Chapter 1: An Accidental Interest

It’s 1985. We’re in the Lake District, throwing oranges into a stream. To what end, I have no idea. Learning to peel oranges would probably be more useful.

It’s a school A level Geography trip to study first-hand the impact of glaciation on the landscape. Corries and tarns, U-shaped valleys and V-shaped valleys, drumlins and roches moutonnées – which still look sod all like sheep to me.

None of the students share the same enthusiasm as the teachers, although I suspect even for them these annual trips are something of a chore. I’m sure they’d rather be at home with their spouses and children, watching tv or popping down the local for a pint, rather than being stuck in a youth hostel with a bunch of sulky teenagers whose interest in all things glacial is minimal to say the least. To the bored, insolent students, it’s nothing more than an excuse to be away from home for a week. To have noisy, messy water fights in the dormitory each night, to sneak out back for a crafty cigarette and think they’re really pulling a fast one.

Each morning we’re escorted off to different parts of the Lakes so that we can see up close what have hitherto been sketches and diagrams in textbooks, and to conduct experiments which I assume are a practical means of trying to drum something into our skulls. Although I will emerge from Sixth Form with an A level in Geography, I suspect that came from a good understanding of what they then called ‘Human Geography’ – the movement of people, the composition of societies, demographics and population theories; and which would somehow provide an albeit tentative link to a career in market research – rather than an understanding of ‘Physical Geography’. As spectacular as the Lake District is, none of this really means much to me.

For one exercise, we’re deposited at the foot of a valley, and instructed to walk up the valley, sketch the tarn at the top and explain it’s formation, and on no account to visit the nearby pub. The teacher then drove off. Weeks later, back in the classroom he will give us a slideshow of the photos he took on the trip, including one of this same valley, complete with the pub in the foreground, and a clearly distinguishable group of his students sitting at a picnic table nursing pints of amber liquid. Ooops.

But unbeknownst to me something of that experience did sink in. Something about being able to identify various features of the landscape, and, even better, being able to explain how they came about, seeped through the porous, limestone-like membrane of my skull. It was probably more about being able to show off than anything else, or answer some Trivial Pursuit questions correctly, but whatever it was, it sneaked in and it stayed.

Now we’re in Java, Indonesia, in 1993, backpacking, and heading east from Yogjakarta towards Bali. Our destination is Mount Bromo, and we’ve a bum-numbing eleven hour train journey to endure. It begins reasonably enough but each station heralds more passengers, more baggage, more goods, more livestock. Space is at a premium and no matter how uncomfortable that hard bench seat has become it cannot be left for a second lest it be commandeered by someone or their wares. Or a chicken. By the time we get to Probolingo the relief of getting off my arse is immense. I fear I’ll bear the bruises for a while to come.

A certified lunatic behind the wheel of a dilapidated jeep then takes us toward the volcano and we find ourselves in a hostel perched on the lip of the outer crater. By the light of a full moon Bromo looks like a moonscape – not that I’ve ever seen a moonscape of course. It’s white and ghostly and very eerie. And by the light of the following morning, it still retains that otherworldliness. Mount Bromo itself is a crater within the massive, 10km-wide Tengger caldera; a landscape of rugged, barren volcanic peaks and gravel plains; and surrounded by a vast sea of sand. It seems not of this planet.

At 2,329 metres (7,641 ft) Mount Bromo is by no means the tallest in the region, but it is the most well known. And for good reason. Aside from being active, it’s accessible, and quite frankly, stunning. Learning how volcanoes and plate tectonics make and shape the land in a classroom in the middle of Northumberland is one thing. Seeing it for yourself is something else entirely. Even though erosion is still shaping the Lake District there is a sense of ancientness; that the mountains and valleys were formed long ago and will remain the same for time immemorial. Here in East Java, the earth is active. It is visibly alive. You can see the plumes of steam rising from the vents in the crater. You can smell the noxious sulphur in the air. You can feel the heat of the rocks. And while those continuous columns of steam and smoke will do little to change the shape of the mountain, no one knows when its latent energy will manifest itself in the form of an eruption.

And indeed, Bromo burped, if not exploded, into life in 2004, spewing ash and hurling rocks high into the sky. And again in 2010. And 2011. 2015.

To say I was impressed is an understatement. To be sitting on the crater-rim of an active volcano while it spews out gases and smoke over a hundred feet below is completely unique. To be that close to the earth as it does what the earth does – regenerating, changing, evolving – is quite primeval.

Indonesia is a land of volcanoes, sitting as it does between two continental plates: the Eurasian Plate and Australian Plate; and between two oceanic plates: the Philippine Sea Plate and Pacific Plate. So you don’t have to wander very far before you come across another one. Just 269 kilometres east of Mount Bromo sits Mount Batur, on the adjacent island and tourist paradise of Bali. The day I got to Mount Batur incidentally was the ninetieth day of my backpacking travels. Phileas Fogg had gone around the world and got back home by this stage. He should have squandered the bet and taken more time.

