A once in a lifetime experience
Published/Last edited or updated: 19th April, 2016
Before it erupted in April 1815, Sumbawa’s biggest volcano, Gunung Tambora, reached a height of around 4,300 metres. When it finished belching its contents out into the atmosphere, the cone of the volcano collapsed in on itself, shaving more than an incredible kilometre off the height of its peak. Today, the highest point is now just 2,722 metres (or 2,737 metres, or 2,851 metres, depending on which figure you want to go by — the park office in Pancasila lists two alone!). The caldera created stretches some six kilometres wide.
Tambora was the most destructive, and arguably the largest, volcanic eruption in recorded history — the eruption was ten times stronger (on a volcanic scale) than that of far-better known Sumatra’s Krakatau. It directly killed more than 10,000 people and because its ash was thrown high into the upper atmosphere, the eruption caused at least one year of climate change. This period became known as the Year Without Summer: crops failed around the world and tens of thousands died due to disease and starvation in the worst famine of the 19th century.
Tambora remains an active volcano, though the last proper eruption was recorded in 1967. It is a straightforward, if somewhat physically demanding climb. The most popular approach commences at the village of Pancasila, on the lower reaches of the volcano’s western slope.
Anyone with a reasonable level of fitness should be able to climb Tambora. The climb is broken into a series of six legs. The first five legs each having a resting and camping spot (called a pos) and the sixth is the summit. Guides and porters can be hired in Pancasila (250,000 rupiah and 200,000 rupiah respectively per day) and while nobody will stop you from walking without either of these, this is extremely inadvisable. You need to register before beginning the climb and pay a registration fee of 5,000 rupiah per day for Indonesians or 150,000 rupiah for the entire trek for foreigners.
It is not possible to summit and return in a day; at an absolute bare minimum you need the best part of two days. As there is no accommodation after Pancasila, you will be camping along the way. If you don’t have your own gear, sleeping bags (50,000 rupiah), sleeping mats (50,000 rupiah) and tents (150,000 rupiah) can be rented in Pancasila.
Other gear you’ll be needing is a pair of boots, a poncho or raincoat, mosquito repellant and warm clothing (for the summit). There is spring and river water available at Pos 1, 2 and 3 but nothing at 4. While there is a river near Pos 5, the water is often stagnant, so you (or your porter) will be lugging a bit of water. We carried two large Aqua bottles and refilled them when possible and this was sufficient water — one bottle would have been insufficient and three bottles full would have you carrying extra weight perhaps without need. Your guide or porter should be equipped with a simple portable cooking stove, but you’ll need to arrange the food to be cooked. A few shops and a small market in Pancasila have provisions to stock up on.
While the walk is pretty much just uphill all the way, depending on the time of year, and the weather, the trail can be difficult to find. In our case, we had a guide who had climbed the peak a number of times previously, and we still got lost twice — once by taking the wrong trail down from the summit and the second time in the forest in horrendous weather. At the end of the wet season much of the trail can be extremely overgrown and difficult to follow — by the middle of dry season, it is apparently far easier to make your way.
The middle of Sumbawa’s dry season, May to August, is the most popular time to climb Tambora, though from late April to September there are people starting the climb regularly. In wet season the walk becomes quite demanding and in peak wet season, December and January, the park is closed.
Climbing times are roughly as follows:
Pancasila to Pos 1: 3.5 to 4 hours. Pos 1 has spring water and a small shelter.
Pos 1 to Pos 2: 2 to 2.5 hours. Pos 2 has river water and a small shelter.
Pos 2 to Pos 3: 2.5 to 3 hours. Pos 3 has river water and a small shelter.
Pos 3 to Pos 4: 1.5 to 2 hours. Pos 4 has no water and no shelter.
Pos 4 to Pos 5: 1 to 1.5 hours. Pos 5 has river water but is often stagnant, and no shelter.
Pos 5 to crater rim: 3 to 3.5 hours. Crater rim has no water and no shelter.
Crater rim to summit: Around 1 hour. Summit has no water and no shelter.
