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Batu Tara, Paluweh, Kelimatu, Welirang - Volcano expedition in Flores & Java, Indonesia

Volcano expedition to Batu Tara & Paluweh, Flores

Having forged new friendships and having had a fascinating and exciting time during our 2011 excursions to Java, it was inevitable that at some point we would return to Indonesia.  June 2013 sees us heading out to Flores, Indonesia, and to the remote islands of Pulau Komba and Paluweh.  Both island have active volcanoes - this should be one exciting expedition.

For those of you who know us personally, it's worth knowing that we will NOT have internet access for parts of the trip - so if we go a few days without updating the blog - don't panic!


May 27 - not long now!

With just a few days left before we travel, final arrangements are being made.  It's going to be great to meet up with or guides again, Aris and Agus.  Sadly this trip will not take us towards Carita/Krakatau so we won't see Digimon - next time maybe.  So where are we going? 

First stop is the somewhat remote island of Pulau Komba.  There's not much there, except a volcano - Batu Tara.  Batu Tara has been erupting frequently for the last 4 years - a bit like Stromboli, so hopefully we'll gain good views of an active volcano from relatively close up.

Then we visit the small island of Palau Palu, and the volcano Paluweh (Rokatenda).  Paluweh has been building an active lava dome, and producing sporadic ash emission of up to 7km high, pyroclastic flows and earthquakes.  Assuming the volcano is still active when we arrive - this could be an exciting (or possibly scary?) experience.

After then visiing some more "touristy" sites, such as the lakes of Kelimatu and a climb up Mt. Egon, we then move on to climb the 3000m high Gunung Welirang, currently in repose, and the site of sulphur mining akin to that at Kawah Ijen:

Let the adventure begin...



1st June 2013 - Manchester to Jakarta


It was a glorious sunny morning as we loaded our bags into the Land Rover, bid our farewells to our house & kitten sitters, and headed out to Manchester airport.  As we whiled away the 7 hour flight to Dubai, we mused on what the next two weeks had in store for us.  Recent reports suggest that Paluweh volcano is still active. Very active. Information on Batu Tara is somewhat more scarce, with sporadic reports from US satellite imagery being the only source of news available to us.  Could it be that it'll be two Winster Cavers that are, momentarily, the most reliable source of information about this remote volcano?
Another eight longs hours in the air, and we eventually arrived at Jakarta airport.  From our hotel, we to took a short stroll out amongst the ramshackle stalls, selling a curious mix of fried fish, chicken, duck an other less-than-identifiable things.  We managed to piece together an almost-veggie meal from the restaurant next door... it's ~14:40 UK time, and we're ready for some proper sleep!

Tomorrow we meet Aris before travelling on to Flores



June 2nd 2013 -Jakarta to Laruntuka... well not quite actually!

Reliable as ever, when we arrived at Jakarta airport this morning Aris was there, complete with his usual beaming smile and infectious laugh. We checked in, and whilst we awaited our slightly-delayed flight, Aris oozed tales of his previous adventures on Batu Tara and Paluweh - tales, that is, of rockfalls and explosions, of pyroclastic flows and earthquakes, and of rather disturbing times had landing on getting off of Batu Tara. These were tales that made even the more adventurous Winster Caver hope that there was just a little bit of exaggeration in the story telling!

Our final flight was yet further delayed, but the views out of the small turbo-prop plane down to the Indonesian islands below sort-of made up for it. Two hours later we arrived safely in Maumere.  We waited at the tiny baggage reclaim as cases and boxes small and large trundled past. And we waited. And we waited.  As did everyone else who had come from Jakarta. And then, no more bags came.  Not ours, and the other passengers' bags either.

Aris was soon on the case.  Exactly what happened we'll probably never know, but our cases are reported to be on-route via Kupang and, we were told, will be here in the morning - we'll see!  So instead of heading out to Larantuka for our boat to Batu Tara, we are instead over-nighting at a hotel in Maumere.

June 3rd 2013 - "Rain, rain, go away..."

And don't bother coming back until our expedition is over.

As we breakfasted on the usual boiled rice, fried eggs and chilli sauce, Aris appeared - smiley faced as always and declared that "everything was good".  Our luggage, it would seem, had arrived at Denpasar, flown back to Surabaya, and then on to Maumere via Kupang. Quite an adventure in its own right!  The fact it had arrived was good enough for us and without further ado we polished off breakfast, loaded the car, and headed to Larantuka.  

