In which our quasi-intrepid reporter does one of his 250 km rides all the way around Mt Agung for the first time in months to see if he can get a handle on how people up there are feeling and what is going on


text and photos ©Rio Helmi

In my ongoing role as resident quack volcanologist, I now get people coming up to me still, asking me what’s happening with Mt Agung. I try to point out although there is a lot less active magma in those chambers right now (less than 10% of the 39 million cubic meters in November at my last count), the channels are still pretty much open. We are still seeing regular ‘venting’ of solfatara fumes nearly everyday, plus a volcanic tremor (deep or shallow) or two as well. If you would like to see monthly overall graphic charts, maybe you could ask Jackie Pomeroy (nicely) over at her Facebook page Mt Agung Daily Report. If too many of you do this of course it might result in her sending over some poisoned coffee to my house. Or perhaps you could just go through her detailed reports of the last months.

In any case this venting, by my amateur reckoning, could be a good thing – rather than pressure building up against a tightly sealed plug – and the fact that gas is escaping the magma making it less volatile is a good thing too. However from what I understand the risk is that in this condition that if we get a couple of serious quakes centered close to the fault on the northeastern flank (like in early November last year and like before the major eruption 1963) we could get a very rapidly developing situation with fresh magma moving into the chambers. Think of a gun, cleaned and oiled, waiting to be loaded.

Mt Agung sending a plume of smoke up.

During a meeting of the core MAR (Mt Agung Relief) board the other day Dewi Hanifah who has been hired by Kopernik to manage the Mt Agung program, laid out a very clear and well structured assessment program and also implementation procedures for the future. Indeed back in September last year we were all flying by the seat of our pants as everything started coming down so fast. Of course there was some great group think but we do need to be a bit more organized. There are plenty of things to think about for the coming months and years.

So today it seemed like a good idea for me to take closer look again around the mountain (literally), to take the pulse of the people on this subject. Taking advantage of a loan of a used BMW GS f800, I set out around 5:00 am following my usual route: Ubud-Kintamani-Suter-Rendang. What I really want to check out is the back road from Pempatan thru to Tianyar, which in one part is the most vulnerable route for volcanic etc disaster that you could think up. But first things first, breakfast. I make a beeline for my favourite warung at the Rendang T-junction to Selat. On the way it was heartening to see the school kids in Rendang on the soccer field under a peaceful Mt Agung acting like school kids do. Also the camp at the agricultural department office has been partially dismantled, only the bamboo skeletons of makeshift shelters still standing. Clearly Rendang doesn’t expect anything much else to happen soon. Oh bugger, the warung isn’t open yet. Hmm maybe the one nearby the volcano observation post?

In Rendang, highschool students under the volcano getting on with being teeenagers.

And that’s closed too. By this time I might as well keep going around the mountain this way, anti-clockwise, then come to the Tianyar-Pempatan road from the east. Just down below Rendang at the bridge over Yeh Sah river I see people breaking boulders and collecting smaller rocks from the river bed. This is the bonus from the heavy lahar flows at the end of last year that almost took the uphill bridge (they are twin one-way bridges, one for each direction) with it. I remember back then being alongside a retired army officer trying to shoo gawking people off the bridge. Eventually the bridge started shaking so badly that side had to be closed down to all traffic. Today workers are collecting the volcanic bounty: piles of neatly piled rocks await lumbering trucks.

Above and below: Bounty from the volcano at Yeh Sah river

The sun is now blasting right into my eyes, and all the bugs and dust I have collected are making it flare. In Muncan I can’t find anywhere to buy a ‘chamois’ wipe. I see a carwash place also selling products. Nope, all out. But this young couple are super nice and allow me to wash my visor and lend me a ‘kanebo’ to wipe it. One of the things that I like so much about this area is how spontaneously kind and helpful people are.

