Text and photos ©Rio Helmi

It’s the 23rd of September. Yesterday Robin Lim (celebrity midwife of Bali), the ever efficient Eka, her right hand woman and I took the pickup (no, not the one in the picture above) and dropped off some sundries at the sports arena in Klungkung, and they got to chat with the nurses while I popped off some pics. I hate riding thru Bali traffic on a bike, and driving thru it in car does my head in. So today I’m out to the mountains again.

Wait, what happened to my own to-do list? The volcano has taken over our lives here in Bali. I’m out the door from Ubud at 4.30am; my bike’s fog lights blast me thru Kintamani mist to Suter where I was hoping to catch a shot of Agung, but the weather is not friendly. On to Besakih where at 5:10 everything is dead as a door nail. I banged on the door of the police post and even that door nail didn’t budge. A little voice in my head says “Mr Helmi you are well within the red zone”. That and the nasty barking of posturing dogs gets me on my way to Rendang, down the valley and up the other side. Eerie, ghost town vibe, and a light misty sprinkle of rain hastens me until I see bike lights. It’s young men on their way back to their fields coming from Rendang.

Lead picture top: evacuees bringing everything they can. Above: Not a fun sleepover in Rendang. Below: Not exactly strong young men.

I get to Rendang just in time to catch some of the evacuees in various public buildings stirring, and within about 15 minutes some are getting on their bikes to head home. Despite one community leader’s assurance that they are only letting strong young men go, there are plenty of older couples heading up. Rendang feels more like a sleep over, but in not such a good way. People are there with their ‘bedding’ but have to fend for themselves as far as food goes. I don’t see any signs of distribution. And when I enter the Perbekel (village administration) office which is the supposed POSKO (coordination post), walkie-talkies are blaring, cigarette smoke hangs acrid in the air – and there are a couple of people sitting around but they can’t give me any data, let alone breakdowns of babies, pregnant women, and old infirm people.

Blah-blah-blah, goodbye and it’s down to the volcano monitoring post where I find local villagers eager for info, some despondent photographers staring at thick cloud covering almost the exact shape of the mountain, and the geologists still hard at it. I have the impression that a couple of them have escaped and actually gotten some sleep for the first time in a week. The needle on the graph drum thingey is screeching. As it turns out there’s been something of lull, or at least a lessening of frequency. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the intensity has passed the 3 threshold on the richter scale to 3.5 on occasion. Hmmm.

Above: At the volcano monitoring post in Rendang. Below: Saving the cows.

Down the road I go (back into the no-no zone but no one is stopping people) through Muncan and Selat to Sidemen. On the way I see some farmers who have organized a pick up truck to bring their cows to safe pasture on their relatives land. Good for them, and to hell with the scalpers who are buying cattle off panicked villagers for half price. Muncan is dead, a ghost town. In Selat I stop and chat with a couple of cops who are keeping an eye out for people who refuse to evacuate. They are super friendly. The only coffee stall in town, opposite the police station, is sort of open. I ask for coffee and basically am invited to help myself. He refuses payment. It’s a great cup of coffee (my doctor isn’t reading this). Then it’s back on the empty road, which has actually gotten a bit busier with trucks picking up belongings and bikes with people from shelters coming back for the day, carrying sickles on their way to get fodder for their cows .

Since my last post, I’ve been conscripted by 4 formidable women: Rucina Ballinger who has been doing great social work for years, Ewa Wojkowska of the ever innovative Kopernik bent on poverty eradication, CNN Hero midwife Robin Lim of Bumi Sehat, and Petra Schneider of super-environmental IDEP. What was I thinking? However I’ll admit to having a sense of self-importance when announcing to unsuspecting village officials that I need data for this coordinated relief effort. What a gig: those ladies and their legions of volunteers were back in Ubud doing all the hard work while I’m out on a scenic bike ride. Then I get a polite message, half in caps from Petra to please list ITEM, QTY, LOCATION, CONTACT PERSON. It’s the QTY thing that is bad for my blood pressure.

It’s not an easy job getting exact details as to how many pregnant women there are in camps strewn around various hamlets and exactly what they need: “Oh the midwife is doing the rounds and will get back to you”. Given that seemingly the only midwife around in Sidemen has an area of about 35 square kilometers to cover (and a population of at least 32000 people, about 4000 of whom are now scattered across various shelters), it’s going to be a while. But I have to be fair to the district officers of Sidemen, they have taken the initiative to register all evacuees in all their shelters. They were the best organized that I visited, and left me with a good impression of Sidemen. Except for the greasy noodles I had for breakfast opposite the cop-shop.

