I’m not sure at which point our day trip had become not so enjoyable, perhaps the dead body on the road early in the morning, or the sinking ship and life vests, or was it when the boulders started raining down from the volcano ? There were a few moments which made the day out with colleagues memorable, a day like not many others.
It’s started easily enough, “hey, who wants to go to Krakatoa ?” Mr. B. had asked in the office a few days before. Lots of hands had shot up. A few questions, “what can we do there?”, “how do we get there?”, “how much ?”, “is there good scuba diving ?”. But we all forgot to ask one question, or perhaps we thought it but decided not to ask it, “is it safe to go there?”.
So a few days later and the trip was on, sufficient numbers of people, mini-bus hired. We assemble on a dark Sunday morning, one week ago, at 4.30am. And of course the bus left later than planned. A bumpy old bus journey, two hours to the west end of Java, down unfinished roads, skirting the ubiquitous bikes and mopeds, and slowing down only to take in the carnage of a road traffic accident. Thankfully I was asleep at the point, but I am assured by my esteemed colleagues that a car can do serious damage to a man’s head. The body lay in the road, a group of bystanders standing nearby, gawking, not helping, obviously knowing it was too late, the dust still descending to the ground. A few minutes further down the road and we pass the ambulance rushing to the scene.
So we arrive at the dockside, in a little village port, beside the setting up of a wedding party on a scrap of land, sandwiched between the police station and a refinery. And we saw the boat we were going to have our day out in, a wooden boat, a local wooden boat. A local wooden not-particularly-ship-shape-ocean-going-looking kind of boat. It would have perhaps been prudent at this point to invite ourselves to the nearby wedding, try and kiss the bridesmaid. Prudent and safer perhaps to even try and seduce the bride. But no, into the boat we clambered. Not one of us thinking to do a risk assessment, not one of us thinking to check if the boat had GPS, or even a radio. On we clambered like Indonesian sheep to the nasi goreng slaughter.
A few funny comments were passed, some nervous banter. But hey, the sun was up, we were amongst pals, Ms. A. was looking particularly glamourous in her little black dress, large black sunglasses and long brown legs. We were out of the office, a day trip. Scuba diving, snorkeling, snacks, sun, and Ms. P. had brought muesli bars. It started well, like a day trip on the riviera. Even though we were planning on visiting a location which once shook the world. A location home to the 5th biggest volcanic explosion in history. Home to a volcano known the world over, home to a volcano which erupted in 1883 killing tens of thousands of people, creating tsunami’s which tore across the oceans and shock waves which circled the planet seven times. A volcano which spewed so much ash and debris that for days there was no daylight, and for years incredible sunsets were seen the world over. A location still analysed, written about, studied and monitored to this day. And we were going for a day trip.
The evening before I’d read a bit about Kraktoa on the web, and one line had stood out. “Three kilometre exclusion zone around the island”. Mmmm. I mentioned it the next morning, the morning of our departure, to my colleagues, but we all laughed nervously, made jokes. No one wanted to be the party pooper and call it off.
So onto the boat and off out into the Sunda Straits we went. And headed straight for Krakatoa. All was good in life, just as it had been in Batavia on Sunday, August 26th 1883.
The boat was old and wooden, but it was making steady progress, but it became apparent that the “two hour journey” was going to be a long two hours. The sea swell began to get bigger, a bit choppier. The boat would thud down into the troughs, little shards of wood fell from the ceiling onto our arms and legs. Not flakes of paint, but shards of wood. There were still jokes being cracked, but with a more nervous edge to them. Jokes about our safety. And so on we went, ploughing into the approaching rain, larger seas and darkening skies, getting no where. The boat began to lurch, people began to hold on. Cameras weren’t so evident now as the sea spray mingled with the rains, the smiles gone, the conversation dying down. The sanity of our day trip was whispered amongst us, should we turn back, is it safe to go on, how many hours will be have there, and of course we still have to come back again.
And then the skinny, bedraggled crew stopped pumping the water from the engine rooms using a broken plastic pipe going into a hole in the side of the ship deck. The urchin-like black t-shirted crew member, wet from the rain, clambered up onto the roof and reappeared, throwing down a big plastic sheet in which was wrapped a few lifevests. “You have got to be fucking kidding” was uttered. Did the Cap’n feel he should give us them to soothe our nerves, or did he order them issued as he felt we may actually need them? Either way, we timidly and a little shyly put them on, until we all had them on, and were glad for them. At the very least they’d keep us a little drier and warmer.
So we inched ahead cutting a swathe through the slipstream of floating pumice on the ocean’s surface. Slowly rounded an island, finally out of the storm, out of the rain, out of the swell. And straight into the frying pan. Yes, there ahead of us was Krakatoa, or to split rocks, there ahead of us were the remnants of Krakatoa and Rakata, and in front was Anak-Krakatoa (Child of Krakatoa). ‘Child of Krakatoa’, it sounds so benign, so friendly, so cute, “awwwh, little Krakatoa” and pat it on the head. But no, we looked straight ahead, all eyes were on it, all cameras were back out. Anak-Krakatoa, formed by the ongoing volcanic activity in the years following the violent 1883 explosion- the largest sound ever heard by man. Anak-Krakatoa is the proof of the volatility of the area, located on a classic subduction fault in geological terms. And we were inching onwards on our sunny little day trip towards it. Even though from it’s summit belched grey and black smoke.
“Are you sure we can go in ?” was heard as we steamed straight towards the island. “Surely we’re not going to actually pass under that cloud of falling ash and debris?” But yes, we were. We liked to think of ourselves as a hardy bunch of day trippers. The types that save forests and whales, take on mega-companies and win. Today we were the type of people who look danger in the eyes…and giggle nervously. So in we went. Lil’ Anak-Krakatoa rumbled and belched, shooting it’s tumultuous grey ash into the sky, where it blew on the wind below the low lying clouds, drifitng out over the bay and held heavy by the rain it’d fall back downwards. Onto us.