The 2 hour car journey did, of course, take nearer 4 hours, and we arrived in Larantuka in time for a bit of lunch - fried eggs & boiled rice, to be more precise.  Negotiations were done with the captain of our boat, and it was agreed that rather than set off this afternoon and arrive in the dark (and thus have to wait on the boat until daylight the following morning) we would leave in the early hours of tomorrow morning instead.

A simple hotel was soon arranged, and we relaxed in the afternoon, playing guitar, singing songs, and watching the rain.  And this was no ordinary rain. This was proper, big, grown-up rain.  Rain that we were very glad we weren't out at sea in.  Rain that we hope will have done its business and gone away by 4:00am tomorrow!

June 4th 2013 - Pulau Komba / Batu Tara

After a restless night of no sleep - primarily due to the neighbouring encumbents at the hotel falling asleep in front of their very loud tellybox - we were ready to go just in time for Aris' 4:30am knock at the door. 

Kit was loaded onto an open-top truck, and we headed down to the docks at Larantuka.  As we waited for the Tuna fishing boat to arrive our presence attracted the attention of some curious locals.  The conversation went on the lines of "Where are you going?".  "Pulau Komba.".  "Pulau Komba?  Never heard of it!"

Now, Winster Cavers are not neccessarily the best qualified people for judging the seaworthiness of ocean-going vessels but as we boarded the (late, of course) tuna fishing boat, we couldn't help but notice that our transport had seen somewhat better days. As we chugged away from Flores Island the calm seas of the natural habour gave way to rougher open waters, and our boat merrily bounced over the waves towards our destination, guided by the skilful, chain-smoking crew.  We dozed for a while, finding small comfort in a carry-mat and little escape from the odour of cheap cigarettes, kerosene and fish.

The outline of Flores island slowly faded into the distance leaving views of nothing but water.  It was another hour, or maybe two, before the isolated figure of the lone island of Pulau Komba came into sight, and some 9 hours in total before we arrived. As the outline of Pulau Komba became closer, and clearer, we could make out clouds of volcanic ash being ejected into the blue sky.  Batu Tara was still active.

Approaching Palau Komba Island - Batu Tara volcano was clearly still active.

With in increasing excitement we sailed around the island to view the volcano and land on the sheer-sided island - but whilst the West side of the island was in calm waters with a small beach and easy landing the Eastern side, the only side from which the volcano could be viewed, was sheer sided with rough waters.  

As Batu Tara hissed and banged, ejecting hot rocks and volcanic ash, Aris and one of our crew attempted to land on the island.  Our landing vessel - a simple "dug-out" canoe was woefully inadequate in these waters unless, as we later found out, in the hands of extremely experienced users.  It filled with water almost instantly and Aris and the crew member struggled to gain dry land, Aris' heavy bag of equipment adding to the trouble.
The two of them spent some considerable time grappling with the waterlogged canoe, before the crew member made a brave swim back to the boat. Aris, now stranded, sat on the rocks whilst we helped the crew member back on to the boat, and then battled hauling Aris' entangled kit back back onboard.  Some indecision, some manouvering and a brave swim later and Aris was (thankfully) back on board.  We waited on the boat until nightfall, watching the fascinating Batu Tara volcano until it was too dark to photograph, before heading around to the calmer side of the island.

The anchor was set, and we settled down for a beer and a sleep.  To our great surprise, we were not the only people around, for in the cove a few tiny, dim lights could be seen...

June 5th 2013 - Pulau Komba / Batu Tara

After a very rough night of trying to sleep on a rolling fishing boat, amidst the kerosene fumes, cockroaches and seriously snoring "El Capitan" we set off round the island again looking for alternative landing places.  The only contenders would have involved a walk to get to the eruption site - no problem, except but from one direction passage would have been halted by the lava flow, and from the other by a sheer rock face.  And climbing over the top was a total no-go.

At the eruption site the waves were still lashing the rocky shore line, and none of us felt comfortable with attempting another landing in these conditions.  We returned to the cove, landed with ease, and spent the day relaxing whilst the crew of the boat went fishing.

On the island, it transpired, were a handful of "Bajo" fishermen, who had travelled from East Sulawesi in tiny boats for three days and two nights to fish the waters and live on the island for a couple of months - astonishing people, and a tale for another page on this site.