Ok now it really is time to get something to eat. Here my best bet is Gusti Aji Lanang’s warung just opposite the copshop in Selat. During the evacuation period he stayed and kept one door open. Everyone was welcome, and he didn’t accept payment except for donations for the evacuees. You just helped yourself. Today the warung is fully open, his wife greets me. Gusti Aji is asleep. “So is everything back to normal now?” “Hmm… not completely” she answers. In any case the food looks and tastes great. It’s a thriving place. Plenty of transactions happening and a great place to pick up local gossip too.

I head off to Duda Timur to try and catch the head of the Pasebaya volunteer organization, Gede Pawana. I somehow feel I need to make amends, as we had a tense moment back in mid-March during a meeting at the Rendang volcano observation post with volcanologist Devy Kamil Syahbana and (volcano) disaster mitigation expert Eko Teguh Paripurno. Setting up Pasebaya was mainly Eko’s idea which had been triggered by MAR bringing over Pak Sukiman from a village based organization on Mt Merapi in Java. He was well received and shared a lot of valuable information from his experiences. In any case, without going into too many details, the disagreement involved some principles of community based action. Well, no making up today, Pak Gede is off in Jakarta…

As the bike hums down the swooping curves through the salak plantations of Sibetan I think of going up to Pura Pasar Agung. I think too much – I miss the turn off in Bebandem (the road from Selat doesn’t get you to the parking lot at the actual gates of the temple). So I do the one way loop through Bebandem and go back up the back roads through to Yeh Kori. Pura Pasar Agung is one of the most popular starting points for those climbing the mountain. It’s not too difficult, plus it’s a relatively short hike (4 -5 hours).

There I find the Jero Mangku of Pura Pasar Agung, the temple priest, in the forecourt. (see header picture above)  We start chatting and soon he is regaling us with stories about 1963. He doesn’t look like he is old enough to have experienced that, but when I ask him how old he was then he tells me he was “already collecting firewood for the family kitchen”. I mentally compute he must have been about 6-7 years old at the time. So we are pretty close in years. I was eight in 1963 when my Dad brought us to Bali for school vacation. Wait, how come he isn’t fat, bald and out of shape like me? And he still climbs the mountain regularly!

By this time we have a small group of friendly people gathered chatting. It turns out that there will be a joint prayer of all the village heads (perbekel) in the area. The perbekel of Jungutan is here already (well, we are in Jungutan village). Someone asks me if I think the volcano has finally calmed down. Either this is a trick question or they think I really know. I say I don’t think so, but cover my ass with “But I guess we’ll see…”. The Mangku weighs in more quietly but with much more definite authority, citing the various phases  in 1962-’63. In any case we both agree that we don’t think the mountain is done quite yet. Me based on all my pseudo science, he based on his experience in 1962-’63. Before I take my leave he also points out the changes in the shape of the mountain that he has seen over the last few months.

In Indonesia, taking your leave properly, genuinely and respectfully, can be one of the most friendship affirming things amongst new aquaintances. It’s civilized! Warm smiles follow me down the steep slope. Back on the main road, the sun is also getting warmer and I need coffee. I cut through Budakeling, and manage to get Wayan Gin on the phone but unfortunately he is working – which means he is in Ubud. Ahead is Tirtagangga where I have another favourite warung. I pull up and there is my friend photographer Mike Morgan having coffee. We both live in Ubud and have to meet here!

The mountain looks different from the East? Locals claim it is different now.

Fueled up on coffee and chat, I get back on the road. I have to say this BMW is a great all round traveller. Smooth and responsive on the road, unflustered on bumpy trails, and easy to get up standing on the pegs. German engineering! Ok now we’re schwooshing up ze road from Tianyar to that stretch on the northside.

Before I can get there, the side road to Pucang near the top pulls me in. I visited there late last year with Eko. We had found some evacuees who had come back for the day from their camp in Tejakula. Today I find a small friendly group of people at the same spot in the middle of the hamlet. Everyone is busy making bamboo baskets – this is their main source of income. Their water catchment well – about 3 meters in diameter and 3m deep they tell me – only holds enough water for drinking and even then can only hold out for 3 months. The closest spring is near Daya which is several kilometers away.

above and below: making baskets is the main source of income for people from Pucang, roughly 4km from the crater.

