Indonesia is the land of volcanos. No other country on Earth has more active volcanos than the 129 scattered throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Estimates say that 197 million Indonesians (more than 70% of the population) live within 100 kilometers of an active volcano.
I’ve been camped on the Indonesian island of Bali for over a month. On clear, sunny days when I am surfing out on the Bukit peninsula, the island’s largest volcano, Agung, dominates the horizon to the north. The volcano had been captivating me to the point where I decided I had to make a trip to see what was going on up there.
Agung is a classic, cone-shaped volcano that rises to a height of 9,944 feet above sea level. It’s responsible for one of the most devastating eruptions in Indonesia’s history when it claimed an estimated 1,500 lives after an eruption in 1963. Agung grabbed headlines again in 2017 when eruptions wreaked havoc on air traffic, closing the airport briefly due to ash.
While Agung is flashy with its height and significant eruptions, it also is a sacred place for the Balinese people. They believe that Agung, which means ‘great mountain’ in Balinese, is home to gods. The volcano’s eastern slopes feature the largest and oldest temple in Bali, Pura Besakih, which was barely spared from the 1963 eruption.
So I did my typical pre-hike research and map studying to plan for a strike mission to the summit. I booked a simple room near the base of the mountain, stocked up on snacks and water, and headed off on my little scooter for a 2-hour road trip to the other side of Bali.
The adventure before the adventure: Getting there
Cruising on my scooter nearly across the entire island of Bali turned out to be a journey in itself. It was fun.
My two-hour scooter trip ended up being three hours due to numerous detours created by religious ceremonies. The Balinese often close off entire streets for religious parades, which resulted in me getting a bit lost in the countryside of rice fields and small villages. At one point I took a detour for about 30 minutes until I realized that I had done a complete loop in the forest and was now back where I already had been.
Getting lost was more fun than I imagined. The small villages of rural Bali are lightyears away from the tourist areas on the southern coast. At one point I came across a full 20-piece band comprised of traditional instruments performing for what I imagine was religious purposes. I was the only foreigner around and I could only imagine the fanfare that this procession would have attracted in the more touristy areas of the island. As I rode down narrow, country roads, locals would look at me, wave hello, and start cracking up. I am sure it had been a while since they saw a lone gringo riding a scooter with surf racks down their street.
Eventually, I got my bearings and made it to my accommodation: a simple, no-frills room above a small restaurant, located about 20-minutes downhill from my starting point for the hike. I was greeted by the restaurant owner, Ketut, a talkative and warm middle-aged man who, aside from his Airbnb and restaurant businesses, also worked as a guide for visitors hiking Mt. Agung. He said he had been to the top a thousand times.
He whipped me up a meal of fried rice and discussed the hike a bit, of course, offering me his services as a guide, but not getting too pushy as many people in Bali often do. I politely declined, as I was confident that I could do it on my own, and had the trail marked on GPS apps if I needed to corroborate my tracks.
I had some time to kill in the afternoon, so I went to explore Pura Besakih, the ‘mother’ temple on Bali that dates back to the 9th century, according to the locals. What I thought would be a quick tour turned into a bit more of an activity after getting somewhat hustled by the local vendors and guides.
As soon as I parked my scooter I was literally mobbed by locals who were dressing me in proper attire, putting flowers on my ears, pushing my scooter to where I should park, and shoving prayer offerings in my hands. Some of these things I needed, so it worked out, but I hate pushy sales tactics. I paid for the sarong, which I needed anyway to enter the temple, and politely returned the flowers already behind my ears that the locals were trying to give me for a dollar a pop.
Then, of course, the tour guides stopped me before entering, untruthfully telling me that I needed to hire them to enter. Not looking for conflict, I coughed up the reasonable USD $12 or so. The information turned out to be alright and hiring the guide allowed me to access a prayer area that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. As I placed my offering my guide was quite busy escorting non-paying, wandering tourists out of the area. Religion is such an integral part of Balinese life and they take it seriously.
