A sputtering Bavarian machine, an inscrutable mountain, buried roads. Rio Helmi checks up on the mountain and it’s people.

Mt Agung remains somewhat inscrutable and has somehow slowly moved into the background of people’s awareness. There have been the odd smallish eruptions, and numerous ventings but nothing big enough to make it as dominant a topic as it was a few months ago. Of course when people run into me  they ask politely “What’s up with Agung?”. When I respond and go into the details they glaze over from the 4thsecond on.  Unless, that is, they happen to be Balinese living within the 12 km zone around the mountain and had to evacuate a year and a half ago. It’s not the kind of experience you’d forget. More about that in a minute.

On the evening of  the 28thof March 2019, yesterday as I write, Agung gave out a bit more than just a negligible hiccup of an eruption. Of course I just happened to be in Sanur having dinner with my sister and brother-in-law who will be leaving today. But from images I saw that were taken from the northern side, a dark ash cloud rose around 2000 meters through the clouds. The live seismogram and the Magma Indonesia reports showed a 25mm spike, and a two and a half minute long eruption. Reports kept coming in from my contacts and from the WhatsApp feeds of a loud explosion heard as far away as Culik on the northeastern coast.


Mt Agung erupting at 18:25 on March 28th 2019 . photo: Karangasem traffic police (@satuan_lalu_lintas_karangasem)

Volcanologists put the eruption at VEI (Volcanic Eruptivity Index) 1. Which sounds like nothing compared to the VEI 5 and  7 that Agung has had in the past – but it isn’t nothing if you live in the close vicinity.  As the wind blew north, most of the administrative village of Ban (which is huge, it stretches from the highest slopes down to 5km** from the coast) was given a goodly coating of ash.  This was definitely bigger than anything we’ve had in the last two or three months.

The next day I somehow manage to convince myself that it is worth going up despite fueling problems on the bike which had dogged me on my trip to East Java over the weekend and Monday. Finally ready at 5:30am, the bike alternatively sputters and roars  (and I alternatively swear and hum) up through Kintamani and along the Abang ridge road then down through Suter. There I stopped for a while, fully expecting (practically stipulating really) a glorious sunrise bouncing off the alto strato clouds.

That was not to be – the gods just produced a flat grey sky. I sit by the side of the road sipping tea from a thermos and chewing on, er, chewy sandwiches while my radio crackled the morning round up from the 28 villages in the PASEBAYA association. I was tempted to chime in about the endless stream of devotees taking the short cut to Besakih for the big ceremony up there, but was too pre-occupied with tackling almost unpeelable boiled eggs to press the talk button and announce myself.

The radio round up takes ages as each village operator and the central operator engage in longwinded formalities that take about 5 times as long to deliver as the simple weather, ash, and activity reports that are the core information needed. We Indonesians can be long winded indeed. In any case I learn that the 25 evacuees at the village administrative office of Ban from the night before have gone back to Pucang*. The village head of Ban reported that they had returned at 5:59 am;  I was a tad disappointed that he didn’t give us the seconds as well though he did report that they were given packaged snacks and drinks. All a matter of perspective.  The 40 odd evacuees (I couldn’t seem to get a firm figure on this) who spent the night under the awning of the warung at the three way intersection to Temakung at Bukit Sok had also gone home by sunrise.

I continue on, heading up from Pempatan to Tianyar on the back road. Nursing a temporarily temperamental, 220kg Bavarian two wheeled machine down steepish hills may sound easier than going up them, but the sharp, precipitate switchbacks as one finally enters Ban over the forested mountain saddle can be tricky. I swear to myself I will not do another long road trip until I get it fixed – I do have an appointment with a good mechanic in a few days, however it’s today now. Despite myself, I keep visualising the bike cutting out right on a tight, steep, sandy curve just as a truck comes up the other way and my rear tyre locking up and sliding out. I know, I know –  this is not what you are supposed to do. Fortunately my visualisation powers are not great, and the bike manages to make it through the section with only one cut out on a straight. And then I’m in Daya. The asphalt has disappeared for hundreds of meters. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still there. But you’d have to dig up about half a meter of hard packed dirt and gravel to find it.

