Update 4pm 21st Sept – the Rendang volcano monitoring station recorded 500 tremors in the last 24hrs. They are now insisting authorities evacuate all inhabitants on the slopes within 6-7.5 km of the crater, if not more. The police are going out this afternoon to sweep the area.

update 21/Sept/2017 9:45: Inhabitants of Sebudi are packing as many of their belongings as they can, and the villagers of Temukus felt quakes throughout the night and evacuated at 1 o’clock in the morning. A total of  130 people from high lying hamlets took refuge in Rendang last night. (thanks to Made Nagi for info) 

Text and photos ©Rio Helmi

Today was the second day since I decided to take an on-the-ground look at Mt Agung’s volcanic activity. There had been plenty of conflicting reports, with social media playing it’s usual inflationary role. “The mountain was aglow last night volcanic flames”; “Smoke has been billowing out of the crater for days now”; “Hundreds of quakes“; “The ground in Tirta Gangga has been like jelly”; “The army is guarding the trails up to the peak at Pura Pasar Agung” etc. etc.. Somewhere I even saw a headline screaming “Bali’s volcano erupts for the first time in 50 years” with a picture of the eruption a while back of the volcano on Lombok. Nothing like the facts with your morning coffee.

Yet some of the hype did have some truth to it: yes the volcanology monitoring stations recorded hundreds of tremors. “Quakes” however might have been a stretch – most were around 2 to 2.8 on the Richter scale, which on the Ring of Fire counts as barely perceptible outside a very close radius from the actual crater. And yes on the northeastern flanks there was a glow at night, and visible smoke – it’s just that it was a typical brush fire that occurs pretty much annually at the end of the dry season in the Kubu district, an arid area largely devastated by the 1963 eruption of Gunung Agung.

Nonetheless in the spirit of fair reportage I spent almost two days traveling around the volcano. These motorcycle trips took me in the chilly early mornings to high-up farmlands on the southwestern and southern side high up Agung’s slopes like the hamlets above and around Besakih; one of the highest temple complexes on it’s flanks, Pura Pasar Agung, which is a popular starting point to climb the volcano; and in the baking midday heat up to the arid grasslands surrounding Br Kedampal and Rumah Pohon some 900 meters above sea level on the northeastern side of the mountain. Some of areas were possibly within the 6km ‘no-go’ zone flagged in the level 3 alert (“Siaga” or be prepared and alert) issued by official warnings from the likes of the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB), though for the most part I saw farmers going about their usual work there.

Lead picture: brush fires on the northeastern slopes of the volcano. Above: A farmer with fresh fodder for his cows in front of Pura Pasar Agung – “…if it erupts we will lose everything..”

Farmers were philosophical but apprehensive. “If it erupts we will lose everything – our livestock, our gardens, our houses, that our families have spent the last 50 years rebuilding”. In one village near Pura Pasar Agung (where there was not a soldier in sight), people even have a special term for Agung’s eruptions, a reflection of their intensely personal relationship with this provider of fertility as well as destroyer of life. Parwatha, a local farmer, told me that for them the mountain didn’t erupt, it was ‘born’ when it erupted – local villagers used the term ‘lahir’ or ‘lekad’in Balinese when they talked about previous eruptions.

Several higher up hamlets like Sogra had evacuated to Rendang over the last two nights, but even they returned the next morning to tend to their animals and gardens. What is for sure is that evacuation and disaster mitigation are a lot better organized today than they were in ’63; mobile phones and motorized transport also improve the odds. In 1963, around 2000 Balinese lost their lives, and thousands were displaced. Hopefully this time there will not be any loss of human life.

The roads linking all these went through the larger villages around Agung’s base such as Rendang, Muncan, Selat, Sibetan, Bebandem, and of course the famous Besakih temple complex. On Tuesday at Besakih at sunrise I checked in at the local police post, they said they had felt no quakes the night before despite the volcanology reports. No ash to be seen anywhere. Then on to Muncan, which in the light of my quest for evidence of volcanic disaster was happily disappointing, people were just going about their day to day life – though a local official told me most people didn’t sleep that night. The scene in the hamlets high above Besakih – was slightly more surreal – in the last few years local farmers have been cultivating fields of Edelweiss.

Above: Besakih at sunrise on Tuesday the 19th and Below: Stone cutters get on with their daily work in Selat/Muncan.

It all looked too idyllic for a volcanic disaster. But that never stopped the cruelty that nature can deal out.

This morning, Wednesday the 20th, my first stop at dawn was the volcanology Mt Agung monitoring post in Rendang. Possibly the most extraordinary thing happening there was the sight of a few bedraggled photojournalists, who had spent the freezing night bunked out on the sofas, warming themselves with glasses of strong Balinese coffee that an enterprising local woman was selling from a makeshift stand. Nothing much could be seen last night, they told me. Some of them were packing up.

Inside the office the geologists were hunched over meters and meters of printouts or staring at monitors displaying squiggle after squiggle. They hadn’t slept for a couple of days. One explained to me that the intensity of the activity kept fluctuating but hadn’t yet hit the level which would push the alert level up to 4 (“Awas” or extreme caution), however what was increasing was the frequency. They recorded around 400 tremors yesterday.

Above: Photojournalist Made Nagi checks his shots. Below and Bottom: Sleepless geologists inside the volcanology monitoring station.

After a quick stop at Pura Pasar Agung (see above), I headed to the popular tourist destination Tirta Gangga for breakfast. A tourist who was the only other customer had just come from the beach resort Amed; she showed me pictures of the ‘volcanic activity’ on her iPhone. I got the impression she didn’t seem that interested in my explanation that it was a brush fire. Then on to the Kubu district where I rode high up in to the dry semi-wasteland of the upper reaches of Agung’s northeastern slopes. The brush fires were clear to see, there were burnt out stretches of grassland along the way as well. Nobody here had heard or seen any eruption, and only a handful had felt some minor tremors. Trucks bringing drinking water to the villages continued to wind their way up the road.

Trucks still delivering drinking water to villages high up on the volcano in Kubu district.

Finally I rolled back down the coast, then took a short cut up to Madenan on the way to Kintamani. No longer on Agung’s actual slopes, the whole possibility of an eruption seemed even more remote, the vegetation was good old Bali green again and there were tourists everywhere gawking at the scenery. By the time I finally got home in Ubud hardly anyone seemed to be thinking of the volcano. Tomorrow, unless the mountain blows its top, I am not going to ride the 300 kilometers I did today. Having said that, I for one will continue to think about Agung. Level 3 when living on the Ring of Fire is not some thing to blow off, and if volcanologists at the monitoring station don’t sleep then there’s good reason for me to remain alert.


updated information (in Indonesian):  http://www.bgl.esdm.go.id/index.php/berita-terkini

Text and photos ©Rio Helmi