KELI MUTU: THE LAST ADVENTURE

Sean, Thierry and I made an early start to climb up to the summit of Keli Mutu¹ in time for the sunrise. We left the Losman² at 2:50 AM and walked up the road to where a path led down to a small stream and a waterfall then began to climb steeply up the mountainside. Thierry set a cracking pace up the narrow path which initially led up through farmland and a couple of small villages, still asleep at this hour. We had torches to help light our way but the moon was almost full and gave plenty of light to see by.

After about 20 minutes of manic climbing, I had to stop for a breather as the pace Thierry was setting was too fast for me. Sean went on but stopped up ahead and waited for me while Thierry carried on without us, evidentially trying to prove something or other to himself!

Sean and I reached the summit road at the six-kilometre mark at 3:40 AM and it took us another hour to walk from there up the seven kilometres of easy-graded tarmac to the summit of Keli Mutu. The air was cool without being cold and it was quite a pleasant climb under the soft silver glow of the moon and the brightest stars shining in the violet sky.

Further up the mountain, we entered a forest. The moonlight threw psychedelic patterns of tree ferns and bamboo down onto the surface of the road. As we approached the summit, the road began to level out and the rainforest gave way to pines. The air was tainted with the unmistakable smell of sulphur. The trees began to thin and open out onto a barren plateau. Above us and to the right, silhouetted against the sky, was the crater rim. We climbed up and peered over the edge, down into the pit where a lake of mercury shimmered in the moonlight.

The entire scene was surreal, other-worldly. Beneath our feet was a skin of loose, rubbly scoria and pumice, blasted out of the crater (Kelimutu last erupted in 1968) then eroded and scoured by wind and water, and dotted with stunted bushes. The crater’s edge stood jagged and abrupt, dropping almost vertically to the limpid pool of the crater lake. Above us, the sky was a velvet dome, distant and cold yet seemingly close enough to touch. The silence was almost complete save for the gentle murmur of the wind across the volcano’s summit and it was easy to believe the local legend which says that the spirits of the dead find refuge beneath the surface of Keli Mutu’s crater lakes.

Thierry, waiting for us on the very top of the mountain, signalled to us with his torch and we made our way across the summit plateau to a concrete platform overlooking the two main crater lakes. It was chilly on the top of the mountain and the wind rapidly cooled the sweat we had worked up on the climb as we sat in silence and watched the stars begin to fade. The sun flew its colours on the eastern horizon; to the west, towering thunderclouds, piled into the stratosphere and lit from within by lightning, glowed pink and purple.

As sunrise approached the peace and solitude of the volcano’s summit was shattered by the arrival of two bus-loads of tourists including Linda, Trish, Ed and Michelle. As it turned out, the sunrise itself wasn’t particularly spectacularly. But given the location, atop a volcano with the water of two crater lakes changing colour from silver to green to grey and, finally, to a pale shade of turquoise, it was an amazing spectacle. Behind us, also in a deep, sheer-sided pit, the third of Keli Mutu’s crater lakes (Tiwu Ata Bupu – the “Lake of the Old People”) was a sinister black, its water opaque and glossy, its viscous surface hiding secrets known only to the spirits of the dead.

My diary entry for that day.

When the pressure of the tourist crowd and the jabbering of the bus drivers and flunkies became too much we moved from the main summit to another vantage point on the very lip of the crater where a narrow point jutted out above the jagged ridge of crumbling rock separating two of the crater lakes. The colours of the two lakes were almost identical but the northernmost lake carried a slick of poisonous-looking sulphur and, indeed, the water would probably be acidic enough to peel off the skin of anyone unfortunate enough to fall into it.

We took turns standing out on the point for photos then Thierry, Ed, Michelle, Linda and I set off to walk around the path leading along the crater rim past a sign which read: “Danger ouse. Do not go.” The path wasn’t in the least bit dangerous although if you happened to step over the edge there would have been no stopping a plunge of 100 feet into the acidic water of the lake.

