With more than 120 active volcanoes, Indonesia is a hive of seismic activity. An archipelago dotted across an area the width of the United States, every vista is backed by the profile of a nearby volcano. Audley Travel specialist Mat Hall shares his memories of hiking some of these volcanoes and experiencing the volcanic geology first-hand.
After first visiting Indonesia, I compared my photos to a friend’s pictures, taken a few years before. They both showed the same landscapes, but their features differed dramatically. For me, this really piqued my fascination with a country that is continuously being altered by volcanic activity.
Why go volcano hiking in Indonesia?
It’s possible to see volcanic peaks all over Indonesia. Rather than simply enjoying the scenery, I’d argue that you can’t fully appreciate them without setting foot on one. Standing on volcanic lava rocks, surrounded by scattered ash, you can sometimes feel the movement of the earth below. Up close, the rumbling of a volcano sounds like a million old cars trying to start up at once.
Each volcano has its own unique geological features, so I’d suggest combining a few. For example, there’s a stark contrast in topography between the sprawling volcanic complex at Ijen and the perfect cone of Krakatoa. The calderas (volcanic craters caused by a collapsing magna chamber) can vary in size from a few metres, to hundreds of miles.
The smoking crater of Mount Bromo
Waking up at 3am, my guide picked me up in a 4×4 and drove me into Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park on the island of Java. En route we passed a checkpoint informing us there was no volcanic activity occurring. We were safe to continue. Driving up to a viewpoint, we find a position and wait for the sun rise over the four volcanic peaks of the park. Semeru, the highest peak, erupts every ten minutes, almost to the clock, with a puff of smoke.
From here, I began the one hour hike up to the rim of Bromo. The volcano itself lies in a vast sandy plain known as the sea of sands. Walking along this dusty grey moonscape, the side of the volcano looms up ahead, with steps cut into the side of the rock. On reaching the rim, I could see right down onto the smoking plateau of white ash. The smoke continuously billows from its depths and some of the rumbles were so loud they startled fellow visitors.
Nearby is a simple Hindu temple. It’s easy to miss – built out of volcanic rock, it blends into the landscape beyond. The volcano is worshipped by local Hindus who celebrate Yadnya Kasada each year in June. Pilgrims line the edge of the crater, throwing offerings into its depths to appease the god of the mountain.
Visit the highest acidic lake in the world at Mount Ijen
Perched right on the eastern point of Java, on a clear day you can see Bali from Mount Ijen’s peak. Part of an extensive volcanic landscape, Mount Ijen is the active volcano within the Ijen caldera, the largest on Java.
It was another early start. I woke at 5am and my guide drove me to ‘base camp’, nestled at the base of the volcano. Climbing at full moon, the path was so well lit I didn’t turn my torch on. I’d suggest planning a trip around the full moon if you have the flexibility: hiking by the cool light of the moon is quite surreal.
After an hour’s climb, you’ll come to a group of enterprising locals who have set up a camp offering tea, coffee and biscuits. You can refuel here before heading on to the rim. A final push to the top takes another hour before you’re on a narrow ridge overlooking the tumult below.
On my visit, smoke covered the caldera completely, making for a very spooky atmosphere. If you’re lucky, the smoke will clear and you’ll be able to see the turquoise lake filling the crater. Its unreal shade is caused by its acidity levels. The extreme acidity, sometimes with a pH as low as 0.5, is caused by hydrothermal waters rising from the magma chambers below.
The most unique feature is the lake-side solfatara. This is a geological phenomenon where sulphurous gasses emerge from vents in the caldera and, on meeting oxygen, burn with a neon blue light.
I thought my wake-up call was early, but my guide explained that sulphur miners arrive at 2am to begin work. Descending steep paths right down into the volcano, they hew chunks of sulphur before carrying it away in baskets on their shoulders. It’s dangerous work. Many miners carry more than their own bodyweight in sulphur on the return leg.
Hiking back down the volcano in daylight, I surveyed the surrounding landscape. It was covered in a lush blanket of trees and shrubs. Mineral-rich volcanic ash breaks down into the soil creating some of the most fertile land on earth.
Enjoy a volcano-cooked dinner at Mount Batur
On the island of Bali, Mount Batur juts above a landscape pockmarked with craters from countless previous eruptions. It currently sits between two merged calderas containing a crescent-shaped lake. From the viewpoint you can see numerous small villages and roads weaving their way around the lake, drawn by the populous fish and clean water.
