Rio Helmi thinks this, his latest in the series, should be called Under the Volcano and Across the Straits instead, but we don’t want to confuse our loyal readers – so it Part 13 it is! ( Lead image:  Gede Warta’s collapsed house north of Mt Agung in the higher reaches of Ban village).

Mt Agung has been busy this month. Venting, erupting, deflating. As usual the real drama with Agung has been on the human side. We’ll get back to that in a minute after we take look at real, natural drama over the last 10 days across the Bali straits.

On the 29thof July a 6.4 Richter scale earthquake just on the northeast coast of Lombok shook and literally rattled the balcony I was sitting on here in central Bali. It was a tectonic quake, it was massive and it has got to have shaken up Mt Agung, let alone Mt Rinjani which is just next door to the epicenter. But one thing we’ve learned is that tectonic quakes don’t  necessarily trigger volcanic eruptions unless the volcanoes are primed and ‘loaded’ with magma – in other words ready to go. Which Agung wasn’t.

Then last night, Sunday the 5thof August a much bigger quake – 7.0 on the Richter – hit Lombok again. And this time it really rattled Bali. There was heavy damage done to at least 84 houses on the northeastern flanks of Mt Agung in the Ban area, and to a lesser extent in Karangasem town as well as in parts of Denpasar. The Matahari department store in the Galleria sustained heavy damage, and even some of the interior cladding of parts of the airport fell off. One unfortunate woman from Karangasem was crushed to death under a collapsing wall in Suwung.

The seismogram from the Rinjani post on the night of the 5th. Red indicates quakes and tremors that go overscale.

This morning I took off for the upper hamlets of Ban. As you may recall the village of Ban has a huge span – almost from the seashore right up to the very crater of Agung. I force myself to ride up from Ubud through pelting rain, the cold penetrating my rain gear and layers of clothing. I swing off the Suter to Rendang road on to the smaller road that goes around the northern foot of Agung down to Tianyar. Even before I get to the top of the pass at the end of Puregae I can see glimpses of blue sky through the trees of the state forest. Then I’m at the top and it’s like one of those fantasy stories where the heores discover a secret valley. Sunshine makes such a difference after these dreary days.

It’s not all milk and honey though. The earthquakes have shaken a landslide loose down on to the road. By the time I get there, 24 hours later, it’s mostly cleared. I find my way up to the Bunga hamlet after getting directions from some very surprised looking folks. Bunga is as unglamorous as some of these mountain communities get. An untidy cluster of houses and some far flung dwellings in the ‘fields’. School kids, who don’t seem to have anyone overseeing them, run out to greet me. I tell them I’ve come to see Gede Warta’s house. Or what was his house. They’re on to it – in small isolated communities like this news travels fast. One of them runs off and comes back with a man clad in ragged sweat pants and T-shirt who introduces himself as Jero Kangin.

A truck passes through the newly cleared up landslide on the pass between Puregae and Cegi on the Pempatan-Tianyar road.

“You want to go to Gede’s house? He’s my brother-in-law. Follow me”. He takes off on his 150 cc bike with his 6 year old daughter on the back. She has severe burn scars, barely healed, on her leg and neck. “That happened when we were evacuated to Bedugul last year. Someone threw gasoline on a smoldering fire there to get it going again and this happened…” In Indonesian we have a saying: ‘you’ve already fallen then the ladder comes down on top of you…” This hasn’t been easy times for this family! As we slither through powdery sand and bounce up and down deeply rutted, steep, single track paths on the edge of drop offs I’m almost regretting being on the 800cc BMW. Morbidly, I think it’s 177kg dry weight would surely look ‘awesome’ plunging down one of these ravines like in an action movie. I finally freak myself out enough to end up walking the last 100 meters to the house.

It’s a mini disaster zone. Pak Gede and his father are salvaging whatever they can. A cousin is breaking up the bigger pieces of rubble with a sledge hammer made from a wooden 2×4 with a cement brick nailed to it. Gede’s mother and wife are cooking on an open wood fire with a borrowed pot, Mum is cutting up onions and chillies with a sickle. They insist on making me tea and offering snacks – this indelible tradition of hospitality both embarasses me and touches me deeply. They’ve just lost everything but a guest is a guest. And they can still smile!

Above: Gede Warta and his father. Below: Gede’s mother and wife cooking in a make shift kitchen, his mother uses a sickle to chop onions and chili. Lead image: a wider shot of Gede’s collapsed house with Mt Agung in the background.


Gede and his father, a pemangku/priest sit down on the rubble. “My kid was lying down there,” he says pointing to carpet pinned down by slabs of concrete, “and my wife and I were here” pointing the biggest pile of concrete. “I grabbed my kid and dragged my wife out immediately. We were three steps out when the whole thing just collapsed”.

