Bali's Volcanoes Reach to the Heavens

But foreign tourists who drive rental cars can't make the grade when they try to exit the explosive crater

OF all places to have car trouble: inside a volcano!

For the fourth time, my husband, Rajiv, and I had stepped aside and watched Monitor photographer Bob Harbison, the designated driver (since he didn't mind the car's left-hand drive), inch our Suzuki jeep back to the edge of the narrow dirt track, gun the engine, and roar up the steep, hairpin-bend incline.

Once again, the feeble vehicle died halfway and rolled back in defeat.

So there we were, trapped with a pitiful rental car amid the desolate lava fields in the massive outer crater of the mighty Gunung Batur. Towering 5,600 feet, Gunung Batur is second in height only to the 10,300-foot Gunung Agung, Bali's highest volcano, revered as the ``Mother Mountain'' and ``Navel of the World.''

Bali's volcanoes are still very much alive and kicking, situated in the lava-forged Indonesian archipelago which is home to one-third of the world's active volcanoes.

We were stranded in the more explosive of the big two. Gunung Batur has already erupted a half-dozen times this century, most recently in 1963 and 1974, which seemed a little too close for comfort.

In 1917, a violent eruption killed thousands of people and destroyed more than 50,000 homes and 2,000 temples.

In a village called Batur, located inside the crater, the lava decimated all the homes but stopped short of the local temple. A good omen, the residents thought, and decided to rebuild. But when the mountain exploded again 11 years later, the villagers decided to move out.

What we had going for us was the benign reputation of Bali's mountains. The 2.5 million people living on an island widely considered the next-best thing to paradise regard their volcanoes as the abode of the gods. At least compared with the sea, regarded in Balinese legend as the home of demons, monsters, and other assorted nasties, it seemed we were better off.

Earlier that day, we had chugged nearly 3,300 feet up the side of Gunung Agung, whose peak was hidden from view by thick clouds, to the majestically located Hindu temple complex, Pura Besakih.

While the temple is Bali's most important, it's also one of the worst examples of the creeping commercial crassness overtaking this gentle island culture. After paying to park and paying to enter and then running the gauntlet of souvenir sellers stretching up to the temple gate, we decided to try Bali's less-crowded No. 2 mountain.

Arriving at the outer crater rim of Gunung Batur and not suspecting what was in store, we looked upon the massive bowl-shaped cavity, the pristine blue of the crescent-shaped crater lake, and the volcano's lofty cone peeking out of a swirling mist.

Ignoring early warnings of our jeep's sluggishness, Bob eased the car down through the many turns and switchbacks that led to the crater floor. As a boat made its way across the choppy waters of Crater Lake, we wound our way along the water's edge to lunch on fresh fish at a settlement of hotels and restaurants known as Tirta.

The guidebook contended that the road across the crater would eventually come to an abrupt end at a huge flow of solidified black lava. But there we found that barefoot villagers hacking at the razor-sharp rock had cleared a barely passable track which we followed until it faded into a forest of tall grass.

We were lost.

A friendly villager happened along and offered his services as guide. Determined not to retrace our tracks, we drove on through a canyon of waving grass and then suddenly burst out upon an expanse of black lava frozen in such turbulence, it seemed to have petrified only yesterday.

Dipping and rising with the rugged rock contour, we edged our way across the lava at the base of misty Gunung Batur.

From a vista, we gazed up at the partially shrouded majestic cone whose black waste lay about us as far as the eye could see.

From there, the crater rim seemed only a steep, mile-long climb away.

``Do you think this car can make it?'' Bob wondered for the first time.

An hour later, we still sat at the bottom of the sharp incline. Returning along the tortuous path we had come was out of the question, as there was an equally precipitous hill at the other end. The only option seemed the long, uphill trek to the rim.

``There is one other possibility,'' I suggested to Bob as Rajiv's face dropped: ``You get a running start, and we'll push.''

So once more, Bob reversed the car to the edge of the road, floored the accelerator and charged up the hill, Rajiv and I running and pushing as vigorously as we could from behind.

Hope rose into cheers as the car pulled ahead and seemed to gain momentum. But the next minute, our hearts fell as the jeep rounded a hairpin turn and started to sputter.

Racing to catch up, Rajiv and I threw ourselves against the back of the vehicle, Bob skillfully cranked life back into the engine, and, breathlessly, we watched the car slowly limp up to the rim as Gunung Batur emerged momentarily from behind the clouds.

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