Bali attracts more visitors than any other Indonesian island, so Batur can get quite busy. My guide suggested we visit at sunset rather than sunrise. The volcano also steams more in the evening, adding to the ambience. The climb is more gentle than other peaks, taking about two hours to reach the summit along well marked paths. From the top you can see the lake and villages stretching across the caldera – a real contrast to more desolate volcanoes.
Whilst waiting for the sun to set, my guide prepared a meal. Gathering handfuls of grass, he placed them into a nearby vent, creating a traditional oven. Gingerly putting my hand in, I could feel the heat from the earth below. A couple of eggs were popped in and, in minutes, we were enjoying hard boiled eggs with our pre-cooked rice and noodles. For dessert we enjoyed cooked bananas served with chocolate.
Sleep at the foot of an active volcano on Krakatoa
In my opinion, Krakatoa is the most unique volcano you can visit. On the hour and a half boat journey from Java’s mainland, my guide explained the history of the volcano. Once a large island, in 1883 a massive eruption split the island of Krakatoa into four small islands. The noise of the eruption is considered the loudest sound recorded in human history, and the pressure waves were recorded on barometers all over the world.
We were in fact visiting Anak Krakatoa, the ‘little child’ of the original Krakatoa volcano. As we rounded Rakata, another island fragment of the original volcano, Anak Krakatoa came into view. For me, it’s the very image of a stereotypical volcano – a neat cone shape jutting straight up from the sea.
Pulling up onto the beach, my guide began setting up camp. The island is completely undeveloped so we were staying in tents on the coast. Most of the island is covered in barren black volcanic rock but on the east side of the island, a small forest has managed to grow.
Hiking up the side of the volcano, we followed a safe, set route. Aside from a few scraggly trees at the base, we walked through a desolate wasteland. Volcanic rock changes shade with age, scarring the sides of the volcano with lines, marking each eruption. About halfway up, we stopped. We’d reached a viewpoint, the highest we could safely go. Any further, my guide tells me, and my shoes would melt.
We stopped with the smoking peak in the distance, steam coming off the ground a little way in front. For me, the view is one of the best I’ve seen – a completely undisturbed panorama of Anak Krakatoa’s sister fragments dotted in the ocean, with no signs of life.
A worthwhile addition to hiking the volcano, the nearby island of Rakata shelters some dazzling coral. Taking a short boat ride from Anak Krakatoa, we pulled up to the coast of Rakata, which is edged with steep maroon lava walls. Above the water, the lava rock is barren – below the surface, the contrast is stunning. Lava is particularly nutritious for coral, encouraging the vibrant array of coral hiding underwater. Turtles glide over the coral whilst neon stripped angel fish dart in-between.
Add a visit to Singapore
It’s possible to fly straight into Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, but I’d suggest flying into Singapore. The array of flight options make it more convenient for most, but it also makes a wonderful introduction to southeast Asia. A modern, English-speaking city with a slick transport system, it’s an easy place to explore. If this makes it sound a little sterile – it isn’t.
It’s a city I’m particularly fond of. Singapore may be a modern metropolis, but its skyscrapers are intertwined with temples and colonial architecture. Visit the pastel rows of restored colonial mansions, wander the botanical gardens or sample some of the local dishes in food halls nicknamed ‘hawker markets’.
Visit one of Indonesia’s beaches
I’d recommend finishing a volcano hiking trip to Indonesia with a few nights on the beach. The beach of Sanur, in the south of Bali, is sheltered by a reef, creating a calm cove. This feeds into the area’s general ambience, with relaxed beach bars and some serene sunsets. The food stands out for me, with freshly caught fish sold on tiny stalls dotted along the coast.
If you’re looking for a longer beach stay, I’d suggest islands hopping to Lombok, to the east of Bali, with quieter beaches and some luxe hotels.
When is the best time of year for hiking volcanoes?
For the best experience, late April through to October works well as the skies will be clear and there’s little rain. The months of July and August can be quite busy, especially at weekends when locals take day trips out to the volcanoes.
What do you need to bring?
When visiting a volcano for sunrise, it can be chilly first thing in the morning, with temperatures dipping to 5C (41F). I’d recommend a warm jacket and lots of layers – it gets warmer quite quickly once the sun is up. A scarf or balaclava is also handy to protect your face from ash in the air if it’s windy.