Ironically I am sitting on the verandah of his Dad’s house, much older and smaller and unaffected. But it’s set in further into the hill side, where as his newer, fancier house was closer to the drop off. The head of the village of Ban, Wayan Potag, has already told me how hard Gede had worked to get the money to build this place, finished just two years ago: “He gave up everything unnecessary. He gave up cigarettes, he even gave up gambling!” You may laugh, but that’s pretty big in remote Balinese villages! Potag agrees that Gede’s is the worst case, and agrees also to use it as our yard stick for figuring out who needs emergency help first.

However it’s Lombok that has really taken a severe beating. All in all they’ve had more than 400 aftershocks since the first quake, and by this morning, Tuesday August 7th, hundreds more. A rough count comes up with more than 120 total fatalities from this series of events. Many buildings have been destroyed, thousands of people have been displaced. And tourists are getting hysterical trying to get off the island and smaller Gilis. Lombok’s tourist scene is going to be very quiet for months after this.

Both these quakes apparently stem from the Flores Back Arc thrust, a geological dynamic along an arc north of the actual interface of the Indo-Australian Plate and the Eurasian Plate south of the Lesser Sunda Islands (Bali to Timor). From what I can make out from arcane academic texts on the subject it’s kind of like a fold in the crust of the earth; this is further complicated by junctions with the Pacific plates to the east. That’s about all I can explain about said back arc. Because, quite honestly, my brain capacity is no match for the esoteric scientific language pretending to be English in the texts that my well meaning vulcanologist friend has thrown my way.

If you look hard you can see where it says “Flores Thrust”. You could also Google Flores Back Arc and see some very nice photos of flowers…

What is clear is that this arc’s thrust extends even past Bali and from what I can understand even impacts the eastern tip of Java (which would explain why there was some damage to a couple of houses in Banyuwangi on Sunday night). Obviously it also has a big influence on what goes on in the volcanoes of Agung and Rinjani.

So far with not enough magma in the chambers below Agung to spark a fair size eruption, the volcano has been quiet after these two quakes. However this kind of impact can affect the hydrology in the mountain. When I was up on the mountain on Saturday I heard from friends in that area that a new spring has appeared high up on the southern slopes. Of course there has been the usual to and fro on social media with a slew of misinformation and hoaxes, but overall it seems like people are getting better informed and more sensible. Not a moment too soon.

After the minor reinflation in May and the subsequent deflation which forced a series of smaller eruptions, it feels like local people are now beginning to accept that this volcano thing is going to be a bit of a marathon, and that it isn’t over. As one villager said to me “My grandfather told me that last time (1963) it went on for months, now I believe him.”. Hopefully this understanding sticks – when people get lulled and are no longer vigilant in such situations disaster is never far away.

By now with all the wind direction changes, Agung has managed to spread ash in all directions. On one ride from Tianyar through Ban to Besakih on the back road I stop and chat to a farmer from Keladian collecting grass for his cows in the forest. I see a fine sprinkling of white ash. “Doesn’t that hurt your cows?” I ask, thinking of the fact that volcanic ash is basically fine silica, glass if you will. Almost immediately I regret asking. I get a look of resignation: “What can I do? They are hungry and I have to feed them. But I avoid giving them the grass that has this darker, stickier ash which cuts more…” And he points to what I find out later from a volcanologist is in fact ash from deeper inside the volcano, the white, finer ash being that from near the crater which has been incinerated to bits.

Note the different ashes: the darker, stickier and more abrasive one on the diagonal piece of grass, and the whiter one on the other.

When I mention this on PASEBAYA’s forum, someone says “Oh you just wash it off”. I do my best not to snap while reminding him that on that side of the mountain they have to buy water for their farms! So okay I’ll be honest. I’ve had a bit of gripe about PASEBAYA now for months which you can read about in part 12, and I guess it irks me so because I had a minor role in setting it up alongside mastermind Eko Teguh Paripurno.

However last month insult was added to injury when at a mitigation coordination meeting at Tanah Ampo the head of PASEBAYA basically dressed down the PVMBG representative telling him that PASEBAYA now had alternate and reliable sources of information and “predictions”. What? PVMBG or in English CVGHM (Center for Volcanic and Geological Hazard Mitigation) is the only body in Indonesia that has the mandate to recommend mitigation action. Not only do they have excellent scientists in all related disciplines but they also have the equipment and the track record. As you can read in part 12, they also have been recognized internationally for their work. So what was this outburst about?

As it turns out it seems that PASEBAYA had been influenced by rogue “scientist” Prabhancana Lesto, whose Info Mitigasi Facebook page floats all of his latest ideas, often deleting them as they get debunked one by one. Lesto is said to have been up to mischief on various volcanos around Indonesia, most notably on Merapi where he caused panic by his ‘predictions’ and was reprimanded by local authorities; on Bromo where he apparently narrowly missed a good beatiing;  on Ijen where he capriciously predicted that the dam on the acidic waters of the crater lake would burst killing villagers below. At one point he made a prediction that Agung would split in two and erupt out of its flanks to the side, and lastly after the first Lombok quake insinuated on his page that the quake along the Flores Back Arc thrust would trigger a “Mega Thrust” along the fault that marks the meeting point of the tectonic plates south of Java and Bali etc.

