150 Asian adventures: Volcanoes

Mount Bromo

Awe-inspiring symbols of our ever-changing Earth, volcanoes are a major feature of the landscape in parts of this region and offer a tantalising challenge for adventurous hikers

Mount Bromo
Photo: James Louie

Our January/February 2015 issue was our 150th so we’ve gone all out to serve up 150 of the best adventure experiences Asia has to offer. The list is split into categories, each with 10 unmissable sights.

Bromo, Java, Indonesia

The world’s most stupendous natural views – the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley – have a quality of unreality. Stand in front of them and their scale and grandeur is so difficult to grasp that they look no more tangible than if they were on a giant screen. Bromo is like that. It’s the sort of thing that humans send robotic rovers to investigate. If you live in Asia, it should be on that must-see list that includes the likes of Angkor, the Great Wall and Mt Kinabalu. The sunrise view is the main event for most but there’s plenty of scope here for day hikes or even a climb of Semeru (3,676 metres).

When to go

As with other central Indonesian sites, April to November is best for dry and clear conditions. Sunrise is spectacular but the usual viewpoints can get crowded at times so consider alternate spots and perhaps a sunset instead.

How to get there

Surabaya is the closest international airport. You can hire transport on landing, or else there are buses and trains in the city to get you to Probolinggo, from where minibuses take you up the final leg. Either way you’ll be staying in or near Cemoro Lawang. Expect to pay well over the odds for room and food.

Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

The eruption that produced Toba was an apocalyptic event that tore a hole in the centre of Sumatra bigger than Singapore – big enough to contain what is today Indonesia’s biggest lake and the largest volcanic lake in the world. Shaped like a 100-kilometre spearhead, it has long been a magnet for travellers drawn to the spectacle as well as the friendly Batak locals. Many stay on the huge island of Samosir. At the northwestern tip is Sipisopiso, Indonesia’s tallest waterfall and not far to the north is Sinabung, another volcano that has been very active in the last two years.

When to go

Being equatorial, there is fairly little change in the heat or rainfall across the year: expect plenty of both at times and you can’t go wrong.

How to get there

Fly into Medan on Sumatra’s east coast where you can take a bus or hire transport to take you to Parapat on the lake’s eastern shore.

What to take

Depends on whether this is simply a photo stop on a cross-Sumatra road trip, or the setting for a week’s hiking or kayaking.

Pinatubo, Luzon, Philippines

Volcanologists talk of VEI – the volcanic explosivity index – when discussing big eruptions. It is a logarithmic scale, like the Richter Scale, so a VEI 2 eruption implies 10 times the volume of ejecta produced than from one of VEI 1. The famous Mt St Helens eruption of 1980 was a VEI 5 event, but in 1991, Pinatubo erupted with a VEI of 6. The massive grey lahar flows still scar the surroundings – and offer the main route into the crater, a journey variously done on foot, horsebike, motorbike or in a 4WD.

When to go

Avoid the wet season (June-October) as the heavy rain may trigger flash flooding and slides in the ash.

How to get there

The most common start point and the one that provides the most transport options is Barangay Santa Juliana in Capas.

Aso-san, Kyushu, Japan

One of the largest calderas in the world, this is also one of the easiest to visit thanks to cable cars and even a toll road that goes all the way up to the highest peak, Mt Nakadake. One of the more active peaks on this list, there is currently a one-kilometre exclusion zone in place, meaning views into the caldera are not possible for now. Even so, the caldera’s numerous other cones and features, most linked by hiking trails, make this a fascinating excursion for anyone – ahem – fired up by volcanoes.

When to go

Spring and autumn are best with milder conditions and more colour in the vegetation. Watch out for the spike in rainfall in mid-summer.

How to get there

Trains can get you as far as the small town of Aso from where you need your own wheels or a taxi.

Rinjani sunrise
Photo: James Louie

Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia

Climbing many of Indonesia’s volcanoes requires a high degree of self-reliance: there are few facilities or guides available. That’s not true on Rinjani though. Here you can hike with a local Sasak guide, learning about their way of life and how the mountain plays a role in their agriculture and beliefs. It’s an ideal first peak if you’ve never climbed a volcano before though note that it’s no push-over, especially if you opt to go all the way to the 3,726-metre summit, atop a long final ashy slope. You’ll need two days at least to get up and down from Senaru but it’s far better to take more time to do a partial traverse of the rim, descending to Sembalun. That gives time to sample the hot springs, or have a swim in the crater lake.

When to go

The dry season is April to November. Other times the trails may be closed.

How to get there

Access the mountain from the road that skirts the north coast of Lombok. Ferries connect the island with Bali’s northeast coast, or else you can fly in.

What to take

Prepare for baking hot days on exposed slopes and frigid nights that may even fall below zero at times on the summit.