And then we anchored, jumped into the surf, staggered hesitantly ashore. On the boat I was confused, what cameras to take for this visit ?- little Lumix?, Canon with one lens or two?, Rollie and film…? Decisions, decisions. A day trip and I’m still laden with cameras. Like a fool. But I make my decison, jump ashore, onto the black sand. The others are off on ahead, backpacks with water and muesli bars. Adventurers, explorers, heroes, fool hardy one and all. A few stayed behind on the boat to go scuba diving. Me, I had a mission, shoot a quick project, and get some lava souvenirs. Lead life to the full.
So we skirted the undergrowth, pausing briefly to read the signs, the information, Pre-1883, 1883, Post-1883. And through the lush plants we went. And then it happened. A. Big. Noise. A Big Rumble. Ms. A. jumped back in fear, not looking quite so brave now in her little black dress and sunglasses. We looked up, and there above us was a huge cloud of ash, boiling, rolling over on itself. We all looked at each other. “D’ye think we should go on ?” we all mouthed and ask each other, asked ourselves. “This is stupid”. But on we went, there was a clearing just ahead. 20 feet ahead. 10 feet ahead. And then we were in it. Grey, black sandy ash below our feet. Then another rumble, bigger, louder. Grey, black sandy ash above our heads, heading upwards into the sky. Then the words were uttered which turned our minds from brave to safety conscious, “I saw rocks” and “There was fire and lightening, did you see it?”. And then the sanest words I’d heard all day “let’s go back”. And back we scrambled, through the undergrowth. “Quick, quick take a pciture of me (with the ash behind me)”. There’s always got to be a Facebook pic to prove things these days. “Hurry !” as another rumble above us boomed upwards.
We came out on the beach, walking quickly to the shore, fine lines of ash drifting downwards over the boat. Beside our boat another of similar design, full of tourists, Dutch perhaps- back to revisit the Colonial days. You could sense their indecision, you could see they were having a meeting on the front deck of their boat- “mmm, big clouds of ash, rumbling, falling rocks, fire and brimstone, some tourists running out of the undergrowth…ok, who wants to go ashore ?”.
We were climbing onto the boat by this point, the scuba divers in their kit helping pull us up. “When we heard that big rumble we knew you’d all be back” they laughed. And then from behind me, Ms. P shouts, “Jeremy, the rocks !”. Damn, we’d nearly forgotten to get our lava/pumice souvenirs. Quickly we scrambled on the foreshore, three small bits of black light-as-a-feather pumice, and up onto the boat we jumped. I scrape my ankle on the way up, banging it on the hardware of the boat. Now, finally, after a lifetime of waiting for this moment, I could say it, “Krakatoa? Nah, broke my ankle”.
Up anchor and out of the bay. The sky above us dark with ash. Menacing. Drifting downwards beautifully. We’re all photographing now. “WHOA ! did you see that?” as more rocks were thrown out from the bowls of the earth. Oh yes, a day trip indeed.
And then to the other side of Rakata island, the old volcano, now sheered in half. The world seemed quieter. Safer. Drop anchor. Scuba diving. Snorkeling. Spit out the incredibly salty water. Ooh and ahh at the corals. Photograph the lizards. We eat our bento box lunches, more sambal, “I’ll swop you my beef for your veggies”. Collect more rocks- black shiny lava, light grey or white and black pumice, reddish iron ore types, speckled types, every type. A geologist’s deamscape of rocks. “You can’t take them all”.
And then our time was up, time to head back. Back through the exotically named Sunda Straits, shipping channel for the Spice Islands, a waterway which was once the trading route that whole nations got rich upon. “Oh, we’ll get back quicker”, the tides and waves favouring us, we thought.
Oh no we didn’t. It was still a 4 hour slog back to land, back to sanity, back to still being alive. In the frolicking of our swim stop we’d cheered up, life was good again, we’d stopped keeping an eye on the time. Back on the boat and underway we remembered how foolish, or brave, or foolish but brave, we were. The lifejackets were back on to keep us warm. Two of the gang threw up, and sat and shivered in wet clothes ignoring pleas from the rest of us to change, or just disrobe altogether. Ms. P stood gallantly holding her sarong with both hands, shielding her modesty drying the sarong in the oncoming trade winds. Myself and Ms. Beijing decided to sit inside the tiny galley space, out of the rain. But inside it rained more than outside, and interestingly the rain came from within the light fittings.
In the dark I illuminate my watch, 18.17pm. “Fuck” I think, “I want this to end”. And by this I meant ‘TODAY’, but I feared slightly it could be ‘MY LIFE’. I check my watch again, 18.22pm. Another round of “fucks”. Note to self, don’t check watch again. The boat ploughed on, the wooden ceiling continued decomposing and the rain falling. “Maybe I will go to church” I thought quietly.
Finally the refinery is visible on the horizon. We might just make it, we might just survive. Ms. P is proud her sarong is dry, and together we try to remember the song words to “dear dear lights of home”, or is it “of Aberdeen?”. Mr. J. looks wet and has been quiet. Lil’ China is sodden and needs rung out, her glasses all rainy and misty. The glamourous Ms. A is up front, preparing for another change of clothes into another glamourous outfit. Ms. J was stoic in the face of it all. And Mr. R shows us a photo of himself in front of an ash cloud, smiling like a demented vulcanologist happy in the face of instant boulder-from-above death.
“Tomorrow we’ll look back on all this and laugh” we said.
And we were right.