Volcano hikes

Having a blast – Asia’s 10 best volcano hikes (and plenty more almost as good)

Looking for a truly elemental challenge? Hiking a volcano is the closest thing to going back to the time when the Earth was still being moulded by these awesome fiery giants. Read on for a hotlist of must-do peaks.

Volcanoes are found all over the world, along many of the boundaries where the tectonic plates upon which the continents ride meet. But nowhere is there such a concentration of them as in the 40,000km horseshoe-shaped belt of faults, trenches and island arcs that encircles the Pacific and is most often called the Ring of Fire.

Much of the activity and many of the volcanoes are out of sight under the water, but plenty more have been thrust up on dry land, especially in places like Indonesia and Japan. Looming over the landscape, they are inescapable reminders of the Earth’s changeable nature. Together they have been a major shaping force on the planet’s surface for aeons, but since humans came along, their effects have helped shape cultures as well. The mineral-rich volcanic rock often degrades into very productive soil, turning the lower slopes at least into a riot of green.

Man has patchworked paddies and fields onto this rich land, and dotted it with villages. Just travel to Java today to see millions of people continuing to live in close proximity to giant active volcanoes. People who live in these places do so accepting on at least some level that just as the volcano gives of itself freely, it can also just as freely take away in a sudden convulsion that wrenches the earth and rents the air. Living with that threat has influenced these people’s belief systems and has continued to do so even when other more broad-based beliefs came their way.

Today, volcanoes retain their ability to control our lives. At times, in the biggest eruptions, the whole world may feel the effects as happened with Tambora and Krakatau in the 19th Century, and Pinatubo in the 20th Century. Though we know much more about them now, we still struggle to read their moods and deal with their tantrums. Even the basic classification of volcanoes into ’active’, ’dormant’ and ’extinct’ is fraught with difficulty, so much so that many volcanologists shy away from the term ’dormant’ altogether.

Periods of inactivity can vary so widely – some mountains go centuries or even more between eruptions – that unless you know it to be extinct, you should treat every volcano as potentially dangerous. Check in with the relevant monitoring body that watches over the volcanoes to find out if the mountain is safe to climb: useful contacts for this are given here for each country along with some contacts for volcano tours.

Even if the peak is quiet there can still be danger in all the loose material lying on the slopes. Heavy rain can unleash terrible flows of mud and debris and many hundreds have died this way over the years in places like Indonesia and the Philippines. As much of Asia is prone to monsoonal rains, bear this in mind before you go scrambling across the slopes at the wrong time of year. These concerns aside, volcanoes are yours to enjoy. For a sense of the raw power of the primordial forces that made the Earth look the way it does, there’s nothing like them.

INDONESIA

Something like a third of all the world’s volcanoes dot the landscape of this vast archipelago, making it the place to go for volcano nuts living in Asia with 129 active peaks. Many of these are readily accessible to an independent hiker.

For many people, Bali is the starting point of explorations of Indonesia and the island has the mighty Agung as its spiritual and literal centre, as well as the caldera of Batur for the less adventurous. But it is on Java where the volcano hiker will find most satisfaction. There peak after peak tower above the cities and towns, many active, some dangerously so.

These peaks have shaped the economy, with crops such as coffee, tobacco and other staples grown in the fertile soil, and tourism more recently playing a role too. The mountains have also impacted on religion, with animist beliefs about their power often underlying both Hindu and Muslim faiths on these islands.

The list of interesting mountains is long and spans the archipelago with big peaks even on isolated islands far to the east and others in Sulawesi and Halmahera. Once you have worked your way through the ones described here, the next in line would have to include Tambora on Sumbawa (its explosion in 1815 was far larger than that of Krakatau later in the century); Keli Mutu and its three coloured lakes on Flores; Raung near Ijen, little-visited but impressive; the twin peaks of Sumbing and Sundoro either side of Kledung Pass within sight of Merapi; the lovely Dieng Plateau and Sumatra’s Lake Toba, formed in a huge caldera.

