Oct/Nov 2011 Travel

Gunung Agung

by Douglas Cole

Photo by Douglas Cole

Photo by Douglas Cole

Dewa came to meet me at Arjana with some unfortunate news. Nyoman one, who had agreed to be my guide on the hike up Agung would not be able to do it. It turned out he was not part of the trekking guide guild, and so he was not actually allowed to take me. He may have thought he would be able to do it anyway, but the local police and the guides at Besakih were keeping a closer watch on non-guild trekking guides, probably because it cut into the guides' business.

So around 9:30 pm, Dewa drove me up to Besakih, hoping we could find a guide there. When we arrived at Besakih, everything was closed and the streets were empty except for a few wandering dogs. We did find one Warung open, a little place where a few young men were sitting outside at a table. "You wait here," said Dewa, and he went to ask about a guide. A few minutes later, he came back with a young man who said he knew someone and would go check. Dewa translated since the young man did not speak English.

Dewa and I then went over the Warung and the young man drove off on his motorcycle.

Inside, it was a typical little shop with shelves of drinks and cans of food and cigarettes. Down the middle of the shop was a low table with plastic stools, and we sat down and waited. A woman wearing a long, red, floral dress shuffled over and Dewa ordered some fried rice for us. I couldn't really eat, though, feeling a bit nervous about the hike.

The young man returned with his friend, a man of about forty, short and compact with a whisp of a black mustache and goatee. He wore a blue wool cap and a dirty white canvas jacket, and he spoke very little English. Dewa spoke to him, telling him about me and about my desire to hike Agung. He nodded, listening, and responding to Dewa. I understood nothing except that I was the subject of the conversation. The man then looked at his watch and said something. Deway told me: "He said he can take you up but that you would have to leave right now."

"Now?" I said.

"Yes. He said it would take about twelve hours. Eight hours to climb to the summit, and four to five to come back down."

Now I was really nervous, thinking of an all night and all morning hike. I had gone with Neal on a small hike through the rice paddies early that day and I had not rested at all. Starting an arduous hike right now that would last twelve hours sounded tough, even for me. I said to Dewa, "What about starting from Selat? It's a little shorter I understand."

Dewa translated and the man said something, shaking his head. Dewa told me "He said Selat, the climb from Selat is more harder. You have to use a rope in many places."

Then Besakih was it. If I was going to climb Agung it was going to be now or not at all. I was more than a little afraid, but I said, "All right."

We discussed his fee and settled on 400,000 Rupiah, which, again, was high but the typical rate this year.

Dewa and I finished our food and I introduced myself to the man who said his name was Made. Through Dewa he asked if I had a torch, a flashlight. "No," I said. He called over to the woman, asking her, I was pretty sure, if she had one I could use. She did, and loaned it to me. I would bring it back the next day.

I had to register with the local police, and the police station was across the street from the Warung, so Dewa, Made and I went over. It was just a simple little building with a boy of about twelve or thirteen, I guessed, sitting at a wooden table looking at a travel brochure of the island, why I don't know. Made said something to him and he rose and went back through a door on the right. Made followed him, and so I went, too. In a little room in the back the police officer, in a black uniform, was asleep on a wooden bench. I thought it might not be a good idea at that moment to be back there, although I'm sure it was not a big deal, but you never know with police, so I went back out to the front room and waited.

The officer came out, rubbing his eyes, and opened a log book and pointed to a line and said something I didn't understand. Dewa said, "You are to write your name, and your address."

"Okay." The officer handed a pen to me, but when I tried to write my name it wouldn't work. He took the pen and scribbled on a separate sheet of paper. It worked fine. He handed it back to me. When I tried it, it still wouldn't work. Was this some kind of omen? I wondered. I took a pen of my own out of my pack and it worked. So now I was registered. The officer waved me on, and we went out.

"Well, I will leave you now," said Dewa, "and come back tomorrow at 1pm to meet you."

I shook his hand, saying "Thank you Dewa, for all your help."

"Oh, it's no problem," he said. And I watched him walk back across the street into the darkness of the parking lot. I felt a little nervous with him leaving. He was my trusted guide and protector.

So Made and I started up the street toward the temple where we would pick up the trail to Agung. But first he had to stop and get offerings. We went to a shop that looked closed. Made pulled back a plastic tarp and I followed him into a small room where several men were playing pool. They looked at me but did not seem very surprised to see a foreigner. In a town like this I was probably not such a surprising sight, really. None of them spoke English to me, and I stayed quiet and followed Made back through another room lit only by a bare bulb where another group of men were sitting around a low table playing cards and smoking. A few of them smiled and said "hello" in English. I returned the greeting, but that was all we said. Made went back into another room, where a woman stood surrounded by shelves of canned goods much like I had seen in the other Warung, only this woman also had a collection of offerings. Made purchased them, and we went back out and up the street again.