Lava rock is very smooth so can be a little slippery. I would suggest walking shoes with a good grip, and climbing poles to help with steep, uphill sections.
Of course, having your camera close to hand is vital as you’ll have the opportunity to capture some incredible images.
Mat Hall is a Travel Specialist for Audley Travel. Audley trips don’t come off the shelf – they’re tailor-made down to the finest detail. When planning a trip with us, you will speak to a destination specialist who has either lived or travelled extensively within the country or region that you are visiting. They will create a bespoke trip based on your tastes, interests and budget and with an absolute commitment to providing quality travel experiences.
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With only 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild, their population concentrated in just three countries (Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo), opportunities to see them up close are few and far between. Amy Czarnecki, an Africa specialist at Audley Travel, shares her experiences of trekking through Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in search of these humbling creatures.
The anticipation built up with every step, as we made our way slowly through the tangle of trees and roots, the air heavy with moisture. Our guide had received word from one of the trackers that a troop of mountain gorillas were nearby, but there hadn’t been any sign of their presence – no snapping branches, no warning calls.
The moment we came upon them is difficult to describe – I was completely taken aback by their size, beauty, body movement, and how they seemed entirely unfazed by our presence.
They remained fairly still (perhaps they were a little sulky about the damp weather), which really allowed us to sit and observe them, taking in every inch of what they were doing.
One gorilla was lying on his back with a hand under his chin looking at the sky. He was so pensive that it made me wonder what he was thinking about. As they relaxed in their nests, made of branches and leaves, the gorillas chewed on vegetation from the surrounding trees and waited to dry off from that morning’s downpour.
The gorillas are used to having humans visit in a friendly capacity, which showed in the way some acted as though we weren’t even there – our group had to part as one female gorilla with a four month old baby walked right through.
Other gorillas seemed more curious. I was taking a photograph when I suddenly realised that a young male had come right up to me, barely half a metre away. When I lowered my camera we were face-to-face. As a rule, you keep a seven metre distance away from the gorillas at all times. Of course, the gorillas don’t realise this and the young ones in particular often approach you out of curiosity, although they rarely make any physical contact.
The Gorilla Troops
On a single gorilla track you’ll see one troop, which vary in size. Typically, gorilla troops are made up of around 10 to 15 members, although there can be up to 20 or 30. There’s always an alpha male silverback, the main protector and leader of the group, as well as a secondary silverback should anything happen to the alpha. A small number of younger blackback males act as sentries, keeping watch along the perimeters of the troop’s territory. There’s also an alpha female who’s the predominant mate of the alpha silverback, along with a few other females and their young.
Volcanoes National Park in the northeast of Rwanda is home to around half of the world’s entire mountain gorilla population, including ten habituated gorilla troops. Rwanda strictly protects its gorillas to help conserve their numbers and their natural behaviour.
Just eight people are permitted to visit a group at any one time. While this means you need to book your gorilla tracking experience well in advance – particularly if travelling during the peak season of July to September or January to February – it also makes the experience all that more intimate and ensures that the gorillas don’t feel threatened.
You’ll be given a choice of treks that vary in terms of their difficulty – this depends more on how challenging the terrain is than the distance. An easy trek could mean the gorillas are two hours away but the walk is fairly level, whereas a more difficult trek could only take you around half an hour to reach the gorillas but traversing steeper land at a higher altitude. Your guide can help you decide which trek is best suited to your fitness and energy levels that day.
I chose an easier trek, which involved a 45 minute walk through farmland, where we saw local people planting potatoes and harvesting crops. A rock wall separated the farmland from the forest, which rose immediately up in a solid green mass. The tracker had indicated that gorillas were just five minutes away, but the dense vegetation and lack of any trails kept this from being a simple stroll. Navigating the forest, we carefully stepped over roots, beat back branches and weaved between tree trunks.
Guides and trackers to see the gorillas
On your trek, you’ll be accompanied by a guide and around five or six trackers. They stay mostly ahead of the group to check the location of the gorillas and radio information back to the guide. The trackers are armed, mostly to protect the gorillas from poachers as well as for your safety.
A permit costs US$750 per person for each gorilla track, regardless of the length, difficulty and time of year. Most people only embark on one or two treks during their trip. There’s also the possibility of completing a golden monkey trek in the same area, although these take place at the same time as the gorilla treks so you’d have to stay longer to do both.
