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Reaching Krakatau

22 Apr 11
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The hotel where we stayed in Carita (pronounced cha-REE-tah) did not provide the best of accommodations. The Sunset Hotel was not on the beach, and buildings across the highway would block any possible view of a sunset, making me puzzle over its name. A dirty pair of men’s underwear lay on the rooftop just outside Carol and Elana’s room providing a poor substitution for that sunset, while the door to the room I shared with Adam was broken, a large crack down its length allowing anyone to push the middle section open enough to reach inside and unlock the door.

Adam particularly disliked our stay there. He woke up almost in tears in the middle of the night, thrashing in bed while trying to scratch what seemed to be dozens of mosquito bites. Fortunately we were taking malaria medication, but that was of little consolation right then. But the hydrocortisone cream I carry in my first aid kit allowed him enough peace to finally fall asleep.

So we were ready to leave the next morning, although exhaustion meant that we got started closer to 9am, rather than the early start recommended by Rohman the night before. We drove perhaps 75 meters to the north and pulled in through a rusted green gate to a marina where we would meet our boat.

The boat was about 26 feet long, with twin 40hp motors and an awning over the middle third section covering seats where we would spend much of the next two days. It was rather old but serviceable with a crew of four, including the man who would be our guide on land. We were paying for a private tour, which meant that the four of us were the only customers.

Krakatau lies perhaps 20 miles out in the Sunda Straight from Carita. It took us about 90 minutes to get there through two-foot seas. At first a haze prevented us from seeing Krakatau, but partway into the trip the island could be seen rising up out of the water. Krakatau is one of a group of islands, and it is not the tallest. It is a bit like a monk’s head, with a fringe of green around the base and a bare cone rising up in the middle. White patches on its sides look like snow, although its position almost straddling the equator tells us it’s something else.

We arrived at the island and waded through a pounding surf to reach its eastern shore. Just inside the trees is a small clearing where a sign welcomes us to Krakatau. Displays tell us a bit about the island’s history. But we are anxious, so we spend little time reading, instead electing to set off for the climb.

The mountain is basically laid out in three parts. The first is a relatively flat outer ring of vegetation we have just passed through. What we are looking at now is the second part – a pile of ash in the shape of an Angel Food cake with the middle a bit depressed. The third part of the island, meanwhile, is the volcanic cone that rises up from that depression in the middle of the cake.

Quickly Adam takes off with our guide, and soon they are racing each other up the 45-degree slope trying to reach the ridge dividing the second and third sections. Elana and I take a more sensible, slower pace, carefully placing our feet on the shifting sands.

We face two obstacles before reaching the ridge. First, the gray and black sand is incredibly hot. The dark color absorbs rays from the sun which are then radiated back as heat, but we are also standing on an active volcano, which is no doubt heating the sand from below. So the sand covering my Tevas is the hottest I have ever experienced.

Of more immediate concern though was the difficulty of walking on the steep, sloping sand. For every two steps upward, we were sliding one step back. Watching Adam bound his way toward the top suddenly made me feel a lot closer to my age than I usually do. His climb seemed effortless, while mine felt more like a slog. But it was an enjoyable slog nonetheless. We were, after all, on the slopes of Anak Krakatau.

It’s clichéd, but it seems like we are walking on the moon. Not because we can bound effortlessly across the surface, although there was more of that on the downhill return. Rather, it was the moonscape look of this portion of the island. The dark sand is split by long, narrow gullies caused by periodic rainfall running down the slope, unimpeded by the lack of vegetation. Small shrubs and trees poke up rarely and randomly, many dead from the heat, while one or two trees manage to stand relatively tall, somehow surviving in these rugged conditions. But mostly we just see gray.

I am surprised actually at how quickly we make it up the slope. In at least one account I read before coming here, the author describes an immensely difficult climb that takes him more than two hours. He agonizes over each footstep, at one point wondering if he will be forced to turn back. Adam however makes it to the top of the first ridge in about 20 minutes, beating the guide by perhaps 30 seconds. After being abandoned by Elana because I was too slow, I top out less than ten minutes later.

We’re standing now on that outer ridge of the Angel Food cake, looking down into a gully that then slopes back up toward the cone of the volcano. On the edge of the ridge sits a collection of scientific instruments with the remains of a protective fence now rusted and mostly buried in the sands. Scattered throughout the gully and on the slopes of the volcano cone are dirty white sulfur deposits and various sizes of lava bombs.

The sulfur deposits, while white, display other colors as well, indicating the likely presence of sulfur-eating bacteria. Called chemolithotrophs, these bacteria convert sulfur into energy rather than living off plant or animal material. They represent perhaps the only life, other than a fly or two, to be found this high up on the volcano.

We spend perhaps 30 minutes walking around this ridge, and down in the gully (mom, don’t read this part), before the kids climb partly up the cone of the volcano itself. They watch rocks, called lava bombs, roll down the side of the cone after first being ejected by the volcano, and they pick up a couple of them before we finally prepare to head back to the boat.

From the ridge looking south we can see Pulau Rakata, or the island of Rakata. The island of Krakatau that exploded in 1883 was made up of three volcanoes, and this island is the only volcano not totally destroyed in the eruption. The northern half of the island disappeared, but the southern half remains today, and we look at it as we begin the walk back to the boat.

Adam races down the side of the volcano in a cloud of ash, reaching the tree line in what seems like about three minutes, and he is eventually followed by his sister. When I catch up with them they are sitting under a tree where the sand is cool, so they take their shoes off to cool their feet. Deciding to finish the walk in bare feet, they leave the comfort of the tree’s shade only to howl in pain as they are reminded of the sand’s heat. I make my way back to our starting point while they get their shoes back on.

Lunch and bottles of water are waiting for us back at the clearing in the vegetation. After we eat the kids swim in the surf before we leave for our next destination, Pulau Peucang.

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