883 of Krakatoa, a volcanic mount rising from the Sunda Strait between the islands of Java and Sumatra. Forty thousand people perished in the lava flows and ensuing tsunamis, and the cataclysmic power of that eruption was equal to 13,000 times the yield of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. In an 1890 update to his book, The Malay Archipelago, Alfred Russell Wallace claimed that the sound of the Krakatoa eruption could be heard as far away as Sri Lanka and Western Australia. He also noted the following: “The atmospheric disturbance was so great that air-waves passed three and a quarter times around the globe, and the finer particles floating in the higher parts of the atmosphere produced remarkable colours in the sky at sunset for more than two years afterwards and in all parts of the world.

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Winds whisked open the curtains of the clouds, revealing a silver-blue lake at the edge of the outer caldera. There was something glacial and austere about its stark beauty, as if it had been forged in the core of the northern latitudes and pushed south over the millennia, where a low layer of cloud waterfalled over its rim. Vast concentric circles moat Mount Batur as if it were an onshore island. The volcano’s twin calderas are the dramatic result of upheaval, the fiery rising of pressurised magma, ash and steam that cracked open the earth’s surface like a hatchling within a shell, spouting skyward in molten flares stoked to between 700o and 1,200oC. The volcano was already some 500,000 years old when it erupted with such intense, transfiguring power 30,000 years ago that the molten surge liquefied and collapsed its ancient volcanic mass, caving in its core and creating the outer caldera, the enormous sunken bowl, 13.5 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide, whose crimped and cliff-like edges demarcate the periphery of the volcanic basin.

At the foot of the caldera on the far side of the lake exist Bali Aga communities. Considered to be the original Balinese, having rejected the Javanisation of Bali in 1343, they’ve maintained distinctive customs, most notably towards death, that both predate the arrival of Buddhism and Hinduism on the island and separate the community from the majority of Bali’s inhabitants. Rather than cremating or burying a body, the Bali Aga of Trunyan village leave the corpse on the ground to decompose in the open air of the caldera, protected from animals by a bamboo cage and kept free of odours, according to local belief, by the scent of a nearby banyan tree.

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Nowhere near finished its work, Mount Batur produced a second caldera roughly 20,000 years ago when the piling up of scalding magma lead to another collapse of the volcanic cone, sinking within the perimeter of the first. And the fortunes of the crater lake have been wedded to the volcano’s whims, shifting position in different eras, even disappearing for a time, only to lodge where it’s found today when a part of the caldera wall was melted away by further streams of incinerating lava. Since 1800 alone, over twenty major eruptions of Mount Batur have occurred, caving in new craters and seeding sibling cones on the slopes of the main volcano.

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We walked the narrow rim of the crater. Scalding steam vented from fissures in the steep walls, hot enough to boil eggs within seconds, said Karak, and the sole reason for the flourishing pockets of miniature tropical ecosystems. Ferns bathed in warm, condensing water; tiny florets of purple succulents luxuriated on berms of black stone. More accustomed to the steamy benevolence of the lowlands, both were able to brace this cold mountain because of their sulphurous shelter of hot steam. Vapour tails coiled from vents within the cone, like winter smoke rising from village chimneys. These seams of escaping heat are the visible signs that this volcano hasn’t yet been silenced by time.

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It wasn’t until Karak and I had nearly completed our circuit of the crater, trailed at times by one of the long-tailed macaques that dwell in the volcano’s inner chambers, that I began to understand the extent of such successive cataclysms. The way those eruptions have scarred the lives of those who live in the shadow of fire as much as the landscape itself. From the south-west of the cone spread an immense black field of solidified lava. Its flow pattern could be clearly discerned, sliding from a lower cone and seeping inexorably downhill as it turned the slope first to fire then to stone. It coursed the valley like a dark and ominous river.

“1963,” said Karak, predicting my next question. In over half a century almost nothing had colonised the lava field. It was barren except for a solitary patch of green that shimmered and stood out amidst the dark desert.
“What’s that in the middle of the lava field?” I asked.
“That’s the lucky place,” said Karak of the small oasis of trees.

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Later we would circle the volcano by riding the ring of the inner caldera on motorbike, a history of the earth’s interior engraved onto the planet’s surface. Eventually we reached the lucky place, that hill of green islanded in old lava. At its edge a small temple had been erected, its scarlet banners wavering in the warm breeze. Not a single sign of the village that the temple commemorated could be seen, though. It had been swept away on that night of incandescent fire in 1963, but some of the settlement’s residents reached this rise of green trees, clambering aboard it like a rescue ship in a storm, hoping against hope that it would weather the tempest.

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Known as a cinder cone, this hill is the smallest type of volcano in existence, an earlier uplifting from Mount Batur’s well of unpredictable energy. It had formed, aeons ago, during a brief eruption, when fragments of molten rock were squeezed through a solitary vent. Lacking the quantities and momentum of magma needed to create a cone the size of the main crater, the flaming rock would have oozed over the surface but quickly cooled and hardened into a distinctive eminence on the volcano’s violent slope, slowly reseeding with trees over thousands of years.

It was hard to imagine the fires of that night. The seething panic and combusting lands, when lava surged from inside the furnace of the earth, heated in a cauldron so fierce that solid rock was made malleable and mobile. It must have ignited the stark sky with the scorched glimmer of its ferocity. Karak placed an offering of flowers by the temple, whispering a short prayer as he stood there. Friends and relatives of his were descendants of the survivors, those who were eventually airlifted out of the wreckage by helicopter. While a ring of fire had entirely encircled the hill, that small cinder cone, the offspring of the volcano, had endured without damage, rising above the molten rivers of rock. And for those on its slopes that night, the burning world whirling all around them, they were saved by the remains of the volcano’s own fire.

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I finished writing this post on the day that details began to emerge of the awful wildfires in southern Greece. Ninety-one people died and hundreds were injured in what are thought to be the most devastating conflagrations seen in Europe since the Second World War. My thoughts are with all those who suffered during their own terrible hours of fire.

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