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Mount Agung and the Disappearance of the Moon

On December 30, 1963, James Hensen, a college senior, attempted to observe a lunar eclipse from an observatory near Iowa City, in the United States. Instead of growing dark as it entered the Earth’s shadow, which was what Hensen expected, the moon completely disappeared from view. The reason for this anomaly, as Hensen figured out, was the Agung Volcano, located in the island of Bali, Indonesia.

On March 17, 1963, Agung’s powerful eruption had thrown a large amount of particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Over several weeks, the particles spread and absorbed incoming light, turning the Earth’s surface slightly darker. The sunlight that is normally refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere then became too dim to make the moon visible during the eclipse as Hensen had anticipated. Agung’s eruption covered the nearby area with ash and injected sulfur compounds into the stratosphere. For the next two years, as Helen Sawyer reported in an article for the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, magnificent, sometimes breath-taking sunsets were experienced in the southern and northern hemispheres. For several years more, the particles hurled by Agung into the skies absorbed and scattered light, slightly cooling the Earth’s surface. But much more than making the moon a little more shy and sunsets more colorful, Agung had other, more painful impact on the ground. It killed over 1,000 Indonesians on the island of Bali and starved others to death by smothering their crops with ash.

The residents of Agung’s surroundings at the time of the 1963 eruption interpreted its hostility as divine wrath. Interestingly, it is now seen as a gift. The rock and sand that Agung spat up during its eruption built villas, hotels and restaurants for tourists interested in seeing Agung and its neighbor, Mount Batur.

I came to visit Agung for the first time in 2013, 50 years after its last eruption. I, too, had just turned 50, and completing the arduous walk to the summit of this sacred mountain was going to be my own private 5.0 celebration. It didn’t happen. Four and a half grueling hours into the trail, it started to rain, drenching my clothes and making the rocky terrain slippery. It was about 4:00 AM, and with the altitude gain, I was also exposed to cold winds. Reluctantly, I instructed the guide to turn around (and promised myself I would come back — and be better prepared). June 2015 brought the opportunity to return to Agung and sort out our unfinished business. I flew into Bali from Jakarta in the evening of a Friday and installed myself in a cozy villa overlooking Lake Batur.

Everything was looking pretty good until the day I was going to try for the summit: morning started with drenching rain that seemed to last forever, constant, endless, soaking, heavy rain. As the hours went slowly by, I watched the weather from the porch and went from confident to hopeful to downright worried. My heart literally sunk. Was I not meant to see the summit of this mountain?

At about 09:00 PM the rain turned into a very light drizzle. I got dressed and stocked my backpack with two rain coats, rain pants, two additional layers, a scarf to wrap around my head and prevent the sweat from running into my eyes, a headlamp and extra batteries, plenty of water, snacks. At 10:00 PM, I heard a voice calling my name from the garden downstairs. We were leaving.

If I could have had my druthers, I would have initiated the hike to the summit of Mount Agung, 9,944 ft (3,031 m) in the early morning, and camped right before passing the timberline. I would have spent the day walking up slowly, enjoying the beautiful views and appreciating the exotic vegetation, listening to bird calls and looking for wild life, taking photographs of this beautiful place that is also sacred to the people who live around it. I would have then walked to the summit a few hours before sunrise the next day. The tradition in these parts, however, is to climb during the night, so as to reach the summit by dawn, just in time to enjoy clear views in all directions, and even take a peak at Mount Rinjani, towering at 12,224 ft (3,726 m) from the isle of Lombok, East of Bali.

For the rest of the day after making it to the summit, beautiful weather unfolded turning the walk back more comfortable, in spite of my exhausted legs. In the evening, I sat on the porch resting and watching the starriest sky I had seen in a long time.

Things you may find useful to know if you are planning to summit Mount Agung:

Difficulty: Depending on how often you hike and what kind of terrain and altitude you are used to, you may take between 5 and 7 hours from the trail head near the Besakih Temple to the summit. The elevation gain is of approximately 6,344 ft (1,933 m). The trail is generally not too difficult to follow, however, hiking at night can make it confusing at times. I recommend hiring a guide. Although the walk up is definitely strenuous — and dangerous at times — coming down was harder for me. With tired legs, walking down on steep terrain and slippery loose rock was challenging.

I was very happy with the guiding services provided by Balisunrisetrekkingandtours.

– Guide, transport to and from the trail head, and breakfast at the summit cost 1,000,000 RP

– Transfers to and from the airport in Denpasar: $80.00 USD

They also arranged for very lovely accommodations near Lake Batur, an area which is well worth exploring if you have the time.

– Accommodation in a small villa near Lake Batur and hot springs, and 45 minutes from the Mount Agung trail head: $80.00 USD per night, breakfast included

– About 2.5 hours by car from the Denpasar airport

– Beautiful gardens and views of Mount Batur, Lake Batur and Mount Padang from the windows

To stay safe and prevent unnecessary hassle:

– There is very little infrastructure when it comes to guiding services. Not all guides speak English and those who do don’t always speak it very well

– People who identify themselves as guides sometimes have little or no training as a guide – and are not necessarily cheaper than professionals. It’s safer to hire someone who is part of a well-known guiding service, and has experience in mountain/volcano hikes

– There are at least two trails towards the summit. The one that starts near the Besakhi temple is longer (6-7 hours in average) but more gradual and it drains relatively well so you can hike it even after a day of rain (although not after several days)

– If you can, keep your schedule flexible so that, if it rains too much on the first day, you still have a second chance to hike

– Go during the drier season (April to October) but do bring a rain jacket as being drenched in high winds and lower temperatures is not fun

– Good hiking boots, a warm layer, water and food will make your whole experience a whole lot better

– You can combine the Mount Agung hike with a visit to the hot springs and a massage the next day. I missed the hot springs — but maybe I can use that as my excuse to go back one more time…


Profile photo of Beatriz Coningham

Life has taken me to many interesting places and I love to write about them and what they teach me!

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