Fred A. Bernstein

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The Men from Bubbling Magma

Climbing a volcano in Bali.

Published in The Washington Post, June 14, 1998

There's a knock at the door. "It's 3:45 a.m.," a bellhop chirps. "Your guide is in the lobby."

I greet the news with dread -- and not just because of the ludicrous hour. (Since coming to Bali, I've gotten used to waking early, to see as much as I can see before the 100-degree heat drops in like an unwelcome houseguest.) What I'm worried about is the "guide": a local thug who had accosted me the night before and warned me not to set foot on Mount Batur, the active volcano that I had come to this part of Bali to climb, until I paid him a fat fee. And now I was about to follow this extortionist, in pitch blackness, up to a bubbling caldera that could swallow a recalcitrant tourist without so much as belching.

I had first glimpsed Batur the previous evening, when I stopped my jeep in Penelokan, a photo-op overlook on the rim of the volcano's outer crater. (As I'd learned from my guidebook, the 10,000-year-old mountain -- smoke billowing from its tip -- sits in a larger crater formed by a much earlier eruption. Picture a lighted cone of incense in a giant ashtray.) Before I could snap my first picture, half a dozen men had converged on the jeep. Pointing to Batur, they offered to escort me to its "bubbling magma." When I declined, they repeated the phrase, becoming ever more emphatic: "Bubbling magma. Bubbling magma." "Thanks," I said. "I already know about the magma." I pointed to my guidebook, which assured me that a "reasonable sense of direction" is all I'd need to find the summit. And then, in an astonishing display of naivete, I got back in the jeep and drove into the crater.

My goal was Toyah Bungkah, the small town at the base of Mount Batur (ergo, inside the outer crater), that serves as "base camp" for most climbers. To get there, I had to follow a corduroy roadway into a freakishly pale landscape: hardened lava, sprouting a beard of spiky grass and spindly bushes. The going was slow, and not made easier by the realization that the Bubbling Magma gang was following me on motorcycles.

I picked up the pace, speeding into Toyah Bungkah, a charm-free town that's more High Noon than South Pacific. ( The otherwise upbeat Lonely Planet guide describes it as "a grubby little village.") I headed for the biggest building in town, the Puri Bening Hayako, which advertises itself, candidly, as a "hotel without business centre." I took a room and prepared to call it a night. After all, the guidebook said I had to start climbing by 4 a.m. if I wanted to beat the heat and see the sunrise from the top. I needed to sleep more than I needed to check out Toyah Bungkah's grubfest.

It wasn't meant to be. As I signed over a traveler's check at the front desk, the "bubbling magma" men entered the lobby; this time, they were representatives of the "Mount Batur Trekking Guide Service." To climb without their service, they assured me, is illegal. They demanded I look at their brochure, which offered three tours: "sort," "midium" or "long" -- from $ 15 to $ 35. I expressed interest in "long" (a five-hour trek, up the east face of the 5,600-foot mountain, halfway around its rim, and down the other side). To close the deal, they promised to throw in breakfast -- eggs cooked in a steamy fissure at the peak -- and transportation back to Toyah Bungkah after our descent.

Eventually, after an hour of thick, sugary watermelon juice and thinly veiled threats, I doled out 20 bucks -- 225,000 Indonesian rupiah, on an island where the average salary is 141,000 a month -- and climbed the dark stairs to my room.

(The power was now out in the entire town.) I "slept" with one eye open.

By 4:10 a.m., I am trudging through Toyah Bungkah's deserted streets, and doing a bit of rethinking. The moon has set, and in the total darkness I can't tell a mountain from a building. The idea of climbing without a guide was, I now see, ridiculous.

Even more surprising, my guide has assumed an entirely new persona: encouraging, helpful, even gentle -- taking my hand, carrying my bag and wielding a flashlight with considerable skill. He has also brought a friend: a nameless, silent slip of a man dogging my every step.

The first part of the trek, up a steep, boulder-strewn slope, is taxing. I am often out of breath and always drenched in sweat, despite the middle-night coolness. But at least I'm walking. One German student is literally being pulled up the mountain by her guide. The sun will rise at 6:20, and word is anyone who doesn't reach the rim by then will miss the best part of the program.

