I awoke at daybreak after a peaceful night’s sleep. No monitor lizards had raided the food in my tent – I was happy at that. Nor had Anak thrown any projectiles my way. A couple of the fisherman had some coffee on the go and I happily accepted one.
I was reclining in my hammock when the sound of engines made me look seaward. Four specks grew larger as they approached. Amir and Hussein came on shore and before long we were joined by a group of at least 50 Indonesian tourists fresh from Jakarta. They hopped about excitedly and posed for pictures in front of the signs, as their guides slipped some cash to the rangers. After a short while they headed up the path to say hello to Anak. Amir asked me what I wanted to do. On my climb the previous day, when Amir had shouted me down from Anak’s shoulder, I’d left my binoculars behind on the ridge. I explained this to him and asked if I could go back up to retrieve them.
“OK, but this time I will come with you.” he replied.
We followed the now familiar path and passed the horde of tourists. They had all sensibly stopped just past the 4th marker and were taking photos from the bottom of the slope. We began the climb, following the path I’d taken before. Amir was bare footed and held his t-shirt as he climbed ahead. Upon reaching the ridge he bent over in exhaustion. Grey ash bellowed from the nearby summit. I left him to catch his breath and continued along the ridge, smiling at the fact that I was again so close. I found my binoculars and noticed that they had been covered in a layer of ash. Amir came up and asked if he could have a look through them. First he tried them the wrong way round, and then spent a minute wiping the lenses of ash. He pulled a face and handed them back.
A southerly wind had picked up and after a few minutes Amir led me back down towards the colourful t-shirts that peppered the lower slope. I mingled with the crowd, who were mostly in their 20’s, and started chatting to a young guy. They were on a work outing, some kind of team-building session I understood. I asked what he thought about Anak and a future eruption on the scale of the 1883 one.
“When that day comes, I hope that I’m already dead!” Fair enough.
As there was no chance of climbing to Anak’s summit, I proposed to Amir my plan of walking around the island. Again he agreed, and I was free to wander off. I geared up and headed anti-clockwise, towards the lava field plateau I’d spotted from the ridge. I was happy to be hiking alone and excited as to what I’d find on this little exploration. I was surprised that the rangers had let me go, as anything could happen, but wouldn’t want it any other way.
The usual manmade debris lay scattered around the beach: plastic wrappers, straws, flip-flops, polystyrene, light bulbs, the odd shoe, drink containers etc. Monitor lizard tracks were easy to identify with large, clawed prints either side of a ploughing tail. Tiny crabs fled into their holes as I passed.
A three metre escarpment separated the beach from the forest. In its face I could make out different layers of ash fall. A few hundred metres on, the beach met a wall of jagged boulders. I precariously clambered up and spotted another patch of forest, evidently cut off by the old lava flow I was now on. Ten minutes later I came to the next clump of trees and saw a second beach. I jumped down to it, thankful for the flat, soft surface to walk on. A couple of plovers ran onto the sand and did a little dance for me.
Again a steep face walled off the beach so I investigated a narrow gulley. The sides crumbled under pressure and any root I grabbed fell free, making it too difficult to climb out. Then something caught my eye and I was shocked to find what looked like a potato growing out of the side. Resisting the temptation to take it back for lunch, I went back to the beach and tackled the wall at its end. This one was higher and tougher to climb than the first. It was comprised of ash and rock, making it hard to find a solid hold. After some frantic scrabbling I was up and looking at a wooden box about 30cm high and 15 across. A small, sealed tube came out of its top. I’d seen a similar, albeit larger one, on the other side – seismometers.
I plodded on for a while, taking in this new view of Anak. I began to feel the heat and my back dripped with sweat. I started to doubt whether the litre of water I’d packed would be enough. I picked my steps carefully, as the rocks were sharp and rough. Many toppled over
way too easily. Without the tough hiking boots my feet would’ve been cut to pieces. Anak continued to bellow as I continued to advance. He seemed to have woken up in a foul mood and was clearing his throat for the day. I mounted a small rise and gazed ahead at the barren, inhospitable surface. But not all was dead. Small specks of green grew between the light grey rocks – tiny ferns and grasses – clinging for life.
Another loud boom suddenly put me on edge. A scary thought crossed my mind – what if these rocks were not from an old lave flow, but were projectiles? I nervously hurried onwards, but checked my speed to avoid an accident. Every step had to be taken with care. 45 minutes had passed and I was not even a quarter of the way around. I had told the guys that I’d be about an hour. If I had been in their shoes I wouldn’t let some crazy white guy go tramping off by himself.
