When Giants Awaken

Dec 2 0


After fifty- four years, the majestic Mt Agung volcano on the island of Bali has once again awakened and rumbled into life, which, for the four million or so residents and five million annual visitors is understandably causing a little angst!

When Giants Awaken.

Mt. Agung, stratovolcano is the highest point on Bali, dominating the surrounding areas of ancient, verdant rice terraces that tumble down the fertile hillsides to the sea. From a distance, the mountain appears to be perfectly conical and, for those intrepid enough to climb it, (management accomplished this feat last year) it is possible to see the peaks of the lesser Mt Batur volcano on Bali and Mt Rinjani on the nearby island of Lombok to the east, although, at over 3000 Mts. both mountains are frequently covered in cloud

The Balinese consider Mt Agung as a sacred mountain and a replica of Mt Meru, the central axis of the universe and, consequently, Bali’s most important temple Pura Besakih (mother temple) is located high on the slopes of the mountain itself.

The first known major recorded eruption occurred in 1843 when Heinrich Zollinger wrote in his journal:

“After having been dormant for a long time, this year the mountain began to be alive again. In the first days of the activity, earthquake shocks were felt after which followed the emission of ash, sand and stones.”

In 1963 Mt Agung once again awoke, only this time with devastating effects as this particular eruption was one of the largest and most destructive seismic events in Indonesia’s history.

On February 18, local residents heard loud explosions and saw clouds rising from the crater and, after six days, on February 24, lava began flowing down the northern slope of the mountain travelling slowly more than 7 km over the next 20 days. On March 17 after the island experienced several large tremors, the volcano finally erupted generating a massive Pyroclastic flow engulfing numerous villages in the immediate vicinity, killing an estimated 1,100–1,500 people. Cold lahars (cold volcanic lava flows) caused by heavy rainfall after the eruption killed an additional 200 over the next few days.

Then, for no reason, the mountain suddenly ‘went quiet” until May 16th when a second large eruption, accompanied by further pyroclastic flows took the lives of a further 300 Balinese farmers and their families. During the next twelve months, minor eruptions and tremors kept the population on edge until finally the mountain once again settled down and went back to sleep.

Miraculously, the lava flows from this eruption missed, by mere yards, the sacred Mother Temple of Besakih. The Balinese believed that it was a symbol of the Gods who wished to demonstrate their power and not destroy the temple that had been built in their honour.

Over the next 50 or so years the makeup of Bali began to change dramatically.

Tourists from around the world discovered this hidden paradise that Nehru once referred to as, “The morning of the world.” Consequently, increasing numbers came from every corner of the planet to experience what Balinese life was like and they weren’t disappointed.

Slowly, and then with increasing frequency, the Balinese and wily developers from Jakarta and elsewhere saw Bali as a tourist paradise and embarked on a period of frantic construction building huge resorts, hotels and upmarket ‘beach clubs’ to cater for the ever-growing hordes.

Not to be outdone, individuals, particularly Australians, decided that building holiday accommodation in the form of villas would be a quick route to prosperity. The Balinese were themselves quick to jump on the economic bandwagon and began selling off their land to profit from those, ‘Barbarians at the gate’

In the relatively short time I have lived in Bali, I have seen vast swathes of rice paddies torn up and converted into rows of villas nestling nervous cheek by greedy jowl doing nothing for what was once pristine farmland.

Just fifteen years ago Bali was a net exporter of rice and yet today, due to the shortage of land, most of the rice is now imported. Manufacturing and other industries withered and died or were simply cast aside to be replaced by services catering to the swarms of tourists flocking to the island.

Today, Bali is a staggering 95% dependent on the tourist dollar and, until a few weeks ago operators believed that nothing could stop the juggernaut that was carrying them at ever dizzyingly speeds to prosperity that most thought would never end.

In September of this year, the area around Mt Agung experienced 844 volcanic earthquakes with 368 tremors felt on 26th September alone. This seismic activity increased until in late September the authorities took action and evacuated over 120,000 people from within a twelve -mile radius around the mountain.

Over the next six weeks or so a series of large tremors were felt across the island and then the mountain began to spurt steam and clouds of smoke from its crater.

Then, just last week a phreatic explosion occurred sending ash to a height of 12,000ft into the air until finally on the 25th November a magmatic eruption occurred spewing thick ash and debris 5 km into the atmosphere.

The result?

The authorities immediately closed the airport stranding over 60,000 tourists and no prospects of passengers arriving anytime soon with thousands of travellers cancelling their travel plans to the island.

Christmas is one of the busiest periods for those involved in the tourist trade but this year things, methinks will be a little different.

Already I notice lines of taxis sitting idly by the side of once busy roads while waitresses at any one of the thousands of restaurants try to entice the dwindling crowd of diners into their empty establishments.

The large boats which ferry passengers to the outer islands are running vastly reduced services while some simply don’t run at all.

The trickle-down effect of this seismic event perhaps won’t be felt for a month or two but then reality will begin to bite as workers are laid off and businesses pull down their shutters for lack of trade.

Perhaps this eruption will slow down the rampant development as one has to realize that, when the giant awakens we should pay heed.

Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several novels and when he is not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for several international travel journals.