I am going to make a confession: I am a massive scaredy cat.
There, I’ve said it and now the whole world can see me for who I am. It’s true, I get scared about every day things most people don’t even think about – I find lifts terrifying, and stairs aren’t much better (I always see myself tumbling down them) and don’t even get me started on cycling. Despite cycling to work every day I am always convinced that every white van driver is out to mow me down or every school kid I pass will throw rocks at me.
So there you have it, a big old scaredy cat. But I refuse to let the cowardly cat inside me dictate my life. Instead I repeatedly sign up to things that terrify me.
And that is partly why I climbed Bali’s highest volcano Gunung Agung on Tuesday.
Gugung Agung is, according to our guide book, ‘Bali’s highest and most revered mountain’, the Balinese believe its peak houses ancestral spirits so it is regarded as the spiritual centre of the country.
Naturally I was terrified. Of everything. I doubled my asthma inhaler dosage the day before ‘just in case’, packed extra water ‘just in case’ and started regretting never having mastered the SOS code. I was even scared about trekking in the dark as we were to start the walk in the pitch black at 2am in order to be at the summit for sunrise.
Our guide picked us up from our hotel in Sidemen (which is beautiful valley in rice paddy land in east Bali) at 1am and began driving to the temple at Pura Pasar Agung, where we were to start our climb.
By 2am I had a headlamp fixed to my forehead, my feet firmly strapped into my new, waterproof walking shoes and a look of determination across my face. I was going to do this.
After climbing the 280 steps to the temple (that was the easy bit) our guide Gung Bawa asked us to turn our torches off and look up. The sky was alight with hundreds of thousands sparkling stars. While we gazed into the night sky, the sweet smell of burning incense wafted through the air as Gung prepared his offerings for the Hindu Gods. I was grateful. I needed all the Gods I could get on my side.
We began our slow, steady climb up the volcano. It began in woodland with tree roots and large stones providing some grip to the dusty ground. It was bizarre trekking in the dark, my eyes were transfixed on the spot of light on the ground that my headlamp provided, but I was otherwise oblivious to my surroundings.
We paused after 15 minutes or so. Gung’s wonderful wide smile lit up the night and he asked us if we practised yoga.
‘This is just like yoga,’ he explained
‘You balance yourself, you walk with your left foot, your right food. You breathe deeply. You enjoy every step.
‘If you get scared remember to enjoy every step and believe in yourself, what you put in is what you get out. If you believe you can do it, you will.
‘And smile, keep smiling’.
I felt inspired. There was something about our kind faced guide that just reassured me and silenced the scaredy cat within. We were in safe hands.
As we continued to climb through the forest, he would pause every time he sensed we were tired, he would inspire us with his words and pull some biscuits and sweets out of his big backpack. And he gave us regular altitude reports.
We soon emerged out the forest and were climbing up the hard, rocky surface of the volcano, which last erupted in 1963. Clambering across solidified lava, we gripped onto large smooth stones that jutted out form the volcano’s surface with our hands and feet.
We were more than 2,000 metres above sea level by this point with a sheer face of rock and woodland below us.
Looking up I could see the peak, it seemed so close but in reality we were still more than an hour away from our sunrise breakfast. As we scaled higher and higher, it became steeper and steeper and at one point, when I was clinging to some rocks with a seemingly vertical drop beneath me, the scaredy cat started talking. One wrong step and it could all be over, the cat said. It almost made me whimper.
Almost. Instead I smiled. Under my deep, calm breaths, I quietly chanted ‘enjoy every step, enjoy every step’ and I looked to Gung’s wide smile for further inspiration. I found some and managed to cross what felt like an impassably smooth part of the volcano that left my hands and feet with almost nothing to grip onto.
We reached a ridge in the rock and Gung motioned us to sit down. For the first time since it had got lighter I found the courage to look around me. We were high above a dense, green forest where some clouds were staring to gather and looking to the east, the horizon was a thin rainbow of colours as the sun started to make its entrance for the day.
We watched the small orange dot break through the colours of the horizon and grow bigger and brighter, illuminating everything around us. It was a moment I will never forget.
This is the wonderful Gung Bawa
We made our way up the last stretch of the volcano and as I stepped onto the lip of the volcano’s crater, at 2,800 metres above sea level, I hugged everyone around me. I’m not sure what came over me, it was like passing my driving test all over again. Only this time I’d done it on the first attempt.
We strolled around the rocky surface, and looked down into the 500 metre long crater while Gung prepared our breakfast. There was even a shrine perched on the summit, scattered with offerings.
Gung prepared a mighty fine breakfast of freshly cooked pancakes drizzled in a delicious sweet syrup, that were the envy of every other trekker on the summit. He also handed out his mother’s home cooked banana fritters and poured us steaming hot coffee from his flask. It was a breakfast for kings, only slightly marred by my fears of getting back down.
See? Long way down!
But actually I needn’t have worried as Gung expertly led us down via a different route, which was much more manageable. Of course I still struggled and inched my way down the mountain like a three-legged foal.
With the sun now burning down on us, I longed to get down into the clouds which we could see lying above the verdant forest. In many ways the trek down was much harder than the way up and once we entered the woodland, it took a great deal of concentration to stay upright on the seemingly never-ending dusty path, which left me skidding in all directions.
By the time we back to the temple stairs, where it had all begun 10 hours earlier, my feet and legs were throbbing, I was caked in dust and my shoulders were sunburnt. I had that strange heady, dizzy feeling of complete fatigue but an overwhelming sense of achievement… I had put scaredy cat back in her box, for now.
There are a lot of places to stay when climbing Gunung Agung, Sidemen was perfect because it’s stunning (think Ubud rice paddies but even more remote and beautiful) and it has a lot of accommodation. Most hotels will offer you a guide as well.
We stayed at Sawah Indah, which was stunning, with attentive staff and beautiful rooms.
If you want Gung Bawa to be your guide, you can email him on firstname.lastname@example.org