It would have been nice to spend all day exploring up there on the summit of Keli Mutu, but Linda and I had to get back down to Moni⁴ in time to catch a ride back to Ende⁵. So, we said goodbye to Thierry on the rim of the volcano and it seemed an appropriate place for friends who have shared such adventures⁶ to part: with handshakes high on a volcanic mountain with a shimmering crater lake behind us and an endless sky above. 

We set off down the road through the trees and caught a last glimpse of Thierry on the ridge above us. The walk down took two hours and was pleasant on the upper slopes but by the time we reached Moni at 9 am I was quite worn out.  We hastily packed our gear and caught a passing passenger truck that was headed down to the town of Ende. The trip was quite speedy being downhill and we were back in the Losman Ikhlas in time for a mid-day meal. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and were in bed early as our flight to Kupang, in Timor, was scheduled for 7 am next morning.             

The “bus” to Ende.

 ¹Keli Mutu (also spelt Kelimutu)is a 1,639-metre volcano on the island of Flores in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago.   

²A small, family-run hotel.

³We had met up with a bunch of other travellers on our journey through the Indonesian archipelago.

⁴We’d spent the night in this tiny, isolated village at the foot of Keli Mutu.

⁵Ende was the nearest town to Keli Mutu and it’s airport was where we would fly further east to the island of Timor where we had booked flights across to Darwin in Australia.

⁶Since meeting this eclectic group of travellers we had climbed the volcano Batur and visited the dead bodies of Trunyan on Bali: snorkelled off the dragon island of Komodo; seen a boat full of people sunk by a whirlpool off the island of Flores; witnessed the prehistoric spectacle of the Komodo Dragons dismembering a goat; and travelled through the islands scattered like green and black jewels across the blue endlessness of Eastern Indonesia)

Travellers.

Two Feet in Asia (Reprise)

Holidays must end, as you know; all these memories taken home with me…
– 10,000 Maniacs, Verdi Cries. 

Mid-afternoon in Kolkata. Outside the airport doors, it is a hot, blue day. A haze of dust hangs in the air. I can still see the palm trees and mynah birds, the flurry of taxis, and the cohort of buses arriving at the kerb. The sun is at its zenith, casting hard shadows onto the ground. The tinted glass of the windows and doors gives an impression of coolness inside. But out here I am still shrouded by the hot breath of Asia. I have left the chaos and madness of downtown Kolkata behind. I have paid off my taxi driver: a thief who demanded twice the agreed fare once we’d arrived outside the Internationational Departures building. I have my backpack on and my passport in my hand.  All I need to do now is to walk through the doors and out of Asia.

Travel is a disappearing act. Leaving for home is, in itself, an adventure: a transition from the outlandish back to the mundane; from the extraordinary back to the ordinary. The adverts, the city bill-boards, the newspaper headlines, the hectoring political loudspeakers: these things spoke to other people. I was leaving. I was leaving the haze of the Indian subcontinent and disappearing back into the clear air of my homeland. 

Asia is vast. It spans the world from the edge of the Bosphorus in Turkey to the islands of Japan and beyond: a distance of 11,000 kilometres, or 8,000 miles, or 36 million feet. Someone who lives in Istanbul is as much an Asian as someone from Jakarta or Aurangabad or Kobe. Nearly four and a half billion people walk on the continent of Asia. And for the past month, my two feet had joined them.

But now, I was tired. I wanted to go home. I’d had a great adventure. I’d discovered a lot about myself. But I need the quiet, empty landscapes on New Zealand’s South Island. Holidays must end, as you know, and I had these memories to take home with me.     

Travel Writer Life

The doors slide open with a sibilant hiss. The hot breath of the city, the aromas of dust, vegetation, drains, closely-pressed humanity and the background whiff of kerosene from the jet engines roaring overhead fade into memory. India lies behind me. I step through the doorway and out of Asia.

Lament for the Traveller

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
– L.P. Hartley, The Go-between

I thought I would die in Varanasi. It wasn’t the relentless, ubiquitous filth. It wasn’t the jostling, wild-eyed crowds celebrating the festival of Mahashivaratri. It wasn’t the cloying smoke of the burning ghats or the constantly spitting people. It wasn’t even the storm that cut the power to the city and smote the banks of the Ganges with detonations of thunder and jagged blasts of incandescent lightning. It was none of those things. In fact, I didn’t even think that I would actually die in Varanasi. I just appropriated that line from the 1920s-era travel writer HV Morten, who began his book In Search of England with the line “I thought I would die in Palestine”, in order to add drama.

