Child of a Volcanic God
A restless youth is growing from the sea in the Sunda Straight. At 300m tall, he still has a way to go before he can compare to his mother. His mother was a God. A vicious, vengeful God who unleashed her wrath onto the world upon her death. A suicide bomber the size of a mountain.
Known to the Western world as Krakatoa, she wreaked havoc during August of 1883. After months of increasing activity, the final explosions came on the 27th of August. It was a dark day.
After a lengthy slumber, smoke from her top warned that something was brewing. Over a few weeks increasing eruptions frightened the local population.
Pressure built to a point where the underwater magma chamber collapsed.
A series of tsunamis rolled out from her, the biggest being 40 metres high, devastating coastlines that lay in its path, and were felt as far away as Britain. The sound of the explosion was unlike any human had heard for thousands of years. Off the coast of Africa, sailors thought they heard sounds of a distant cannon fire. The blast’s shock-wave circled the planet seven times. A pyroclastic surge of hot ash, pumice and blistering gas raced across the sea on a bed of steam, scalding and burying all in its path. 20 cubic kilometres of material vanished and the Earth cooled as a result of an atmosphere heavy with ash. All that’s left of the triple-coned volcano are the sheared cliffs of Rakata.
It was also the first major global news story, harnessing the newly developed telegraph communications.
Her progeny is now rising from the ruptured womb. He has been spurting his own ashes, announcing himself to the world like a boisterous teenager. One day he’ll cause his own catastrophe.
It was time for me to pay the child a visit.
To cross the Sunda Straight I chartered a fishing boat from Labuan, a rough town on the western coast of Java. Most trips are organised and depart from the nearby beach resort of Carita, and my original plan had been to go from there. This changed, as while on the bus down from Jakarta, I was intercepted by a rogue tour guide by the name of Udin. I was onto him from the start, when the bus conductor handed me his phone, but other tourists were evidently falling for his well-rehearsed routine. Misspelling ‘vulcano’ on his business card, constantly trying to prove his authenticity, the persistent pestering, not wanting to give me time to decide, his shifty eyes – the fraud was all too obvious.
By 8AM our boat pulled out of the congested estuary and hit the open sea. The day was overcast and visibility low, yet the surface remarkably calm. The crew of five had an average age of at least 50 and not a full set of teeth between them. Only one mustered a few words of English. There was no guide. More misinformation from Udin. Only after I’d handed over the cash did he tell that he wouldn’t be coming on the trip.
I kicked off my boots and lay on the prow, my mind unsure. Sleep took hold for a quick half hour. Direct sunlight soon had me back up.
My eyes focused into the distance, trying to spot a cone. It was not until past the half-way mark that a faint outline appeared. A low shape took form, confusing me. Then, to its left, I saw a line rising at a 20 degree angle, peaking, then running back down to the sea. Rakata! Sertung and Panjang lay nearby, completing the triplet that surround the notorious child. White clouds hung above. It was another few minutes before a smaller, steeper cone revealed itself between the three islands.
A dark cloud rose out of this one.
“Krakatau!” shrilled our pilot with a grin.
Finally I had my target in sight. It excited me, yet the dark plume was a surprise. Udin had previously confirmed that it was supposed to be in a temporary state of dormancy. The dark cloud soon melted away into the haze. Maybe I’d just imagined it. But no, a few minutes later a fresh one rose a kilometre up from the peak. So Anak is awake!
I tried to time these exhalations, and at first they seemed to come every 10 minutes, but the fourth plume just kept coming and coming. I could now see that Rakata and Panjang were completely covered in a thick layer of jungle. Anak himself had green growth on his eastern and northern flanks. Rakata rose up above as we entered ground zero. Bootsmans Rots, a couple of jagged rocks, poked out from the sea, a curious blemish in the calm waters. Outstretched fingers of the dead mother in a last defiant gesture of warning to the world – I may have perished, but my son will follow.
It was hard to notice all this as my eyes kept being drawn back the dark grey plumes of ash that mushroomed from Anak’s peak. Is this normal? Have I got more than I bargained for?