After the temple, I went to scout the trailhead, which was not marked, probably on purpose so people continue to hire guides. The lower elevations of the volcano have a huge web of trails used by farmers, so it was good to see the correct route in the daylight. I did not want to make a wrong turn off the bat.
The 6,000-foot grueling ascent
I set my alarm for 2am that morning, prepared my gear, and did some pre-hike stretching. The ride to the trailhead was pretty eventful on the pitch-black streets that were only illuminated by the weak headlight of my Honda scooter.
The little roar of my engine would give every stray dog on the road a heads up to my passing and they would wait for me and chase me as I passed, ferociously barking on my heels. I have to say, I had to go a little faster than I would have liked in the dark to avoid the sprinting dogs. I didn’t want to see which ones were nice and which were not.
I parked my scooter and got on the trail around 3:20am. The night was clear. I could see stars and the headlamps of hikers that started long before me way up near the top of the peak already.
The trail to the peak of Agung is impressively steep considering it has few switchbacks and no staircases. In just 3.8 miles the trail ascends an astounding 6,200 feet. It’s a slog up steep, loose, and at times, muddy, terrain — not for the inexperienced hiker.
By the time the first rays of light illuminated the low-hanging clouds below, I had already been hiking for about three hours. I was still about 2,000 feet shy of the summit, but my solo-hiking pace was keeping me at a good clip. I was on pace for the five-hour summit mark that my Airbnb host Ketut had estimated it would take me.
About 1,000 feet short of the summit I exited the tree-line and the trail became rough, awkwardly shaped lava rock. The final push to the top was a breathtaking tightrope walk along a ridge line with cliffs falling away to either side.
The summit was all that I imagined and more. I peered over the edge of the crater to see the gaping hole that will inevitably, sooner or later, erupt again and spew lava around the island. The panoramic views stretched east and west to the neighboring islands, Java and Lombok, each displaying their own similarly-impressive volcanos that pierced through the cloud cover.
For about an hour or so, I took a much-needed break on the peak until it was time to head back down and un-do each of those 6,200 feet of elevation that I had gained in the morning.
Back to the Bukit
The descent was a war against the joints. The loose soil was not forgiving on the knees, hips, and back, which made the way down feel longer than it really was. It was nice to observe the sights that I had missed during the nighttime portion of my hike — lush forests, loads of butterflies, and endless views down the mountain slopes.
When I got back to my scooter I was relieved to see that it was right where I left it, beside a small farm cottage. The homeowners emerged and greeted me, but also made sure that I didn’t depart without leaving a piece of my wallet. Given that I didn’t hire a guide, I guess I missed the checkpoint where you pay an entrance fee that is only about USD $3 or so. I chuckled a bit as the man taking my payment informed me that there would also be an additional ‘scooter safety’ charge for the protection of my bike. I got to give it to the Balinese locals and their creativity for creating fees where no fees exist. I happily gave him the extra bill, which was less than a dollar.
I headed back to Ketut’s place where I decided to spend another night. I was in no shape to drive my scooter two hours back home to the south of the island. All I wanted to do was wash the filth off and take a nap.
When I regained my strength to leave the house I found a local restaurant on the banks of a nearby river, where a group of friendly local rafting guides invited me to their table. I got a kick out of chatting with them and politely tasted their homemade arak alcohol. As these guys started drinking more, things got a little loose, and the next thing I knew Snoop Dogg was blasting out of the speakers from their car in the parking lot. It was a good time, and it was fun fighting through the language barrier because they were genuinely interested to hear about life in California.
The following morning I hopped back on my scooter, and having learned from my previous mistakes, took a more efficient route back home to the Bukit peninsula. My little escape to the other side of Bali was definitely one of the highlights of my entire 9-months of traveling, providing a needed morale boost for my two-month stay here in Indonesia.