the wonders of Indonesia series 5 – day 5 engulfed by the crater

It always gave me a warming feeling to see sunrise outside our tent after a long night of darkness. We woke up quickly from our discomfort (think about interlaced roots massaging your back), took one last glance at the thick smoke in the horizon and walked back into the forest.

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Figure 1: sunrise at our campground

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The last part of the ascending was not so easy. There were some apparent signs of landslides and we had to tread carefully and quickly on the ridge so that our body weight would not create any additional forces on the loose soil.

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Figure 5: taking mindful steps

When we finally reached the summit, we were pleasantly surprised to find Toni’s favourite “bonzai” trees towering over a remarkably big flat area and a group of hikers who were having their breakfast at a much nicer campground compared to our humble one at the woods. They had started hiking in the previous morning and would hike further to Salak II in the next two days. So there was a Salak II! It turned out that there was not only Salak II, but Salak III and Salak IV… Hiking to those peaks would be so much more difficult and dangerous, and even our professionally equipped friends had to hire a guide so that they would not get lost. Their guide was a soft spoken guy who smoked continuously. He told us that there used to be two incidents of plane crashes in this area because of bad weather and the rescue team had a really tough time finding all the dead bodies. I shuddered at the thought of some lingering spirits and for a moment wished that I was surfing the net at NTU library.

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Figure 6: we reached the beautiful summit!

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Figure 12: group photo with the climbing team

Food seemed to be especially important for Indonesian hikers. Our friends not only carried stoves and packets of instant noodles, but also sachets of coffee to titillate their taste buds. Unable to resist their generous invitations, we shared their fragrant coffee and warm noodles. Soon another hiking group joined us at the summit. They had camped at Kawah Ratu and left all their luggages (except for food) at their base camp. The team leader was a slightly chubby guy with a constant smile on his face. Upon learning our plan about Kawah Ratu, he immediately offered to hike down together with us. I was a bit overwhelmed by his hospitality and thought he wanted to earn some money from us because he was wearing some hiking club jacket. Most importantly, I was convinced that he would slow down our overall speed because of his size. But Toni agreed willingly after his group also offered us some food (this part might be my imagination because I couldn’t remember the details:) ). I secretly signaled to Toni about my disapproval of such a spontaneous decision and dreaded about how we would have to wait for our new bigger team at every resting point (I was not being unreasonably arrogant here because it happened three times to us in the past).

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Figure 13: group photo with the second hiking team

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Figure 14: food sharing

It turned out that I was unreasonably arrogant. Despite his chubbiness, the team leader walked with lightening speed down the slopes and rarely had to touch any object, whereas I had to glide down the steep slopes with my butt, grab the tree trunks with one hand and hold the hiking stick with another hand to balance every step. Sometimes I had to stop completely and ask for Toni’s assistance, who became increasingly impatient with me and apologetic towards the team leader. To my utmost embarrassment, two of the team members came behind us to make sure we were not too far behind and must have witnessed all my lack of coordination. At the same time, the front group would always wait for us at every flat spot. They even asked us to take some rest every now and then so that we would not be too fatigued from continuous hiking. It took us quite a while to reach their base camp, but we had to decline their food offer because we were overloaded with guilt. This did not improve the whole situation because they seemed exceedingly sad that we did not want to touch their food, and Toni and I decided afterwards that we should always accept food offer and try to offer some of ours in our future interactions with any hikers.

After leaving the group, we moved on, not knowing what to expect at the crater which only appeared as a relatively small spot filled with thick smoke in the morning. Nevertheless, as we walked past some boiling mud pools, we became increasingly excited.

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Figure 15: walking into the crater area

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Figure 16: the first boiling mud pool I have ever seen!

Even though we were no strangers to Indonesia’s beauty, the awe we felt when Kawah Ratu first entered into our sight, where the whole mountain was fuming with smoke like a gigantic pressure cooker, was real and powerful. I kept telling Toni that I had never seen such a thing even on TV, whereas Toni just put down his backpack and took out our snacks. It was the most distracting meal ever because we couldn’t shift our gazes away from the crater and moved our mouths mechanically just to swallow the food. The pungent sulphurous gases, the thundering and sizzling noises from the angry earth and the most barren yet the most active landscape challenged our sense organs and wrapped us in a dreamy state.