But what caused me the most anxiety in Varanasi, and, indeed, throughout my journey to India, was the realization, final and irreversible, that I was no longer a traveller.

Between September 1988 and November 1994, my girlfriend Linda and I travelled the world. Our generation were born in the sweet spot of time (1963-1968) between the coddled Baby Boomers and the cynical Gen-Xers. And for a decade or so, from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, the world was our playground. And we travelled hard. During the course of our adventures we visited 35 countries on four continents, worked in pubs and factories and on farms, got engaged in Vienna, married in New Zealand, and lived the life of gypsies out in the world.

Phewa Lake, Pokkara, Nepal, March 1992.

We weren’t tourists: we were travellers. We revelled in hardship. We took risks. We changed money with shady dealers in African back alleys. We raced floods and avalanches in the black gorges of the Indus Valley, where the river slices through the Karakoram Mountains in the north of Pakistan. We lay on jewelled Indonesian beaches and smoked hash beside the funeral pyres of Varanasi. We rode third class, ate on the streets and slept in dirty, dirt cheap flophouses with only the billowing, diaphanous folds of a mosquito net between us and malaria. We negotiated tricky roads in dangerous territory and, occasionally, lolled in comfort in 5-star hotels where the colour of our skin gave us exclusive entry. We haggled over every last rupee, shilling and dirham. We were on the road. Nothing else mattered.

Then home. Reality. Careers, kids, a mortgage. All the good stuff. The settled life. Twenty-eight years passed. And then, I was back in Asia, with a backpack, a list of destinations, and a notion that I would travel hard again. A wanderer in the Blue Rooms. A traveller.

Marnikarnika Ghat, Varanasi, February, 2020

But it was too hard. And I was too old. India was hot, squalid, crowded, unfathomable and relentlessly filthy. I ditched half my itinerary and moved up-market. I stayed in good hotels, took expensive, air-conditioned sleeper trains, navigated with Google Maps and rode Ola and Uber wherever I went. I didn’t die in Varanasi. I just let go of my old self. The traveller became a tourist. And that’s OK. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

Ninety-two and Twenty Twenty

Nothing changes but everything changes…
– Sharon O’Neil, Kids in Our Town (1983)

I turned 29 in India. It was 1992. My girlfriend Linda (now my wife of 27 years) and I were four months into a nine-month journey from Britain back home to New Zealand. On this trip we had already visited Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia. We’d celebrated Christmas 1991 at the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and New Year in Harare. We had stood on the summit of the Khyber Pass in Pakistan and looked down into Afghanistan and spent weeks having some epic adventures in the wintery vastness of the Karakoram Mountains.

1992

Now, we were in Pushkar, a small town in Rajasthan, the desert state in India’s north-east. For my birthday, we ate at a restaurant overlooking a lake and drank a bhang lassi (a yoghurt drink laced with marijuana). We were young and free and the world was our playground. We would spend another month in India, then cross the border into Nepal. From Kathmandu we would eventually fly to Hong Hong, spend a month in China then travel down the length of Southeast Asia: through Thailand, Malaysia and the long, jewelled necklace of Indonesia, all the way to Timor, across to Darwin and home.

Travel was in our blood. It was what we did best. We got married, worked for a year, and left again. Back to the road. Out in the world. New York, Amsterdam, England, Iran, Pakistan again, and China. By then it was 1994. We went home to Geraldine. Settled down. Bought a house, raised two amazing daughters. Careers, bankruptcy, a secure job. Money. The stuff of life. And then, I was back in India.

I turned 57 in India. I was in the holy city of Allahabad, where the three holiest rivers in India – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Sarasvati – join their waters together. I’d come to India alone this time, for no other reason than to challenge myself out in the world. But everything was different. India was crowded, filthy, noisy and incomprehensible. As a twenty-nine year old, travelling with Linda, it had been easy. We had slept in bug-infested flop-houses, eaten in the cheapest joints, ridden 3rd class and haggled over every last Rupee. We had leaned on each other and it had made the hardships bearable…even fun.

