“And we can see lava on Dukono?” we ask once more, still unconvinced that such a treat could be produced on a whim.
“Red Lava.” Mr Yus confirms.
We are trying to find the highlights of North Halmahera. This tour from Tobelo might just be one of the most spectacular expeditions in the Spice Islands.
The following day we meet Mr Yus and his friend Salim, collect some camping gear and stash the sleeping mats on the rear of the bikes. With two people per motorbike, Prue and I are clutching various plastic bags and dangly pieces on our backpacks making the whole affair take on the appearance of a Christmas tree. Comfortable or not we are on our way, first along the smooth tarmac that traces the ocean coastline before taking a sudden left at the volcanologist station and into coconut country. At first we ride smoothly with the river of pure ash our right, there are trucks collecting some of the volcanic matter and we receive ample smiles as we rush past, it is a glorious start. All too suddenly the road begins to toughen and our nerves begin to fray. The inclines become ever more intense and appear to be impassable by bike yet our guide pushes relentlessly forward. Now and again we walk the rough terrain and watch our guides struggle to manoeuvre along the thin strips of soil to avoid the trenches either side. The forest presses against us as if reclaiming the stolen slip of land that constitutes our pathway.
After four hours and one replaced spark plug we reach the ‘car park’ and laden ourselves with supplies to make the rest of our travel by foot. The jungle calls out to us but we maintain our swift pace into the dense greenery. It is not long before we are stopped by a loud growl and find ourselves encroached upon by a 20 strong pack of dogs in the forest. Blocking our path, Salim begins drawing his machete as the leader refuses to back down, instead it is creeping to Mr Yus as a tiger prowls upon his prey. Mr Yus and Salim urgently make beckoning calls to their owner who must be close by but to no prevail at first. It is disconcerting to say the least and just as we all feel the prickly drops of sweat forming on the back of our necks we hear a hollow cry from within the bush. Slowed by the heavy body of a deer slung over his shoulder, the hunter walks past us as if a mirage dressed in a mud-stained loin cloth. His left arm is loosely looped through a hand-made bow and arrow, his right firmly holding his prey. He briefly nods, confirms his successful kill to our guide and continues his journey home with his sidekicks.
Thankfully the rest of our hike is uninterrupted save for the ‘terminal one’ resting station and the heavy panting of myself and Salim. Overweight and on his first ever jungle adventure this poor gentleman is suffering from the climb, in fact it seems to me like he has hated the trip ever since we began hiking. Sweating through the dense forest there is very little air and we appreciate the steep fringes of mountainside that lets the wind breathe coolly upon us. From these snippets of opening we feel rather alone, the dense fog swirls above and below restricting our view. Within two and a half hours Mr Yus in encouraging me “20 metres left” and that is enough to allow us to finish our last incline for the day.
What awaits us on that lip is an ash valley engulfed in mist. It appears stark and desolate yet the roaring from above and beyond belies the presence of a very active volcano. We are ecstatic to be somewhere so remote, so mysterious and perhaps dangerous but the happiness is short lived as the rain begins to pour and our once steaming bodies begin to rapidly cool and shake with the cold. Mr Yus gets right to work, hacking several small trees into tent poles he stamps two into the soft ashy earth. A tarpaulin is tied to each pole and it’s two halves stretched to make an A frame tent. “Is that going to be it?” we whisper to one another looking disdainfully on in the pelting rain and stiff wind. Thankfully Mr Yus reached for more sheeting and we relax but our relief is short lived, this is for the second set of tent poles.
Soaked to the bone Prue and I clamber beneath the first A-frame and discuss our dilemma. We each have one more set of top clothing, a hoody and a sarong. “We get to change clothing only once so let’s do it right and not leave this tent, even for dinner” suggests Prue. Wisely we strip our sodden clothes and combine our dry layers to keep us as warm as possible. We then tie plastic bags around our shivering feet. By the time the rain slows down we feel brave enough to venture outside. Mr Yus is attempting to make a fire, apparently the plants near the volcano are like magic, they will light even when a little wet. After watching several failed attempts I hand over my lighter, a small explosion and a warm fire is gratefully received.
Sleep is rough. Prue and I practically crush one another to share body warmth but with only a plastic sheet between us and the solid earth our hips turn numb. One of our reading books has to do for a pillow.