Contacts: Directorate of Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation, www.vsi.esdm.go.id Azimuth, www.azimuth-travel.com

Agung
Height – 3,142m
Active? Yes
When ? April-September
Where ? Besakih, Eastern Bali
Getting there – Buses from Denpasar and Kuta
How long? One day
Accommodation – Homestays along the road before you reach the temple
Highlights – Dawn light spilling over Batur below

The gods work in mysterious ways on Bali, it seems. I had come, in the middle of the night, with my guide Made, to the highest outlying temple of the Besakih complex to ask for a blessing on our summit climb. Traditionally one of the most spiritual places on the island, I had just paid my respects – literally. Thing is, I had already paid handsomely for Made’s services and was a little short of the ready cash, a fact made obvious by my tribute which was some way short of the ’suggested’ amount, according to him.

I tried valiantly to believe that this money was really going to the gods, really I did, but my cynical soul – may I be flung forever into the howling void – couldn’t shake the fact that this was just an elaborate shakedown. Now I was stood in the temple courtyard staring vainly out into the inky blackness of the paddies beyond. Somewhere out there was Made’s dog, the unusually named Mt Blanc, who had just run off with my friend’s GPS, specially borrowed for this trip.

For the mystically susceptible, this would seem a clear case of divine retribution but I stubbornly clung to my worldview which doesn’t hold with that sort of thing. All the same I was mouthing something approximating to prayer – in less than devout language it has to be said – that Mt Blanc was just as stubbornly clinging to that GPS. Then he appeared at the edge of our vision. He gave us a perky look that said two things: A) ’I want to play’ and B) ’I know where I put that GPS and you don’t’. Mt Blanc then just stood and watched as we combed up and down the field in the dark. He radiated smugness at just how well he had these humans trained but at least he didn’t attempt to pick up and move the GPS again and finally we found it, safe and sound aside from a couple of canine imprints on the case. We resumed our climb and happily nothing else untoward happened [see Mt Blanc on the summit below]. All the same, should you ever be tempted to climb Agung from Besakih, take enough small notes for the pot at the temple and a couple of dog chews to be on the safe side.

Ijen
Height – 2,368m
Active? Yes
When? April-September
Where?  Extreme east of Java
Getting there – Ferry from Bali or by road from Bondowoso
How long? Half-day
Accommodation – Basic rooms or camping at Pos Paltuding
Highlights – Running the gauntlet of the sulphur clouds

There’s two ways to do this peak. For the more timid, there is the otherworldly crater view and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to buy a teddy bear cast in sulphur. For the hardier soul, there is the journey down to whence the teddy bear came: a descent into the crater, where a bunch of wiry locals harvest sulphur straight from the vents that produce it.

It’s an medieval scene, with men wreathed in malodorous fumes, chipping and levering away at slabs of yellow sulphur that have barely cooled from their molten journey up to the Earth’s surface. The sulphur is their principle source of income but they earn a pittance for it so supplement this with far more lucrative sums extracted from tourists for moulded teddy bears and the like. The Lonely Planet still says that access from the ferry at Banyuwangi is poor but it is possible to hire a motorbike to get you all the way up to Pos Paltuding and this makes a big difference to those coming from Bali. Otherwise, access from Bondowoso is simpler.

Rinjani
Height – 3,726m
Active? Yes
When? April-September
Where? Lombok
Getting there – Bus and pick-up
How long? 3-5 days
Accommodation – Camping and basic shelters on the mountaun, guesthouses below
Highlights – From freezing summit to bubbling hot springs in one day

Lombok’s highest peak by a long way, Rinjani is also prominent as an example of how ecotourism can be based around a volcano trekking operation.

With the help of NZAid, local villagers have been trained as guides, supplanting those from around Lombok that used to guide here. This helps keep more of the revenue from visitors in the area and means that your guide should be able to tell you a lot about the flora and fauna, agriculture, local beliefs and more. Most people traverse the mountain starting from Senaru and descending to Sembalun Lawang. If you want the fastest route up and down though, start from the latter.

The caldera views are stunning and more varied than those on many other peaks. Hiking to the summit itself is fairly tough but the descent on the ash fields is fast and fun. Then, after your dusty descent, there’s nothing better than a dunk and a waterfall massage in the hot springs at Aiq Kalak. The mini shanty town that has grown up around the pools is one of Rinjani’s less attractive aspects, but there are great opportunities for people watching as folk from across Lombok come to take the waters.