Further info

You’ll find ‘guides’ offering their services all over Lombok. Many have little or no experience on the mountain. Far better is to wait until you reach Senaru where you are guaranteed a local who will enrich your experience with their stories and knowledge.

Mayon, Luzon, Philippines

This 2,463-metre mountain is surely what a child would draw if asked to draw a volcano, gracefully swooping upwards to a small summit crater. Make no mistake though, this is a temperamental mountain which is currently closed after a recent burst of activity. This follows deaths on the mountain in 2013, and other periods of activity in 2010 and 2009. In short, check with the local authorities before heading down to the area and take care when choosing a guide.

When to go

Difficult to avoid rain entirely as it falls through much of the year but watch for storms and especially typhoons which usually occur between June and October.

How to get there

Legazpi City is the usual gateway, with regular domestic flights from Manila and other Philippines cities.

Further info

Look out for ‘guides’ who have little working knowledge of the mountain and are just looking for a quick buck. Check with the Government’s experts, PHIVOLCS, www.phivolcs.dost.gov.ph for the latest on the mountain.

Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

If Mayon is a child’s line drawing of a volcano, Ijen is the result of that same kid overturning their paints in a fit of pique. A straightforward two-hour hike leads to the rim from where you gaze down debris slopes streaked with colourful ores onto a blue-green lake. What seizes the eyes though is the roiling sulphurous steam issuing from the shore.

In a scene reminiscent of some medieval imagining of Hell, an ant-like line of workers file into and out of this steam, emerging with baskets weighted with freshly solidified plates of sulphur sold for a pittance once they are ferried off the mountain. They do run a trailside-trade in souvenirs though: choose between mini frozen fountains au naturel or moulded Mickey Mouses and the like. Tourists are supposedly barred from the crater but many go anyway, some at night to see the electric-blue flames given off as the sulphur is pushed to the surface.

When to go

The driest time of year is April-November. Access at other times is possible but more caution would be need on the trail down from the rim. Even if you don’t plan on a night-time visit, you are advised to get an early start for the best colours.

How to get there

The closest town is Banyuwangi, where the ferry comes in from Bali, making that the fastest and easiest route in. from there you’ll need a 4WD or an adventurous ojek (motorcycle taxi) to get up the very steep road to the entrance to the area.

What to take

No need to take much beyond water and sun protection. You will want a handkerchief or bandana to tie across your mouth and nose if you descend to the lakeside though.

Anak Krakatau
Photo: Steve White

Krakatau, Indonesia

Most people know the name: an island that in 1883 blew itself apart, launching a tsunami and reshaping the world’s weather for years. Since 1927 Anak Krakatau (literally the child of Krakatau) has been growing in its place. Today it is periodically active but generally it is accessible to day-trippers and overnighters who hike the slopes (a few dare to go to the top though note you’ll need shoes that can withstand the underfoot heat) and snorkel the surrounding waters. Rakata, a remaining fragment of the original caldera, makes an interesting visit too for its forest entirely regenerated from plants and animals that have crossed the water from the mainland since the big eruption.

When to go

In August to November the seas can get rough which makes the crossing less pleasant and potentially dangerous (especially in the boats used from Kalianda).

How to get there

Most rent a boat from Anyer or Carita on the Java coast, though it is also possible and cheaper in more rustic local boats from Kalianda on the Sumatra side.

Rabaul, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea

Once the largest town in the area, Rabaul was almost wiped off the map in 1994 when not one but two neighbouring volcanoes, Tarvurvur and Vulcan, erupted. Today a small remnant of the town clings to the shore, including the premises of several dive operators, while a new town has sprouted 20 kilometres away. Most visitors come, as before, for the wreck diving, meanwhile the volcanoes remain occasionally active in the background.

When to go

The driest time is May to October, though rain is possible all year round.

How to get there

The new airport has flights from PNG’s capital, Port Moresby.

Fuji, Tokyo, Japan

A global icon and a touchstone of Japanese culture, Fuji (3,776 metres) is climbed by millions of people every year. Most use the wide, weaving Kawaguchiko route because of its bus approach and mountain huts en-route. If you follow suit, try to think of the climb as a cultural experience: observe what it means to the locals around you, many of them totally out of their comfort zones but determined to do their best to summit. You can then choose one of the more direct ashy descent routes that will have you loping, leaping and laughing as you tumble your way back down.

When to go

Only in mid-summer does it get a little above zero on top so prepare for the cold. If you want more solitude, climb very early or avoid the warmer months entirely – there are even routes that remain unclimbed in winter!

How to get there

There are numerous approaches depending the route you plan to climb but Tokyo is the closest city.

We’d love to hear about your own top ten of adventures in Asia. Or maybe you went through our list counting up how many you have done? Go on, brag a little. How many did you tick off?