2020

But now, of course, I was different. The hard-core backpacker lifestyle held no attraction anymore. I had thought that it would: it didn’t. I was too old and too used to comfort to slum it. So I moved up-market. I stayed in nice hotels; I rode 2nd Class Air Conditioned trains; I took Ola and Uber rides whenever I could; I found cafes serving good coffee; and I used technology – Google Maps, a hotel booking app, Wikipedia – for all of my research, planning and logistics. It made travelling easier. It made it bearable.

India is fun. India is chaotic, filthy, bizarre, unknowable. I am a ghost here…a ghost of my younger self. I turned 29 in India. And I turned 57 in India. Nothing changes but everything changes.

NIGHT TRAIN TO GONDWANA

The lights went out. And we were on our way to Gondwana.

There is something ineffably romantic about an Indian railway station at night. The hot air, the rumble of steel wheels on iron rails, the beggars, the dogs, the huddled forms of people sleeping, wrapped in their blankets; the squawk of the tannoy announcing arrivals and departures to all points across the country, the hawkers – “pani, pani, pani” – selling water, the red-clad porters; the toilet stink of urine, the smell of diesel and dust, the stark light of arc lamps casting hard shadows on the platforms. And over it all, a fat orange moon hanging low in the velvet sky.

Aurangabad Railway Station

My train, the Nandigram Express, arrived at Aurangabad Station at precisely eleven pm. I clambered aboard and after a short search, found my berth, Number 4, an upper level bunk. By the time I’d lifted my little backpack and myself up, the train was in motion. I curled up. The lights went out. And we were on our way to Gondwana.

The supercontinent of Gondwana (also known by the erroneous name Gonwanaland: erroneous because the word wana itself means “land”) existed from the Neoproterozoic Era (500 million years ago) until the Jurassic Period (around 180 mya). It was formed by the accretion of several massive chunks (cratons) of the Earth’s crust and covered an area of approximately 100 million square kilometres: around one-fifth of the planet’s surface.

Around 180 mya, Gondwana began to break up. Driven by plate tectonics and volcanism, the continent split into a number of new cratons. These massive chunks of land would eventually become the continents of Antarctica, Australia, South America and Africa. Another, smaller piece would, eventually, become my home, the mostly submerged, waterworld continent of Zelandia. And finally, a small piece would become India.

Gondwana Sunrise

The fossilised remains of Gondwana’s flora, especially a species of tree known as Glossopteris, can today be found on all of the continents that once comprised the supercontinent. In Antarctica, which lay in the centre of Gondwana, fossils of tropical trees can be found: evidence that the frozen continent was once an Equatorial paradise. And India was on the move, drifting north at a rapid rate until it smashed headlong into Asia. And it was in India that Dr Seuss (no relation) came up with the name Gondwana.

Eduard Suess (1831-1914) was an Austrian geologist and it was he who first noticed the correlation of glossopteris fossils found on the continents that had once all been joined together. He derived the name Gondwana from the Indian region, home to the Gond people, where rocks containing the fossils had been found. Now, as I slept, lulled by the gently rocking motion of the Nandigram Express, I was bound for Nagpur, capital of the Gond Region, on a night train to Gondwana.

CHURCHILL’S GHOST

Life is a whole, and luck is a whole…
– Winston Churchill

At Sassoon Dock, the fishing boats lay moored in a tight jumble of keels, masts, rigging and flags. The foetid water, where it showed between the wide-beamed, hand-built boats, was grey-black, oily, stinking. In the shaded alcoves, slippery with fish guts, dog shit and rubbish, fish-wives squabbled over tidbits and sharp-eyed birds prowled reverentially, looking for a meal. A navy helicopter, grey and incongruous, took off from the naval base beside the dock. The gay triangular flags, blue, gree and orange, flapped rythmically in the hot wind. Beyond the gate, with its squat, red-brick clock tower, Mumbai roared.

