Climbing Mount Batur in Bali begins at one o’clock on a surprisingly cold tropical morning. From the artisan community of Ubud our drive takes us in darkness higher into the mountainous region of this little Indonesian island. In the early morning black, nothing is visible beyond the headlights on the road and the occasional insomniac motorcycle. We yawn and shiver, trying to get ourselves to the state of alertness that we believe accompanies the activity of climbing mountains in the dark.
It is not an easy task.
An hour or two into our mystery drive we stop. Wandering through a garden maze of what is apparently a coffee plantation we’re ushered into a house for a light breakfast and a series of coffees (while being encouraged to buy from the plantation). Unfortunately, 2am is not a time when most people are particularly consumeristic, so to the disappointment of our host his sales pitch falls on sleepy ears and a serious lack of buying power.
It’s still pitch black when we finally pull up in the car park at the base of Mount Batur. Our arrival is in time with that of a number of other buses, from different areas of the island. Standing in my shorts, converse sneakers and the only long-sleeved shirt I own (I hardly considered that South East Asia would herald much cold weather) I feel woefully unprepared. Next to me in shorts and a t-shirt, I imagine my English boyfriend (despite his insistence) feels much the same. But I suspect, with a shiver and a clatter of teeth, that it’s probably too late to go back now. Three young Indonesians are assigned to be the guides for our group, which numbers about 20 people, although it’s hard to tell in the dark, and even harder when all the prepared people get out their torches and start madly flashing them in other people’s faces. We manage to get one torch between the two of us, and as we’re walking out of the car park to begin I nearly fall over myself with enthusiasm as the chance comes to rent a jacket for Rp50,000 (about AUD$6). Finally the top half of my body achieves a level of warmth.
The darkness is totally consuming, even with our flashlights working to break through the void. The very beginning of the walk to the top of Mount Batur is lovely and flat, and I’m feeling much too confident as the land starts to rise before us. Casting my eyes ahead in the darkness I’m momentarily speechless as I see the flashing lights trailing up into the sky. There are a number of groups ahead of us and the effect is both beautiful and oddly magical as the lights appear to float up in the air, following the invisible trail of the mountain. The path starts to steepen and pretty soon we’re clambering up sharp volcanic rock in a cattle train of people. For some reason, our guides seem to think we’re all being conquered by Mount Batur, and regularly stop to allow us to rest. This actually ends up being worse for me (the recovering childhood asthmatic) as the constant stopping keeps cooling me down and making it harder to breathe the frigid mountain air.
Up and up we go, our eyes casting about for some kind of clue to how high we are or the possibility of treacherous drops that might stop us in our tracks. But the night keeps her secrets well enough and we’re none the wiser about how close we might be coming to our end at the hands of this shadowy mountain. There are a few falls, and a few more close calls for our group as we make our way skyward. Tripping over our feet as we hike up through the narrow pathways in the rock, I feel myself beginning to lose my energy. I have no idea of the time or how long we have to go. For reasons beyond my knowledge (just kidding it’s obvious why) I have been identified in the group as someone who needs extra motivation, so close behind me is one of the guides who seems to find it relevant to tell me every few minutes: “Not long now!”
Thanks man, vague assurances much appreciated.
Luckily for me, forward movement is always going to get you somewhere, no matter how slow you happen to be going, and we are definitely approaching the top of Mount Batur. Ahead of us, the trail of torches has disappeared into the darkness, and the land has started to become even steeper as we reach what I have to assume is the peak. Dragging my feet and sucking down as much of the freezing air as my lungs will accept I put on a final burst of energy and rush forward. A sudden crush of humanity emerges out of the darkness as I hit the top, congregated around a simple house structure and concrete slab. There are people everywhere, which seems such a strange comparison to the companionable silence and dark that has been trailing me up the mountain.
It’s still much too dark to see anything, but I have to say I’m a little disappointed by the sheer number of people here, and the noise. I was expecting a peaceful, magic sunrise shrouded in the beauty of a mountain top. But as I hear a child behind me complaining, I realise I’m definitely not going to get it here.
That’s when one of our guides comes up and tells us about the second peak of Mount Batur.
It turns out that the place I’ve almost burned my body out getting to isn’t even the highest point on Mount Batur, and it certainly isn’t the best place to watch the sunrise. Instead, there is another higher peak (about 100 metres more above sea level) that assures the best views. It’s only a 30 minute walk from here, and with the sun still hiding far below the horizon, it doesn’t seem like too much to consider. I notice with a bit of dread that the guides are purposefully vague about the difficultly of the next portion of climbing.
“Is the climb very hard?”
