Dan Quinn: Conquering Indonesia’s Volcanoes

Dan Quinn was born in Ipswich in southern England and grew up near the Lake District. Much of his spare time in his youth was spent exploring the hills and mountains of England, Wales and Scotland. As a teenager, he visited megalithic sites and when he began studying philosophy at university in London in 1999 he discovered the vital importance of non-urban landscapes. On his first trip to Asia in 2009, Dan discovered the vastness of Indonesia with its extraordinary variety of landscapes and geology and large mountainous regions. In 2009, Dan and a friend started the “Gunung Bagging” website with the aim of providing English language information on Indonesia’s volcanos.


How big a sector in Indonesia’s tourism industry is mountain tourism?

It plays a reasonably large role in domestic tourism, with hundreds if not thousands of local hikers camping on Java’s tallest peaks every weekend. But Indonesia still isn’t especially well-known internationally for its mountains, with the exception of a small number including Rinjani and Bromo, but it definitely ought to be. The word just hasn’t gotten out yet.


With this dearth of information, aren’t many would-be international climbers missing out on worthwhile peaks to climb?

There are many, many fantastic peaks in Indonesia that are rarely hiked. This is sometimes because there is no actual forest trail that is sufficiently well used. This is a problem because if hikers don’t regularly use trails, they soon become overgrown and then disappear again entirely! It can then take days to create them anew. Examples include Gunung Raya and Gunung Sumbing in Jambi (not to be confused with Gunung Sumbing in Central Java). Others are simply less well-known because they are in remote and more sparsely-populated regions. The island of Halmahera has some fabulous volcanoes including Gamkonora, Ibu and Dukono but it takes a long time to get there from Jakarta or Bali and those without Indonesian language skills may find it challenging. There are also those which are accessible yet somewhat overlooked, such as Gunung Liman and Gunung Lamongan in East Java.


Are Indonesian peaks riskier than those of other countries?

Indonesia contains more volcanoes than any other country in the world and they can be very dangerous to climb. One Saturday night back in November 2018, along with a small group of friends, I camped on the island of Rakata to watch the neighboring island Anak Krakatau erupt at regular intervals. It was an utterly stunning sight to see rocks the size of cars ejected from the crater and witness lava cascade down the side of the volcano as we swam in the sea, sipped beers and strummed guitars. What a brilliant weekend trip from Jakarta! As most readers are now probably aware, just a few weeks later the volcano collapsed catastrophically, creating a tsunami that killed over 400 people on the mainlands of Java and Sumatra. According to some reports, Rakata would have been hit by a wave of between 15 and 30 meters high in less than a minute. Our campsite would have been completely wiped out.


Are there any Indonesian peaks that are forbidden to climb?

Yes! There are lots of local beliefs that can make a hike difficult or impossible. Sadly, all women are forbidden from hiking up Gunung Sorikmarapi in Sumatra due to traditional local beliefs. Sometimes hiking bans are seasonal. For example, the main route up Gunung Sirung on Pantar Island is closed at certain times as it’s thought the cashew nut crop would fail should anyone hike to the top. I wish someone had told me and my friend about this before we spent two days just getting to the foot of the volcano!


What specific peaks require expedition level preparation?

Any treks that last more than two days or are a long distance from help and phone signals. That means a huge number of peaks in Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Papua. Java and Bali are much easier as there is usually someone ready to give you an ojek ride at any time of day or night and there are only one or two peaks on those islands that are genuinely remote or receive few visitors.


How much preparation is needed to climb your “average” mountain?

Although you can often turn up at the last village on the way to the top, point at the mountain and someone will be ready to help within a few minutes, climbing mountains for which you need to make more formal arrangements can be very time-consuming. As a foreigner who works and pays tax here, it can be deeply frustrating to have to argue whether you should pay the local rate for entry or the foreign rate which can be up to thirty times the local rate. At present there is no centralized online system to buy entry tickets and rules and conditions change quite frequently. This means that it is advisable to double-check before your planned trek, especially if it is to an active volcano which can be closed at short notice.


What are Indonesia’s most dangerous volcanoes?

Aside from Anak Krakatau, the most dangerous are probably Merapi near Yogyakarta, Kelud in East Java and Karangetang on the island of Siau in North Sulawesi. These volcanoes cause destruction and death on a regular basis but their typical or cyclical characteristic behaviors are such that there is usually sufficient time to warn people to stay away. Others have ‘personalities’ that appear to change over time such as Sinabung in North Sumatra which was pretty quiet for 400 years before becoming dangerously active in 2010 and not letting up since and remaining impossible to hike except by the suicidal. It is easy to see why animism is such an important part of many indigenous belief systems when you have active volcanoes near settlements. Perhaps Sinabung’s typical pattern of behavior for four centuries is simply too lengthy for humans to comprehend clearly unless they zoom out and think over a much longer time period.


What are your personal favorites?

I really like Gunung Butak (2868 m) near Batu in East Java. It’s less popular than its taller neighbors but offers wonderful views at dawn and dusk and a lovely camping area. The sound of the wind gently blowing through the pine trees up there is a transcendental experience. The most memorable hikes are usually those when you get lucky with a combination of good weather, clear views, friendly competent guides and good conversation.


How do Bali’s Agung, Batur and Batukaru compare with the big boys like Semeru, Kerinci and Puncak Jaya?

Well, you can hike all three of Bali’s most famous peaks without having to camp for the night so that certainly makes them more attractive to those without the extra equipment or time. Agung is still a serious hike, with a considerable ascent from Pura Besakih of well over 2000 meters. Up and down in one night and you’ll definitely need a couple of days to let your knees recover!

Dan Quinn can be reached via danpquinn@gmail.com or by contacting him at www.gunungbagging.com.


By Bill Dalton

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