Late afternoon we took another look at the eruption site.  Batu Tara was hissing and growling reliably, hurling out clouds of black ash and red-hot hot rocks, which were rolling down and bouncing into the sea.  The waves were rougher than before - an attempt at landing was not on the cards.  So we observed until dusk, before sailing back to Larantuka.

All-in-all, an amazing and truly memorable couple of days.

June 6th 2013 - back to Maumere

A gentle day, simply travelling through glorious jungle and coastal scenery back to the hotel at Maumere, where we have an opportunity to catch up with the outside world, briefly.  We have a slight change of itinerary for tomorrow, but you'll find out about that - tomorrow.

 June 7th - Mount Egon

Aris, Christof and our driver met us at the hotel at 6:30am, and we promptly departed in glorious sunshine to nearby Mount Egon - a ~1700m volcano that last erupted in 2001, causing a fair amount of panic amidst the local populace, but no serious damage.

Driving on the back roads up to the start of our walk was fascinating, the rough track being lined with countless houses, some of rough brick, some bamboo, and most with a gathering of small children, all with big smiles, and most with shouts of "Hello Mister"!

Aris waited with the car so that our driver, who had never climbed his local volcano, could join us.  The climb to the crater in the Flores sun was hot - very hot. Too hot for Winster Cavers really, but we slurped water regularly and after a couple of hours arrived at the impressive summit crater with its tranquil turquoise lake and violently hissing fumaroles.  We climbed down the loose muddy crater rim for an explore, lunch, and for a bit of a laugh.  The fumaroles were pretty impressive, the sulphur vents were pretty, and the bangs, rattles, splooshes and giggles as our driver hurled huge rocks into the massively deep vent a definite source of entertainment.  As, clearly, was collecting lumps of sulphur to burn and test the Winster Cavers' claims that they would do so with a lovely blue flame!
Exploring Mt. Egon - a small sulphur vent
Exploring the crater at Mount Egon, nr. Maumere, Flores - a small sulphur vent.

As we headed back down the steep slopes of the volcano, the heavens opened in no uncertain terms, and we arrived at the car completely drenched, but wearing big smiles - none more so than our driver, who had clearly loved the whole experience.

Tomorrow we (hopefully) move on to visit Paluweh (Rokatenda) volcano, on a small island off the North coast of Flores.  As we understand it, the activity has increased somewhat - so rather than camp near the summit we shall be visiting the lava dome during the afternoon/evening, and returning to a recently abandoned village in between.  We expect to be without Internet access for ~3 days as of tomorrow morning.

June 8th - Pulau Palu Island / Paluweh Volcano

At a civilised 8:00am we were on the road again, this time heading towards the small coastal village of Ropa.  As we approached the village, Pulau Palu could be seen a way out to sea.  But only just, for the island was obscured by a thick cloud of volcanic ash.  "Oh, big trouble", declared Aris.  It was only when the ash started to clear that it became apparent how dense the cloud was, as the outline of the small island became crystal clear, rising above a calm blue sea.

Aris' previous visits to Paluweh volcano had involved long negotiations with the local population who, not without reason, were fearful of the volcano.   We started to look for a friend of Aris' who was to help us with our trip, pulling in on the side of the road by a group of red tents.  This, it transpired, was one of several refugee camps.  Refugees from the volcano, that is.  Aris visited the camp briefly looking for his friend - he was not there, so we moved on.

Just a mile or two further down the road, there was another camp.  People were busy making new, temporary houses - bamboo frames with bamboo weave sides, and corrugated tin roofs.  We got out of the car, Aris found his friend, and he and our driver went in search of a rare commodity on Flores island - fuel.  As we waited at the camp, we started to get an insight into the lives of the refugees - evacuated from their homes on Pulau Palu.  This was a very sobering experience.  Very sobering indeed.

Some of the children at the refugee camp at Ropa having been evacuated from Palau Palu Island

Fuel duly purchased, we boarded a small boat.  The single cylinder diesel engine growled away as we crossed the waters to Pulau Palu.  A smooth ride, but a rough landing.   As we awaited our next transport (mopeds) we were met by Albert, the new doctor on the island - a young man with a noble heart.  His request to join us on our trek was welcomed.