Down the road from Sidemen in Sibetan I meet a couple of switched on fellows, one who is the village secretary and his friend who is coordinating the relief supplies. Unfortunately the district officer has absconded with their evacuee list. Seeing the monitor on the desk, I ask hopefully: “No computer archive?” but end up opening a can of worms instead. It was all hand written. “No photocopies?” I push my luck. They suggest waiting for someone to go and get it back from the Camat’s office. But the coffee and the fast and furious ride down the winding Sibetan road has poisoned me. And we’re off again.

It’s pushing past mid-morning, the throttle stays twisted. Manggis and the central coordinating center for all of Karangasem regency lies ahead. Obsessed, I buy gas at every opportunity – gas stations around Karangasem are closed or out of higher octane Pertamax. The town is dead except for the odd policeman and the very odd bike shop owner who seems to think I might want to talk to him instead of the policeman. Neither of them have too much information, except the address of the coordination center. The road from Karangasem south is jammed with pickups stuffed with everything from washing machines and bikes, to pigs and people (don’t they know that washing is going to problematic in the evacuation camps?). Trucks are loaded with anything that fits, and there are swarms of families perched on scooters festooned with bursting plastic bags.

“Did you remember the kitchen sink?

After a quick stop at the Manggis camp, I find myself at the Tanah Ampo cruise ship terminal. Only it was never operative as such, even after years and billions of rupiahs which does raise questions. There are loads of fancy rescue vehicles and pick ups and people strutting about in all kinds of uniforms. In the main hall I find scores and scores of people chatting, and more cigarette smoke. A huge blow-up of the danger zones is pasted up, with village names barely legible. There are roughly five people actually working. I sit down at the desk and get stale, unspecific data while the nice man points haplessly to a pile of handwritten sheets of paper (I start thinking of the absconded list from Sibetan). The little voice in my head says “Petra will kill me”.

In a bitchy mood, I wonder if any of them actually went out there. Nice clean uniforms though. Down the dead, rusty escalators again I find a couple of Indonesian Red Cross people. Aha, this should be useful. I ask the rather portly man (well more portly than me anyway) what has the PMI been up to? “Well we are part of a substructure that has an extensive network.” That’s nice, but what has been done by that extensive network in Karangasem? “Well this is the centralized control, everything goes through here…” The coffee and the speed adrenaline snaps my mind. I smile wanly, nod, spin round on my heels and get back to the bike. And the long, bumper to bumper lines of household jumbles on wheels to the by-pass past the Bat Caves. I need to submit my measly report to the cabal of formidable women (Rucina, Ewa, and an army of volunteers by this time have trucks ready to load with food and sundries to go to Sidemen and Nongan – sheesh are they efficient!) by 2pm.

There’s no slacking at the Kopernik office…

I speed through the traffic, making enough enemies for a few life times and am home within the hour. As I’m inhaling a 5 minute lunch, Facebook’s Messenger flashes and beeps. It’s @travelfish (Stuart Macdonald), and he’s sent me a Sydney Morning Herald article to spoil my lunch. Jewel Topsfield’s opening line reads: “About 240,000 people are expected to flee Bali’s Mount Agung precinct in eastern Indonesia…” . Hang on… Did I miss something on my rides? There are 240,000 ppl living in Mt Agung precinct? Mt Agung precinct? Where is that precinct? Is it in Klungkung regency? Is it in Karangasem regency? How did 50,000 people living in the danger zones suddenly reproduce five times over? Even if you threw in the 35,000 or so inhabitants of Amlapura town it doesn’t compute.

Well I guess it’s much better than the next thing that another friend has ‘kindly’ WhatsApp-ed me with the scintillating headline: “Tourists Terrified as Indonesia raises Bali volcano alert to highest level”. As if that wasn’t enough, a young Brit staying somewhere in a hotel miles and miles away from immediate danger posted “I’m too young to die…”. As many things are, this is of course debatable.

Some gases escaped the crater today, though no eruption yet. Meanwhile most of us really are waiting tensely. . Mainly because we are concerned for those people who won’t evacuate the danger zones or who might be caught close to it and suffer, and the great loss all those people will experience – homes, farms, livestock, and being displaced for months or even years. But not because we are afraid of a lava flow going through our aircon hotel in Kuta.


If you want to help, please donate to Kopernik whose offices we are using as a central coordination point for the four NGO relief work.