By 5:45, we've passed the tree line. First light reveals the pristine Lake Batur (four miles wide and reportedly nearly as deep), and behind it two other active volcanoes. The whole thing forms a tableau worthy of a National Geographic fold-out. But clouds, moving in from the north, threaten to block the view before our Fujicolor moment. And my legs are getting weak.

And then, somehow, at 6:15, I pull myself onto the rim. I had already consumed three liters of water -- my entire day's ration -- and pant for more.

Suddenly, the mysterious friend, who hadn't said one word during two hours of what was (for me) a painfully difficult climb, perks up. "You want to drink some Coke? You want to drink some Sprite? No problem!" He opens his backpack to reveal the scratched and shaken bottles he is offering to sell for 10,000 rupiah (only 88 cents, but about eight times the going price on Bali).

I dive for my wallet. Soon I am chatting with the dozen or so others who have made it to the top (I am the lone American). And then breakfast: bananas, bread and eggs. They are, as promised, "boiled" in one of Batur's natural steam vents.

The best is yet to come. Thanks to a series of recent eruptions -- the latest in 1994 -- the terrain on the far side of Batur is an otherworldly mix of colors (from bright red to jet black) and textures (from crispy, peanut-brittle sheets, to oddly airy boulders, to a fine, soft sand). As we walk around the rim, on a ridge with thousand-foot drops on either side, we are glad to take advantage of the footholes someone left there with a pickax, like a spoon going through the top of a chicken pot pie. Behind us, we can see the north shore of Bali, with its cheery banana and coffee plantations and, beyond, the sun-dappled Pacific.

(Sadly, my soft drink sprite is not carrying film; I'd exhausted my supply by 8 a.m.) As we descend, the mountain begins looking more like a science experiment and less like a terrestrial landscape. There are repeated encounters with geysers of sulfurous steam. Although we try to hold our breath while running through the acrid outbursts, we still end up with burning throats and nostrils. And the ground is hot; one Australian scorches her hand reaching for a souvenir pebble.

The scorching and scalding are the price we pay for a glimpse of the caldera.

For there, a few hundred feet from the peak, is the holy of holes, a conical depression with an opening at the bottom, like a nibbled-off ice cream cone.

Leaning in just far enough, I get a good look at the oft-promised bubbling magma, glowing bright magenta. The sound, of steam hissing out with defiance, is that of a New York apartment radiator. At our feet, along the rim, are offerings to the gods, left by the Hindu locals: banana leaf "trays" bearing smidgens of rice and candies. (There's reason for reverence. A 1917 eruption killed more than 1,400 Balinese.) We make jokes about falling in. (Guide to caldera: "You want to drink some Coke? You want to eat some tourist?") Soon we are descending through deep powder. The preferred technique is to "ski" -- though some of us prefer to sit and slide. The torrent of pebbles we send rolling down the hill sounds like a steady rainfall. And then, the only mishap of the day: A medium-size rock, loosed by an Israeli 100 feet above me, careers with uncanny precision (like a bowling ball tossed off by a lucky beginner) into my ankle. A minor flesh wound, and little risk of infection (is there anything on earth more sterile than a rock still toasty from the oven?).

Eventually, the moonscape gives way to the terrain I had seen the night before -- lava fields sporting tentative vegetation, an otherworldly mix of gray and green, like a TV badly in need of adjustment. A short hike later, and we are on flat ground for the first time in five hours. A truck waits to drive us back to Toyah Bungkah. My extortionist has now delivered everything he'd promised.

It is 10:15 when we arrive at the hotel. Breakfast -- eggs, coffee and orange juice -- costs 7,000 rupiah (about 62 cents), a reminder of the value of a buck on Bali. Still, I can't say I didn't get my $ 20 worth from Mount Batur.

And so what if my official government guide had forgotten to mention one minor detail (which I discovered after returning to New York): Given sulfurous gases, bubbling magma (!) and other indications of an imminent eruption, the Indonesian government had closed Batur to climbers several weeks before I got there.

You want to drink some Coke? You want to drink some Sprite? No problem!