We jumped on the back of the mopeds to be sped up the seriously steep, broken road to the village.  Here we were greeted by the few remaining villagers - about thirty of them, maybe.  Aris is a real ambassador.  His ability to relate to people, to engage people, to understand people is astonishing.  And the villagers were pleased to see him.  They trust his opinion more than that of local government.  We had the usual game of "spot the white man/woman", the giggles, the photos, the Facebook friend requests, and people settled into the idea of us making the climb.  As we talked, exchanged photos, exchanged music, etc, the ground shook.  This was just one of the many earthquakes we experienced during the visit - a small one at that.

By about 9:00pm, we were once again on mopeds - Aris, his two friends, the doctor, and two Winster Cavers - to be dropped at the next village a kilometre or two further up the  "road".  The climb along the increasingly vague path was tough.  It was hot, the humidity was high, and the path was steep, rough and narrow.  Aris' friends navigated well, but after maybe two hours we hit a problem - the path had been washed away by a lahar, leaving a twenty foot chasm that we were not going to cross in the dark.  We looked for an alternative route, and soon came to the conclusion that forging a new route through the jungle was best done in daylight.  We made camp, drank Arak, and lay down for a night of almost zero sleep.


June 9th - Pulau Palu Island / Paluweh Volcano

We tried to sleep (astonishingly enough, we were cold!), but our uncomfortable dozing was punctuated by earthquakes.  It felt like the ground was continuously moving slightly - and then there would be a big one.  The ground would sway - it felt like being back on the tuna fishing boat - for a few seconds at a time.  First a big earthquake, then 2, maybe 3 after shocks - and usually the loud rumble of an explosion/rockfall to accompany it - every 1/2 hour, all night.

Come daylight, we gathered ourselves togther, packed up camp, and made for the Paluweh lava dome - a 2 hour trek up steep ashen slopes, hacking our way through thick vegetation, some alive, some destroyed by the acid rain from the volcano.  Eventually we broke out into the open, and before us was the immense Paluweh lava dome - de-gassing from several places.  Since Aris' visit in February the dome had at least doubled in size. There was a new fracture in the ground in front of the dome, and new fumaroles.

The immense active lava dome at the top of Paluweh Volcano

We sat and watched the lava dome all day and into the evening.  Each earthquake was accompanied by an explosion on the far side of the dome, and by rockfalls on the near side.  We could write pages on this, and how our opinion of the activity differs from that of the officials, but that, perhaps, is for another place. 

As darkness fell, it became apparent that we'd seen all there was to see.  There was just a small glow on the dome, the explosions were accompanied by a fair sized glow, but this too was on the far side of the dome.  Photographing in the darkness was going to be an impossible task, so we packed up, and set off down the mountain - this time by another route - longer, but easier to navigate.

We scrambled through endless ashen slopes, through the remains of crops engulfed in volcanic ash, across lahar flows, and eventually to a small, mostly abandoned village.  We stopped here for maybe 1/2 an hour.  Here, a small number of villagers keep watch, so to speak, attempting basic maintenance, and trying to tend to crops.  They stay for a few days, before swapping places with other villagers in the refugee camp. For once, the two white people were not centre stage.  Instead, it was news of the volcano that was sought.  Via our translator, the doctor: "We do not sleep.  Because when the earthquake comes, our houses are broken.  We are scared - we think it is better not to sleep."  And as we talked, yet another earthquake.

The term "longer" was no exaggeration - it took us 5 long hours to get back to the doctor's house.  The single mattress on the floor was nothing short of luxury.  Within seconds we were sound asleep.

June 10th - A change of plan!

Humbled by our experience we returned to Ropa village by boat, leaving behind our new friends.  We had planned to move on to Moni village today, with a view to visit the three volcanic lakes of Kelimutu.  But first, we stopped off at the local volcano observatory to share our news of the situation at Paluweh volcano and to confirm, or otherwise, reports that Kelimutu was closed to the public.

The stop off at the observatory was fascinating - a simple facility, with a simple, relaxed view of the volcano.  The Winster Cavers share Aris' opinion - that the volcano is potentially in a very dangerous state, and a significant eruption in the next couple of weeks is quite possible, even likely.  The observatory have advised a 3 km exclusion zone, but by the same token, gave the impression that they thought the current activity was just a few rockfalls and earth tremors - perhaps it was even calming down.  Time will tell - for the sake of the villagers, we hope they are correct.

It was, however, confirmed that Kelimutu was closed the public.  We'd half hoped to get special dispensation to visit, but the personnel at the observatory were not forthcoming, and indeed seemed unwilling to let even their own staff visit for monitoring purposes.

