Krakatau is the most notorious of Indonesia’s volcanic islands. A boat trip soon reveals its surreal landscape and surrounding region of craters, coral and clownfish.
It was like the end of the world had come. Day turned to night, but it was darker than night — you could see nothing at all,” Roman Bedirosad tells me. “My grandfather and his family put cooking pots on their heads because rocks were falling from the sky, and ran to the waterfall to get up high.”
Six generations after the supervolcano Krakatau devastated Indonesia, the story of one 12-year-old boy’s fight for life in 1883 is still vivid. Even now, just outside Carita Beach, an easy day trip from Jakarta, there is a place named Durung, which means “No further” in the local Sundanese language. It marks the highwater point of the tsunami that surged inland, obliterating everything in its path and killing at least 36,000 people.
The sea is a distant glimmer on the horizon today, a serene millpond as smooth as the lush rice paddies and fertile orchards that lead to it. It’s almost impossible to imagine a black wall of water as high as an eight-storey building, a maelstrom of uprooted trees, captured fishing boats, 600-tonne coral boulders and fragile, bleeding, drowning human beings, churning across this timeless Javan landscape.
Yet the 19th-century eruption didn’t just shake Indonesia, it rocked the world. When Krakatau exploded with the roar of a raging fire god, ash fell not only on Singapore, but also on ships more than 6,000km away. That afternoon, hundreds of kilometres south in the Indian Ocean, bewildered sailors marvelled at the rafts of corpses, human and animal, floating on the waves: dead tigers floated alongside giant trees on Indonesia’s fast currents, while mats of pumice thick enough for a man to stand on drifted towards South Africa, many of them with corpses in their midst.
Deni Mardyono is singularly well placed to survive another incarnation of the ancient supervolcano that’s shaped this region for more than 100,000 years. In the hills above the town of Serang, he is one of a core staff of two who work around the clock to monitor Krakatau. On a clear day, or night when Krakatau’s daughter, Anak Krakatau, is spewing lava, he can see 40km across the ocean to its sinister double peak.
Mardyono’s observation post, one among scores of similar stations scattered across Mardyono’s observation post, one among scores of similar stations scattered across Indonesia’s Mardyono’s observation post, one among scores of similar stations scattered across Indonesia’s volcanic Ring of Fire, has a kitchen, a bathroom, three bedrooms and a generator in case a disaster takes out power: pretty much all that is needed to supervise the end of the world. And his system is lo-fi but effective. The high-powered, lava-orange motorbike, branded with the logo of Indonesia’s Centre for Volcanology, is shiny and new, but the seismograph, steadily printing its blue ink readouts, is a relic of 1980s California. Its analogue output is digitised and transmitted to servers here and to the centre’s headquarters in Bandung.
“My main job is to supervise,” explains Mardyono, who has an IT degree and some geology training. “I work 24 hours on, 24 hours off and sleep with a radio by my bed so Bandung can alert me if there’s a problem.” The seismograph will light up if there’s a tremor worth worrying about, but there is no audio alarm. When we visit, Anak Krakatau is at alert level two, which means we can climb, but not to her summit. If she reaches level four — a full-scale eruption — the centre’s conference room will fill with geologists, geochemists, mapping specialists and analysts
As our speedboat powers out of Carita Beach towards the volcanoes still invisible in the mist, it’s hard to suppress a wave of excitement. I first read about Krakatau, under its English name Krakatoa, in a history book when I was a child and it felt almost unimaginably wild and remote. Like Italy’s Vesuvius, it’s a volcano that has inspired not only history, books and documentaries, but also films and, indirectly, art.
In August 1883, Krakatau was a vast, mountainous island, 9km by 5km. On Sunday, 26 August, it began to tear itself apart, spitting a cloud of debris 25km into the sky and pouring streams of gas and lava into the sea. But the worst was yet to come. Early the next morning, a series of deafening eruptions blew the mountain into pieces and about 23sq km of land collapsed into the sea.
The resulting tsunami devastated Indonesia’s mainland. But the eruption shaped the world’s skies for years. Krakatau ejected about 20 cubic kilometres of volcanic matter. Temperatures around the world dropped by close to 2°C. Particles in the atmosphere turned the sun blue, or green and created sunsets so livid red that, in upstate New York, farmers called out the fire brigade to quench the fire on the horizon. It’s these lurid colours that Edvard Munch captures in his painting The Scream.
