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Getting too close to an Indonesian volcano

This is about a self organized journey in October 2008 when we visited a new volcano. My wife, Barbara, and I were in Jakarta, Indonesia visiting her daughter Shelagh, her husband Matt and their two children Jasmine, then 8, and Liam aged 4. Making up our group for this adventure were Helen, a work colleague of Matt’s, and her parents Anne and Richard on holiday from England.

Anak Krakatau translated from Indonesian means Child of Krakatau and is a literal name. It is a new volcano that is forming to replace the original group of volcanoes that blew themselves into pieces in 1883. Krakatau, a small archipelago in the Sunda Straits between Sumatra and Java, originally consisted of three volcanic islands: Rakata, Danan and Perbuatan along with the smaller non volcanic Panjund and Setung. Although situated on the “Ring of Fire” they were all thought to be dormant volcanoes. The three volcanoes violently erupted in 1883 with the loudest explosion ever known on earth. Danan, Perbuatan and most of Rakata disappeared. It also caused a huge tsunami and heat blast that resulted in many deaths in Java and Sumatra as well as across the Indian Ocean.

In 1927 a new island began to appear in the centre of the three remaining islands. It was named Anak Krakatau and has been classed as an active volcano. Already the new volcano has reached a height of over 500 meters and it is very active with regular eruptions.

Our resort at Tanjung Lesung was 4 hours west of Jakarta, on the southwest corner of Java. Here we would hire a small twin-engine motorboat through the sailing club to take us the 40kms across the Sunda Straits to Anak Krakatau. Since the growth of the new volcano there is a steady demand by tourists to visit there, it is a regular journey for many of the local boat owners. Our boat would only hold the 7 adults and 2 children plus the guide and 2 boatmen. The cost at around 500 USD was the normal fare for this type of trip. But remember that these are Indonesian boats and not luxury motorboats from the western world. They are seaworthy but they are basic in the comfort levels.

The rainy season for Indonesia usually starts towards the end of October and our journey from Jakarta reminded us of this as we traveled in heavy rain. When we arrived at our resort it was difficult to see out into the bay because of the rain and we hoped that this weather would clear before Saturday’s journey. We kept hearing deep rumblings but David, the sailing club owner, told us that it wasn’t thunder, just eruptions on Anak Krakatau!!! We were 40kms away and it was quite loud. I must admit I felt a tingle of excitement at this. Once we were able to look around the bay it was fascinating to see huge lava boulders that had been blasted out of Krakatau when it exploded in 1883.

Saturday arrived with a great sunrise and a gentle breeze. We had an early breakfast and were on the way before 8 am. We had heard no more rumblings from Anak Krakatau since we arrived and so we were unsure of what we would see. The Sunda Straits are a link between the southern Indian Ocean and the Java Sea and it runs almost north/south. In terms of sea size the 50kms between Java and Sumatra is a narrow channel but the current is fast all the time. Once into the Straits we would be heading west from Tanjung Lesung, which was across the current. The wind was from the NE and so the ride was a little choppy but not uncomfortable. Once we cleared the bay we could see in the distance the classic shape of a volcano. This proved to be Rakata, which was the biggest of the remaining islands. Anak Krakatau lay behind this and was not visible as yet.

As we bounced across the straits Rakata grew larger and larger. We slowed and the guide, Dabi, pointed out the peak of Anak Krakatau peeking over the corner of Rakata. It was our first sight of the volcano. As we approached it became more and more visible but ominously silent. Both Shelagh and Matt said that they had witnessed eruptions on previous trips, but they had been unable to circumnavigate the island or land there. As we passed Rakata it became apparent that what we had just been watching grow bigger was just a façade. The front of the island looked normal but at the back there was just a huge curving cliff where the volcano had blown up. The height of the peak was close to 1000 meters and it just went straight down to the sea. More than 2/3rds of the island had been blasted away by the eruption. It gave some sense to the power and size of the eruption to devastate these landmasses.

Anak Krakatau now lay right in front of us and we could see the caldera quite plainly at the top of the western slope. As we got closer you could just see wisps of steam/volcanic gases coming from the corners of the caldera. We slowly sailed past the sleeping volcano and marveled at its strange beauty. The way the island had been forming over the past 80 years became more evident. The southern end was quite verdant with rain forest growth and many tall trees covering the land almost to the edge of the sea. As we continued down the western coast the flora thinned and soon became barren rock. Once we were beneath the caldera and then all the way round the north to almost the east, the shoreline changed to huge grotesquely shaped boulders of black lava rock. It didn’t take too much imagination to see the red-hot lava flowing down the slopes to meet the sea in a steaming mass growing into this amazing creation for the sea to crash against. Even here though there were trees starting to grow amongst the boulders. Nature soon finds a way to replenish itself. Dabi told us that although it is rare for it to be this quiet it would mean that the entrance to the island would be open.