We have thus returned to Maumere.  Tomorrow will be a more relaxing day - an opportunity to recharge before our return to Surabaya, and our climb of Mount Welirang.

June 11th - Boats and fishes

With Kelimutu off-limits, we went for 'plan b', a leisurely start visiting a local market, followed by a boat trip out to Babi island, a round of snorkelling on the coral reefs, and a stroll along the beach to a little fishing village....  you get the picture!  From the island, Palau Palu island could be seen in the distance, with a large plume of gas rising from Paluweh volcano.

In the evening we dined together, two Winster Cavers, Aris, Christof, and our driver.  We ate well, we drank arak, we talked, we laughed. And as the evening came to a close, we said our farewells to Aris.  Aris stays here on Flores for his next group of guests, whilst we travel to Java to meet up with Agus, and climb Mt. Welirang.  Today marks the end of a short, but incredible adventure.  Tomorrow is the start of our next :-)

June 12th - back to Java

An early start and we were on our way to Surabaya, via Denpasar.  Luckily for us, ours seemed to be the only flights that were running on time. By chance we met with Patrice from the volcano observatory. He and his colleagues were on the same flight to Denpasar, so we exchanged volcanic stories, and got a recommendation to visit the "mud volcano" when we land in Surabaya.

On arrival at Surabaya we were met by a very smiley Agus. We chatted and laughed all our to the hotel, via the "mud volcano".  In 2006, a company tried drilling for gas.  300m down they hit volcanic mud, which has been oozing to surface ever since.  A huge dam has been built to hold back the mud, some 16 villages and 25 factories have been engulfed, and today, the "lusi" is still flowing!

We opted for humble local food with Agus, rather than the posh hotel restaurant. Tomorrow we start the 2800m climb up Welirang. Once again we find ourselves sort-of hoping there's a little bit exaggeration going on.


June 13th - Mt. Welirang, part 1

As it rained some seriously big rain, two Winster Cavers and their friend and guide, Agus looked out of the hotel window and waited patiently. A good move as it happened, for an hour later the skies had just about cleared, and we set off having avoided a soaking.  The climb up Welirang had been billed as a 2800m ascent - no mean feat really. So we were a little relieved when our starting altitude was 150m higher than we expected.

The track up to camp was relentless, always up, never down. But the scenery and company was fantastic. The conversation flowed, and the views back towards Surabaya were quite something. By 4:00pm we had reached camp - after some 1647m of ascent in just 9.6km. Here we rest for a while, before making a 2:00am assault on the summit. There's a good chance the Winster Cavers will succeed in sleeping for a while!

Camp at Mt. Welirang, Java, Indonesia


June 14th - Mt Welirang Part

After (another!) cold, restless "night's" sleep, Agus woke us at 1:30am.  By 2:15, two Winster Cavers were dragging their weary selves up towards the summit of Mt. Welirang in less-than-clement conditions, accompanied by their ever-smiling friend, Agus.  

As we climbed, we naively hoped that we would break above the cloud line.  We counted every meter as we plodded towards the summit, aware of the limited time we had available to top-out, return to the base, and catch our flight home.  It was, perhaps, with a little relief that we reached the summit before dawn - helped by the fact that it was 300m lower than expected.

We waited for sunrise (and thus daylight) sheltering behind a large boulder from the driving rain and the biting cold wind. As the skies lightend, the rain started to ease and the air temperature slowly rose.  But the wind continued, unabated.  We grabbed a few quick photos before dropping over the ridge to the fumeroles where sulphur is mined - a fascinating sight, strangley lacking in miners.

Sulphur at the top of Mt. Welirang awaiting collection by the miners.

The 2350m descent was technically easy, yet very hard-going for tired knees.  As relentless as the 2350m ascent! But by 2:30pm we had completed the descent, and were busily loading up, in dire need of a shower and some rest! The drive to Surabaya was fast & furious - and more than a little unnerving!  With an uneccessary sense of urgency, our driver weaved his way in and out of the heavy traffic, dodging mopeds, trucks, mopeds, cars, people, mopeds, dogs, mopeds...   Astonishingly, we arrived safely at Surabaya airport and checked in for our flights home in good time.  

All-in-all, this has been a most excellent adventure.

The Winster Cavers would like to say a big "Thank you" to Aris, Agus, Christof, our drivers, porters, crew on boats and everyone else who helped.