It’s dark and I’m standing in the streets of central Ubud. What should be a peaceful night is shattered by the incessant barking of the neighbour’s dog, who’s decided I’m a terrible threat to his territory. It makes the wait for my pickup for a sunrise trek slightly fraught, at 4 a.m. I’m not exactly corpus mentus just yet – and I’ve been attacked by dogs before in Asia. I stand my ground, knowing not to show fear – but hoping the ruckus doesn’t attract the more aggressive street dogs, and my tactic works. The little mutt eventually retreats into his garden and soon a mini bus jam-packed with tired tourists pulls up with a screech of brakes.
I’m up this early to climb Mount Batur, an active volcano near the centre of Bali, for its famous sunrise. The activity is popular with tourists from around the island, with transport coming all the way from the beaches of Kuta and beyond, so despite the early hour, there’s a stream of speeding mini buses racing along inner Bali’s narrow, twisting roads towards the base of the volcano. In classic Bali style, we drive at breakneck speeds through villages and countryside, swerving piles of building material deposited in the road, slow trucks and other tour buses – and I’m thankful for the bonus of a working seatbelt. As we ascend to the crater lake rim, we overtake an open-topped truck full of school kids, standing packed together like sardines – they must be freezing in the chilly night air. Even our veteran Balinese driver, no stranger to Bali’s mad roads, tells me it’s crazy, explaining there was an serious accident recently in similar circumstances where a truck full of kids rolled with fatal consequences. He tells me they’re also heading for the up for the trek, its a popular destination for school expeditions.
We pull into a large car park full of buses and taxis in the dark and I meet up with some friends. Torches are are handed out and we’re split into groups, each led by guides. There’s not much chance of getting lost though, as we set off on the sandy path out of the village there’s literally hundreds of other people going the same way – a sea of torch-lights illuminating the way ahead. The path is easy going for the first hour as we slowly ascend. I barely have time to set up my tripod on a quick rest stop before we’re off again but I do capture a rather grainy image of the rather mesmerizing stream of lights climbing to the summit.
From now on it’s steep going and the soft volcanic soil is loose and slippery. Conversation stalls as everyone is breathless, an half an hour of climbing later we arrive at a large rest stop with food stalls overlooking the crater and Lake Batur. It’s a great view – twilight is upon us, the horizon changing colour and town lights shimmer on the lake as the moon shines overhead. There’s just time for another few tripod shots – but unfortunately its windy making for blurry images with the long exposures, and before there’s time to correct it, we’re ushered onwards, we don’t want to miss the sunrise!
The final half hour stretch is very steep and slippery, and I lose my footing in the dark a number of times, hampered by my tripod. To add insult to injury, my bag zip decides to break leaving my camera kit precariously exposed to falling out, so I wear it on my front to minimize the risk. We finally reach the bare summit, and sit out along little shelves cut out of the soil, with some mats to sit on, as the guide collects tea for us from a nearby stall. The view is already amazing – the sky is quite clear aside from a few clouds, and the awesome cloud bank below rolls over the landscape, islands of hills popping up from this woolly sea as the volcano of Mount Agung to the right towers over everything else.
The summit gets increasingly busy as more groups arrive, mainly westerners of all types from backpackers to smartly dressed elderly groups. People take their seats and sip on coffee, dig into their breakfast or wander around taking photos as we wait for the sun to arrive. I’m mesmerised by the cloud sea, I’ve seen this phenomenon before at Mt Bromo in Java, and in the Himalayas, but it never gets old. There’s plenty of space to use the tripod, so I take advantage, unfortunately the barren summit doesn’t provide many interesting foregrounds aside from plants, and I have to be wary not to obstruct in the view for other visitors.
The sun finally begins to poke out from behind the clouds and they turn out to be a blessing, forcing the light into amazing god rays shining out over the cloud sea. We’re blessed with a magnificent sunrise – and we’re quite lucky as of course it’s all weather dependent, a lot of others saw my photos and said I got a particularly good morning for it. I use the inbuilt panorama mode on my camera to try and capture the epic sense of scale, but you’d really need a GoPro or super big panorama to really do this justice. I use my wider angle lens for classic landscapes and my zoom to focus on details in the scene. After I’ve got plenty of shots, I sit back and enjoy the moment properly and just admire the view.
The school groups we’d seen earlier finally arrive – sadly for them they’ve already missed the best bit. There’s a few scout groups and regular school kids, who seem knackered after racing up only to miss out! Once the sun’s fully up, we head back down the mountain. First we stop at some natural hot springs where a cheeky macaque monkey colony hangs out – getting fed by the tourists. As usual, they’re as crazy as ever, climbing on people, trying to steal food and there’s some cute babies clinging onto their mums. I keep my distance, having learned to respect these unpredictable imps during my travels – entertaining to watch though. Now the sun’s up, we admire the views down into the crater below as the cloud slowly rises with the heat.
It’s a hot walk for the next few hours as we quickly descend the slippery soil path and return on a different road down the mountain, passing plantations and locals riding up in trucks – in ceremonial dress – the guide tells me that there are some shrines up Mt Batur where ceremonies are conducted. Back at the car park, we get a good view of the volcano and all fall asleep as we hurtle back to Ubud – it’s nearly midday and we’ve already been up for 8 hours. Before I part ways with my friends, they take me to a nearby pizza restaurant, Umah Pizza – what better breakfast than a tasty massive pepperoni pizza and a cocktail! I had a good nap that afternoon, I can tell you! I would love to return to focus entirely on photography, take my time, get those night shots with the tripod and scout out some better locations for the landscape – one day!
If you’re interested in doing the Mount Batur climb yourself, there’s a few things to be aware of. It was a tiring morning – the final hour of the climb is demanding, it can be slippery with loose soil and rocks, and it’s steep. I would advise less fit or mobile travellers to give yourselves extra time to get up there, taking the time for plenty of rests. You can find tours for this everywhere on the island and the differences are negligible, they all use the same pool of guides from the mountain. As the guides have a stranglehold on the trip, doing it yourself is difficult as they supposedly deny take issue if you try to go it alone. But its a pretty cheap tour anyway. Be prepared for it to be very busy too and be stuck in queues ascending and descending – fortunately the summit is spacious enough to comfortably fit everyone. Take some warm clothes, it’s chilly until the sun comes up, and don’t worry too much about food and drink, if its not provided by your tour company there’s lots of sellers up the mountain to sort you out. And finally, your views will be weather dependent – I got lucky, but maybe spare yourself enough days for a few attempts if you get cloudy weather on your first try. But when it works out – its definitely worth it!
More images from the morning – click on them to enlarge: