I tripped on yet another rock in the darkness, gripping the side of the mountain as the last bit of power left my headlamp. Great, I thought. Now I’m officially hiking up the side of a mountain in complete darkness.
Sarni, our local Balinese guide, reached back to help me up the next boulder and handed me one of her backup flashlights, which only emitted the faintest of glows on the steep path of black volcanic rock in front of me.
“Must keep going. Only 10 more minutes.” She giggled at my heavy breathing before turning to continue up the path. I followed clumsily, stumbling every few steps. I have a hard time keeping my balance on even ground, let alone plodding uphill in the pitch black while half asleep.
I peered down towards the foot of Mount Batur, where we’d started hiking two hours early. Flashing lights dotted the darkness as dozens more hikers sleepily trudged up behind us. I sighed in the crisp early morning air. This isn’t exactly my ideal activity for 5 o’clock in the morning.
Ten minutes later, I settled into a spot on a tiered section at the top of Mount Batur with four new friends I’d met at my hostel outside Ubud. All Americans, we’d bonded over our Southern upbringings and a shared love of adventure. The five of us signed up for this sunrise hike together and had cringed in unison when our alarm clocks jarred us awake just in time for our 2:30am shuttle.
We huddled in the semi-darkness and waited to be rewarded for our exhausting start to the day, munching on hot banana sandwiches that had been cooked in the steam of the very volcano on which we sat.
Slowly, the sky yawned, stretched, and began to wake. Stunning pinks and oranges pulsed brighter, pushing the blue darkness out. The hulking, purple shapes of Mount Agung and XXXX, Bali’s two other giants, took shape in front of us as the rest of the island lay hidden below the cloud line. In the distance, the brilliant yellow light of the sun illuminated Mount Rinjani on Lombok, Bali’s bigger neighbor to the East.
Then suddenly, like the birthday girl arriving late to her own party, the sun broke the horizon, illuminating what was now hundreds of travelers that had assembled on the top of Batur to welcome her.
“Ho-ly shit.” The sound of clicking cameras and whispers of awe surrounded us.
I thought of all the people in the towns and cities below us, still snoozing in their beds, unaware this stunning display of nature was taking place just above the clouds.
Too busy greeting the sun and snapping photos, we almost didn’t notice the monkeys.
Five of them had crept up on the hut beside us, eyes greedy. The most daring of the bunch jumped down and snatched our remaining banana sandwiches, followed by a second who made out with our last boiled egg. It was as if they’d waited until we were most distracted to pounce – a pre-meditated and elaborately planned heist! Damn they’re good.
After the sky had it’s fill of fun and turned a less-distracting hazy blue, we headed up to the rim of the volcano and circled around the crater. As we hiked the narrow path with steep slopes on both sides, steam crept out of fissures in the ground and warmed our feet.
I peered down into the crater with a bit of fear, wondering vaguely how early volcanic eruptions are detected these days. Batur last erupted in 2000, but it was small and it’s destruction minimal. Is there a collection of heat and molten rock under there, building pressure and just waiting for something to trigger it’s next fit?
To distract myself from uselessly worrying about what I’d do if the volcano suddenly erupted, I decided to get to know Sarni a bit more. A teenage tomboy with a direct but kindly manner, she wore track pants and joked loudly with the young men leading other groups. She seemed young for a tour guide, and I was shocked to find out she was not only just 16, but had been leading tours for two years already.
After our early hike, she would head to school for the day, then play some sports, do her homework, and go to bed around 9pm. The next day she’d be up at 3am to lead another tour. She did it for the cash, simple as that – “good money, always good money.” Each tour earned her money to pay for school, and maybe someday it would allow her to attend college.
I thought of how selfish I was a 16, annoyed that I had to get an after school job at a housewares shop at my mom’s urging. How easy it was to unload boxes of candles compared to hiking for five hours before even going to class!
An hour later, it was time to descend below the clouds again. It had been a dreamy, fairy-tale morning, but our legs were aching and the hostel’s banana pancakes were calling our name. It was back to “reality,” back to the overcast skies, back to our bunks for a shower and a day of relaxing next to the rice terraces.
My dad always said everything good in life takes work to get. Watching the sunrise from the top of Mount Batur was the best thing I did while in Bali, and I think it’s because the effort it took to get there.
If this was the view you knew you’d see every morning, would you have an easier time getting out of bed? I definitely would!