“You go to climb Agung?” the stall owner asks, her eyes widening as she hands me a bottle of water. “Agung very high, very hard. You must be strong lady,” she warns, frowning at my face — red from a morning’s bike ride — as I breathlessly guzzle the bottle’s contents, and grimace at the ensuing brain freeze.
Tonight I’ll be setting out on a night-time ascent of Gunung Agung – Bali’s highest mountain. And she thinks I’m bonkers.
On the day of the climb, it occurs to me it’s high time to fit in some last-minute training. I jog along paths lacing verdant rice terraces — the conical peaks of volcanoes rising beyond like a dragon’s spine — before collapsing on the roadside to dunk my head in a trickling stream. Surrounded by the scent of incense infused with a faint whiff of barbecued meat, I wind past moss-cloaked temples, lonely cows and warungs (shops) dripping in dried chilli and saffron. And then it’s time.
The trek begins after nightfall. The idea is to arrive at the summit as the sun rises, after an aggressive four- or five-hour ascent from the Hindu temple of Pura Pasar Agung.
I’d booked the small group trek with my hotel, the Hanging Gardens of Bali, for $99 (£61), which includes a couple of local guides and snacks along the way. Eerily beautiful, like a moonscape, the mountain is a maze, and I’m told it’s easy to lose your way on its paths, veiled in jungle foliage and treacherous rock. A guide is therefore a must, especially for the chance to hear tales of the sacrosanct volcano and life growing up in this secluded wilderness.
“Agung explode many years ago,” one of the guides explains, mimicing an eruption with his leathery hands. “Killed many people, but no touch Pura Besakih. She knows not to damage temple,” he nods with authority, as I heave myself up a jagged rock face. On the southern slopes of Agung, the Hindu temple of Besakih is Bali’s holiest, and was missed completely by lava from the 1963 eruption — something the Balinese see as a miracle from the gods.
Shadowy jungle, harbouring sleeping macaques, soon gives way to serrated volcanic rock cloaked in an inky sky, and it quickly becomes necessary to hoist myself up using all four limbs — it may not be a technical climb, but it’s a relentless uphill struggle. At no point does it plateau.
We may have started off climbing as a small group, yet the others have slowly dropped away, defeated by the rough terrain and increasingly shortness of breath, leaving Adam and I, and a non-English-speaking guide. It’s seriously tough – my legs are tiring, and it’s getting to the point I’m having to stop every five minutes or so for a breather and to shake my legs out.
Looking up, the summit appears closer yet we’re still shrouded in a thick darkness. Then without warning, my guide turns to signify we’ve made it. It’s taken a good five hours of uphill agony. I gaze at Agung’s wild and untamed crater, tracing the horizon from its tip to the Bali Sea, on to the point of Mount Rinjani — neighbouring Lombok’s highest volcano — and beyond.
On top of the world
Huddled together with Adam, we wait for the first of the sun’s rays to poke their way above the Bali Sea and exude some of that delicious exotic heat — I may be in Bali, but I’m on the rim of a 10,308ft-high volcano, and it’s bitterly cold.
With no sign of sunrise, I’m left to contemplate my rock-bound seat. Just a few days earlier, on London’s Underground, I’d overheard two 30-somethings deriding my impending destination.
“It’s not like it used to be, the place has been ruined,” said the blond man, with an air of supremacy. “It’s losing its soul — too many people have visited,” added his bequiffed companion, his fingers flicking through a newspaper. This was the second time I’d heard people turn their noses up at the Indonesian island. Luckily, I’d paid no attention.
Hugging my knees, I glance over at my guide, wrapped tightly in a sarong, the glow of the disintegrating fire reflected in his eyes. How he leapt up this mighty volcano, Gunung Agung, in a pair of tatty flip-flops with just a small cereal bar for sustenance, I’ll never know. Waving the haze of smoke away, he pulls himself up and disappears for several moments before returning to throw some kindling on our makeshift fire. “Pray, pray,” he whispers, ushering me towards a gap in the rocks with a weather-beaten finger.
Tentatively, I round the corner to be confronted with a clutch of golden Hindu offerings. And then I spot the crimson flickers of the sun’s first beams creeping towards the waning moon, and the sky — punctuated by scattered clouds — slowly turns pink. I’m on top of Bali, above the jungle-juice parties of Kuta and the island’s incessant traffic, yet all I can hear is the ripple of the wind and the occasional muffled grunt from my guide. There’s much more to this Indonesian province than its ‘Costa Brava for Australians’ reputation suggests.
The descent is another relentless trek of around three hours and my legs soon feel as though they’ll buckle beneath me, yet arriving at last night’s starting point, we learn we’re the only ones to summit out of 10 climbers. My ecstasy cannot be contained. Thoughts of sleep immediately disappear and I grab a couple bottles of local beer, Bintang, for my journey to the coast — I’m off to a beachy backpacker hub for some serious chilling out.