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Figure 17: Kawahhhh… Ratuuuu!

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We were awakened by our hiking friends, who had finished their food and packed their tents. They greeted us and were surprised to find us progressing so slowly. Since they planned to leave the national park on the same day, they overtook us and started walking down into the deadly smoke. That was when we realised that the only way to continue our journey was to walk through the centre of the huge crater! There was no barricade, no warning of danger, but we could sense the immense menace from nature instinctively. What if the soil beneath us collapsed under our weight? I could imagine myself being hurled up by the smoke with a burned butt, or cooked in the boiling mud water. Toni quickly cautioned me not to use the hiking stick with the shrewdness of a physicist because it had a small surface area and might create quite a huge pressure on the earth.

We descended slowly into the crater, and gradually regained our courage and curiosity. The volcano stones boasted of various colors – black, white, green, yellow in various shapes, and the burned tree trunks revealed a striking orange hue in the evening sunlight. It was not completely deprived of life here – we could see a green shrub here and there, and some insects which thrived close to the water. A turquoise stream flew from the top of the mountain and divided the crater into half. The mist rose slowly up to the air, and the sulphur smell – the smell of rotten eggs were reminiscent of a hot spring I used to go to when I was a child. I became really excited and touched the hot water appreciatively. It must contain so many minerals! Sweaty and exhausted, I urged Toni to take a bath in the stream. We found a spot where a cold stream joined in and cooled down the temperature of the hot stream, and took off our shoes to relax our feet in the water. It was warm and comfortable, and our foot spa eventually became a full body spa. I even soaked my hair and face inside because I was convinced that the water had a healing power on my body… We soon discovered some local villagers staring at us from the other side of the bank. They had put some eggs in the small holes where the smoke came out and were waiting patiently for the eggs to get cooked. How lovely! In the last rays of sunlight, we joined a group of young “punks”, who again shared their food with us including a very popular snack called kacang bomb and played loud rock music from their smart phones. We didn’t talk much, and watched the incessant smokes from the crater with respectful silence.

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Figure 31: we took a bath in the hot spring

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Figure 32: boiling water

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Finally it was time to leave. It was turning dark and we had to find a campground nearby. Toni was not comfortable with camping so close to the crater because of the sulphur gas, but I balked at walking further because of my night blindness. This created some tension between us, so I stayed behind at one seemingly becoming campsite (well, with dead trees) while Toni marched forward. He soon turned back because there was another crater in front, with even more smelly gases. We quickly set up the tent and went inside, but Toni kept turning restlessly and asking me if I could smell something strange. I pretended not to listen to him even though I did smell the sulphur more intensely since now we were closer to the ground. Finally Toni sat up and told me that we should camp further away. He was also annoyed by the smell of our clothes and sticky hair, which stank after our bath in the hot spring. Therefore, our second big argument erupted at the crater (the first one was at the base camp of Gunung Gede, another volcano~~ such volcanic activity!), centering on my lack of common sense about safety. In the heat of the argument, Toni asked me if I think we could live together. I naturally added some flavour to the sentence by thinking that he actually meant that he didn’t want to live with me any more. The consequence was that I started crying uncontrollably, but climbed out of the tent obediently, held Toni’s hands through the darkness across two other craters and arrived at a campground with two other groups of noisy campers. Before we fell asleep, we reflected about my mistakes (advantage of being together with a teacher) and Toni asked me again if we could live together. I sensed the reduced severity of his tone and gave him a positive answer. When I asked him back, he paused for a few seconds and replied “yes” softly and fell asleep. After our conversation I had a long night of dreading Toni’s cooled feelings towards me and regretted about my actions deeply. Of course, I never thought that it would be my last night with a single status, and that Toni would ask me the same question again in a few hours, from a different dimension.

P.S. Toni’s fear about the poisonous gas was not unfounded. I just found an article about people dying while camping too close to Kawah Ratu here: http://www.gunungbagging.com/salak/

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