The main beach had three other boats anchored off it, and we slid in besides the largest one. I threw my boots onto the black sand and jumped ashore. I was distracted by a large group of about 30 Indonesian tourists, a part of which consisted of some extremely gorgeous women who looked like supermodels. I sat on a log in the clearing behind the beach. Trees rose all around, blocking the view of the bellowing summit. Here the ground was grey and a consistency between dust and mud. Signs gave some basic information on the 1883 eruption and the formation of this new piece of land.
In 1883 death emanated from the old volcano. But after death comes life. It took 44 years for Anak to first peek above the waves. He’d been slowly rising from the remains of his mother, putting on weight in the depths. The sea bubbled and steamed, ash and fire spurted high, fisherman fled.
It wasn’t easy for Anak to enter this world. Three times the elements beat him back. But then he pushed harder, and three years later he threw out enough material to gain a permanent position above sea level. Once he’d conquered the wind, rain and waves – and occasionally his own violent tendency towards self-destruction – he grew like an island on steroids.
Volcanic ash is one of the most fertile of all soils. Life now flourishes on Anak Krakatau. On this north-western coast the jungle’s got a foothold. Anak was extremely volatile and disruptive in his early days. Life found it difficult to settle in the ever-changing environment. Just like Anak had to fight the elements to survive, vegetation finds it tricky to dodge the lava flows and suffocating ash.
The troubled youth didn’t seem to like the green growth and wiped it out many times.
Rakata, that remnant flank of the mother, quickly welcomed life back. Within decades hundreds of species of plant and animal were thriving on its rigid, stable slopes.
The supermodels and their entourage departed and I was left to nibble on the sticky, chilli rice they’d given me. A rustle in the bushes had me turn round. Two metres of scales, muscle and a lashing forked tongue slowly ambled its way towards me. A scavenging monitor lizard. The beast tasted the air and cautiously ventured closer. I tossed over the banana leaf wraps of fiery rice, making the huge reptile kick up ash in alarm. It recomposed itself, tasted the snack, decided to not breathe fire and headed to the beach for a dip.
A heavy-set man with a military crew-cut came over and introduced himself as Amir, one of four Forestry Department rangers who keeps an eye on the island. He had a bizarre, green sub-machine gun slung under his shoulder. He wouldn’t tell why he was armed. We joked about the supermodels and shared a couple of kretek cigarettes. These are iconic of Indonesia and the sweet, pungent smell of the clove-infused smoke wafts across the country.
After acclimatising myself, it was time to say hello to the Anak himself.
With two of my fisherman we followed the path through the casuarina forest towards active peak. This is where having a guide may have been useful. Excitement manifested itself as we trudged over fallen trunks and through the thinning trees. At the tree-line my escorts stopped, out of fear or laziness (it was hard to tell), and motioned me onwards towards the first ridge. The ridge appeared to be the remains of an older cone that must have blown itself apart. I followed a thin trail up to the left through the heavy ash. Dead tree stumps lay scattered around the bottom half of the barren slope. The going got steeper and I was quickly out of breath. As I paused Anak spurted out his first warning. A muffled crack drew my attention to the cone. Pulsating clouds of dark grey ash shot up towards the atmosphere. Out of this came lumps of molten pumice, arcing high into the air, before being dragged back to Earth. They plopped down ferociously onto the side of the cone, kicking up little white clouds upon impact.
I continued on, drawn to the epicentre as if possessed. Sweat poured from me as the air seemed to warm. Ash sunk beneath my feet, as if they were climbing a snowy mountain. I panted hard.
A very low, discreet thud came from the belly of Anak, followed by a rushing sound. Brand new rocks flew out of his mouth, leaving trails of smoke in their wake.
Once on the ridge I turned north and walked along to its highest point. A small valley separated me from the cone. It was crusted yellow in places with sulphur, and either steam or gas wafted up from hidden cracks. A lone crooked stump stood on the slope below – long dead. How a small tree had grown there in the first place is beyond me.
I looked back down the way I came and tried to spot the fishermen. Either it was too far, or they’d left. The forest appeared small and the sea flat from this vantage point. A small white speedboat cut a white line in its surface, past the cliffs of Rakata and back towards Java. From here I could see how tiny and insignificant humans must seem to Anak. I turned back to face him and sat on the ridge, 300 metres away from his mouth The dark grey ash continued to bellow up as it curled into itself.
Wonder. Awe. Respect. Shock. Fascination. I was overwhelmed with emotion and adrenalin.