“Not so much.”
“How steep is it? Steeper than before.”
“Maybe a little.”
Right, thanks for that. You could write a guidebook with that attitude.
Still, we figure since we’re already 1000 metres above sea level we might as well make the trek and get just a bit higher. Plus, the bulk of people are choosing to stay at the first peak, having totally exhausted themselves as weaker human beings tend to do (just kidding by this point I was so sore and cold I just wanted to curl up and cry). The promise of my magical sunset was only a 30 minute hike away, so off we went again into the darkness.
Fifteen minutes later, I was reevaluating. Perched with my feet and hands buried under volcanic sand and ash to try and get the slightest grip on the side of the mountain, it was sleeting cold freezing rain. Behind me, dressed in nothing but shorts and a t-shirt, the chattering of my boyfriend’s teeth almost sounded like a marching drum. My entire face was numb, and I hadn’t been able to feel my feet for hours. What the hell was I doing here?
“Not long now!” came the voice of motivation from our guide, clinging to the rocky outcrop just above me as the wind buffeted us around. “Nearly there,” said the boyfriend, equally struggling for purchase in the sand just behind me.
Onwards and upwards then.
When we finally reach the second peak, I feel seconds from an untimely death. I hobble over to a bench and collapse, still sitting in darkness as a few people who have braved the climb mill about me, moving to stay warm. I realise in seconds when the wind picks up that I’ll need to do exactly the same or risk accidentally biting my tongue off in a throe of violent shivers. I jump up and down, throwing my limbs carelessly about, with my eyes fixed on the horizon. The wind is so strong at the top of Mount Batur that every now and again puffy clouds engulf us, hiding the horizon from our sights. It seems almost ironic that we’ve come so far to look at the inside of a cloud, but for this tropical girl from the lowlands it’s a novelty just the same.
There’s a sudden increase in conversation when the first fingers of light break over the horizon. Like an orchestra of conductors we raise our cameras and wait for the perfect photograph, dodging clouds and unsteady hands. Ever so slowly the light creeps up in the sky, heralding the coming of the sun. When that celestial ball of fire finally makes its appearance between the embrace of a thousand clouds, it’s enough to take your breath away. All the effort, all the aching and the danger and the thinking about what is and isn’t worth is fades in a single blinding ray of sunlight in the sky.
This is what we’re all here for, and it’s beautiful.
Clouds hinder our view for much of the sunrise, but in a way that makes the views that we do get so much more special. Standing shrouded in a foggy mist the feeling of the wind picking up around you is enough to make you shiver, and not just with the cold. Anticipation of what’s coming, of the intense changes in the landscape being revealed in front of you with each sliver of sunlight makes even the stoic look around in wonder. This kind of experience doesn’t just bump into you walking down the road. You have to fight for it, challenge your body to seek it out and be ready for it when it comes sneaking over the horizon like a breathless mountain sunrise between the clouds. Gorgeous, fleeting and totally worth it.
Surprisingly, the climb down is a breeze. The scary drops and slopes that threatened to tumble us down the mountain have none of the power they commanded in the night time. We have already conquered Mount Batur. We have walked the trails by nothing but torchlight and now we have the sun, finally awake and lighting up the sky, to guide us. With volcanic ash and stones filling up my shoes, I feel like I’m taking quite a bit of mountain home with me. I briefly consider just how much of the mountain walks off with every person that climbs to its peak. Muscles in my legs detest each downward step, but with spectacular views surrounding me I hardly notice. Lake Batur, which we saw in the darkness as a void without lights is suddenly a beautiful panoramic vista that takes our tired breath straight from our lungs and whisks it away.
While the climb upward seemed to exist in a duration that was beyond time and swallowed up by the night, our descent is relaxed and filled with a childish joy of what we’ve experienced. Behind us, the mountain reaching up to the sky is just as majestic, but not as mysterious, and we feel something special for knowing the secrets that it keeps. While others have kept to their beds and slept, dreaming of something incredible, we have seen it and that realisation fills the rest of the day with a feeling that cannot be described. So even when we lie in our beds later and ache with muscles worked beyond limits, we smile and remember that we were there when the day began, and we saw it all.
Mount Batur trekking is a popular activity in Bali, and can be booked from most tourist areas (i.e. Kuta, Sanur, Seminyak and Ubud). Most of what varies with different locations is pick-up times and prices due to distance. With a little shopping around, and some bargaining, we sourced our Mount Batur trekking in Ubud for Rp350,000 (about AUD$39) per person, which included breakfast and the guides.
This post originally appeared on BarefootBeachBlonde.com, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.