The street was dark, but Made seemed to have no trouble seeing. I stayed close, but I was unsure of my step in the darkness. We climbed a wide set of steps and came to the temple. He told me, in fragments, that they were renovating some parts of the temple, that much of it had been damaged in the eruption of Agung back in 1963.

We went up another set of steps that rose along the right side of the temple, and a few lights illuminated some of the shrines that stood dark above the temple walls.

We climbed the stairs to a cement path, and now it was completely dark, no lights at all, and occasionally Made would flip on his flashlight, but otherwise he seemed to see quite well. We came to another, smaller temple called Pangubargan, and Made said this was the place where we would make the offering. I helped by shining my flashlight onto his bag as he took out the offering trays with what looked like rice and flowers in them. He lit several incense sticks then handed two of them to me and said to "follow" him over to the shrine. He went inside and placed some offerings there, then came out and placed two offering trays side by side in front of the shrine. "Sit here," he said, and I sat down in front of the tray. He then took the incense and stuck them into the ground so that they angled over the offering tray. "Like this," he said, cupping his hands and drawing the smoke over his head, "to clean the body." I cupped my hands and carried the smoke over my head. He then placed his hands together and said a prayer in his language. Next, he took a bougainvillea blossom from the tray, said "Use flowers, too," and held it in the smoke of the incense. I did this, too, and he said another prayer. I followed his motions as he placed the flower behind his right ear and then took another and held it in the smoke and said a prayer. Three times, three flowers, one behind the right ear, two behind the left. The last thing he did was pour water onto my cupped palms, one hand under the other, and told me to drink three times. I did this, too, and he poured the water into his own hands, drank, and said a final prayer. In my mind I said a prayer of my own, that I came humble and with respect to enter his place, that I would go lightly and take good word of my experience to others. And so we had made the offerings, asked permission, and set off on our climb.

The story that I had read told that Mount Agung and Batur both derive from the sacred Hindu mountain of Mahameru Made was able to communicate in the English that he knew that Pangubargan was also called Meru. The god Pasupat (Siwa) removed the peak of the mountain to make Agung and Batur, using the right hand piece for Agung and the left for Batur. Agung would become the throne of the son, Putranjaya or Mahadewa Siwa, and Batur would be the throne of Dewi Danu, the goddess of lakes and waters. They were complimentary aspects of God, male and female, from Ida Sang Hyang Widhi.

I followed Made in the darkness. The path was fairly smooth, ascending into the trees. He clicked his light on and off. I turned my flashlight on and left it on, but he turned and said, "like this," clicking the flashlight on and off, "for battery..." Ah, I understood. On this long hike there was a chance the batteries might die, so I was conserving them by turning the light on and off.

"Yes, yes," I said, as I alternately turned my flashlight off and on.

We continued on, and I continued to turn the flashlight off and on, but it ended up making it difficult to see. When I turned the light on, I could in fact see for several meters and gauge my step, but when I turned it off, I saw that afterglow of the light and the echo images of the path and tress, and it threw me off. I tried to time the turning on and off of my flashlight with his, so that when his was off mine was on, hoping to create one steady illumination, but this proved impossible, so at one point I just turned my flashlight off and left it off. Made, walking before me, would appear when he turned on his flashlight, a small, black solitary figure illuminated into a silhouette. And then, with his flashlight off, we were back in pitch blackness. The flashlight would go on, and Made would appear again, a silhouette. Off would go the light, and then again there was blackness. A being before me, flickering in and out of my perception. There, then not there, although of course he was always there even when I could not see him.

And so I moved in close to him and tried to match my steps to his as I saw him in fragments, a broken language of trekking presented to me out of darkness. And I was able to settle into a stride, without turning on my flashlight, beholding Made when he was presented from the darkness, stepping easily and not stumbling when the darkness reasserted itself. And even though, in the beginning, when Made would turn off his light it felt like I was stepping into the void, I did not feel afraid, and I never took a misstep. And this did not surprise me at the time, even as the trail ascended and became more uneven and we had to step over roots and up sudden inclines. My hiking stayed attuned to his, sure and true. It was beautiful, and at one point, when Made turned the light on, I looked up and saw around us the jungle so dense that we seemed to be walking through a black tunnel laced with the white ribs of the tree trunks and plant stalks that wrapped around us, and for a moment, at the risk of sounding strange, perhaps giddy with the experience, I felt as though we were entering a womb, returning as it appeared to my eyes through a primal birth canal.

