Sep 16 2012

Indonesia’s Krakatoa

Published by at 12:39 pm under Java


I stop halfway up steep, dusty Anak Krakatau for a rest. As I stand, I hear a slow rumbling. My legs begin to shake; this isn’t from fatigue, though. The earth is moving – literally – and as the volcano sways, I can’t steady myself. An earthquake is more than the Indonesian adventure I’d bargained for.

Anak Krakatoa.

Krakatoa; or in Indonesian, Krakatau: tales of the legendary volcano located between the island of Java and Sumatra are etched in school text books, and volcanologists still study what’s left of it. A violent 1883 eruption broke the mountain, destroyed nearby islands and spewed ash across the ocean to incinerate Sumatran coastal villages. Ash drifted as far as Bangladesh and Thailand and sounds of the explosion were reported in Perth, Australia. The eruption killed approximately 36,000 people. Today, all that remains are the four unpopulated Krakatoa islands; Pulau Panjang, Pulau Rakarta, Anak Krakatau and Pulau Sertung.

About 56 years after Krakatau erupted, Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatoa) emerged from the sea. This small island is home to a menacing cone, still spewing sulphurous smoke. Its black-sand beaches are peppered with lava rocks instead of shells and due to seismic activity, the island grows at a rate of five metres annually.

Tours to Krakatoa launch from Carita in West Java or Kalianda on the Sumatran coast. Another option is joining a group of weekenders and chartering a boat from fishing village Canti, just outside of Kalianda, or else from Pulau Sebesi, just off the coast of Gunung Rajabasa. Charter boats hold a maximum of five people; though it may be cheaper to book a fishing boat, it’s highly inadvisable as stories abound of fishing boats getting stuck at sea because the water is too rough; make sure that your boat has a radio.

Pulau Rakarta — look closely and you’ll see where the mountain split.

I had booked a tour that included a pick up and drop off in Jakarta with Krakatau Tour Adventure, though all tours are the same (unless you do a camping trip). Tours provide for a maximum of five people for either a daytrip or an overnight camping trip; we booked a day trip for 3,000,000 (for our group). Pick up was at 5:30am on a Saturday and the drive to Carita takes three hours; it was an opportunity to marvel at the clear roads and the phenomenon of Jakarta with no traffic.

At Carita marina, our guide Barry and tour operator Agup were waiting. As we stepped onto the boat, Agup bade us farewell. “Enjoy Anak Krakatau. If it rumbles it makes it better, no?” he said with a glint of mischief in his eyes.

We set across the Sunda Strait for the next hour and a half. The boat ride was nausea inducing, the boat crashing down hard from the swells at sea. Barry however slept, the bumpiness a lullaby to him. His small and muscular frame was dressed in sandals, shorts and a baseball cap. I tightened my grip on the boat, fastened my eyes on the horizon, and took several deep breaths to counteract the nausea. When I saw the outline of Rakarta in the distance, I breathed a sigh of relief.

And as the boat rounded Rakarta, I saw Anak Krakatau for the first time, with its cone jutting into the sky a short distance away. Some parts are covered in white ash, making the volcano look almost like a snow-capped mountain. The dots of green trees against the dark lava stone is a striking contrast. It wasn’t long until we were running barefoot across hot black sand, heading for the tree cover.

And then, half way up the volcano, I’d let the others in my group continue their ascent without me. Then the rumbling began.

Anak Krakatau’s black sand — yes, it gets hot.

After what feels like an eternity (but in reality is about 30 seconds) I look up and see people running from the peak. Leading the charge is our guide Barry – now hatless — running and sliding down the side screaming in English, “No! No! No! No!”

Ten minutes later, we are walking back to the beach. There are a few more mild tremors, but Barry doesn’t look worried any longer. He shrugs off the aftershocks. “Nothing serious,” he beams as he serves us our lunch.

We lunch on the beach then take off to snorkel around Rakarta. An eerie feeling creeps over me when I see the split down the middle of the mountain that exploded hundreds of years ago. A few dive boats bob offshore. The Rakarta volcano now lays dormant, a mere shadow of its violent and murderous past.

When I return home, I check the US Geographical Survey; sure enough, we experienced a 5.3-magnitude quake. It was frightening enough to allow me a glimpse of what it must have been like to be near Krakatoa when she blew, more than a century ago.

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