The need to take a guide does makes this a relatively expensive mountain to climb, but it is worth the expense for the deeper understanding you gain of how the mountain has affected the area and the people who live here. Also note too that a guide keeps you more secure as there have been sporadic accounts of attacks on hikers. The project is now locally led so it is up to the communities of Senaru and Sembalun Lawang to ensure everything runs as it should. There’s a lot riding on their shoulders for Indonesia’s other volcanoes could all follow this model if it can be made to work. The jury’s out for now, but in the meantime this is a must-do if you are on Lombok and well worth a side-trip from Bali.

JAPAN

There’s clearly one volcano that looms head and shoulders above all others here, but Fuji aside, there are many other volcanoes worthy of attention.

The southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, Kyushu, is an excellent option for those wanting to lose the crowds – more rural and less frenetic than Honshu. Consider ditching the train in favour of a much cheaper overnight ferry from Osaka to Beppu in the north, or to Shibushi in the south. Both are close to significant sights for the volcano addict. The former is the gateway to Aso-Kuju National Park which has some of Kyushu’s highest peaks and loveliest scenery while the latter is not far from the port city of Kagoshima and the often active Sakurajima volcano.

Kagoshima is also where you catch the boats to the southern islands and one of these in particular, Yakushima, deserves to be on any shortlist of volcanic attractions. A World Heritage Site, it’s a stunning mix of towering cedar forest and bald, craggy peaks that is usually tackled in a two- or three-day traverse of the whole island.

Hokkaido in the north has a number of beautiful areas of volcanic origin too, including several of the only handful of still-active volcanoes in the country. Daisetsu-zan National Park, right in the centre of the island, is a standout, offering the chance of multi-day traverses of a string of 2,000m peaks.

Transportation and accommodation in these areas depends largely on the season. Many bus routes and mountain huts are there to serve the summer hiking season only so do your homework ahead of time. The shoulder periods around that time can be great for beating the worst of the crowds while still having fine conditions. There’s a chance of rain up high at most times of year though (especially on Yakushima where it rains one day in two on average), so be sure to pack accordingly.

Contacts: University of Tokyo’s Volcano Research Centre,
http://www.eri.u-tokyo.ac.jp/VRC/index_E.html

Fuji
Height – 3,776m
Active? No
When? ’Official’ season July 1-August 31
Where? Near Tokyo
Getting there – Public buses
How long? One or two days
Accommodation – Mountain huts, hotels lower down
Highlights – Sliding some sand

Cliched? Yes. Crowded? Often. But this is one of the world’s most iconic peaks: you just have to have a go and where else but Japan could you take a bus from downtown in the national capital to a volcano trailhead in 2.5hrs?

Thanks to the Japanese passion for infrastructure, it’s a straightforward hike with clear trails running up from various points of the compass. The mountain is divided into 10 levels or ’stations’ with most people starting their walk from the 5th station. From that height it is a 4-5hr hike to the summit, or if you prefer, you can start right from the bottom in which case you should add another 3-4hrs. The two main trails start from the north and south and of these, Kawaguchi-ko to the north is the most popular approach. This trail switchbacks up much of the mountain so is doable by almost anyone.

You may therefore prefer to go for another option if it’s a weekend or public holiday. That said, this mountain means an awful lot to many Japanese so this may be one time when it pays to say sayonara to solitude and throw yourself into the stick-wielding, oxygen-sucking mob. Make some friends and learn about the culture as you wend your way up the winding trail-cum-road.

Having done the sociable thing on the way up though, it’s time for an abrupt change of pace for the downhill. Ladies and gentlemen, adjust your footwear. The Subashiri and Gotemba routes are possible (and less crowded) ways to get up Fuji, but their real attraction is as a speedy and fun way to get down. Jump and slide your way down hundreds of metres of altitude in half the time it took to gain them.