We reached the beach close to the National Park entrance and hurriedly climbed ashore onto Anak Krakatau. Feeling just a little like explorers we were eager to set foot on this new land. We were advised of the dangers of climbing the slopes as the eruptions can start without warning. But Barbara, Helen and I decided to go ahead. Anne and Richard were to accompany us to the base of the climb but would then return to the beach. Matt, Shelagh and the children stayed on the beach and swam.

After we had signed in at the entrance, and led by Dabi, we set off through the forested area walking on almost normal ground. But as we emerged from the trees onto the first slopes the ground became black and hot. We realized that we were now walking on ash from the volcano. Several times we saw zigzag snake tracks across the ash but we never saw any of the snakes. The tracks looked big so maybe I’m glad they were not around. There is only minimal insect, animal and bird life on the island at present but with both Rakata and Panjund only a few kilometers away this will continue to change yearly.

Soon the slope started to become steeper and Anne and Richard turned to return. It was hard going as the ash was loose and footing was not safe. The temperature underfoot was increasing and although we were wearing good hiking shoes you could feel the heat coming through the soles. We saw more and more lumps of lava rock as we slowly climbed higher. If it erupted now we could be in danger of more of these rocks falling. The wind would blow the new ash away from us but the rocks could fall in any direction. The slope now seemed to be about 45 degrees but we were nearing the top of our climb. Finally we reached flat terrain, which was pretty much a plateau halfway up the volcano giving us chance to admire the spectacular views.

The eastern face of Anak Krakatau stood just above us. With the caldera on the opposite side we could only see the steep rock face and we knew this would be the highest we would get. The wind was now very strong and seemed to be accentuated by the volcano’s shape. To be this close to the volcano was a marvelous feeling and the fact it was inactive this day was not a disappointment. Steadily walking back down through the ash and lava rocks we were careful not to slide, as there would be nothing to stop us if we fell. On the way we passed another group of visitors on their trek to the top. It is certainly a popular place.

Once we reached the beach there was only one thing left to do…fall into the sea to cool off. The beach is black ash too and it had to be a quick run to get into the water before the soles of our feet started to get burnt. The boatmen had pointed out a change in wind direction and strength. They were concerned that it would make the trip back a lot longer than the 1¼ hours it had taken us to get there. We had planned to snorkel and stay on Rakata during the afternoon but we needed to heed their warnings. We returned to the boat and headed across to Rakata to decide our plans.

Solidified lava

A stop on the edge of the coral reef for a 15-minute snorkel gave us the chance to witness some breathtaking fish and coral formations before going on to the beach for lunch. Included with the boat trip was a pre-made picnic lunch and we sat beneath palm trees eating. We had views of the neighboring islands of Panjund and Sebesi as a beautiful backdrop under blue skies across the deep turquoise seas. It looked like a little bit of heaven. All too soon it was time for us to start the journey back across the Sunda Strait.

As we cleared the islands protection we realized the waves were much bigger now with a 6-foot swell. Almost every wave broke over the bow of the boat and the motion was very pronounced. The progress seemed very slow as we battled against the current and wind, which was almost head on from the SE. Matt had Liam locked in his arms and I held Jasmine to avoid her from being bounced about. We soon realized that this was going to get more difficult as the journey continued. Dabi told us that it would be safer to run across the waves rather than into them but this would mean landing in a different harbour further along the coastline. We all agreed that safety was paramount and we changed course.

The ride became better but the waves did still soak us from time to time. We headed for Carita where we’d be able to get road transport to complete the journey. Eventually we reached the quieter waters within the lee of the shore and the boat picked up some speed. After 2½ hours we landed in Carita and shakily climbed onto dry land. The sun had been shining for almost the whole journey but it was incredible to realize the ferocity and strength of the sea. Again, nature showed us all how beautiful yet strong and dangerous it can be.

It had taken us 4 hours to get from Rakata to Tanjung Lesung on the return journey but we were all safe and happy and in awe of the natures we had witnessed.

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