Travel Journal: Climbing Mt Batur – A Sunrise Volcano Trek

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We were blessed with excellent weather on the first day of our trip.  I had braced myself for the sticky humidity of Bali but I guess being in the highlands amid the rainforest, we enjoyed deliciously cool but sunny weather. But on the second day, the clouds closed in and it began to pour.

Needless to say, I had my doubts when, on the third morning, my alarm went off at 1.45am ahead of our planned volcano sunrise trek on Mt Batur, one of Bali’s many volcanoes. I lay in my warm bed for some time, listening to the rain pouring down the eaves and wishing for a moment that we hadn’t signed up for this trek! But climbing a volcano has always on my to-do list. “Come on,” I told myself. “Get out of your comfort zone! That’s what life is about isn’t it?”

Groaning and wishing badly to stay in bed – and in my comfort zone – I crawled out of bed and pulled on a pair of an exercise tank top, a pair of hiking pants and a lightweight long-sleeved North Face top (the latter two leftover from my gear for my Machu Picchu trip a few years back). Light layers are key for climbing Mt Batur – you’ll get hot enough as you’re climbing, but once you’re at the top, it does get pretty chilly. I also borrowed a  small day pack from S in which I fitted my camera and a bottle of water. (We had booked our trek through Pineh Bali Tours via our hotel, Senetan Villas, and they promised bottled water and breakfast would be supplied. Still, we decided to bring one bottle along just in case. As it turned out, we each got given a bottle of water so I ended up doing the trek with three bottles of water in my pack! I didn’t feel the weight of it, though. Perhaps all those Body Pump classes are paying off!)

I was relieved to find, upon emerging from my villa, that it wasn’t raining after all – it was just the drip of water off the trees onto the roof that I had heard while in bed. The day was actually cool and fine – perfect for hiking up a volcano. A car from Pineh was waiting to take us first to a coffee plantation and organic farm where we were given a breakfast of banana pancakes drizzled with chocolate sauce. I guess they wanted to make sure we were properly fuelled up before our trek! There were lots of other groups of hikers as well, all eating banana pancakes and dressed in hiking gear, getting ready for their trek, surrounded by packets of tea and ‘luwak coffee’, which is apparently coffee grounds eaten, partially digested and then shat out by civet cats, for sale.

When we had gulped down our pancakes and a cup of tea (I didn’t drink much of mine, keeping in mind that tea is a diuretic and we’d soon be on the side of a volcano without a bathroom in sight!), we got back into the car and were driven a short ways on to the base of Mt Batur. Here, we were introduced to our guide, a petite female named Mardi. I was pretty psyched to see that many of the other guides were female as well. Talk about girl power!

After introductions were made, Mardi handed each of us a small plastic flashlight and led us across the main road and plunged onto a rough path. There were plenty of other hikers around, chatting animatedly to each other as we all set off through the darkness. We couldn’t see much, but later on our way back down we realized we had been walking through orchards featuring tomato and chili plants. The way was level and easy and we made good time for the first 15-20 minutes.

Then the path became a sealed road that began to slope upwards. In the distance, we could see lights flashing from groups of hikers that had started out earlier, winding up the mountain, showing where we’d be going next. Then we turned off the sealed road and walked past some half-built buildings and what looks almost like a concrete sports court – and that was where the real climbing began as we trekked up rough-cut steps cut into the rock and sand.

I’ve seen some people asking on travel forums about the difficulty of the trek. I would say it’s a pretty short and easy trek – they give you about two hours to complete the climb, but I would say most people are able to accomplish it within an hour and half with plenty of rest breaks in between. Most people seemed to have an easy time of it. If you haven’t done much climbing or exercise before, you can take plenty of stops to rest and you should be fine. Having said that, we did pass by one girl about our age who was having difficulty right from the beginning of the trek. We alerted her friends, who had gone on ahead, and they went back to check on her and we went on up, but we never saw them again or found out what happened to her.

I’ve done the Mt Kinabalu climb some years back and  while Mt Kinabalu was a much longer climb, in some ways it was actually easier. Mt Batur is only an hour to one and half hour’s climb but it’s a bit steeper and also there’s lots of loose scree and little rocks which makes it really easy to slip. I wore my running shoes as I didn’t want to go to the bother of purchasing and breaking in a pair of expensive hiking shoes just for one climb, but I’d have to say if you could get a pair of hiking shoes with spikes for good traction, that would have made the going a lot easier.

Some groups charged past us in a hurry to make it to the top, but we took it easy and also stopped a few times so we could rest or have a look at the view. Even before sunrise, you could see the lights of the villages in the distance and also the silhouette of Mt Agung over a lake. Eventually, we would end up climbing past those groups anyway when they had to stop in turn for a rest.

I had lost track of how long we’d been climbing when we came across another guide waiting by the steps. Mardi said something to him and he introduced himself to us and grabbed my hand while Mardi took my friend’s hand and the guides began more or less hauling us over the steps quick-smart. “Not far to go,” they told us. “Maybe 10 more minutes!” I hurried after them, a little bemused, wondering, Are we too slow? Perhaps Mardi got impatient with us and thinks we’re a pair of weak climbers? Also, hey, 10 minutes more before we got to the top? That really didn’t take long at all!

As we climbed up, my guide said to me, “At the top, we have Coca-Cola waiting for you.”

“Oh, great!” I said, remembering that our trek package had come with a promised breakfast at the top and eggs ‘cooked in volcano steam’. Perhaps Coke was part of the deal too?