Fear was the one emotion I didn’t feel – but probably should have. I wanted to get close – personal – look the titan in the eye. Foolhardy – maybe? But suicidal – no! My original idea had been to climb to the summit, assuming that it was semi-dormant. Udin had said I could. But he was still on Java, counting his money, while I stood alone, gazing up at a cauldron of death, with a perfect view of the action. I watched small lava bombs hitting the cone. No, I don’t think I’ll be climbing to the top today. Anak was telling me to stay away. He was wide awake and ready for fun.
I sat for a while on the ridge, contemplating my plans. I had another 24 hours on Anak and I wanted to get to know him some more. My current spot was special, yet not enough for me. I dragged my gaze away from the summit’s hypnotising activity, rolling them towards the right and the island’s northern shore. The forest I’d come from ended here, cut off by heavy lava flows in 1994. These flows had created a low plateau that stretched for hundreds of metres towards the sea. From this distance it appeared gnarly, cracked and bleak – a veritable wasteland of young basalt. My eyes couldn’t see what lay beyond this, on the other side of the cone. That’s when I decided to walk around Anak Karakatau.
A voice in the air brought me back to my senses. I cocked an ear and listened hard. Again I heard it, this time clearer – a distinct “Heyyy!” I stood and looked down the slope from where the wind seemed to be carrying the voice. Far below, striding out from the tree-line, I spotted a bare-chested man in green shorts waving his t-shirt at me – Amir. The fishermen who’d accompanied me had gone.
I could sense Amir’s agitation and knew that he wanted me to come down. I’d spent about 15 minutes on the ridge and was desperate for another five. I tried to convey this to him, which only resulted in him shouting and waving even more. Reluctantly I conceded and let him know that I was coming down. I’d been filming and hurriedly packed my gear back into the bag. Instead of retracing my ascent, I cut straight off the ridge and down the steep slope towards Amir.
I felt like I’d been torn away from a party by my mother. Now that I’d had a fix I wanted more. I understood the danger I’d put myself in, but did it anyhow. Part of the reason I took Udin’s cowboy tour was to test the limits. A real guide wouldn’t have let me go off like that.
Getting down was a lot quicker that going up. My black boots were light grey by now. Small clouds of white puffed up from the gritty slope with each heavy step. I approached Amir, who was now calmly puffing on a kretek cigarette, his t-shirt wrapped round his head bandana-style. Hussein, another ranger, had joined him.
“No go up there,” Amir said “dangerous!”
I tried telling him that nothing came within half the distance from where I’d been sitting. He shrugged and led me to a large hole in the ground nearby. He then pointed to a rock, a metre across, which lay a short distance beyond it. A straight line linked Anak’s summit, the hole I was next to, and the extremely heavy rock that’d made it. The edge of the hole was well defined and had not yet collapsed. “Yesterday” Amir confirmed to me, “big one!”
I’d been put back in my place.
Back at camp I swapped my dusty outfit for surf trunks and entered the dark waters. There was little visibility underwater and I didn’t bother using the snorkel that was on offer. The bottom dropped off rapidly and I was soon paddling on my back. I’d heard that the underwater sights were good in this area, with manta rays being spotted, but again I was distracted by summit. From here I could hear the distant, muffle cracks as Anak spurted debris upwards.
I was drawn back towards the volcano like an addict needing his next fix. Once out of the water I explained my plan to Amir. He was fine and just told me to be careful.
I grabbed my hammock, put on a light shirt, a pair of flip-flops and headed back towards the Anak alone. Amir had told me not to venture past the last of four posts that marked the way to the tree-line. Once there I scouted around and found two suitable trees that gave me a clear view of the summit. I strung up my hammock and clambered in. To my left was life and to my right death. The ridge I’d earlier scaled rose up and dominated the view. Behind it jutted up the crest, bellowing out its dark clouds that were given a golden outline by the dropping sun.
I lay back and smiled. I’ve strung my hammock in a lot of interesting places, but his was taking it a step further. I lit up a kretek and began to day-dream. Despite the arguably most notorious volcano in the world erupting under a kilometre away, it seemed such a peaceful place. Birds sang in the trees and I could no longer hear any boat engines or other signs of human activity. Anak went quiet and the dark clouds dissipated into the atmosphere. The sun touched the ridge-line and orange hues began to spread across the sky.
