Three volcanoes, three unbelievable adventures. The world is reopening and our expeditions are again in full swing. It’s a great feeling.
Indonesia is home to more volcanoes than any other country in the world. Better still, many of them are active. Prior to Covid we would travel to Indonesia every year. It had been almost three years since our last visit, so another expedition was well overdue.
I gave my Indonesian friend Andi a call and within a few hours, a new expedition had been proposed. We’d travel to three volcanoes in three weeks. Dukono, Ibu and Merapi. They were all active and promised an expedition like no other.
I left Auckland on a 6am Qantas flight bound for Sydney with a 5 hour layover before heading to Jakarta.
Our pre-trip briefing – Jakarta.
A New Zealand based friend, Paul flew in from Europe and joined us the next day. That evening, we boarded a direct flight to the island of Ternate where we would kickstart our first expedition to Dukono Volcano.
PART ONE – DUKONO VOLCANO
Ternate is a fascinating island. It’s a near-conical shaped stratovolcano (Gamalama) and home to a whopping 200,000+ people. I can’t get over how precarious everything is. A major city, perched on the flanks of a major volcano…seemingly in denial of its existence. We travelled around the ring road stopping at some of the historic lava flows and explosion craters. A reminder of the destructive potential of this volcano.
Lava flows from the 1920’s
Lake Tolire – an old explosion crater
That afternoon, we boarded a speed boat which ferried us over to Sofifi on the island of Halmahera before driving north four hours to Tobello. Tobello is a small, friendly town on the northern coast. I don’t think they get many foreigners here as everyone wanted photos with us. We relished the opportunity to be minor celebrities for a day.
The local beach at Tobelo
Dukono is a spectacular volcano. Its surroundings resemble Jurassic Park. It erupts violently – often without warning. I had visited four years prior, but had to cut the climb short for safety reasons (HUGE eruptions). I wanted to return and stare inside the crater this time.
Before the climb, we stopped by the local PVMBG to meet the volcanologist responsible for monitoring Dukono. He was a friendly and knowledgeable chap. According to his analysis, Dukono wasn’t as active as our last visit, but was still in a phase of unpredictable explosive eruptions. Great. The seismograms were an ominous sign of what was to come.
And so with the threat of sudden explosive eruptions, we recruited a small army of local porters, boarded the jeep and headed towards Dukono.
The coconut jeep
The “coconut” jeep, as Andi had named it, was meant to save time, but ended up being an adventure in itself. Very few people ever climb Dukono, and Covid ensured no one had climbed it for over two years. The road (if you’d call it that), had become overgrown and the jeep had seen better days. The seat inside was an old tree stump and the tires were about as smooth as a baby’s bottom. It wasn’t long before we got stuck. Properly stuck. We had a team of ten or so, digging new road, laying palm fronds and rocks, pushing, jumping and doing whatever it took to get us free. An hour or so later, we were free…only to be stuck again five minutes later. And so the process of digging, jumping and pushing started all over again. When we approached another difficult stretch of road, I was sure we’d have to abandon and start walking. But the Indonesians are a stubborn bunch and continued their valiant efforts to get us to the “official” start of the trek.
Adventures on the coconut jeep.
Three hours later, and surely what would have taken us an hour to walk, we made it to a small coconut plantation within the jungle where our legs took over.
If you think Volcanoes are dangerous, try trekking through the Indonesian jungle where everything is trying to kill you. Deadly snakes (King Cobras), poisonous spiders, leeches, plants with spikes the length of your finger that inject toxins mixed with searing heat, humidity and choking ash. You do begin to question what the actual fuck you are doing. The track was overgrown, non-existent in places and very easy to get lost. It was hard going. I felt bad for the porter whose job was to carry up four watermelons. Apparently they are a great hiking food according to Andi….as long as someone else carries them.
Three hours later, the ground began to flatten out and we got our first peak at Dukono’s cone.
It was eerily quiet. We observed some degassing and a small plume, but nothing like we had seen on our previous visit. I wasn’t disappointed as I wanted to climb to the summit more than anything. This was my opportunity to do so.
We set up our base camp right within the caldera and then explored some of the surrounding area. We followed the path of a recent lahar and witnessed just how destructive it could be.
With dinner preparation underway, Andi surprised us with cold beer. We looked out over Dukono and secretly prayed for a safe passage.
2am the next morning, my alarm went off. It was time to get up again for our trek to the top. We wanted to leave early to see the sun come up. With a quick breakfast and gear check, we headed off into the darkness.