Along the waterfront, fishing boats fresh in from the Arabian Sea were unloading their catches of mackerel. The fish, shiny and bright like newly-minted silver coins, were loaded into baskets in the boats’ holds then hoisted up to the dock along a human chain. The last man on the boat, and the strongest, tossed each basket up to a waiting catch-man, who caught each basket nimble and handed it to others who emptied them into yellow boxes. Hangdog cats, wafer-thin dogs, greasy-looking birds and scrawny crones competed to grasp any fish that spilled from a basket. No one begrudged these beggars their meagre spoils. The bounty of the sea was to be shared, Inshallah, with both the fortunate and the unfortunate.

Constructed in 1875, the Sassoon Dock was Mumbai’s first “wet dock”, a place where ships could be unloaded within a pool secured by lock gates. It was built on reclaimed land by David Sassoon & Co., a trading firm established in 1832 by David Sassoon, a Bagdhadi Jew who had relocated to Mumbai (or Bombay, as it was called) to trade in precious metals, spices, gum, wool and wheat. The company also helped establish the cotton trade between India and Britain, but Sassoon soon realised that the real money lay in Opium. 

By the early 1870s, David Sassoon & Co. handled around 70% of the Opium traded between India and China, which it transported in its own fleet of Opium Clippers: fast sailing ships that could make the return voyage in the fastest possible time. By purchasing unharvested opium directly from the farmers who grew it, the company was able to undercut other British opium suppliers who purchased their opium from middlemen. The Holy Trinity of British trade in the mid-nineteenth century, Opium-Silver-Tea, made Sassoon a fortune.

But in addition to its association with the Opium Trade (future blog post will take this story further) the Sassoon Dock was the scene of an incident in 1896 which may have shaped the entire destiny of the Western world during the Twentieth Century.

In November of that year, a young Winston Churchill arrived in Bombay to take up a three-year posting with his regiment in India. As he stepped ashore from the small boat that had conveyed him from the troop-ship that had borne him out from England, Churchill reached up and took hold of an iron ringbolt set into the side of the dock. As he prepared to pull himself up, the boat lurched on the water and Churchill wrenched his shoulder, tearing the ligaments holding the joint together and giving him an injury that would affect him for the rest of his life.

The injury meant that he could not wield a cavalry sabre, the weapon of choice for all mounted soldiers at the time. So Churchill purchased a Mauser pistol to use as his preferred weapon, a decision that would, perhaps, save his life a few years later during the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan.

In his memoir My Early Life, Churchill wrote of the incident at Sassoon Dock. 

“This accident turned out to be a serious piece of bad luck. However, you can never tell whether bad luck may not, after all, turn out to be good luck. Perhaps, if, in the charge at Omdurman, I had been able to use a sword instead of having to adopt a modern weapon like a Mauser pistol, my story might not have got so far as the telling.

“ One must never forget that when misfortunes come, that it is possible that they are saving one from something much worse. Or, that when you make some great mistake, it may serve you better than the wise decision. Life is a whole, and luck is a whole, and no part of them can be separated from the rest.”

Down in the dock, the fishing boats scraped and knocked together. The rigging tapped in the wind and the flags snapped and fluttered. I turned from the docks and walked out into the Colaba Market. Behind me, like Churchill’s ghost, a dog howled.

SEVEN ISLAND SUITE

Seven islands on the high side of the bay as you’re looking west…
– Gordon Lightfoot

Dusk on the Arabian Sea. As the sun dips behind the distant skyline of the Deccan Traps, a warm breeze ripples the bay where the sea touches Mumbai. The ferry leaves its stone pier beside the Gateway of India, built to commemorate the arrival of George V and the Empress Queen Mary in 1911 and cuts its way out onto the darkening waters. Oil rigs and tramp steamers lie moored in the sunset light. Seabirds wheel and swoop alongside the ferry’s superstructure. The fare to Alibag, an hour away on the farther shore, the Indian shore, is 25 Rupees.