With Anak taking a break, I took in the pine trees around me and marvelled at how quick life had colonised this new piece of land. Insects were abundant, yet surprisingly I’d come across no mosquitoes. I put this down to the lack of any open, fresh water sources for them to breed in. All of our water had to be brought from the mainland.
Anak reasserted himself with a crack and a jet of almost black ash and pumice that rushed vertically up. His violent strength was all too evident, yet a nearby bird didn’t even break off his song, continuing as if nothing had happened.
I zoomed in on the carnage, and then later played back the footage in full HD, watching individual lumps fly out in slow-motion, digitalised as they come crashing down from the sky.
That evening I swam out to the two boats and had a dinner of deep-fried chicken and rice with a side serving of instant noodles. Once full I jumped over from the fisherman’s boat to the ranger’s, which had a large elevated deck. Tea and coffee flowed and Amir explained a little more about the ranger’s job. They work for the Indonesian Forestry Department and keep an eye on Anak as it’s a protected area. They play no scientific role and are not involved in tourism, yet extract a “visitor’s fee” from passing tourists. I still couldn’t fathom a reason for the sub-machine gun.
They told me that the eruptions started the previous day and that I’d timed it perfectly. I’d originally planned to arrive about a week later, but after a trip to see the Komodo Dragons fell through, I forwarded my plans.
Our little chat was cut short by Anak deciding to show off. Jets of deep red scattered into the evening sky, unlike any fireworks display I’d ever seen. Glowing blobs hit the cone and rolled down leaving molten trails in their wake. Seeing these eruptions at night was a whole new experience. The nature of what I was witnessing really hit home. Forces beyond my imagination were churning out magma from the depths of the Earth. Live geology – up close!
I downed my tea, made excuses and dived into black sea. Another set of burning streamers illuminated the darkness. I hurried to the tent, threw on my ashed clothes, grabbed video camera and tripod, flicked on my torch and headed up towards the light show. The insects were in full song and creatures rustled in the trees. My powerful torch beam exposed nothing – eerie.
I reached ‘marker 4’ and plonked myself down. Tripod deployed and camera running, I lay on the crusty ground and waited. And waited some more. The battery started running low so I switched off the camera and kept my finger hovering over the power button. On a couple of occasions Anak teased me with deep rumbles and he emitted an orange glow from his rim. Odd spurts of lightning flickered from within the ash cloud.
I shifted uncomfortably on the slope and egged the child volcano on. He went quiet so I lit up a kretek. My mind drifted to other subjects and the rhythmic song of some lonely frog lulled me. I rested my head on the bag and absently gazed at the ominous outline beyond. The insects died down and I carried on waiting. The moon slid behind the high altitude ash cloud, turning the night a shade darker…
I jolted just in time to save myself from impending sleep. Something had lightly bitten me and my torch revealed a small pack of earwigs scampering around my gritty bed. I brushed them off my bag and body while realising that I’d spent well over an hour on the slope. Another ten minutes passed and I came to the conclusion that Anak himself was sleepy. Or just camera shy. I wanted to stay longer, but the thought of sleeping on the side of an active volcano wasn’t comforting. I could also be sitting up there half the night without even getting a good shot. But inside I had that feeling that something would happen soon. I waited another ten minutes. Another little nip to the ankle felt like the earwigs were warning me away. Time to go Max! I conceded that it wasn’t to be my night. I packed up and trudged back down towards the beach.
Back at camp I cleaned myself up and climbed into my hammock. Not even twenty minutes passed when Anak let out the most almighty roar. Through the trees I spotted huge embers flying above, as if every smoker in the world had flicked their cigarettes at once.
The bastard had waited for me to leave, then BANG! The biggest eruption so far, the sound frightening – huge. A massive lightening filled plume blocked out the stars. I ran to the beach to get a better view, but no more came. It felt like fate, something I wasn’t supposed to see. I accepted and gave Anak his victory. No night footage, but those memories will remain etched within my mind for ever.
In my tent, lying on the ground mat, I could feel tremors beneath. “What has Anak got in store for me tomorrow?” I wondered.
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.
Within a couple of hours they were back on their boats and off to Jakarta.
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.