Featuring the first prototype temporary shelter  built – for under Rp 8 million; and a farewell to the last of the Mt Agung evacuees.

words and photos ©Rio Helmi


Most of Bali, or more precisely those who don’t actually live right on or under it, think Mt Agung has gone back to sleep. But for those who live on it, the potential threat from the volcano is still real. Unlike a year ago this November, when they were impatiently waiting for it to blow and get it over with, most of the mountain’s inhabitants have now been through months of learning and absorbing more and more information. This  includes (for those lucky enough to still have them) the now much more relevant stories of their elderly parents or grandparents. They are much more resigned to the fact that Agung has a history of long, drawn out episodes with spells of uneasy calm in between.

Volcanologist Devy Kamil Syahbana explains that after the devastating Lombok quakes, the Flores Back Arc remains unstable. Its activity has caused the Agung conduits to open wider, and as a result we saw a lot of degassing/venting which has released pressure. This condition makes it unlikely for there to be enough pressure build up to cause any eruption in the very near future. However the CVGHM /PVMBG volcanologists  are still recording volcano tectonic earthquakes on the seismograph, which indicates that the mountain remains active; and monitoring the mountain with a host of means including ambient cross noise correlation which gives them an idea of the movement of the rocks formations. In the meantime there is a ‘healing’ process which is slowly resealing the conduits which could bring the mountain back to a similar easily pressurised condition to what it was before the Lombok quake.

At that point it would depend on the whether we get another swarm of volcano tectonic quakes similar to what we had on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th of June 2018 indicating an influx of magma which would build up enough pressure to make the mountain erupt as it did on the 27th of June. It’s a waiting game, and  it’s way too early to tell if the mountain will go back to being dormant yet. So for now the mountain remains very quiet, despite a slow influx of magma amounting to little more than a million cubic meters into the chambers below. Devy said a lot more, but due to the limited storage capacity and slow processing power of my brain, that’s more or less all I could retain. Volcanology is such a multidiscipline science it boggles the mind.

But life has returned to quasi-normal after the massive quakes rippled along the Flores back arc, which not only destroyed vast swathes of Lombok but also took out many houses in the upper reaches of Ban village  – particularly on the Mt Abang side with its treacherous clay strata.

Two weeks ago, as I rode through a scorching mid afternoon on the northeastern coast, I watched two young kids going home from school walk non-chalantly up a long, dusty road to a busy quarry right at the  foot of the volcano in the arid Kubu area . Their father, taking time off, met them halfway to take them home. Everything seemed so calm.

Nowadays my rides on the volcano have been vastly reduced  – to around once a week. Even then I usually end up only doing either the southern and southeastern slopes or the northern and northeastern ones (I nearly always approach from the west).  Nonetheless, as I explained in Part 14, I’ve still been pushing ahead with trying to get temporary ‘hamlets’ set-up for evacuees for if and when the volcano starts rumbling dangerously again. I feel like the bull terrier of temporary shelter, teeth clenched on this thing long after every one else has gone off home and the lights have been turned off.

The project in Tianyar that I described in that previous instalment has undergone some changes and improvements. Together with East Bali Poverty Project’s David Booth and Komang Kurniawan, we sat down for a war council in their unpretentious offices in Ban and finally (the engineer in David rolling his eyes every time we tried to make it more complicated) came up with the simplest concept for the houses: A-frames made of bamboo. We stuck to the 8 million Rupiah budget, and Komang’s team got to work. They are a busy bunch. The workshop up there also turns out modified bicycles which have most of the frames replaced with bamboo. I’m saving up for one!

Several of the workmen were from Daya in upper Ban, and to our delight they really liked the protoype. That bodes well. We really do want them to ‘own’ the shelters. We  decided to use a recycled vinyl type corrugation (Go-Green) for the roofing as it is much cheaper, cooler, and quieter in the rain than the original metal ones we planned to use. An added bonus of this type of roofing is that it can be affixed with screws, which means that when the mountain really does go dormant again the roofing can easily be removed and reattached when the families disassemble the houses and set them back up in their villages to use  as temporary shelters while they restore their original houses.

Right now we have just enough funds for around 18 houses, but hope to raise more as soon as possible. Ideally we should set up more than 200 houses for the most vulnerable hamlets (Cegi, Pengalusan, Pucang), but we will do what we can with what we have first.  If any of you readers get inspired, imagine: for around US $550 you can provide a temporary house for a family of four to six people to evacuate to if and when the volcano erupts. See details below.

