mount batur, bali

My alarm went off at 1:37. It was a thoughtfully chosen time- 1:30 was too early for a 2 am pickup, and would leave me desirous of a few more minutes of sleep. 1:45, on the other hand, seemed to be cutting it too close, especially because there were two of us and only one bathroom. I contemplated the idiocy that was going to bed at 11:30 and then waking up two hours later to climb a mountain. My iphone’s ‘marimba’ alarm thundered through the room, triggering angry memories of waking up for 8 am class. I squeezed my eyes closed. “Maybe we shouldn't go…” I hopefully suggested to Lauren, who was still half asleep. I knew that wasn't really an option, so I muffled the alarm and suited up for the two and a half hour trek up Mount Batur (for reference: leggings + tank top + sweatshirt = sufficient for December in Bali at an altitude of 1,717 m).

Our trek leader arrived at 2:02, meaning we prayed fervently for 2 minutes that we could go back to bed. (I realize it sort of sounds like we weren't excited for this trip, but we were, just not after 2 hours of sleep). We hopped in the van behind two beautiful and very alert Swedes. The 5th member of the group turned out to be a Singaporean girl, studying to become doctor. She had a lot to talk about with the Swedes, who had just come off of 5 months in Singapore. I noticed that they were weirdly attempting to ‘out-Singapore’ her. You know that phenomenon where you've lived in a foreign place long enough for it to become your home and for you to become the sole purveyor of knowledge regarding its history, culture, and where to get the best chicken rice? I only have this authoritative knowledge on northern New Jersey, so I shut my mouth and ate my banana crepe.  

We continued on. By now it was 3:30 and Lauren and I decided to stay awake by listening to scary podcasts in the dark van as we sped (literally SPED) through the roads of Bali like something was chasing us. At 4 am, we abruptly stopped in a gravel lot and piled out in the company of about a hundred other sleepy tourists. I adjusted my new headlamp (thanks for your foresight, Talia!), we met our guide and off we went. The first 35 minutes were easy, and by that I mean relatively flat hiking on gravel and dirt. I would've liked a bit more of a challenge, I thought, as the Swedes raced into the darkness ahead of us all. I shouldn't have been worried since the trail got dicey 40 minutes in: increasingly vertical, increasingly rocky and increasingly strenuous. The hardened, black lava had created a sharp and gnarly path. Also, I forgot to mention: Mount Batur is also an active volcano, last erupting in 2000. 

From here, the ascent seemed impossible. We kept climbing and not getting any closer, any more vertical. The stars were amazing, though, and I kept turning off my headlamp and plunging us into complete darkness to look at them because the Milky Way was so clear. At some point, I noticed a weird pattern of stars arching right in front of us, and when I pointed it out to my guide he laughed and gestured to my headlamp. The string of stars was actually a line of hikers with flashlights, making their way up the peak. I was shocked. They seemed so far away and so high up. I couldn't even imagine making it 15 minutes further. In retrospect, I realize that the darkness worked to my advantage. The night was equivalent to the blinders on a horse, preventing them from the undue stress of the surrounding environment- encouraging them only to focus on the next couple of steps. It was step by step, some huffing and puffing and the kindness of our guide who literally hauled us up steep ascents that we made it to (what I thought) was the peak. It had a sign and everything! I looked across to the neighboring mountain, illuminated in the first strains of morning light and threw my arms up in triumph. Seeing my exhilaration, a guide approached me nervously and tugged on my sleeve, pointing to what I'd missed behind me- the continuing trail up a near vertical slope to the actual summit. “15 more minutes…?” He offered, hopefully, seeing the look on my face.  

I honestly considered staying at that peak, but then saw an older German gentleman ascending in tight jeans and FLIP FLOPS and was very inspired by his climbing ethic, so I went on. This portion of the trail was most difficult. Our guide called it a “sand cliff,” which sums it up perfectly. Black volcanic sand created a scramble that was only climbable when you sandwiched your belly to the land with a fair amount of determination and upward velocity. Looking down was a bad idea, so I kept my eyes trained on the hundreds of tourists’ upturned faces, increasingly illuminated by the rising sun. We made it *just* in time, as the sun splashed over the neighboring peak. Clouds filled the valley, but we could see the immense expanse of rice paddies and even the ocean through the cloudless patches. To our right was the wall of the volcano, lush green with black, dried lava. The mood at the top was celebratory, as hikers munched on volcanically steamed eggs and banana sandwiches and waited to be warmed by the sun.

Mount Batur is sacred to the Balinese and there was a tiny altar at the top, with offerings to various Hindu deities. At one point, a hefty wild monkey munched on leftovers there before inciting a fight with a friendly mountain dog, who chased him off the side of the cliff, which was all VERY Nat Geo.

Photo ops complete, we started our descent, which had me filled with dread. It was distracting now that we were so absorbed by the view. It was also treacherous, as many of the paths were blanketed in loose rock that had me sliding down portions, thanks to my well worn sneaker soles. In fact, the descent is less a climb, and more a session of ‘mountain surfing.’ If you have bad knees or ankles, bring some kind of hiking pole or get yourself airlifted down (ha).

We rested midway and met some more monkeys, who were scruffier than the ones we had encountered at the monkey forest. I guess this was to be expected since they live in an active volcano and have more to worry about than adequate grooming. However, they are just as smart as their forest counterparts and leapt on my partially opened backpack, looking for anything/everything to eat. Again, more monkey contact than I was interested in. From there, the trek down was far easier and we even saw some hikers catch rides down on the back of locals' motorbikes.

As we reached the giant parking lot at the bottom, I realized that my legs had stopped shaking nervously from the stress of the descent. I was happy to be back on solid ground. Post-trek, I have an enormous amount of respect for Mount Batur- for its beauty, for its challenging trails, for its view, and for its ability to get me out of bed at 2 am: all qualities of a very special place.

  • a note about Mount Batur: it may or may not be illegal to hike on your own, so you should go with a guide. Prior to arriving in Bali, you may see that you can book a guided trek online for upwards of $60 USD. Don't do it! Once you get to Ubud, there are a plethora of tourist companies willing to sell a package at a much better price. We heard everywhere from $250,000-$900,000 IDR ($18-$70) for a single hiker, and settled on $250,000 IDR ($18) with Pineh Bali Tours, who also offered a free stop at the famous Tagalalang Rice Terraces afterward!