When my cheap local flashlight flickered and died in the total darkness of an Indonesian jungle path, I tried to look at the bright side of things. At least the sunset on the summit had been pretty.
I was half way down an eight-mile-long path returning from the summit of Kelimutu Volcano on the island of Flores, Indonesia. Mile-high Kelimutu is famous for its tri-colored crater lakes, one each of brown, green and black waters. Visitors from around the world journey to Kelimutu’s nearby village of Moni to join in guided walking trips up the mountain.
But I’m not usually one for group tours, particularly when they begin three hours before sunrise. The guidebooks and the local guides all said the best way to view Kelimutu’s craters was at sunrise to see the dawn’s light slowly climb over the edge of the ridges, illuminating the color of the lakes one by one. So a 4am departure became the only official option to reach the top of the mountain.
Guided walking tours were the only option, that is, for all but the most stubborn and solitary of travelers. This is how I found myself stumbling through pitch blackness on the side of a volcano, panicking I was going to fall into a crevice filled with hot lava. Or maybe get eaten by a Komodo Dragon that had swum over to this island to lurk in the woods. One’s mind tends to wander when alone in a dark jungle. But at least I didn’t have to wake up early!
When I had left town at about noon, I hiked uphill through scrub until discovering the main road. It was entirely empty of traffic in the early afternoon, all the vehicles long since departed after the dawn tours. The road occasionally branched out into the jungle, stopping abruptly in spots mid-construction. Midway up the mountain the path narrowed underneath a canopy of tree branches that shaded me from the sun. A couple of horses stood tethered next to the road.
The entrance gate to the summit park was unmanned, because after all, the only logical time to collect tolls was during the official pre-sunrise rush-hour. The guard house, a small visitor center and the concession stand were also abandoned.
When I reached the peak, it was blessedly silent, a rare spot in Indonesia that wasn’t packed with people, traffic, or crowing roosters. By taking on my own path, at my own time of choosing, I had found a beautiful, peaceful, private sanctuary.
I gazed down into the lakes, which on that day were green, black, and a muddy brown. Legend has it that dead people’s souls go to these lakes, with those of the young going to the turquoise green lake, the old going to the brown lake, and bad folks getting dumped into the black one, which bubbled ominously.
The fading light of the setting sun played on the different colors of waters, brightening some for a moment, making the green appear yellowish, then red. Of course this meant that the sun was….setting. And therefore it would soon be… dark.
With diminishing visibility, I began to jog back down the road, knowing it was a long eight miles back to Moni. I hoped to take advantage of the remaining light, but there are no lingering sunsets in the tropics. Even the moonlight quickly disappeared behind the overhanging canopy of trees. I congratulated myself at the foresight to purchase a flashlight, then cursed as the weak beam of light died after only a minute of use.
After taking the wrong branch of the road I nearly walked off its uncompleted end into a ravine. After retracing my steps I had to walk even slower, tapping my way with my foot like a blind man to find the edge of the path.
Suddenly, a huge shape jumped next to the road, the weight of massive feet noisily crushing the underbrush. Komodo Dragon!!!
Then I heard a nervous whinny. It was the same horse I had seen on my way up the hill, still tethered to a roadside tree. She wasn’t happy about being alone in the jungle at night either.
Continuing down the path, I began talking, singing, and making whatever noises I could, recalling Yosemite-area signs warning how to keep from surprising and angering bears on hikes. I hoped the same theory worked for local villagers and any lurking jungle creatures.
I became so enthralled with my singing, I didn’t notice a couple of farmers approach up the road. One shone his lantern toward me. Embarrassed more than scared, I waved, said hello, and kept walking as if on my usual evening stroll. As I passed he angled his light to my right and left, trying to find the people I had been talking to.
The path widened into the main road, where I continued chatting and kicking stones for another couple hours. It gave me time to debate (loudly) the merits of solo versus group hikes. While it had been a great private experience at the summit, I came to the conclusion that if a local guide says the only time to climb a mountain is at sunrise, perhaps the guide really does knows what he’s talking about.
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer whose stories have appeared in over 50 publications, including National Geographic Traveler, San Francisco Chronicle, and Lonely Planet’s “Best of Travel Writing.” Tales from his many hikes can be found at www.billfinktravels.com, and tweets from the trail @finktravels.