Practicalities for gorilla tracking
Because there are different hike options covering a range of abilities, people of most ages can take part in a gorilla track (a couple in their 70s were in my group). I’d suggest only selecting the harder treks if you’re up for a challenge and have a good level of fitness. The gorillas are usually at elevations of between 1,800 and 3,300 metres, so the hikes get harder as the air gets thinner. I’d also recommend preparing your body for hiking before you go, especially if you’re not used to walking longer distances.
You’ll have the option to hire a local porter, who can help carry your bags and assist you over the more treacherous terrain. Many of these men were once gorilla poachers, but now appreciate and help to protect them through tourism. The porters are paid in tips, usually US$10 to 20 per trek.
What to wear for seeing gorillas
In terms of clothing, you need to be prepared for all weather. I’d recommend wearing light hiking boots, gaiters for extra protection against water, ants and other insects, waterproof trousers and jackets, and quick drying, lightweight clothes to overcome the hot and humid conditions.
When you get to the gorillas, you’ll be required to leave your bags behind with a porter so the gorillas can’t smell any food stored in them. It’s a good idea to bring a small secondary waterproof stuff sack for carrying extra camera equipment in when visiting the gorillas, with the visit normally lasting around an hour.
When to go for gorilla trekking
There isn’t necessarily a best time of year to go to Rwanda. In April and early May and from November to December there’s a lot more heavy rain, so it depends on how intrepid you are and your travel dates. The peak times are generally January to February and July to September, but travelling in March or June means there will probably be fewer visitors and more flexibility on when you can do the treks.
Where to stay for gorilla trekking
Accommodation near Volcanoes National Park tends to be in simple but practical lodges. I stayed in Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, just a half hour drive from the park’s entrance and headquarters. It offers simple but comfortable rooms, reasonably good food and friendly staff who provide a boot cleaning service after your trek.
The more luxurious accommodation options, such as Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge and Virunga Lodge, are further away: around an hour and a half from the park headquarters. Set higher up in the mountains, they have 360-degree views over the mountain range and forested valleys, as well as a more personalised service and higher quality furnishings.
Top tip for your gorilla experience
My best advice for making the most of your gorilla trekking experience is to take photographs, but also to put your camera down – even for only a short while – and really just be in the moment.
Why Rwanda for seeing the gorillas?
A beautiful country with pristine countryside and friendly people, Rwanda is a tremendous example of how a country can recover from the darkest of events after the 1994 genocide, which resulted in the loss of around 20% of the country’s population.
On my visit, I was struck by the generous and forgiving nature of the people, as well as by the way they can seemingly farm on any piece of land available to them, putting my own gardening efforts back home to shame.
Volcanoes National Park is the best place in the world to see mountain gorillas in the wild. It’s more easily accessible than Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and a safer place to visit than the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mountain gorillas are the most endangered gorilla species on the planet, so the remarkable conservation efforts made in Rwanda are critical for their survival.
Visit Audley Travel to help plan your trip to see the Gorillas in Rwanda
Trips from Audley Travel don’t come off the shelf – they’re tailor-made down to the finest detail. When planning a trip with us, you will speak to a destination specialist who has either lived or travelled extensively within the country or region that you are visiting. They will create a bespoke trip based on your tastes, interests and budget and with an absolute commitment to providing quality travel experiences.
About the author
Amy Czarnecki has a passion for travel and the natural world, and is always seeking adventure. Exploring her home country of the USA, she sea kayaked across the Prince William Sound, hiked to the summit of Mount Rainier in Washington state and surfed off the coasts of Florida, California and New England. It was while working as a Mount Kilimanjaro trekking specialist that she fell in love with Africa, joining Audley Travel as an Africa specialist to help others discover the delights of Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda.
This article was brought to you in partnership with Audley Travel
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In this article, our guest author, Cole Mayer shares his trip to Italy, in which he discovers the challenges of Italian driving as well as the charms of visiting places that are a little off the tourist trail.
I had travelled around the world as a child. Europe was no stranger to me. But when it came time to honeymoon in Italy in 2014, I was at a bit of a loss as my parents had always arranged everything. My wife had also travelled the world and had been to Italy before, so she suggested that, along with going to some of the major tourist attractions for my benefit, we should look for out of the way attractions and hotels.
The hunt began. I scoured guidebooks. My eyes all but bled from researching on the internet. But finally, I put an itinerary together. We only booked the first and last hotels, flying by the seat of our pants for the majority of the trip.