It wasn’t long before we were getting rained on with ash. The Covid masks proved quite useful here. The terrain got steeper as we forged a path through the thick ash and rocks. The vegetation had all but vanished. In the next few hours I was either going to get some awesome video footage or I was going to end up dead.
As we got closer, we noticed a red glow and a rumbling sound. We knew Dukono was cooking up something great for us. It wasn’t long before we could climb no further. We had reached the top. As I cautiously approached the crater lip, I got my first view of the enormous crater. It was awe inspiring. Sitting at the bottom of this menacing pit was a cauldron of fire – multiple vents spewing lava and ash, rapid degassing and about as close to hell as possible. With the sun slowly rising, it was the greatest show one could imagine.
To make things even better, we saw eruptions from nearby Ibu in the distance.
We stayed at the summit for a few hours, before heading back down to base camp. We were safe and had avoided any sudden explosive eruptions. After dismantling our base camp, we made a very quick descent down where the jeep picked us up and didn’t get stuck once!
PART TWO – IBU VOLCANO
Fresh from Dukono, we took a day to recover and prepare for our second volcano. Ibu. Ibu is not far from Dukono geographically, but it takes a day to drive there. Driving anywhere in Indonesia is never fast.
Ibu is a stratovolcano with an unusual truncated summit with multiple nested craters and dangerous lava domes. The volcano had been dormant for almost 100 years when on Dec 31 1998 it suddenly erupted. It has been active ever since. Once what was a deep crater has now been filled.
After a long day’s driving, we arrived at the small settlement of Duono (not be confused with Dukono). Because of the remote location of Ibu and complete lack of tourists, there are no guesthouses to stay at. So we ended up being hosted at the local Policeman’s house. His family were incredibly kind and put on a wonderful dinner.
The next morning we recruited a new army of porters and organised another “coconut” jeep. This model was a newer one with tire tread. Yah. The drive up wasn’t nearly as challenging as Dukono. We did get stuck a few times, but the driver’s technique of flooring it and burning rubber seemed like a good one.
The trek was about four hours, but generally an easier climb than Dukono. Andi warned us multiple times of the deadly king cobras and green tree snakes. He insisted that the village chief (who had joined our trek) be in front at all times. The vegetation was littered with small fragments of rock. These were recent lava bombs. Helmets were compulsory most of the way up. Goggles were required when the ash began falling.
We kept hearing what we thought were planes near the summit. It turned out that it was the volcano mimicking sounds of an airport.
When we finally broke through the vegetation and got our first view of the crater, we were amazed. Just a hundred metres in front of us were numerous lava domes, smoldering away. Lava domes are inherently unstable and can collapse at any time, generating pyroclastic flows. We also had our first eruption from the main vent which shot ash hundreds of metres into the sky above us. It was menacing and a bit frightening as the ground shock below us.
Ibu erupted approximately every 15 minutes. At times it sounded like 747 jets taking off, other times it would let out deafening booms. Ash plumes reaching up to 1000 meters rained down on us often. There were times eruptions would last 30 minutes or longer. Lava bombs were thrown in every direction. I managed to get the drone right over the main dome and capture some stunning footage.
As the sun set, we were treated to an incredible light show of lava. There is no better show than witnessing a volcano erupt thousands of glowing lava bombs sky high.
None of us were ready to descend. Ibu had captivated us. Whilst nowhere near the tallest or biggest volcano, Ibu put on one of the most spectacular shows I’ve ever witnessed. It goes straight into my top 10 favourite volcanoes list. I can’t wait to go back.
PART THREE- MERAPI VOLCANO
Fresh from Ibu, we drove north back to Malang and caught the express train to Yogyakarta. The train was very modern and efficient, a contrast to driving anywhere in Indonesia. Yogyakarta was our base for the final volcano – Merapi. With two unstable lava domes and a possible major eruption at any time, there was no safe way to summit, so we decided to explore around the base of the volcano.
The local PVMBG office welcomed us and showed us seismograms of the constant incandescent rock falls. They were frequent and a sign that the lava domes were becoming particularly unstable.
We visited the site of the devastating pyroclastic flow in 2010. 353 were tragically killed in this eruption, including those sheltering in a bunker that was completely swamped by the flow.
Due to the risk of eruption and being within close proximity of a pyroclastic flow pathway, we set up base in a high watchtower, overlooking the volcano. Unfortunately clouds got in the way for most of the night, but it was a unique experience sleeping in a watchtower.
The next morning, we joined a local journalist who took us even higher up the south-western flank to view the incandescent lava flows. This was an extremely dangerous place to be – right within the main pyroclastic flow channel. We observed multiple rock falls and ash rising from the main lava dome. We were all foaming to climb Merapi, but had to be sensible….just once.