Times coming back down are a little less, depending on how much time you spend falling on your arse.
If you are in good shape, you could conceivably leave Pancasila very early in the morning and hike all the way to Pos 5, camp there, summit for dawn and then walk all the way out, arriving back at Pancasila not long before dusk. We’d suggest though spending more time on the climb for a more enjoyable experience. Leaving Pancasila in the morning, camping the first night at Pos 3, climbing to Pos 5 on day 2, climbing to the summit the morning of Day 3 and then walking all the way out (or camping at Pos 3 or 2 on the way out) is a more leisurely approach.
On the spur of the moment we joined a group of Indonesian travellers who arrived at Pancasila in the early afternoon and began to climb at 16:00. This meant we didn’t arrive at Pos 1 until well after nightfall. On day two we climbed all the way to Pos 5, arriving in the late afternoon, where we camped again and left at 04:00 the next morning to summit. Despite leaving at 04:00, we still missed dawn! We had planned to walk all the way out in one hit, but leaving the summit we took a wrong trail and got badly lost. We wasted about three hours trying to go cross-country to reach our gear at Pos 5.
Once we got to Pos 5 it started to rain heavily, but we pushed on. South of Pos 4 the rain became absolutely torrential and we got lost again, this time in the woods, in part due to a tree that had fallen and blocked a trail between Pos 4 and Pos 3. As tempers and patience began to fray, we backtracked to Pos 4, found the correct trail and continued to Pos 3, where we camped again. The next day, we got going by mid-morning and arrived back in Pancasila late afternoon.
We were very lucky with the climb up, having gorgeous clear weather, including at the summit, but we had very bad luck on the way back down with torrential rain for nearly all of the day and more rain again the next day.
Your mileage will vary!
We came across a couple of hunters along the way (with hunting dogs) and saw some evidence of trapping, but otherwise the only inkling you’ll have of sharing the planet with other people is the piles of litter at each pos. While not as bad as what we’ve heard Rinjani can be like, the littering remains a sad indicator of travellers not caring for the beauty of the peak. Carry all your garbage out with you. Maybe take some extra out with you.
The climb itself begins with you walking through coffee plantations and denuded forest. Our first night at Pos 1 was spent drifting off to sleep to the sounds to chainsaws cutting lumber at night… As you continue, you leave signs (and sounds) of humans behind and enter some quite pristine forest. Expect to see loads of birdlife, wild boar and monkeys. Pos 2 is by a pretty river and it is from here that the forest really improves.
The higher you get the grander the trees become and the bigger they are, the harder they fall. You’ll reach the occasional spot where a massive tree has come down, pulling the canopy down with it — these falls can play havoc with the trail. Also, at higher altitudes, lightning strikes have turned trees to charcoal. Around and after Pos 4 you hit beautiful pine forests and at Pos 5 it turns to savanna. Then, on the final leg to the crater rim, it turns to loose rock, sand and pebbles.
The crater rim and caldera are quite simply breathtaking. Some six kilometres across, with a lake and a forest within, the scale and beauty of it is really difficult to put into words — you’ll just have to climb it to see for yourself. Once you reach the crater rim, you continue to the south, around the edge of the rim, to climb to the actual summit.
From the summit you’ll truly feel like you are atop the earth. To the northeast we could see Gunnung Api and to the southeast Lakey Beach. We looked to the south and watched rain falling into the Saleh Sea — from above. To the west we could see Moyo and Satonda Islands, Gunung Rinjani on Lombok, and Gunung Agung on Bali.
The views around and into the caldera with its steaming lake, then the arrival of swirling clouds which eventually surrounded us and dropped visibility to about 20 meters, are seared into our memories.
Take a photo by the Indonesian flag that marks the summit and begin the long walk back down.
A huge thanks to the Indonesian trekking gang who adopted me to join them on this adventure. Arif, Rajez, Inong, Fadil and Velly I’ll never look at a Beng Beng bar in the same way again.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 1 other sights and activities in and around Tambora