Krakatau by Night

The eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatau, or Krakatoa as most history books refer to it, in 1883 is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most powerful recorded explosion in history. It also holds the record for the greatest death toll from a tsunami, or tidal wave: more than 60,000 people are known to have been swept away from the coasts of West Java. The tsunami also caused damage in Hawaii and struck the west coast of the U.S. The noise of the explosion was heard in Darwin, Australia, nearly 3,000 km away, and was reported as "heavy guns firing to the north-west."

Having read these stories as a child who was fascinated by volcanoes, I had always wanted to visit the disaster site. So, when I went to Indonesia, I headed directly to Carita, West Java, in order to catch a boat to visit the island of Anak Krakatau ("Son of Krakatau"), which has built itself up since its predecessor blew itself into non-existence.

Various hotels and travel agents in this beach resort offer trips to the island. For Rp 45,000 (about US$20 at the time) I joined five other travellers on an old fishing boat for the four-hour trip out into the Sunda Strait, halfway to Sumatra. "Very safe. Has radio," reported the man at my hotel about the vessel.

In typical Indonesian style our departure, scheduled for 9 a.m., was delayed again and again, leaving us grumbling in the hotel lobby and watching the Atlanta Olympics on TV. We finally left at 1:30 which, as it turned out, was a blessing in disguise since it allowed us to see the volcano’s lava flows glowing an eerie orange in the deepening dusk. After an uneventful crossing, the grey clouds covering the sky dispersed, and we got our first good view of the island.

There are actually four islands, two of them remnants of the earlier Krakatau, one the new volcano and one a low-lying separate islet. The two crescent-shaped remnant pieces have vertical cliffs, perhaps 200 metres high, along their inside edges, but slope somewhat more gradually to the sea on their outer sides.

Visually extrapolating their slopes to where they would meet the new volcanic cone, you get an idea of the vast amount of rock that was blown into the atmosphere in 1883. It has been estimated that 15 cubic kilometres of rock was expelled, mostly in the form of fine volcanic dust which caused spectacular sunsets and unseasonably cold weather around the world, rather like Mt. Pinatubo did in 1990. On one of the remnants, a lonely seismographic station provides the only human habitation on the islands.

Anak Krakatau has grown fitfully since it first rose from the sea in 1923. Now a good 500 metres high, it’s still growing. Our late arrival was perfectly timed. We could see the island’s overall appearance by day, and then at night watch the lava flows glowing in the dark. Being an active volcanic cinder cone, the island is quite barren, although there is a small area of grasses and small trees on the eastern slopes.

We circled the island at a respectful distance, watching the sunset. As we approached the northwest corner of the island, we could see (and hear) lava flowing into the ocean in large lava tubes amidst huge clouds of steam.

As dusk fell we could see the orange glow of liquid lava on the upper slopes of the volcano, shining through the cracks in the skin of the solidified lava above it. In the dark it looked like a procession of torch-bearing pilgrims ascending the mountain, since the lava trails appeared as a series of distinct patches of light separated by darkness, flickering over lime as the lava flowed. As lava entered the sea it boiled the water, which rose in a column of steam that towered high above the island; the glow from the lava in the crater turned the steam an eerie pink colour that we could see most of the way back to Java.

We saw another boatload of tourists near the lava tubes. They were shuttling people in a Zodiac boat to within a few metres of the lava tubes, and then putting them ashore nearby to watch the sound-and-light show that Anak Krakatau was putting on. It looked exciting, although there were rumours of tourists having died recently from getting too close for comfort to the lava.

The impression of sheer natural power in the volcano’s continual eruption was awe-inspiring. In the dark, we could see lava being tossed up into the air above the crater rim, and we could hear large rocks, so-called "lava bombs" falling back to earth outside the crater with tremendous crashes.

The hiss of boiling ocean water, along with the smell of sulphur and the eerie orange and pink light, gave us a feeling that we’d accidentally sailed into Dante’s Inferno. One of my fellow tourists said that when his brother had visited four years previously there had been little volcanic activity, and they had landed on the island and climbed to the top of the volcano. This would have been suicidal when we were there.

Finally, having spent a couple of hours slowly circumnavigating the island, we headed back to Java, watching the pink column of steam slowly fade away in the distance. Our return passage was enlivened by tremendous rainstorms, not to mention by the boat’s complete absence of running lights and on-board maps. We got lost in the tangle of lights from offshore fishing platforms, and didn’t make it back to Carita until 1 a.m., but even this couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm at having seen the rumblings of one of the world’s great volcanoes.

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