There isn’t enough room here to go into all of his crack-pot ideas and schemes: contributions into his personal bank account for radio relay systems supposedly to help communities, paid workshops where he posed as an expert (he has no training as a volcanologist or related science) and so forth. But the cherry on top of all this fluffy whipped cream was when the German magazine Travelbook ran a story titled “There could be a mega disaster on Bali” which basically quoted many of Lesto’s wildest theories about Agung and also a mega tsunami that ‘could swallow up large parts of the island’. Their source was a mysterious “Wayan” who didn’t want his name mentioned lest he be arrested. This could be the smartest thing the man said, if he even exists. There is now a law against spreading hoaxes in Indonesia.

There were so many mistakes in this article that it’s amazing it even got past the editors. For example “Since Agung…. became active in 2015, after which a large ash cloud caused authorities to raise the warning level to the 2ndlevel…” (in 2015???). Or that the ash columns in the eruptions of the 28thof June and 2ndof July 2018 rose many kilometers high (I suppose 2 kilometers is multiple….). The article also talks about how there will be a pre-fusion like shockwave before a mega eruption. Fantastic stuff. In another passsage the author cites the eruption of 1843, but neglects to mention that the 1843 eruption cycle went on for four years (yes, four years). Seriously, in this age of Google it’s that hard to check facts?

Unfortunately the only second opinion their journalist got was from a German geologist who basically pointed out that there was no evidence to support these theories but then added “But Agung really is a super volcano”. Are we talking Tambora here? What exactly is he calliing a ‘supervolcano’? But even this ‘rebuttal’ ran so small at the end of the article that most German readers didn’t seem to care judging by most of the comments which stated they were all ready to cancel their Bali trips. It also was an insult to the now acclaimed,  authentic Indonesian volcanologists: it remains a mystery to me why the author didn’t just go to the CVGHM observation post in Rendang to ask for a second opinion. They are always pretty liberal with their information. And every taxi driver knows how to get there by now.

However in all fairness I have to say that the ball is in the CVGMH’s court to go out and be more proactive in socializing correct information to villagers around Agung. They have started to do so, which is a good step. Also a few days ago PVMBG volcanoligist and Head of their Eastern Indonesia mitigation sub-division, Devy Kamil Syahbana, joined Pak Wisnu (Bernadus Wisnu Widjaja, Deputy of the Prevention and Preparedness division of the Indonesian National Disaster Mitigation Body BNPB) and Eko Teguh Paripurno (Program Coordinator for Disaster Mitigation Master Study Program at the Universitas Pembangunan Nasional Yogyakarta)  to pay a visit to PASEBAYA’s headquarters in order to help put things right. Kompas correspondent Ayu Sulistyowati had organized the visit, and kindly permitted me to tag along (we were the only two without really long job titles).

The meeting at PASEBAYA headquarters. From left: Devy K Syahbana, Gede Pawana of PASEBAYA, Pak Wisnu of BNPB, and Pak Eko (slurping his coffee)

It was an interesting, instructive and at times even slightly comedic evening. Pak Wisnu, one of the very few high ranking government officials I know of who makes a point of spending a lot of time in the field seeing things for himself, impressed me greatly with his low key, diplomatic but focused approach. It’s fascinating to watch someone gently and skillfully do a take down like that, where the other person isn’t even aware until it’s way too late -and has been disarmed by then. I won’t go into detail but by the time we left a couple of hours later it felt like things seemed on a much better footing, particularly between PVMBG/CVGHM and PASEBAYA. We’ll see.

Truth be told, as the Incident Commander Lt Colonel Benny Rahadian who is also the military commander of Karangasem pointed out to me, PASEBAYA can still play an important role bridging the information gap. Indeed one thing they have done which could prove to be useful was to have each of the villages in the zone identify sister villages that would be their destination of choice if they have to evacuate. The recipient villages too have apparently approved. I haven’t had the time to confirm all of this but it seems finally a step in the right direction, away from all the politicking and back towards building up grassroots capacity where so much needs to be done in terms of preparedness and resilience – all of which was their mandate in the first place.

In regards to that, the MAR (Mt Agung Relief) coalition has taken steps to revive the Tembok project. The idea is to prepare low cost yet comfortable evacuation camps that are liveable for the longer term. The concept would include lodgings for family units, vegetable gardens, training areas and so on. Pak Wisnu explained that the government was also preparing to create more permanent type ‘huntara’ (hunian sementara or temporary shelters). But time is of the essence: if and when the volcano has a major eruption the amount of evacuees will most likely out number the units available. We all need to prepare! As one mitigation expert pointed out, “Bali’s slogan shouldn’t be ‘Bali is Safe’, it should be ‘Bali is Prepared’; and then it really should be prepared!”


all images except the map and seismogram ©Rio Helmi


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