Deep down inside, there’s asphalt under this… (in Daya)

It’s been a long and very wet rainy season this time. The roads in Karangasem, not the best to begin with, have taken a real pounding. During this monsoon we’ve had almost weekly reports of washouts, flash flooding, collapsed embankments and bridges. On the smaller evacuation routes these are particularly troubling. Often not very well planned and  engineered to begin with (for example a road that now simply runs through a river on the way to Tanah Aron as the culverts have long filled up), these are the lifelines for the some 50,000 inhabitants of the steeper parts of the volcano’s flanks. It’s hard to remain complacent about them when Agung is being so inscrutable and unpredictable. As I have stated in previous installments, evac routes in upper Ban are particularly vulnerable as are the upper reaches of Selat and Duda.

Above: the ‘bridge’ to Tanah Aron from central  Buana Giri. Below: Ash on the main road that runs the length of Ban to Tianyar

Passing the river crossing and T intersection to Cegi, the ash from yesterday’s eruption whitewashes the road. As trucks go by the ash swirls into the air and into our lungs. I run into TV One’s Alfani, and show him the way to Pengalusan. The ash on this side road is thicker.  When I see Alfani’s reaction as we arrive at the center of this hamlet it reminds of how I felt the first time I stumbled into the place. You look up the road and you see the gates of the village temple dominating the hamlet. Then you look up and there’s the crater, probably no more that 3.5 km basically straight up. It makes you think.

These people had a pretty good rattle yesterday evening. “It was very loud, like an explosion that went on for a while. We could see the black smoke and ash just rising straight up. We could see incandescent material coming out. Then afterwards sand and ash came down. We picked up what we could and fled!”. As it turns out, besides those who went down to Ban or the Temakung cross roads, nearly everybody took refuge somewhere else, quite a few with family further down slopes: “I spent the night at my parents place down in Pucang” said one woman, whose young daughter had scraped her knee when she fell the night before: “The wet ash is really slippery. We haven’t cleaned up her wound or put anything on it yet”.

A young farmer pulls up on his scooter, laden with the usual huge bundle of elephant grass for his cattle. I see both whiteish and dark grey ash on it. The white ash is lighter, burnt out from previous eruptions, the grey newer from deeper in the volcano. The dark grey is pretty sharp, and I think even worse for cattle than the white. He says he’s going to wash it. But in a hamlet where their water comes from rain catchment that sounds pretty wasteful. We discuss them going further a field for fodder, back past Daya, even into the forest on the Pempatan side where I saw no ash (the school kids in Daya I saw said they had no ash in Daya the day before). However there probably will be territorial issues with farmers from other villages if he does go further.

Above: A farmer with ash coated elephant grass and scooter) for fodder. Below: schoolboys at the school in Daya.


But the most important thing for me that happened in Pengalusan was the enthusiasm of the villagers when I talked to them about the temporary shelter project that I have started with MAR and EBPP down in Tianyar. So far 22 units have been built (you can read more about it here). These villagers were particularly interested to know that the A-frame shelters would actually belong to them once the volcano truly quieted down. And when I see David Booth  a while later down at the EBPP office he’s enthusiastic about their enthusiasm. “That will make it work!”.

On the way back I decide to swing by the Rendang volcano observation post to check in with the team there. I get the usual ribbing “Oh this guy only shows up when the mountain blows”. Pak Dewa, who heads the team, and I chat for a while – he’s waiting for the new military commander of Karangasem to show up. Nominally the commander is designated incident commander for the volcano emergency. (Infantry) Lt Col Bima Santosa shows up wearing basic camouflage fatigues and a young face. There’s very little ceremony, he’s only accompanied only by one assistant. An easy going man with a ready sense of humor, he’s obviously keen to get a handle on what goes on with the mountain.

After a suitable interlude of pleasantries I suggest that he and other authorities in Karangasem could discuss with Immigration the possibility of simply deporting foreigners who transgress the ban on climbing the volcano. Already several have required search and rescue teams, and as I write this a new case has just come to the attention of PASEBAYA who have a team on the ground now near Pura Pasar Agung. As they can’t actually be processed by the law (there are no sanctions in place) there needs to be a stronger deterrent in place for all these would be heroes. Enough is enough.

An inscrutable volcano.

* and ** edited according to information received from EBPP’s David Booth


text  ©Rio Helmi 

images ©Rio Helmi unless otherwise specified


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 could consider gathering a group of friends and pitch in together. Please transfer to the Kopernik foundation (details below) – their books are audited and they are accountable. When you transfer please make sure to put the message “For Ban shelters” on the transfer and notify rio@riohelmi.com

Bank Mandiri
Branch: KCP Ubud 14510
Customer Name: Yayasan Kopernik
Account Name: Yayasan Kopernik
Account Number: 1450018048898