3.30am couldn’t come soon enough and we rise from our bed glad to be rid of the endless rotations to find a warmer/cosier position. The sky has cleared and glorious stars shine down upon us. Despite our tiredness we smile back at the beaming Southern Cross. As soon as we are unhappily re-dressed in our soaking shorts and bras Mr Yus is beckoning us to leave and begin our two hour approach to the rumbling in the distance. We can’t see a thing except for the pathway in our torchlight and the dense smoke belched by the volcano stunts our beams ability to reach much further afield. At one point when Mr Yus is searching for a route we come to a crevasse, just an endless black hole caused from ash that has caved in due to either a heavy rain storm or the collapse of a weak lava tube below.
The roar becomes unbearable as it begins to rumble beneath our feet and rampage through our ears, or was that fear. We are frightened because we are in the pitch black and approaching ever closely to something angrier than I have ever known. An inferno, a vicious thrashing piece of inner earth that is raging at the walls of its’ encasement. Smothering everything in sight with dark thick clouds makes our last few steps the most terrifying ones we have ever taken. “The crater is just here” chirps Mr Yus “be very careful hey” and all I can think is whether I have the balls to actually do this.
Holding hands we scramble to the lip of Dukono and peer over, in an instant the floor beneath me (a mere 40m below) is a mixing pot, the size of a football field of bubbling molten lava.
Churning violently, the lava spits and hisses as it off gasses, whilst other areas are catching on fire spewing flames into the suffocating atmosphere. The vision of that very moment lasts a lifetime but in reality it could not be more than a few seconds, it is too intense to be able to stare for long. Suddenly a ball of gas or coal or thin-air ignites before our very eyes, this flaring red and the continuous guttural roar causes a reflexive pull back. It is exhilarating and I wish I could say that I savoured this dream of mine coming true right at the time of happening. I am witnessing a portal that leads to the soul of the earth and viewing lava bubbling and fighting for freedom but I am overridden by fright than any other emotion. What is preventing this beast from erupting? She is angry and violent enough to destroy everything is her path so why is she holding back?
We’ve forgotten to take a photo, “does it matter?” asks Prue. “Yes” I answer but my legs won’t carry me back to the lip. Only with Prue’s hand in my own can I venture back towards the end of the wall that is the end of the world. Not caring what the photo looks like we begin to follow Mr Yus around the lip of the crater, at some distance down the slope he strides atop once more to peek at the condition. We hear two words.
What do you do but bolt down the steep ashy slopes, Mr Yus scarily keeps in time with our hasty retreat as we envision the invasion of lava and scramble blindly. “Stop now” calls our guide and we think he must be out of his mind but he explains “the crater up there is cave like this.” Through his hand signals we understand that the rim we were just walking along has been hollowed out by lava which flows underground beneath us. Back where we were it was only a thin layer of crust between the surface and the Lava and now we were safer on thicker ground.
Mr Yus is once again joyful “Now we wait for sunrise.”
“Maybe we should go down.”
“No, volcano sunrise is better.”
It takes more than a camera to distract us from the thumping of our hearts which is equally as loud as the rumbling of our giant neighbour. As the sun begins to rise we can truly appreciate her scale, the size of two football pitches and the close encounter as red lava sprays from her top as if she has trapped a sparkler within her belly.
The daylight begins to show us a softer side to our barren surroundings; we overlook the green crevices of an extinct volcano as we scramble back towards the camp. It appears so lush in comparison to the sharp scraggly jet-black rocks of Dukono’s ridge and the plumes of smoke that tower behind us. Our whole descent is fuelled by adrenaline, after four hours of hiking we massively appreciate the chocolate bread, pot noodle and a warm brew. A quick tidy up of our things and a brisk jungle trek down through the dense jungle and we arrive to meet the gnarly bike route once again. It is another hour or so before we are sitting back at Mr Yus’s place gratefully tucking into one of the best meals we have had in Indonesia thanks to his wife’s excellent cooking and thankful to have witnessed something too incredible for words to describe… and to still be alive.
Dukono is one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes, it is amazing but it is an adventure. Hopefully this prepares you for what to expect on this extreme overnight expedition. Take with you a waterproof, warm clothing and a camping mattress for a good night’s sleep, and good luck!