I’ve never been one of those athletic or physically very fit types. In fact, I’m as unfit as they come. So even the idea for a five-kilometer baby-trek along neatly paved paths at a very reasonable incline, coming from me would surprise the wits out of anyone who knows me. Let alone, a two-hour trek up an active volcano. Because - just to add to the above - I’m also afflicted with a bad case of paranoia, most of the time. So when I said, “Oooh Bali, we should climb Mount Batur”, what I got was a long, questioning look. One that said, “I think you’re out of your mind, so maybe I should tread carefully here.” But I was very excited at the prospect of climbing an active volcano. Obviously, I’d done my research about Indonesia’s active volcanoes and when their last major activity was recorded.

I’d read so much about Mount Batur, and the lovely Kintamani region that it is located in, that a trip to Bali would seem like a crime without a trip to the volcano. The ‘smaller’ of the two active volcanoes in Bali, Gunang Agung being the higher one, Gunang Batur rises up to 1717 meters. The active volcanic cone that sits tight in the center of two concentric calderas looks majestic and ominous at the same time. An hour’s drive took us from Ubud to Toya Bungkah where the trek starts at the ungodly hour of 4 am. We’d arranged to have a guide lead our trek (while I mustered the exact amount of willpower required to undertake the trek , there was no way I was going to scramble up the volcano unguided). Our guide, Agung at 5 feet and maybe 2 inches (quite unlike his volcano name-sake) looked like he could be 18, and I felt a faint rumbling in my stomach. “I do this trek everyday for the last ten years” he says and I feel marginally comforted. He pointed out to Mount Batur in the distance, and I almost laughed in exasperation. That mountain? We were going to climb so high?? I glanced back and saw Mount Agung and Mount Abang looming ominously. But something about the black night, zillions of stars, the sparkling lake and the mountains sent the tiniest chill down my spine – in a good way.

With our flashlights, experienced guide in the lead and oodles of energy (at least for the first ten minutes), off we went to witness the sun rising from behind the mountains. The trek is not an easy one, by any definition, but it certainly isn’t what you’d call arduous or difficult either. But you had better be reasonably in shape or else you’d be puffing and panting like me even before reaching the steeper parts of the climb. About half the climb is through a thick forest where you can see patches of chilies, tomatoes and baby corn. One of the guys, Ketuk, in our group was a local who sells sodas and water at the summit.After what felt like the longest one hour of my life, and perhaps twenty-five breaks to ensure I didn’t pass out, we reached the end of the forest area.

“So, now we finish half. Easy part over.” Agung looked as excited as I felt horrified. Only half? “Now very steep. Follow me carefully, don’t run.” I had already tuned out. And besides, run? Ha! I could barely put one foot in front of the other. After some more horrifying stories of Swedes who had run without heeding the guide’s advice and met gory deaths, Agung set off in the lead. He could actually run up, I was in a trance just watching him, the grace and fluidity of his movement was befitting of an art form. A massive eruption that took place in the 1960’s had resulted in a whole carpet of black lava, now solid and jagged rocks that always posed the threat of slipping under your feet if you aren’t careful enough. The eruption, having occurred at night, had washed out an entire village while it slept. The new village was moved away atop a hill to ensure that such surprises don’t become the death of it in the future.

6.30 am : After two and a half hours of climbing, we were at the top of Mount Batur. There was chaos after we reached the summit, with twenty or thirty tourists all in a rush to take pictures to record that they had actually climbed Mount Batur. The experience was surreal (some may argue that it was because I was just happy to have finished the climb without major ‘incidents’, but let’s just leave that out for now).  But the chaos fizzled out just as suddenly as it had begun. Once the clouds started moving of the way, and one at at time, the golden rays started to pierce out from beyond the mountains Abang and Agung that stood like guards heralding the sunrise, there was silence. I have hardly known such silence. It almost felt like a wave of respect and awe was physically passing through the group.

Once everyone had had the perfect photographs taken, the fatigue began to make itself known, and Agung, much to my elation announced breakfast. Eggs boiled in the volcanic steam from one of the many geothermal ovens are part of the experience.  After showing our gratitude to Ketuk (there was more than one instance where he ensured I didn’t meet the same end as the poor Swede) by buying a few bottles of water from him, we downed our breakfast of bread, eggs and fleshy mangosteen fruit, we prepared for our trek down. There are two ways to go down to the cave temple that we were going to visit, and before Agung even finished his question, I’d said “easy way down!” The other two folks in our group were braver (and fitter) so they wanted to take the harder way down. So we split up and we had a different guide leading us down. Going down, while not as exhausting, requires as much attention and caution owing to the loose, slippery lava rocks. The temple is one of the holiest for the locals, and every full moon night, they conduct rituals with offerings and prayers.

Once we were back in Toya Bungkah, I couldn’t help pumping my fist in the air. While it isn’t a very difficult climb for most people, I knew that I had overcome something that day, fueled by something that I hadn’t known existed. Something promised to me by that black night, the zillion stars, the sparkling lake and those mountains looming large.

Nandini Muralidharan

Nandini Muralidharan is an engineer-turned-writer, possessive bibliophile and a travel junkie. She loves love collecting random bits of information about any place she visits, and weaving a story out of it. An obsessive photographer, she records any memory of a place from the beautiful Helsingor castle to the “Delizia icecream – keeps you tongue tied” signboard on the highway.

Nandini Muralidharan – who has written posts on WAH Blog.