As I mentioned in Part 14, the story on temporary shelters on the southern slopes has been a lot more frustrating. The people of Bukit Galah who were staying in Banjar Tegeh in Amertha Buana Village seemed resigned. “Don’t worry about us Pak, we’ll just stay here” Says my friend, the old Mangku Sumerti when I bring another pick-up load of rice, vegetables and cooking oil up. The two old, barely mobile women lie on their mats. One blind and very ill.  The kitchen is still a mess, and the water filters are barely functioning – no one has cleaned them since I got Kadek to do it months ago. It’s not an uplifting scene. Pak Suara Arsana, the head of the host village Amertha Buana, says he might have a piece of land of 15 ares across the river to the south. But it isn’t fixed yet. That week I went up three times – but could never connect with him.

Then on the last trip, as I sat listlessly eating my nasi campur at Gusti Aji Lanang’s less than sterile but strategically placed warung at the crossroads in Selat, he sends me a WhatsApp: the Bukit Galah evacuees are going home on Thursday! Whoa. I’m not sure what to think. Did they feel squeezed out? Are they just fed up after 13 months in evacuation? Are they confident that it’s ok? My mind buzzes.

Thursday I try and reach Pak Suara Arsana, and finally he responds that the evacuees are ‘formally going home’ on Friday the 16th afternoon. So this afternoon I make another run for Amertha Buana. As I pull up they are starting to gather in their finest clothes. Apparently they have already returned home,  but have come back to pray and take their formal leave. It’s kind of transformative to see them smiling and wearing bright new kebayas and kamben.


As we chat they say they are aware that the mountain isn’t finished yet. I show them pictures of the A-frame prototype and they are enthusiastic. Pak Suara Arsana and the head of the village of Sebudi in which the Bukit Galah hamlet lies, Pak Komang Tinggal, also love the simplicity and practicality. They ask if I can set them up for them as a fall back. I answer with an ember of hope in my belly: “Find the land, and I’ll work on raising the money”. How ironic, now that they are going home, that suddenly everyone really sees the usefulness of being prepared beforehand!  Including amongst them Pak Suara Arsana who just happens to be the secretary of Pasebaya. There is hope yet.

We enter the banjar proper as the prayers are imminent. Then right in the middle of a serious discussion on the condition of the roads (apparently the government is going to fix it good and proper in 2019), Mangku Sumerti abruptly scrambles off with startling agility. What? When I peek outside I see a mobile onion vendor surounded by eager ex-evacuees in all their finery haggling for bags of onions. I forgot that it’s been months since they’ve cooked on their own, their home kitchens spice baskets must be empty. A woman pulls up in a bright orange kebaya with fresh fodder  strapped to her bike. She, like most others, is still keeping her three cows down here. Practicality is survival for mountain people.

Above: a 3 minute run and the onions are sold out! Below: Mangku Sumerti placing offerings on the shrine of the evacuees former shelter. 

Finally, all incense and offerings in place, the prayers begin. The ceremony is touching, with that old fashioned Balinese mix of relaxed sweetness, patience and  devotion as they finally sit down to pray. Then Pak Suara Arsana gives speech, praising the evacuees for their good behaviour, telling them that they are welcome back any time the volcano starts up. He reminds them that living on a active volcano one should always be mindful; but also the benefits are rich soil and plenty of building materials. Then Pak Komang Tinggal gets up and thanks the people of Amertha Buana for their generosity and kindness, and both sides beg forgiveness for any transgressions or misunderstanding.

As I take my leave several of the Bukit Galah  ex-evacuees come up to me and insist I come and visit them: “You can stay the night in my house”.  I am deeply touched and mumble assurances that I will do so one day. Finally, crying out “Pamit, pamit” over the smooth rumbling sound of the twin cylinders I ride off: for now, there are no more evacuees from Mt Agung.



If you would like to donate for the temporary shelter project, one house comes to Rp 8million/ USD $550. This might be a lot for a personal donation but you can consider gathering a group of friends and pitch in together. When you transfer please make sure to put the message “For Ban shelters” on the transfer and notify rio@riohelmi.com

Bank Mandiri
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Account Number: 1450018048898