Tambora: The Big Bang in Practice

Exactly 200 years ago, as I am writing this, the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history had just started, blowing almost 2,000 meters off the top of a mountain called Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. It was a devastating event for whole world. The eruption caused the “Year without Summer” in the northern hemisphere when it snowed in London and New York in July and crops failed all over Europe, North America and China. There was famine in Switzerland (they must have cut down on the fondue over there). The more indirect effects include the birth of the Frankenstein story and Mormonism, some pretty works of art, real estate bubbles, cholera going global and Arctic exploration.

 

Tambora from above (Nick Hughes, June 2008)

On April 10, 1815, Tambora woke up, blew up and completely destroyed its immediate surroundings. Whole cultures were wiped out, including the Tambora people and their Tambora language that was the easternmost non-Austronesian (Papuan) language at the time (little known fact, you are welcome!). Alas!

Many people believe that Krakatoa was the largest recorded eruption, but that’s not the case. Krakatoa happened in 1883, when the telegraph already existed and the world found out about the eruption right away. Back in 1815, the world knew little of what had happened at Tambora. Tambora ejected into the atmosphere almost four times more debris than Krakatoa.

I had been on Flores for more than a month, bagging volcanoes, which can get addictive. I needed to make it back to Bali and fly to Singapore for a visa extension. On my way there were two major islands – Sumbawa and Lombok. Lombok has grown to become Bali number 2 with an international airport and a flock of tourists. Its big volcano – Mt. Rinjani, is one of the major tourist attractions in Lombok and all of Indonesia but it is very very touristy and hard (but not impossible) to do independently. I am not the biggest fan of self-proclaimed mountain guides – I think I might have mentioned this before. And I carry most of the equipment I’d need to go independently anyway.

I decided to go for Tambora instead of Rinjani. Tambora is off the beaten path, less popular and really has the reputation of being a beast.

 

Gunung Bagging provided good information on how to climb the volcano. It is a three-day hike on a somewhat good trail to the rim (its highest point) from a village called Pancasila at the end of the peninsula on which Tambora stands. Some people however reported that the local (improvised) “hiking association” charged unnecessary amounts of money for the hike. I was going alone and I generally despise “milk-the-tourist” attitudes so that was not an option. However, I also knew there were two other routes from another village, called Doropeti (or Doro Peti) where there is a volcanology center for monitoring the monster. Bapak Haris was the local volcanologist.

I stayed in Dompu, the nearest bigger town. The adventure began already the same morning. I knew there was a bus going towards Doropeti and it would take the whole day. I missed it because there were some protests in town and most of the main roads were blocked by police. Fortunately, I had made a friend in town, who helped me chase the bus down the road in his car.

The road was supposed to be really bad, but it wasn’t. There was construction going on in preparation for the 200-year anniversary, when a lot of tourists were expected (I am writing this now with a huge delay of almost a year. I was there in May 2014). We were moving faster than expected, but then the bus broke down. Oh well…

bus

I made it to Doropeti eventually and went straight to the volcanology center. I met Bapak Haris, who did not speak a word of English so my Bahasa skills had to be stretched to the maximum.

Bapak Haris was extremely helpful and here he is wearing a shirt made for the 200-year anniversary and showing the two possible trails for approaching the volcano - the one from Pancasila and the one from Doropeti, which I was planning to take.

Bapak Haris was extremely helpful and here he is wearing a shirt made for the 200-year anniversary with the two possible trails for approaching the volcano – the one from Pancasila and the one from Doropeti, which I was planning to take.

Both trails pass through thick jungle. There is a third approach, which is actually a road that Bapak Haris uses when he needs to go to the caldera as part of his work. This road is further south. If you look at satellite images, it is pretty clear how the northern slopes of Tambora are lush and green jungle, while the southern side is drier and has less forest – the perfect place to make a road, right!?

It would have been too expensive to rent a vehicle by myself so taking the road was not an option. Bapak Haris offered me to borrow his offroad motorbike but I knew I’d be breaking my neck so I opted for the trail from Doropeti. At one point he asked in passing if I had a machete. I said no and didn’t pay much attention – I had a Swiss army knife after all!…

Bapak Haris gave me a ride to the start of the trail and soon afterwards, in the afternoon, I was on my way with my tent and food for three days, water for one. At first it was easy – a logging road for trucks. Then the logging road disappeared but there was a trail of some sorts. Then it became thick spiky jungle. It was getting late and I still hadn’t reached the water source by which I was planning to camp that night. It was getting dark so I found a spot and put up my tent. For some reason I decided to leave some of my food outside in the backpack. There was logic behind my decision but I can’t remember what it was anymore.