You can in fact climb Fuji at any time of year, but outside of the ’official’ season the mountain huts are closed and access by public transport becomes trickier. As for views, the mountain is often hidden by cloud. Early morning is, as always, the best time to be up top so many people hike up overnight. Late autumn and early spring are often the clearest times of year but you’ll need to bring plenty of warm and waterproof clothing if you plan to ascend at this time. In winter you’ll need crampons too.

PHILIPPINES

The volcanism in the Philippines is the product of a number of small platelets that jostle for space between the much larger Eurasian and Philippine Plates. This activity has left the country with something like 200 volcanoes in all, with 22 identified as active according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs).

Of these, one of the most alluring is the supremely graceful form of Mayon (2,463m) that towers over Legazpi City in Albay Province – surely just about as perfectly symmetrical as it is possible for a stratovolcano to be. It makes a great night-day hike but be sure to take plenty of water and watch out for loose rock on the upper sections. Mayon is brought within easy reach thanks to the nearby airport, but other peaks such as Kanlaon in northern Negros and Hibok-hibok on Camiguin, require a little more effort. That is not to say they are far from population centres though: indeed the Philippines has some of the deadliest volcanoes in the world partly because there is so little room left undeveloped. Just about the easiest peak to see is the famous Pinatubo. The size of its eruption in 1991 so diminished the mountain that today it requires only a gentle uphill hike over the lahar to reach the crater viewpoint.

Contacts: Phivolcs, www.phivolcs.dost.gov.ph

Pinatubo
Height – 1,760m
Active? Yes
When? October-April
Where? Santa Juliana, Tarlac province
Getting there – Bus to Capas
How long? One- or two-day trips
Accommodation – Hostels in Santa Juliana or camping down by the crater
Highlights – Strange forest of grey lahar pinnacles

In June 1991, this volcano, which had been active for several months, blew off its top putting 20 million tons of suphur dioxide into the air, affecting the world’s weather and depositing ash as far away as the US. Locally though, the most significant effect was the lahars that raced out from the mountain, covering everything in their path.

Today the mountain is quiet but the scars are still there. Vegetation has taken hold on much of the lahar, but river beds that have carved down into it expose the fragility of the slopes – this is still a volatile landscape. The conventional way to get into the crater is to take a jeep up to within a couple of hours walk of the crater. Local rules mean it is compulsory to have a native guide though the simple route make this hardly necessary.

You can walk all the way from the entrance if you want but it would a be a dusty slog and most will be happy to spend the dollars renting the jeep. The easiest way to do the trip is to book onto a tour in Manila or else you can take a bus up to the area (Victory liner have buses to Baguio and Dagupan that stop in Capas). A much more exciting way to view the crater is from a light aircraft, helicopter or even ultralight. There are commercial operators who can organise this from Clark Field airport or you may be lucky enough to hitch a ride with a group of ultralight enthusiasts who fly from Porac if you help meet expenses.

Practicalities

  • Clothing – In Japan and especially Kamchatka, you’ll need to be very aware of the cold at altitude especially if it is wet too. Even on the equator though, at 3,000m it can get chilly overnight. That’s OK if you are on the move but it can fall below 0?C in the coldest hours before dawn – often the time you will be making your final ascent to catch the sunrise. Always carry a rain shell at least and preferably at least one other long-sleeved layer.
  • Hat and suncream – Many of these peaks are one-day climbs, but be mindful of their height. Even at 2,000m the atmosphere is thinned somewhat and many bigger peaks mentioned here go up to well over 3,000m. Add to that the lack of shelter in many cases and you have a heightened risk of sunstroke. Take precautions. A bandana is a good idea, as it can also be useful pulled down over your mouth on dusty descents.
  • Water – This is of prime concern to every trekker of course but it’s worth underlining here as some volcanic peaks have no water sources at all while on others water is available, but is not potable. Seek local advice.
  • Footwear – If you are an experienced hiker, you’ll be happiest with something lightweight. Consider a fabric boot for ankle support and to keep the worst of the grit out when skidding down ashy descents. Newbies to volcanoes may be more comfortable in a heavier shoe or boot, especially on the longer treks requiring more than just a daypack.

Volcano tours
John Seach is a hugely experienced volcanologist who maintains an enormous website, www.volcanolive.com, in between running trips to peaks around the world.