I now seemed to be in the middle of plateau where small gulleys made it harder to traverse. I was just reflecting on how I’d never seen a landscape so bleak, when life surprised me once more. From behind a boulder just below, a large white shape sprung up and flapped long, white wings. It had an orange tinge and I made out an oval face as it flew off – a Barn Owl! Within two minutes my passing caused a couple more to flee their shelters. I climbed down to investigate, hoping to find a nest, but only saw a crag with some feathers and white shit stains. What were these owls doing in this desolate landscape?
I came to a flatter section where a smooth ash surface allowed me to speed up. I was now heading towards the western coast and could see that the cone went straight down to the sea. Not a good sign. I wasn’t too keen to get that close to Anak. As a risk assessment played through my head I walked head on into another danger – gas!
It stank like burning match heads and soon I began to feel light-headed and dizzy. I turned my back to Anak and made for the shore. The smell didn’t subside so I improvised a gas-mask by wrapping a wet scarf around my face. As I slung my bag onto my back on a strap broke. Damn cheap Asian products. I’d only bought it three days earlier. The dizziness was still with me so I broke into a light jog. Then the second strap broke and my bag fell.
What to do? Walking would now be harder having to carry the broken bag. My water canteen was almost empty. The gas frightened me. If I was to lose consciousness it would take them hours to find me. Even if I made it through the gas field, I then had to walk across the cone itself – in range of lava bombs. I wanted to push on, but now the risks definitely out-weighed the benefits. Anak had defeated me. It seemed like he had had enough of my intrusive presence and wanted me gone. I’d out stayed my welcome. I conceded and made a tactical retreat. I slipped, cutting my finger and knee – treachery everywhere. The island was full of danger.
Halfway back to the second beach I realised that I’d just made the best decision of my life. The eruption dwarfed all the others I’d witnessed before. The sound nearly made me fall in fright. It was an angry, violent noise full of malice. The lava bombs flew way beyond the cone and onto the plateau, the closest landing barely 150 metres from me. I hurried on, desperately wanting to be away from this raging entity.
I was now in a section where steep slopes rose and fell and rocks tumbled beneath me. Just as another owl flew off from beside me Anak let rip again. And this time even bigger than the one just gone. His reach had extended and bombs were now falling within 100 metres of my location. Luckily I could no longer smell gas and then the beach appeared. I pressed on, now within sight of salvation, in full flee mode.
As I jumped onto the beach, the handle I was holding my bag with also snapped off. Cursing, I hauled it up onto my shoulder. I dreaded the final lava field that divided the two beaches. But it seems I wasn’t alone in being shaken by Anak’s sudden volatility and bad temper. I heard the boat before it appeared around the rocky headland. The fishermen made straight for me as I took my weary boots off. The boat swung into the shallows, barely stopping, as arms reached down to pull me aboard. Even through their toothy grins I could tell that they were nervous.
We headed straight out from the beach then banked east towards Java. I knew that they wanted to get home, yet I had one last request. The boat did a 180 and we headed back towards Anak. If I couldn’t circle it on land, then I’d do it on water. They gave me lunch but I wasn’t too keen yet – still focused on Anak, I was enjoying my last fix. I put my plate into the cabin as we passed under the ash cloud. It came down like light, grey snow, covering the decks and ourselves with a thin skin.
Looking up at Anak’s peak, I noticed a couple of small vents pumping out what looked like white steam. The wind was blowing it right down onto the plateau I was on. It must have been the gas I walked into. The cone on the western coast did go right down to the sea, well within range of the two huge, final eruptions I’d witnessed. If I had been so stupid as to continue through the gas, and make it, the timing would have had me on the cone during those eruptions. A shudder passed through me at the thought.
We rounded the southern coast and headed through Rakata and Panjang into open sea. I looked back at Anak, fading into the distance, with the familiar grey cloud rising up above. I now understood and respected the incredible power he wields. Nowhere else have I seen the cycle of life and death represented so clearly. It’s no wonder that ancient peoples worshiped volcanoes as gods. I can’t see how mankind will ever control or even tame such unpredictable forces. We will forever be at their mercy.
Over a million people live on the coastlines immediately surrounding Anak. One day, as their ancestors before them did, they’ll have to stare death in the face. The final part of my journey was to meet these people and find out what plans are in place to protect them from Anak’s fury.