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Escape to Krakatau

The beach at Rakata, one of the three islands remaining after the colossal eruption of 1883, offers splendid views, and is the best for snorkeling of the four islands that make up Krakatau. Photo by Mary Baines/The Jakarta Post

Publication Date : 06-02-2013


Have a splendid getaway at the base of an isolated, steam-spitting, active island volcano


Like castaways, hours away from any form of civilisation in the abyss of the Sunda Strait, there we were — camped at the base of an isolated, steam-spitting, active island volcano.

Only hours before, we had been navigating our way through a heaving mass of some 16 million people in Jakarta. Now, there were just six of us, alone on Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatau), covered in sticky, black sand, barbequing fresh fish on an open fire, unable to contact the outside world.

Towering over us was the Child of Krakatau (also known as Krakatoa), the emerging son of the volcano that shook the world in 1883.

Although three islands remained after the colossal eruption — Rakata, Sertung and Panjang, it wasn’t until 1930 that Anak rose from beneath the sea.

The young, volatile volcano now stands some 1,200 feet above sea level, reportedly growing about 6.8 metres every year. Often on high alert, the bolshy teenager has a tendency to spurt hot gases, rocks, lava and ash.

“Don’t worry,” our guide Epoy said with a twinkle in his eye. “Anak is only at the first alert level today.”

So without hesitation, we made the uninhabited island volcano our home for the weekend — camping on one of the nearby islands with volcanic activity seen only from a distance didn’t seem nearly as exciting.

To get to Krakatau, we had taken a three-hour pot-holed and traffic-jammed drive from Jakarta to Carita Beach, West Java. From there, we were taken on a speedboat, “very safe, with radio”. An hour-and-a-half later the remains of Krakatau emerged on the horizon.

Myself and two others were joined by Epoy, our captain Warta, and boat mechanic Yani, who have all lived near Carita Beach their whole lives. The six of us set up base by Krakatau’s black-sand beach, dotted with fresh pumice, and began to explore the island.

At sea level, the island is thick with a lush, pre-historic looking forest growing in the fertile volcanic soil. While Krakatau was completely sterilized by the 1883 explosion and Anak only emerged in 1930, it is now home to more than 500 species of plant and animal life. There are butterflies, birds, land molluscs, insects, spiders, bats and monitor lizards — one of which came to greet us at our campsite. The mini ecosystem is a goldmine to biologists studying how life can recover from utter annihilation.

But as we started to climb the volcano, the landscape soon descended into what looked like a nuclear wasteland — dead trees, hot ash and piles of red and white rocks, eerily uninhabited by animals.

Clouds of thick smoke escaped ominously from cracks in rocks and the smell of sulphur dominated the air. Some parts were covered in white ash, making the volcano look almost like a snow-capped mountain. Epoy told us that he had been there, watching from Rakata, when the rock lava had been created only three months earlier.

It seems appropriate that locals once saw Krakatau as being like “a big spirit, like a giant dragon or kingdom of genies which from the nose and mouth comes the fire”.

But we’re told that while some still like to believe in this spiritual connection, it is a tradition becoming less and less believed by local youths.

As we reached the first level of Anak Krakatau, a heavy rainstorm and high, hot winds swept in from what was before a clear-skied day. The ground hissed as hard rain hit the molten rocks, and we were drenched in less than a minute. “Not good, not safe,” Epoy said, leading us hastily back toward our campsite.

From up there, at the centre of what was once Krakatau, now on the rise again and so violently at times, I understood the aura of terror the volcano exuded. I saw Krakatau’s moodiness firsthand and realised the potential for disaster it held.

The 1883 eruption caused fragments of land to collapse into the sea creating a 40-metre-high tsunami with a blast heard over 4,000 kilometres away. It had an explosive force 13,000 times the power of the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima, changing worldwide weather for several years and killing more than 36,000 people.

And the young Krakatau, already showing signs of boiling over, could well follow in its parent’s footsteps one day to cause havoc around the world. But Epoy assured us the next big one was still 100 years off.

In an attempt to avoid feeling too philosophical while on holiday, we decided to see the calmer side of Krakatau and dabble in a bit of snorkeling.

We were not disappointed. We saw clownfish, starfish, sea horses, flying fish, angelfish and sea slugs camouflaged in bright gold, orange and green coral. Thousands of newborn Travelli circled us like we were prey and the many friendly coral fish were not afraid to introduce themselves, happily eating food out of our hands.

As night fell, we spent the evening drinking Bintang and sitting around a fire as Epoy, Warta and Yani prepared dinner. The trio sat with lights strapped to their heads as they barbequed fish they had caught earlier that afternoon, fresh prawns, rice and water spinach. We enjoyed dinner while admiring the eerie, orange glow emanating from the volcano’s peak with the outlines of Java and Sumatra in the distance.

Although we slept squished together on thin pieces of foam, my sleep on Krakatau was the best I have had in Indonesia — with no loud street vendors or notorious Jakarta traffic noise to disturb me.

The following day, after a morning of sun bathing and swimming, we were dragged onto the speedboat to begin our journey back to Jakarta.

I think we would have liked to pretend to be stranded on the deserted paradise a few days longer.

Unlike most other places as beautiful, tourists have not yet overrun Krakatau. Tourist travel began to the island in the 1970s using traditional fishing boats, which would take about 5 hours one way. It was only in the mid-1990s that speedboats were used and more people started to visit.

But faint-hearted travellers beware: there are no toilets, no buildings and no running water. This is really a destination for the bucket list of adventure tourists.

For us, that was the beauty of the place — it was the antithesis of the bustling Jakarta we had left behind, perfect for a weekend getaway.

Tips for the traveller

Getting there: You can reach Anak Krakatau by boat from Anyer Beach or Carita Beach in West Java, or from Lampung in Sumatra. We were picked up in Jakarta and departed by speedboat from Carita Beach, arranged by Roman at Krakatau Tour.

Best time to go: The high season is the most popular time to visit Krakatau, but when travelling in the wet season it is likely you will be the only ones on the island. With Krakatau’s Jekyll and Hyde personality, it is wise to check the status of the volcano and weather before you go.

What it costs: Price can be negotiated with tour groups, but expect to pay about US$723 for an overnight camping trip, which can accommodate up to seven people. All camping, snorkeling equipment, camping gear, food and snacks were provided. A pick-up and drop-off service to Jakarta was also included.


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