Above: a typical kitchen in Pucang. Below: The ‘main road’ of Pucang, roughly 4km from the crater.

These are some of the poorest people I know on the mountain. They tell me the average size baskets they weave go for around Rp 6.000,- . I look around. There are men splitting and shaving bamboo down to the right size strips. Then they get  semi-dried, and finally woven. The women weave one basket a day on a good day. Whaa…? I don’t even want to do this calculation. Of course they do subsistence farming as well but this is their one of their main sources of cash. I remember last time when I was here with Eko one of the men said to us: “Life is hard here. Sure we would like to move somewhere easier to live – but we can’t afford to buy land let alone live there.”. Ironically it seems the only people in this area of the mountain who make a fortune are those who operate quarries digging up the mountain.

One heartening thing I see here is a teenager pacing the verandah getting into a uniform (in these crowded villages getting dressed is not necessarily a private activity). Apparently he is doing hospitality training in a school down on the coast. Let’s hope it eventually brings some more income to the village. But will he stay here? It’s a long daily commute…

Back on the main road on the way to Daya there is a section that is perfect, smooth asphalt, wide and impressive, with clean white markings winding below the hills and the imposing mountain. Within 2-3 kilometers this faux-Switzerland impression evaporates and I’m standing up on the pegs going through gravel and bumps. At the spot where the dry river bed coming straight down from the crater (Pyrochlastic Highway I call it) meets the road, is the narrow ribbon of somewhat dodgy asphalt leading up to Cegi. It’s steep and there are substantial patches of gravel. It’s good to be on the F800 with suspension set on it’s softest. At the East Bali Poverty Project facility in Cegi I’m told that David J Booth MBE , who set up this wonderful project decades ago, happens to be just a bit further on at Pengalusan hamlet. Ah, an opportunity to meet the Legend!

I find him there showing some guests some of EBPP’s educational activities. This is a true not-for-profit outfit, and education is a huge part of what they do. It’s great to reconnect – I barely know him but we had met many years ago. We’ve both aged, but he is still as engaged as ever in what he is doing. He tells me the hilarious story of how when he got a call from the British embassy in Jakarta telling him that he was being awarded the MBE he thought it was a stupid prank and told the poor secretary to …. off. Then the ambassador got on the line and David got a bit irate and told him what for. It was only after the posh, received accent on the other end of the line insisted that he realized it wasn’t a hoax!

David also agrees that Mt Agung isn’t done yet. “It’s a gut feeling really but I think there is more to come”. Well a gut feeling from a man trained to be an engineer and who knows the area well must count for something…

above: David J Booth MBE showing guests one EBPP’s schools, this one in Pengalusan.

On the way up here from Tianyar and through the protected forest towards Pempatan I marvel at how green everything is. Over on the Besakih side southwest, especially up in Temukus, much of the foliage has been ‘burnt’ by the acidity of the ash fall.

My last stop is a warung just past the Pura Tap Sai turn off. It’s well past midday. I don’t feel like a full meal but this lady sells es buah (fruit salad in ice and syrup) and daluman drink, a slimy, green jelly (yummy) drink made from leaves mixed with coconut milk. After slurping it all down I ask her if she remembers me. She grins and says yes! We laugh at how at the time, concussed from a bad accident on the back trails near Belong, I asked her the same question about 4 times before riding off with smashed panniers. My riding companion at the time, volunteer Komang Bajing who thank fully was with me, had to explain to her that I had amnesia. Today she remembers the word!

Heading home I reflect how calm everyone I had met was. Many were aware that there was still a real possibility of further eruptions. But I didn’t see much concrete evidence of any real preparation for a future event. Maybe I missed something; although most people nodded and agreed when I talked about the need for mitigation training and planning. Hmmm, methinks whatever does or doesn’t happen, proper training and planning needs to be re-implemented at the hamlet level. This was the principle that Pasebaya was founded on last year. This was what the various self-reliant volcano disaster mitigation organizations from the mountains of Java had trained the 28 villages included in Pasebaya to do. Time to get back to that. We need to be able to hand this down from generation to generation.