The modern city of Mumbai comprises what was, originally, seven separate islands: Colaba, Old Woman’s Island, Mahim, Mazagaan, Parel, Worli and the Isle of Bombay. The island’s first inhabitants were the Koli people, who migrated from Gujarat sometime in prehistory. The islands were incorporated into the Mauryan Empire under the Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka encouraged the islands to become a centre of Buddhist culture and they remained so until they came under the suzerainty of the Moghul Empire in the 14th century. The Gujarat Sultanate took over control in the 15th century and they, in turn were succeeded by the Portuguese, who acquired the islands as part of the Treaty of Bassein in 1535. 

The Gateway of India

By then, European powers were exerting an increased amount of control in the subcontinent. The British entered the picture in 1661 when the islands were ceded to them as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II. Strapped for cash, Charles rented the islands to the East India Company in 1668 for the sum of £10 per annum. By 1845, the islands had been merged by land reclamation into one landmass. 

For several decades, Mumbai – or Bombay, as the British called it – was the hub of the East India Company’s operations in India. Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, control of the subcontinent was wrested from the increasingly inept and dangerous East India Company and India became the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire and the heady days of The Raj, celebrated in novels and songs, began.

But nothing in India lasts forever. The endless cycle of death and rebirth are a natural part of life and, as the Buddah said, everything must pass. By the time King George and his wife arrived to inspect their Indian dominion, the glory days of the Empire were past. The grand sandstone arch of the Gateway of India would not be completed until 1924. A cardboard model was all that was there for the King and his missus to see in 1909. 

Everything must pass. Even empires. The ferry motors east into the night. The lights of Mumbai fade astern.

Two Feet in Asia

India lies before me

India Beneath the Wing

Midday in Mumbai. Outside the airport doors, it is a hot, blue day. A haze of dust hangs in the air. I can see palm trees and mynah birds, a flurry of taxis, a cohort of buses and a knot of people waiting at the kerb for their turn to depart the airport.

The sun is at its zenith, casting hard shadows onto the ground. The tinted glass of the windows and doors gives an impression of coolness but I can almost feel the heat of the day outside. I have cleared customs and immigration. I have my backpack on and directions to the nearest metro station.  All I need to do now is to walk through the doors and out into Asia.

Marine Drive, Mumbai.

Travel is a disappearing act. My departure from home, thirty-six hours earlier was the usual heady mix of anticipation and eagerness, tempered with the melancholy of goodbyes. Leaving is, in itself, an adventure: a transition from the mundane to the outlandish, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The adverts on television, the city bill-boards, the newspaper headlines: these things spoke to other people. I was leaving. I was setting my ordinary life aside for a month and disappearing into the haze of another continent. 

Cricket Practice on the Maidan, Mumbai.

Asia is vast. It spans the world from the edge of the Bosphorus in Turkey to the islands of Japan and beyond: a distance of 11,000 kilometres, or 8,000 miles, or 36 million feet. Someone who lives in Istanbul is as much an Asian as someone from Jakarta or Aurangabad or Kobe. Nearly four and a half billion people walk on the continent of Asia. And now, my two feet are about to join them.     

The doors slide open with a sibilant hiss. I smell the hot breath of the city: the aromas of dust, vegetation, drains, closely-pressed humanity and the background whiff of kerosene from the jet engines roaring overhead. India lies before me. I step through the doorway and out into Asia.

HIGH COUNTRY HOMES

CurseOfTheTraveller

fp10So and no otherwise
Hillmen desire their Hills.
– Rudyard Kipling, The Sea and the Hills.

Dawn in Pleasant Gully. The Te Moana River chatters in its bed of stones.  A bellbird drops limpid notes from the cover of a broadleaf tree.  Wisps of fog hang in the bushy ravines and tussocky basins beneath the summit of Fiery Peak, which stands like a sentinel overlooking the valley.  The rising sun paints its bluffs and screes crimson and gold.

I sit on the step of the Pleasant Gully Hut drinking coffee and watching the day arrive.  I can see the steep track I will be climbing today.  It zig-zags up a long spur and disappears over Fiery Pass, notched into the ridgeline of the Four Peaks Range.  The sky is deep blue; this November day promises to be hot.  I finish my coffee, close the hut door and set off uphill.

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