Driving out of Milan
Upon landing in Milan, we picked up our rental car. During the hour-long drive out into the hillsides of Italy, I discovered that Italian drivers are strong believers of the “speed limits are suggestions” philosophy. Based on how fast I was going, I calculated one driver easily going 120 mph. The joke’s on them – they missed some beautiful scenery.
Olimpia, nestled near the top of a hill in San Salvatore Monferrato, was a welcome sight to a weary traveler. The Bed and Breakfast Olimpia where we stayed was the very definition of charming and rustic, with a spectacular view over the valley.
The owners suggested that we drive about 10 minutes into town for lunch, which sounded fantastic to both of us. Something must have been lost in translation, though, as the quaint town had all but closed for the day. When we walked into a restaurant, they shooed us out. Frustrated and hungry, we returned to the B&B.
Lunch and dinner that night consisted of crackers and gummy worms. Thankfully, they provided an amazing breakfast of cheese, meat and pastries the next morning. We headed back to Milan proper, staying at the Hotel Silver. The hotel itself was beautiful, with a motel-style layout but four-star interiors.
The main problem with the hotel was the location. It was a hidden gem, but located off a large, busy street. They provided a shuttle into the city proper, a godsend for getting in and out of the hotel. Our first stop was the Duomo, the third-largest church in the world.
I highly recommend simply walking around Milan, even just around the Duomo. The architecture is hundreds of years old, but looks new. You can’t swing a spaghetti noodle without hitting a church or religious building. Because most visitors will stick with the Duomo, they tend to be quiet affairs, allowing contemplation of the artifacts held within ancient walls.
A little more obscure, however, is the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci.” Dedicated in part to the famed Renaissance man, the museum features models based on da Vinci’s sketches, from war machines to farming tools.
The museum itself is easily worth a half day’s tour. They fit multiple, full-sized boats inside the water transportation exhibit. Much like the smaller churches, because it is not a major tourist destination, it was fairly quiet when we were there, a nice change from the bustle of the city.
The next city we visited was Bologna. We stayed in what was clearly meant to be a business hotel, the Hotel Cosmopolitan. It was a few miles outside the city, but after visiting the supermarket to buy provisions, we realized my wife’s iPad was still at Hotel Silver, and they would not send it to us.
Not deterred, we headed out and wandered around the city on foot, eventually meeting with a crowd of college students who had just been released from class. Following the students, we found a hole-in-the-wall gelato place near Via Santo Stefano where all the locals went for an afternoon snack.
That night, we dined at Ristorante Garganelli. It was expensive, but worth it – especially for our honeymoon.
After a two-hour drive back to Milan to retrieve the iPad, we started the journey to Rome. I can’t suggest not driving enough. Our nerves were shot to pieces, as we had picked Halloween night to drive into Rome. Apparently, Romans love the holiday and the streets were packed, even at 10 p.m. The streets are highly confusing at night. Next time, we’ll fly in.
Eventually, we made it to Hotel Maison Althea. The one-way alley it is on looked disreputable at first glance, but the penthouse hotel was top-notch. It helped that the owner delivered breakfast every morning, after asking you what breakfast foods we liked. It was also only a few minutes’ walk to a major subway and train station.
We drove our rental car to the airport, turned it in early, and took a train back to that station. From there, we went to the Coliseum. We spent a week in Rome – half of our honeymoon. The Spanish Steps, crowded with people, were a sight to see – especially with the view from the top.
What I really wanted to see, though, was the “Monster Door.” Created by the two artist brothers living in the building, they simply wanted their doorway to stand out. Though it can be seen in just a few moments, and is a stone’s throw away from the Steps, there was only the couple you see in the photo, and us.
As we had planned only our first and last hotels, we moved from Maison Althea to Villa Magnolia Relais, an oasis in an otherwise cold apartment district. We made our last tourist stop with a private tour of the Vatican’s attractions and took another trip to a grocery store.
That was the end of our Italian honeymoon, though we almost missed the flight back to the States – but that’s a story for another time. The moral of the trip, though, is not to confine yourself. We rented a car and went where we felt like going. We walked around. We saw the big tourist attractions, but weren’t limited to them. We stayed in hotels that, for being off the proverbial paved path, were exquisite. I doubt I could travel any other way again.
Other things to see and do in Italy
All photos by Cole Mayer