Gunung Batur, to give it its local name, is also an active volcano, this time located at the centre of two concentric calderas, the south east side of which contains a caldera lake. And on the shores of that lake, in the wonderfully named village of Toya Bungkah, nature again bubbles to the surface, quite literally, in the form of hot springs in which the entire village appears to take its evening bath. And do the dishes. And the laundry. I wrote in my diary at the time that “‘Toya’ apparently means holy water and not punk doyenne with a lithp” however several internet searches have failed to back up this claim. It’s a shot in the dark. A big question mark. In history. It’s a mystery.

Those internet searches also reveal Toya Bungkah to be now rather well developed with several resorts and spas and swimming pools. On Saturday November 6th, 1993, there are precisely five tourists in the village. So although we’re staying at several different hostels, we decide we may as well all go up the mountain together, a suggestion which doesn’t go down well with the local guides. As far as we’re concerned we’re going to pay the money anyway, and we don’t really mind who we give it to, so why have three guides going up when one would do? Obviously the rationale works in reverse for the guides – if they don’t go up the hill, they don’t get paid. And you have to respect that. My guide subsequently turns out to be a bit grumpy.

Climbing Batur involves a 4am start in order to reach the top for sunrise with, in my case, a sullen guide. It’s 4am, it’s dark, we have no lights, and he’s wearing flip flops. He’s also carrying a bag of eggs which, after an arduous two hour climb to the summit at 1,717 metres, he boils for breakfast simply by finding an appropriate hot-spot in the earth and burying them for a wee while.

Compared to Mount Bromo, Mount Batur is a bit of an anti-climax, missing the unearthly character of the former. At the time Batur was last active in 1974, but erupted again in 2000, another testament to the unpredictability of our planet. I wouldn’t have liked to have been boiling my eggs for breakfast on that day.

Two weeks later and we’re still heading east through Indonesia, now on the island of Flores, home of yet more volcanoes. In this case it is Kelimutu, famous for its three crater lakes which are not only three different colours but even change colour periodically; a result of chemical reactions to the minerals in the lake with different gases produced by volcanic activity. You could contend that a volcano is a volcano, yet each of the three I’ll visit in the space of four weeks in Indonesia have totally different characteristics.

And in the case of Kelimutu, cracking names. Tiwu Ata Bupu (Lake of Old People) is blue in colour. Tiwu Ko’o Fai Nuwa Muri (Lake of Young Men and Maidens) is green. And Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched or Enchanted Lake) is red. A red lake? It’s bonkers. Mind you, I have to rely on the guide books to tell me that because when we get there it is rather disappointingly enveloped in early morning cloud.

We endure a hellish journey from Ende to Mone in an old flat-bed truck that has had some rough seats and a roof added to it but no extra thought to suspension or comfort. It’s vastly over-crowded to the extent that I’m perched on the tailgate, which is a recipe for a bruised backside and spinal damage. The only highlight is a local guy who, seeing that I’m travelling with two women, a Canadian and a Dutch, asks if I want to sell one of them to him. After the initial shock of such a proposition, I enter into negotiations but the ladies aren’t too impressed.

The Regal Homestay is anything but regal but before we start complaining we’re brought right back down to earth. The original structure was destroyed, along with half the village and four of the villagers, by an earthquake in December of the previous year (1992). Some of the hostels that are listed in the Lonely Planet no longer exist, the roads in the area have not been repaired so getting provisions in and out is a slow process, the water supply has not yet been fully repaired, there are ruined shells of former homes dotted round and about, and the whole area of Eastern Flores between Ende and Maumere was badly affected. Thankfully the owner tells us this before any of us open our pampered traps to complain about a lumpy mattress or the lack of hot water or something else utterly inconsequential.

When we do make it up onto the volcano for sunrise in the morning we are given only a very brief glimpse of the green lake as the wind clears the cloud momentarily. But aside from that it’s a view of clouds. Clouds, clouds and more clouds. I’m up against a deadline and can’t afford to miss the bus to the next town, so I can’t wait to see if the clouds will clear, and opt to leave the ladies shivering away in the morning cold waiting for some clarity.

Ten days later I’ll bump into the Dutch girl in Kuta, Bali. She and the Canadian waited at Kelimutu to see if the weather improved. It did, and they had a fantastic view of all three lakes in the blazing sunshine. I knew I should have sold them when I had the chance.

And that, as they say, is that. My interest in all things geological, piqued in the ancient hills of the Lake District and fuelled by the active volcanoes of Indonesia, more or less stalled.

Thereafter to remain dormant.

Until 2014.

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