After a while, though, the path became much steeper. We had to grab hold of branches or roots or even the trunks of trees in order to climb upwards. I stayed close to Made, but now I had to turn on my light in order to see the intricate network of roots and rocks. It was not easy, both holding a flashlight and using my other hand to grasp a root by which to pull myself up the trail.

At one point, Made stopped and said "good to rest," and we sat down on the trail and drank some water and ate a little food. I shared some nuts and dried fruit with him, and he gave me some sugared crackers and then handed a small red bottle to me and told me to put it in my water, "make legs strong," he said. I poured it into my water bottle and the water turned a golden color. It tasted a little sweet.

We continued on up the trail, and I stayed in close to Made. It was tough, deep-stepping and hand-grappling climbing interspersed with brief moments where the trail leveled out and I could look up and see, now, through the openings in the leaves and branches above the bright blazing of the stars in a clear night sky. And as we continued, there were gradually more openings in the trees through which the sky appeared, and though I was sweating and my clothes were soaked through and I was climbing and breathing hard, I felt good and strong.

After several hours the trees became more intermittent. We now ascended on a path with soft, crunchy lava rock and hard rock plates. I followed Made as he kept his step to the hard rock in order to gain a more solid footing. Then the trees were gone and we were surrounded by only boulders and lava rock, and I could see the shape, a black outline, of Agung's peak before us. We were about four hours into the climb at this point, and the wind was cold. While climbing, I felt okay, but when we stopped, which was not often, I felt the cold. So I put on my raincoat and pulled up the hood.

We did some bouldering, pulling ourselves up through some short crevasses, stepping along rock shelves with loose lava rock, but the incline, though very steep, was angled just enough that I could lean into it and occasionally use my hands.

At last we came out of the big rocks and for the most part could keep to a broken line of hard rock interspersed with loose lava rock. The stars were all around us. I looked for and found Mars, which tonight or rather this morning, was at its most brilliant, bigger and brighter than it had ever been in over 500 thousand years or would be again for another two thousand years. I had partly chosen this night for my climb, hoping to see the planet, thinking that in some way it might be auspicious, and that I was lucky in a way that I could climb this night. The guides will not lead climbs up Agung on nights when certain ceremonies are in progress, and in Bali there are ceremonies going on all the time.

Five hours into our hike we hit the ridge trail. In the darkness I could not see the steep drop off on either side of us. I felt like we were simply walking in the sky. We came to the first of three peaks and Made stopped for a moment. The stars were intricate and bright, complete and rich as all of Bali. I pointed to the Milky Way and said to Made, "We call that the Milky Way, that stretch there," and I moved my hand along its length.

"Ah, "he said, "We call water of Vishnu. Yes."

"Water of Vishnu."

"It one of God."

"One of God?"

"Yes many God."

I nodded. "Yes, yes."

He smiled.

We walked on and reached the final peak, there above the crater. I could smell the sulfur but I of course could see nothing. It was very cold, although the wind was light. I had read that the wind could rise quite violently and that it had often gotten so bad that it drove hikers back. I had brought one extra shirt in my pack and I quickly took off my wet shirts and put on the dry one along with my rain coat. Made turned on his flashlight and pointed it at his watch. "See?" he said, and I looked down. It was only 4:30. It would not be daylight for another two hours. Were we just going to wait there for dawn? Were we going to head back down? I couldn't imagine trying to climb down in the darkness.

"We try to sleep," said Made, and he shone his flashlight along the ground, looking for a smooth spot.

At first he lay down on the ground and told me to come beside him. I lay down next to him, but the wind was too cold and I shuddered and shook. I nudged him and said, "Let's find a covered spot; it's too cold."

But there really were no covered spaces. There was a step, a slight ledge, and we wedged ourselves up against it, lying there curled together. I had brought a Sarong, just in case I should go into the temple at Besakih, and so I pulled it out and draped it over my bare legs. I shoved my hands into my sleeves and pulled my chin in against my chest. I could feel my breath against my chest, slightly warming, but I could feel my fingers and my toes becoming numb.

