Isla Versus the Volcano


Having arrived in Bandung, got a good night’s sleep, and partaken of the Indonesia breakfast buffet, the diplomat, Isla and I accepted the kind invitation of my father to head to Tangkuban Perahu – a volcano with a pair of caldera about 40km away that happily belch out volcanic steam with the odd eruption. A recommended tourist spot and so, as I’d never seen a real live volcano, the excited imagination of ten-year old came rushing back to my adult mind. Was it possible we’d see this?

Hopefully! thought the boy. Unlikely, thought the adult.

So, with an understanding of the inevitable two hour trip there and back in traffic we set off. My father decided to take us cross country and boy do you need a 4-wheel drive. Narrow lanes through desa (villages), roads that appears to be vertical cliffs at times, stunning views, and the growing realization that after every bend was another climb. In fact, we drove upwards for those two hours rising 2000m above sea level and I think we had only two small level pieces of road where desa tolls awaited us. There were a couple of nervy:
“Come along, car, you can make it” coaxings from my father whilst Isla snored happily in the back, but, on the whole it was a fairly uneventful, though slow, drive. We eventually came up to the National Park entrance.

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Tracking a coach up the side of the volcano proved even slower, though coaches have to pull in about two thirds of the way up. We passed two places where you can stop and make “lower slopes” forested treks around the peak, crossing over the rich, red soil with lush foliage that grow on the pyroclastic flow channels. At the top it was a heaving mass of humanity. The usual whistle-blowing traffic guards kept us moving. At first, I thought we’d come to a market village. Stalls everywhere selling tourist tat; the vendors ready to pounce when you exited your vehicle pushing beads, brooches, wristbands, elephant figurines and, I kid you not…

“What’s that?” I peer suspiciously at a smooth, banana-shaped “rock” that’s about five inches long.

“Massage stone, mister. From volcano rock. It makes you feel good.”

I raise an eyebrow. Really?

“Maybe better for your wife, mister?”

Both eyebrows shoot up. “Ah….er…..no. Maybe after we see the volcano?”. That gets me out of a tricky conversation and isn’t something I mention to the diplomat as she comes over with Isla in her new baby ruck sack carrier.

So, a real volcano. First impression? It reeks of sulphur dioxide (rotten eggs). It’s a steaming, grey wasteland. You can easily see how it inspires stories of entrances to Hades, Hell or any other place of evil underworlds in any culture. In the third photo below you can just about make out the yellow streaks in/on the rock – the sulphur.

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The rim of the “tourist” volcano is about 1km across and you can walk round it in about an hour or so if you wish. There is a path, mainly loose gravel, the odd scree, and, at times, a harder path made of up grey hexagonal cobbles. It is recommended you have a cell/mobile, water and some food because it is possible to get lost, to feel the effects of breathing in so much sulphur dioxide. The other caldera is a lot more active at the moment so is off limits. And, despite earlier blogs on the Internet telling you that you can go down and “fry an egg” on the hot stones, that’s currently not true. The volcano is dormant, not inactive, so things will change. We also found it was cloudy that day so views across the world were not available but we got some clear shots of the interior. At the end of the car parking road is a small tourist information centre with a couple of vantage points. Inside is a rudimentary room with a small information desk. There are several wall pictures of the surrounding area – mainly geological – and a centre model on a table about 2m square. (Bandung is in the bottom right of the model as you look at it)

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As usual, Isla elicited much attention from the local Indonesian ladies (during our Indonesia trip we got stopped four times for group photos of her with other kids, their parents and even a shop owner) which gave the diplomat, my father, and I a chance to peruse the maps on the walls, ask some questions and learn the legend of the volcano’s creation. We were told that the name of the volcano translates approximately to an “upside down boat” in Sundanese. The story is told that Dayang Sumbi, who was a princess who lived in West Java, was granted eternal youth by the Gods as a punishment for exiling her son, Sangkuriang. One day her son decided to return to his home but did not recognize his mother (nor did she of him). They fell in love and were about to marry when Dayang Sumbi discovered his identity. In despair Dayang Sumbi asked Sangkuriang to build a dam on the river Citarum and to build a large boat to cross the river, both before the sunrise. If he failed they could not marry. Just before he completed the task Dayang Sumbi had red silk cloths spread on the ground east of the city, to fool him into thinking dawn was coming. Sangkuriang believed that he had failed and broke the dam and the boat, resulting in severe flooding and the creation of Tangkuban Perahu.

A fascinating tale and one that has parallels in many Greek, Arabian, and Roman myths. The geological reality is far less imaginative: the volcanoes formed out of the collapse of Mount Sunda thousands of years ago.

We left the information bureau, had a quick side trip down a route that was a tourist trap of stalls all selling exactly the same goods every 10m or so, and then reversed back up the path in order to continue our planned walk quarter-way around the rim. I have to say the now-expected ease of H&S in this part of the world does give you the chance to see things a lot closer than the H&S obsessed UK would ever let you do. I like the fact that Thailand and Indonesia lets you make decisions for yourself. None of this insurance policy driven, fearful, “we-might-get-sued” philosophy that can ruin a good close up examination of something fascinating. Nope, if you wanted to fall over the edge and tumble down into the caldera, then you were at perfect liberty to do so. No one here is going to Nanny-State you. PM Cameron – take note.

The result of this liberal attitude was my father decided to take a literal trip down the volcano, bouncing off Isla to slow his fall. Even the locals winced as the ground shook with the thud then came rushing over to help us haul him to his feet. He ruefully admitted that plush Italian leather shoes (even with a grippy sole) were perhaps not the best idea on a volcanic scree. Something his wife lectured him on upon his knee-scraped, elbow-bruised return. No matter how old you are, you can still learn new things.

Our two hours done, we retreated to the 4×4, fended off the persistent banana massage stone seller which had the diplomat giggling, slotted Isla back into her chair and slowly eked our way down the side of the National Park, into the verdant agriculture of tea fields, pineapple growers, and the fabulous lush countryside that is Indonesia. If you’re ever this way, do the volcano trip. It’s definitely worth the time and effort, though…wear sensible shoes.

That was our trip to the volcano, which wasn’t quite the same as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan would have you believe….but close enough.

Is this what diplomacy is all about?

Yours

travelswithadiplomat



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