If you close your eyes and imagine the most exotic tropical landscape possible, chances are that this imaginary place would contain a bellowing volcano somewhere in the background. Fantasy and science fiction has conditioned our imagination to picture these sorts of places- destinations that seem to transcend the boundaries of time, as though nothing has changed since the age of dinosaurs.
Much of Indonesia fits that description. Within a region of the world known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, where most of earth’s volcanic activity takes places, Indonesia is considered to be the beating heart. The entire archipelago is dotted with a network of volcanos so vast and numerous that it boggles the mind. In fact, of the 17,000 islands that exist there, most of them were either created through volcanism or are active volcanos themselves.
Nearly every major island in Indonesia has at least one or two massive volcanos to ascend if you’re adventurous enough to do it. Arguably, the most famous of these exist on the island of Java. Mount Bromo is one of the country ’s biggest attractions- and rightfully so. The otherworldly landscape surrounding the volcano is one of the world’s foremost must-see destinations, and the hike to get there is said to be one of Indonesia’s top experiences. Less famous, but equally impressive is Mount Ijen in West Java. In addition to having a stunning acid lake in its caldera, a very unique phenomenon takes place in the dead of night in Ijen’s interior. Liquid sulphur that seeps to the surface ignites when it comes in contact with air. The result is that, at night, the caldera interior is alight with eerie and almost magical blue flames. To stand in front of this phenomenon and watch it with your own two eyes is one of the most surreal experiences to be had anywhere. Beyond those two, there are no less than a dozen other volcanos in Java that are earth-shatteringly beautiful. The most popular of these would be Mount Merapi, Mount Semeru and Mount Kelud.
Rising to more than 3,000 meters tall, Mount Agung is the tallest peak in Bali. Morning ascents to its peak offer some of the best sunrise views to be had anywhere. On a clear day you can see the entire island of Bali, from coast to coast, within a single unfettered view. The volcano has huge spiritual significance to the people of Bali, so a trip to its peak is considered to be something of a rite of passage. Along the way, be sure to stop at the “Mother Temple” of Besakih.
Mount Batur is another sacred volcano to the Balinese people. It’s an active volcano located at the centre of two concentric calderas just northwest of Mount Agung. In addition to sweeping views of the stunning natural scenery of the area, Batur offers visitors the unique ability to visit isolated villages that call the 7.5km-wide caldera home.
Just across the Lombok Strait, on the island of Lombok, Mount Rinjani provides one of Indonesia’s most acclaimed volcano-trekking experiences. At over 3,700 meters tall, it’s the second highest volcano in Indonesia and dominates the landscape of Lombok- which is relatively small compared to the size of the volcano itself. While climbing to the top you pass by isolated villages inhabited by indigenous Sasak people and dense tropical forests teeming with exotic wildlife. After reaching the top, sweeping views of Lombok and, on a clear day, Bali, are laid out before you in epic fashion. The lake at the centre of the massive 50km-wide caldera, Segara Anak, is the perfect backdrop for photos.
Timing for volcano trekking in Indonesia is important from a few perspectives. Foremost, many of the volcanos in Indonesia are active. This means that, in order to ensure total safety, access to many of the volcanos is sometimes limited. Most of the major volcanos have stations dedicated to monitoring their seismic activity. If something is awry, officials won’t hesitate to block access to them at a moment’s notice.
Safety concerns aside, timing is also important from the perspective of maximizing how pleasurable the experience is. For some volcanos, such as Mount Rinjani or Mount Agung, the primary reason to ascend them is for the spectacular views afforded at sunrise and sunset. For others, such as Mount Ijen, one must visit it in the dead of night to fully grasp how spectacular it is. Each volcano is different, so it’s important to check ahead of time and plan in advance.
Volcanos are, by their very nature, wild and forbidding places. As such, it’s important to be well-prepared for them if you plan a volcano trek while in Indonesia. For some volcanos, this is a simple matter of having proper hiking shoes. For others, such as Mount Ijen, a bit more preparation goes a long way. Formally, you’re only supposed to hike to the caldera rim which is a fairly straight forward hike. Informally, very few visitors to Ijen stop there. The real magic of Ijen happens deep within the caldera interior where sulphurous gases bellow out. For the most part, the fumes emerging from the volcano rise quickly and don’t pose a serious threat. There are times when the wind shifts, causing the gases to momentarily drift towards the viewing areas that make wearing a gas-mask something of a necessity. Most guided tours to Ijen will take this into consideration and provide double-filtration gas masks, but not all. If Ijen factors in highly on your to-do list in Indonesia, it’s not a bad idea to bring your own. The gas-masks needed to make a viewing of Ijen more comfortable are cheap and easy to find in most developed countries.