It was bone-shaking, teeth-chattering cold. Every breeze sent up a violent shaking in my body. Here at over 10,000 feet, exposed as I was, I wondered if I could suffer hypothermia? I tried to sleep. I closed my eyes, but it seemed impossible to sleep. Rather, I slipped into a twilight of dreamlessness, and I drifted lenticular around my body there on the peak. Could I make it to daylight? The thought would come to me when I would come back into my body, opening my eyes slightly as I swept back into the starry sky. And this was how I passed the remaining hours of darkness, looking for the light to come, drifting into twilight, drifting away, returning, opening my eyes, entering the stars, closing my eyes, shaking with cold, drifting out, drifting, shaking, drifting.

Light came, and I rose. I nudged Made and said, "It's daylight. Pagi." He didn't move. I got to my feet, shaking. My hands were trembling violently. The world around me was coming into light. The sun would be up soon. "It's morning," I said to Made.

He didn't move, but I heard his voice, quiet, say, "It's too cold." He climbed up slowly. I stomped my feet. They were numb. My hands were numb, stiff. I walked in little circles, waiting for the sun to rise.

Matahari, they call it here, the sun, rose gently out of a layer of clouds. It issued forth, a rich red sphere ascending through a column of white illuminated from within. Cold as I was, shaking, I gazed in wonder at what appeared to me in my dazed and dazzled mind a great shining head plunging upward through the womb-lining of the clouds, the slow engendering of the new daydream.

And then all was brilliant around me. I saw the sea wide-green rippling, the islands, clouds floating still and white below, and behind me, as I turned, the great shadow of the mountain stretched across the land and the water. Brilliant beautiful wonder.

Made made an offering to the mountain. I said a tandem prayer, asking for nothing. And so we began our trek down the mountain, looking out towards the wide crater of Batur across the valley with its central cone peak. We walked the narrow ridge path, sky all around us. Scrambling down, I could see the trail well and enjoyed choosing my path. I let Made get a little ahead, but never too far. Returning down the hard rock mixed with lava sand, I moved easily, warming up, the feeling returning to my feet and hands. I felt good, strong, and after we negotiated the stretch of boulders and came to where the path was mostly lava dust, we plunged our feet in and slalomed in the dust, laughing, sliding, playing in the soft lava.

We re-entered the forest, and it was all familiar and beautiful. The music of birds. Shafts of light coming through huge ferns. I thanked the mountain with every step.

And so we came back to earth. Gradually, jumping down and climbing over the huge roots, using roots and branches as ropes to climb down, we came back to the smooth path. I heard someone chopping wood out in the forest. We encountered another woodsman and Made spoke with him for a few moments. But my head was in glory. We came back to Pangubangan and rested a moment. The shrine, Made told me, with its eleven tiers, was made to resemble the high peak of the mountain. In fact, all of the shrines at Besakih had eleven tiers, the tallest of all the temples, in reflection of the highest point, the mother mountain.

We went back down through the temple, encountering people along the way, "Salamat Pagi," I said over and over, smiling, nodding to those we passed.

Made took me back to the Warung, and I sat down at the outside tables and smoked a cigarette. Along the ground in front of the Warung were large white sheets covered with cloves drying in the sunlight, and the air was sweet with their rich fragrance. I saw the woman who ran the Warung, and I gave her the flashlight I had borrowed. "Terima Casi," I said, thank you.

I paid Made and gave him a tip and thanked him for taking me up the mountain. He smiled and thanked me, and I watched him walk away up the street and probably out of my life forever. A strange thing, though, that I realized, is that a guide, even if he has climbed the mountain a hundred times and even if for him it is just another day of work, takes you on a holy journey and must be honored for his role. And so I bowed my head to him as he went.

I took out my notebook and jotted down a few notes, words Made had told me. A little girl in a yellow dress came over to look at what I was doing. I showed her the Balinese letters on a page that Dewa had written for me, and I handed her my pen and pushed the notebook toward her. She slowly wrote out the alphabet in careful, graceful letters. Then she showed me her letters and I smiled and said, "Pagus!" meaning very good. She smiled. I said, "Siapa nama anda?" asking her to tell me her name.

"Dewik," she said. I asked her to write it down, pointed rather because she spoke no English. Then, I drew out a Tic Tac Toe pattern and made an "X" in one square. She had never seen it before. I wrote both of our names and beside mine put an "X" and beside hers an "O." Then I showed her how we would put them in the squares and try to get three in a row. At first, however, she would just copy me, putting an "O" in the spot where I had put one in the practice one. But gradually she understood, and we played game after game as I waited for Dewa to return for me.


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