I slept well but when I woke up I found out that ants had made it into my backpack and had even cut holes through the food packages. Everything was infested. I don’t know what I’d been thinking – I guess I had forgotten to switch into jungle mode. And the path ahead was virtually non-existent – thick bush everywhere. I remembered that I did not have a machete, took a look at my miserable Swiss army knife, and probably out of frustration I forgot to take a picture of my camping spot. When I travel I normally take a photo of where I spend the night, every night.

I decided to go back. The way down was easy. I saw a couple of funny snakes and a few wild pigs – lots of fun. When I got cell phone coverage I called Bapak Haris and told him the path was impassable, so I was going back to his house.

I went back and was chilling and wondering what to do when someone called him and said there was a group of tourists in town who wanted to rent a vehicle and try the road up to the rim.

group

That’s how I met this gang. It was a group of Javan mountaineers and a Canadian traveler. They were renting an old Toyota and I could join them and split the cost with them.

Very soon afterwards they arrived, we got into the car and were on our way. We were supposed to drive to the end of the road that day, to Pos 3, the “base camp”, camp there, go to the rim for sunrise and come back. Easy breasy. Maybe I could even take a nap on the way, I thought….

The road up to the caldera starts from near a small crater by the beach, known as Doro Mboha.

Our vehicle was very experienced.

Our vehicle was very experienced.

Indonesia is the land of surprises (besides being the land of possibilities) and soon we found out that the road was in very bad condition. Rainy season had just ended and no one had been up the road since the last dry season. Rainy season in Indonesia is pretty rainy and the tire tracks were so eroded that the Toyota kept getting stuck. An hour or two into the journey the driver made a small mistake and the Toyota was sliding on the side of the road, on its way to flipping over.

That small tree there saved the day. Otherwise we would have flipped for sure.

That small tree there saved the day. Otherwise we would have flipped for sure.

 

Long story short – we spent the next 4 hours digging the soil under the car and trying to get it back to the road – pushing, pulling, digging, thinking (not too much of the latter).

ditched toyota

Finally, we made it! But it got dark. Tents up, another night in the middle of nowhere.

I don’t want this to sound like we had a bad time. It was great. Claude, the Canadian guy, was quite funny and Indonesians are the best companions ever – they giggle no matter what.

The next day the road did not get better so we spent the whole day traveling what was supposed to be a couple of hours of driving. We took our time fixing the road and we had to save the car another couple of times from the ditch. No biggie.

ditched Toyota 2

photo by Ang Asep Sherpa

Finally we made it to Pos 3 at the end of the day. We had time to have a good meal, enjoy the sunset and it was an early night. Next morning we would start before dawn for the hour-long hike to the caldera rim.

sunset

The next morning it was an uneventful hike up the caldera. If we don’t count the event of standing on top of the massive Tambora volcano – 2400 m above sea level, more than 1000 m deep, 7 km wide. It is humongous and it blew it all up in one blast – exactly 200 years ago. I have no words to describe what it feels like standing there. I have some photos but they don’t do it justice – it is too big to fit into a single shot, if nothing else.

crater

rim 1 rim 2 crater 2me

We took our time at the rim, then hiked down and drove back to Doropeti that afternoon. Since we had repaired the road that was an easy ride. And uneventful except that one time when I flew out of the Toyota and landed on the side of the road with one of my feet entangled in something on the car. Fortunately the driver reacted immediately. I try not to think about that moment. Everyone had a good laugh:)

When we got back to Doropeti it turned out that a volcano had erupted not far from where we were. Sangeang Api had erupted pretty bad that same day and Bapak Haris was needed to assist with the evacuation of people. He was going to ride his motorbike there and he gave me a ride to Dompu that same night. Sweet!

Is Tambora going to strike again? Probably yes. Very probably another volcano might erupt just as bad and it will one day. Are we prepared? No. In 1815 Tambora caused famine, nowadays a short-term change of climate like that will lead to great political and economic disruptions in the developed world and very bad famine in developing countries. It is possible to prepare for something like this? Yes, but it is a matter of priorities.

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