Monkeys and a mythical snake on Bali's Mt Batur
What compels the weary traveller to scale an active volcano at the intolerable hour of 3am? Is it to satisfy the explorer's unending appetite for novelty? Or is it the sheer absence of mental faculty that comes from sleep deprivation?
Tripping over pumice stones in the dead of night, I reckon it has to be the former. It was, after all, coming off a 3am flight to Bali that Patty and I decided to entertain this schlep. "Oh, a most fabulous experience," our British concierge gushed (whose deep baritone, honed over years as a state television announcer in China, made the pitch all the more persuasive).
His description conjured images of palm trees set against a blood-red sun, with Patty and I cutting swathes through the jungle as we crested towards the horizon of a breathtaking sunrise.
And that is why one should sleep before agreeing to such things. There are practicalities to think of, such as: do we need flashlights? How cold are tropical mountains? Is there a bathroom at 1,700 metres?
But as the alarm clock buzzes 2:45 am, none of this matters. All I can think of is how dumb we are, and why I've chosen to sport beachwear to scale a frigid mountainside.
Huddled in an SUV with four other masochists, we thunder through the empty streets of Ubud towards the northern town of Kintamani. A stop in someone's backyard kitchen for weak tea and oily crêpes portends a mediocre morning as around us posters advertise kopi luwak, the world's most expensive coffee.
I briefly entertain the thought of asking to try the $600-dollar-a-pound-roast - anything to escape my abysmal mug of Lipton - but it's only 3am: too early to appreciate the subtlety of coffee beans pooped out by the island's beady-eyed civets.
And so, lacking any other alternative, I climb back into a truck that drives us to the foot of Mt Batur, where Balinese guides layered in fleece hand us flashlights before abruptly disappearing through a forest of cornstalk. We've begun.
The sound of shoes sliding on gravel makes up the greater part of the morning. At the base of the mountain, our guides pause to offer up a prayer. It is said that the head of Antaboga, a serpentine god that existed before the beginning of time, lies underneath the volcano, whose violent movements are caused when its head shakes.
Upon the head of the snake we climb, the peril of unanticipated rock and clefts revealed only centimetres at a time by our weak flashlights. Some trekkers fall. Patty trips. I bash my knee and fall behind, crawling upwards at such a tedious pace that my guide stops to peer down at me. "You OK?" she asks.
"Yeah, I'm good," I say. "Are we there yet?"
"Almost. Feel the heat?" she says, shining her light into a hole in the rock. I put my hand in it and feel the wet steam of lava churning below the quiet surface.
"Yup. Are we there yet?"
More cursed gravel lies ahead and I nearly face-plant into some black rock after I miss a step. After what seems like a Sisyphean eternity of pushing upwards, I'm suddenly on flat ground. A few more steps to a concrete balustrade that serves as a front row seat for the sunrise and I scamper into place as the first rays break over the horizon.
Someone whistles "Here Comes the Sun" and then slowly a vermilion orb floats upward, passing once through a veil of hanging grey cloud to emerge a brilliant gold. The blue shadows of the landscape flee, revealing a large, smooth lake in the middle of bare mountains, a quiet village hugging its periphery.
"Breakfast?" the guides call, holding banana sandwiches. Mesmerised by the sun, I place the bread on a nearby rock, too awed to pay any attention, and wonder if humans today are anymore taken with this refulgent life-giver than they were thousands of years ago.
I'm shaken out of my trance when a woman suddenly shrieks beside me: "Monkey!"
I look down to find a little macaque eyeing me as he grabs the first piece of my sandwich. He narrows his gaze, cocks his head, and snatches the second. Soon, we are surrounded by a fleet of fast-fingered primates who perch on the rocks next to us, biding their time until the next tourist tosses out a victual.
Patty, who was chased by a pack of wild monkeys in Malaysia once, alternates between elation and hysteria as she takes pictures. "Oh, look at them, they're so cute, hahaha!" Snap, snap. "Oh, Effie, their fangs are huge, haha!" Snap, snap. "Effie?"
Effie is done. She's seen the rocks, the monkeys and the sun. Now, she just wants to sit under the cave below that's billowing humid steam and take a nap. The small opening is a haven amid the cold, and I wonder how long it will take to climb back down the detestable gravel.
Would it be possible to lash some monkeys together and ride them down, I wonder? But then I realise I have no more banana sandwiches to lure them with. So I hobble back to find Patty, who may have already been carted off by the monkey king and, if so, might be the perfect person to arrange transportation options.
Next week: Yanto the healer and the Bali of yesteryear
Updated: August 13, 2011 04:00 AM