Before long, we were scrambling over the last few steps and onto a landing where other hikers were gathered, standing or sitting on the wooden benches. My guide shook my hand and handed me a Coke and Sprite to my friend. S isn’t much for soft drinks and tried to offer hers to Mardi but Mardi shook her head. So we cracked open the drinks and took a sip. And that was when the male guide told us those drinks came with a price tag and we now owed him some money. Scammed on top of a volcano! And we weren’t even that thirsty, having already stacked three bottles of water in our day pack – one from our hotel room and two bottles that came as a complement to our hiking package.

We were a little annoyed at this, but it wasn’t much so we paid up (luckily we had brought a little cash along with us, but not that much – after all, what were we going to buy on top of a volcano? Sorry, Mardi, that one had to come out of your tip money!). Then we sat looking out at the still-dark view, watching the stars and sipping our drinks. “I can’t believe we’re here!” S said.

That was when I looked over my shoulder and noticed yet another line of flashlights bobbing along a ridge away from our shelter and up yet another slope behind us.

“Um….” I said to S, “I don’t think we’re actually at the top yet.” I pointed over my shoulder. “I think that’s the way to the top. And we’re only at the halfway mark.”

S groaned at this, but I was pretty keen as I really didn’t think we had gone sufficiently high enough yet. So we screwed the tops back on our soft drinks and got to our feet, grabbed Mardi and followed the line of hikers up the path leading up the mountain yet again. This time, we passed by a wide space where smoke could be seen wafting up from a crater. Mardi told us we could choose to stop here or keep going. What, did she think we were that soft? “We’ve made it this far up, we’re going up the rest of the way,” I declared, without giving S a chance to object or to agree to Mardi’s offer. Mardi told us it would be another 25 minutes to the top. 25 minutes, that’s doable.

And in fact, it was. To tell the truth, the second part was actually much easier. Maybe we had gotten use to the climb but it seemed easier to gain traction here on the jagged rock steps. Toward the last 10 minutes, the ground turned to fine volcanic gravel and you simply dug your foot in, sinking in to almost ankle-deep to centre yourself and pull your next foot up. Before long, we found ourselves clambering up to the top sans soft-drinks-offering-guides and were high-fiving each other for a job well done!

We had arrived at about 6am, half an hour before the sun was meant to rise. Mardi scouted out a bench for us with a good view and asked if we would like coffee or tea. “No, thank you!” we chorused, the soft drink scam still fresh in our minds. Mardi looked a little puzzled but nodded and vanished, probably off to gossip with the other guides, while we sat back and admired the pre-dawn view with the stars in the sky, chattering all the while, probably a little too loudly for the liking of the European couple smooching on the bench next to us.

A thin line of orange could be seen in the east, a line which slowly widened, bathing the landscape in a warm golden glow, including Mt Agung to our right, which was still wreathed in clouds. We had been worried the day would be rainy and overcast, the view at the top hidden by clouds, but our fears turned out to be all for naught as slowly, the world below took on colour and detail to review the lake at the foot of Mt Agung, the twinkling sea in the distance, and the lush green stony hills to the left.

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Now this – this had all been worth the early wake-up call, the treacherous slippery climb and the aching muscles!

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We stayed up there, watching the view and shivering a little (well, me shivering a lot) in the brisk wind. Mardi came by a little later with the promised breakfast (slices of bread with smashed banana in between which wasn’t too appetizing) and two hard boiled eggs, the promised eggs cooked in volcano steam. I picked up the still-warm egg. “Do you think these were really cooked over a volcano crater?” I asked S. “Or maybe they’ve just got a huge pot full of these eggs on a fire at the back of those huts?” We agreed that we’d believe the eggs were cooked in crater steam. Whether they really were or not, they were delicious in the cold after our climb.

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Then it was time to head back down. I had my doubts about going downhill thanks to my weak ankles and terrible sense of balance, but after the first bit where everyone kind of slips and flails around in the pumice-like volcano sand, the way got easier and we soon got the hang of it. I learned to dig my heels in and turn my feet sideways when I put them down, and also to hold onto rocks and nearby branches for stability. Going down turned out to be much easier than going up! We also stopped by the halfway point once more to have a look at the smoking craters (Mt Batur is still an active volcano and could erupt any time it chooses to) and also the incredibly tame monkeys that live in the area. Mardi pointed down the wide crater and told us that someone once lived in a little house at the bottom, hauling him or herself in and out via rope. She also showed us a cave where annual pilgrimages were made to a Hindu temple located within.

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Bali, Ubud, travel, relax, holiday, island, Mt Batur, sunrise, volcano, hike, crater

The view going down was also beautiful, now that the sun had risen. Everything was incredibly green and lush and oh so gorgeous.

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By this time, Mardi had also found out I could speak Malay, having grown up and gone to school in Malaysia. Malay is a pretty similar language to Indonesia so we got to chatting as we climbed the rest of the way down, stopping along the way to check out the view as well as the great basalt crater visible in the distance. Motorbikes were waiting at the sealed road part, offering rides to anyone who was too tired to walk the rest of the way back. We scoffed at this – “it’s the easy part the rest of the way!” and kept walking.

We finally got back to the huge car park where buses and taxis waited to pick up the tourists, said our goodbyes to Mardi and hopped into our waiting ride. Then it was back to our villa for some breakfast, a hot shower and massages waiting. Yesterday, the owner of the villa had offered us complimentary massages for after our volcano trip, which was super lovely of her! We said, yes, of course, and decided to add a body scrub and a ‘flower bath’ treatment as well. The massage was just what we needed after our climb. Then it was time for a nap and some pool-time, which was pretty much what we ended up doing for the rest of the day.

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