Peaking just over 3,000 meters, Mount Agung towers over the island of Bali. Its dark, ominous outline fades under the cover of puffy, cotton ball clouds during the day. An active volcano hidden from the thousands of tourists and residents below.
Although Agung is known to occasionally belch gases and ash from within, the volcano has not erupted since 1963-1964. Throughout the year, Indonesian guides now lead daring adventure-seekers up the steep journey to see a sunrise of a lifetime.
Our group of seven departs at 11:45pm from the free-spirited town of Ubud. We must drive a little under 2 hours to reach the base of the volcano, to meet our two Balinese guides. While we wait in a parking lot, we realize how unprepared we are for the cold and wet weather that has suddenly approached. The lucky ones are handed headlamps. The others are stuck with handheld flashlights.
We follow a series of spiraled, moss-covered stairs to a temple at the base of the volcano. We start to see hundreds of stars scattered across the sky, with a bright yellow moon illuminating the start of our journey.
It will take four hours to reach the summit for sunrise. Then another four hours to return. It is now 2am, and we have not slept since the night before. Ready, go!
The first stage of the climb was through a forest. Following the footsteps and flickering lights ahead of us, we slowly navigated our way up the tree-root steps and slippery mud path. Our guides walk with ease. They do not struggle with balance, nor even use their hands for stability as we do.
After the first half hour, we are rewarded with a five minute break. The stars seem brighter. The galaxy is now in view. Some of us catch a glimpse of a shooting star or two. A sea of bright cities and street lights reflect below.
We continue to ascend through the trees to a more rocky terrain. We are now grabbing the sharp edges of age-old volcanic rock, hugging our bodies to the near-vertical incline. Flashlights do little to help, as the environment seems to get darker and darker.
We continue to take breaks every hour or two. Snacks and tea keep us from falling asleep, and from falling down the mountain. Our calves are burning and our inhales are now quicker.
Above us is what distracts us. The white cloud of stars that makes up our galaxy. The Southern Cross, slightly to our right. A satellite streaks across the twinkling canvas. Smooth black clouds creeping towards the volcano.
We reach the summit just minutes before sunrise. We sit together. A gaping crater at our backs, the perfect combination of blue and orange sky in our sights. A giant vertical cloud floats in the north. Sleeping cities and villages to the south. It is mostly silent, except for sound of shivering and tea-sipping.
The sun slowly rises, bringing warmth and light to everything. We realize the magnitude of what we just climbed. The converging lines of the horizon, volcano, and forest below play tricks with our minds. The clouds are now below us, and climbing down is our only way home.
i woke up first the next morning, like usual, and chose to explore on my own. i walked along the empty sunday sidewalks and through a different deserted night market. our plan was to eventually head east to phu chi fa, a very popular mountain destination for both thais and tourists. phu chi fa is popular essentially because it is a point high enough where you are in between the clouds. at sunrise you can see a sea of clouds below and above you. by bus, phu chi fa is about four hours from chiang rai city, so we were lucky when we caught the only bus at 1pm.
schu and i took the bus, while james and blaine rode with danielle and jill on their motorbikes. the bus was just a typical bus. it was cramped and old, but it was instantly nicer than the overnight bus because it used open windows and ceiling fans to keep us cool, instead of that dreaded air conditioner.
half-way through our ride, i woke up to the bus shaking and schu grabbing my arm. we had a flat tire. luckily for us, everything somehow works out perfectly in thailand, and we happened to pull over in the driveway of a tire shop. we all stood, mesmerized, as the man from the tire shop replaced the damaged tire in silence. it was a form of art. the way he did everything step-by-step with tools that you would have mistaken for scraps of metal and broken bicycle parts.
as we continued our journey to the mountains, we began to drop locals one-by-one along the way. we dropped grandmothers at villages, monks at temples, and students at schools. the bus continued to empty out more and more as the outside air became colder and the roads became hillier. the bus winded up steep bends and curves along the mountain roads as we ascended to the first layer of clouds.
schu and i reached phu chi fa at 5:30pm, just enough time to be able to see our way around town and find a place to crash for the night. while looking for some where to sleep, we met a very helpful minnesotan by the name of jeff. jeff helped us translate what we needed and even brought us to the same place where he found a room. i feel like everyone in this country that i run into while traveling is just happy to be here and truly wants the next person to be comfortable and happy as well.
schu bought a snow leopard hat as we waited for the others to arrive. we could only image how cold they were as they made the same trip up the mountain, now without the sun. blaine and danielle reached within an hour, but james and jill were lagging behind. turns out, james bike ran out of gas with about 8km left. again, since everything works out here, they were given a little bit of gas from the restaurant where their bike shut off. we were finally reunited, so we ate, tossed a frisbee, and listened to some music before heading to bed early with our alarms set to 4:15am.
in the morning, we took a short pick-up truck ride up a steep 2km hill, and then hiked the last 700m to the lookout point. since we all did not pack intelligently, we were wearing far less than the rest of the hundreds of thais that shared the mountain top with us. my four layers of shirts and double socks did very little against the early morning temperatures and unbearable gusts of wind. but it was all worth it because there is nothing like seeing the sunrise and a sea of clouds.
a couple knocks on our door at 6:10am began our second day. i went outside to watch a few groups leave during sunrise. we then ate our breakfast in the hostel before piling back in to the land cruiser for another day of adventure. i did not really know anything about this trip before signing up, so i only knew about the salt flats. i did not know i would find myself cruising through the middle a massive, dry lake basin.
the ride began pretty rough, similar to my bus ride to uyuni the day before, but it flattened out after we passed through the small towns that lined the perimeter of the empty lake. with very few clouds in the sky during the day, the sun was relentless. the combination of heavy layered clothing and the sun knocked most of us out, as freddy continued fill invisible roadways with clouds of dust.
the day was full of lagunas and mountain views. our lunch of chicken, pasta, and vegetables was accompanied by the smell of the sulfuric laguna a few hundred feet away. one-by-one each group packed their supplied and themselves and we headed over the mountains to the high elevation.. we all fell asleep again, as the landscape remained the same and the constant rocking of the toyota cradled us to our dreams.
i woke up to a landscape of white in all directions. this time is was not salt, it was snow. the temperature had dropped significantly, and the wind had increased. we passed some volcanic rocks and then reached the national park.
after a quick stop by some flamingos and purple, yellow, and green lagunas, we headed to our second hostel for dinner and some sleep. after dinner i bundled up for the cold to see if i could see the stars. i didn’t just see the stars. i saw the galaxy.