Dynamic, ever-changing, Krakatau is creation in action. The seascape that greets us an hour or so out to sea is very different from the landscape before 1883. Long and curving, green and forested, the remains of Krakatau tower calm and dormant above Anak Krakatau, her tempestuous daughter.
Anak Krakatau emerged from the sea during a submarine eruption that began in 1927, and has been growing upwards at a rate of around six metres per year ever since. Every few years, she erupts, spewing streams of molten gas and rock, spitting chunks of pumice high into the sky, and sending four-metre-high waves into shore.
We cruise past Krakatau and, as I look towards the island of Sertung, acluster of low-lying lava rock catches my eye. “That’s connected to Anak Krakatau, 20 or 30 metres below the surface,” explains Iwan, our guide. The penny drops. We are in a vast caldera, a submarine crater, at least 7km in diameter, the shattered remnants of old Krakatau, itself the remains of an even larger and older volcano. And the forces that shaped both are still active. The closer we come to Anak Krakatau, the more sinister her double peak looks, dusted in ash and pregnant with the power of the earth’s core.
We step ashore on to a black sand beach scattered with drifts of brilliant white pumice: little black crabs, perhaps evolved to match the sand after one eruption or another, scuttle from stone to stone. “There are different kinds of pumice,” Iwan says. “It depends on whether they formed in water, or on land, or in the air.” Some are weirdly spongy, almost organic.
Amazingly, for a volcano born less than a lifetime ago, the lower slopes of Anak Krakatau are full of life. Beady monitor lizards scuttle through lush undergrowth, heads upright, tongues flickering; butterflies flit through casuarina trees; birds chirp and squawk. Between the birds and the rangers, there’s a mass of fruit here — stinking, cheesy morinda fruit for use in the herbal medicine jamu; dark red harendong with a taste between blackberry and blueberry, and bananas — all flourishing in the rich volcanic soil.
In fact, as we start our climb through an avenue of casuarinas, Anak Krakatau feels like no place else on earth. It has the piney, gummy scent of Outback Australia, yet moisture steams from the hot earth, and tropical butterflies flit between young palms. Black soil looks slick as solid rock, but gives when I kick it: what seem like chunks of rusty iron are metallic yet strangely light, frothed and bubbled by super-heated gas; bright chunks of golden sulphur litter the dark earth, the shattered remnants of a giant sulphur “bomb” belched by Anak Krakatau in 2012.
We’re on a hotline to the earth’s core here and it’s obvious. “A British geologist told me that we could find diamonds here,” says Iwan. “He said that whenever there’s an eruption, volcanoes throw out diamonds. But here they could be in the sea.” We stop to inspect the seismograph, powered by solar panels. The rusty pipes contain sensors buried five metres deep in the hot earth, so our footsteps won’t even register.
At the top of the slope, we step from tropical Eden on to Mount Doom, a slurry of haematite and lava chunks below the stark black slopes of a mountain that bulges like a pimple ready to be squeezed. Wonderfully, the air is full of sulphur-yellow dragonflies, darting through the volcanic steam. We follow a black-sand ridge up to the remains of the old seismograph. “In 1992, this was the top,” Iwan explains. “I used to watch that eruption at night from my school.”
In just 25 years, the double peak that towers above us has grown hundreds of metres. It’s easy to see why, in a society where fishermen still offer a buffalo’s head to the sea in the hope of a good fishing season, some believe the mountain is home to a fire djinn or spirit.
Both peaks smoke and smoulder, one stained a brilliant sulphur yellow. Drifts of white ash on the slopes highlight the intense heat that incinerates minerals and turns them into dust. Best of all, as the rangers head off to change shift, we and our crew have this mighty mountain, this mighty island, to ourselves.
We slip-slide down a gritty dark slope back to the beach, where we dine watched by monitor lizards and birds. And then we’re back on the boat for snorkelling, through streams of volcanic gas fizzing from black sands, around blue and yellow outcrops, which have survived rockfalls that shattered staghorn corals.
We then moor off Krakatau herself — or what remains of this ever-evolving supervolcano — and explore a pretty coral garden that’s defied centuries of eruptions to blossom with renewed life. I cruise over corals that unfurl like cabbage roses, over anemones suckered to the rock in neon purple and dive down to meet a clownfish family in their waving nest.
Brilliantly coloured parrotfish scrape, pouting, at hard coral; pipefish wiggle past; clouds of damselfish flutter; golden-striped angelfish wave their long dorsal fins like pennants. And, as I float in the warm, clear waters, muscles entirely relaxed after what’s probably the easiest volcano climb on earth, I couldn’t be further from the end of the world.