I’ve set an alarm for my dawn ascent of Mount Batur, one of Bali’s five active volcanoes. I should sleep, but I’m distracted. I mindlessly scroll on my phone, bathed in blue light. I’m well-practised in diverting from what I know is probably the right thing to do.
I can do this, I think. Sleep, climb, face my fear. In the end, aren’t they all the same thing?
Located in the centre of Bali, Batur is sibling to the island’s largest active volcano, Mount Agung. Agung means ‘King’ in Bahasa Indonesia, and Batur, ‘Purity’.
I’d seen Batur from the plane coming in — a beautiful speck. At only 1,700 metres above sea level in comparison to Agung’s regal 3,000 metres, Batur’s relative smallness belies its significance. Batur’s caldera, including a sacred lake, sits on the site of an ancient supervolcano. Granted World Heritage status in 2012, the sprawling carpet of green falling off its sides is indicative of its past destruction and subsequent fertility.
There are many fables surrounding Batur but ultimately they boil down to cosmic balance: the Balinese concept of rwa bhineda, meaning two opposites. Everything exists as a duality: light balances dark, masculine balances feminine, joy balances sorrow, noise balances silence. The universe is constantly adjusting to achieve a better equilibrium.
It seems I’ve come to a good place in order to find a steadier footing. I’ve always wanted to climb Batur. It’s Balinese custom to make year-round pilgrimages to the mountains, as it is to the sea. It’s an act of devotion as natural as breathing. Both are life-giving forces, an important concept in Balinese Hindu philosophy called nyegara gunung – meaning ‘mountain-sea’, representing the ‘father’ and ‘mother’ figures and the spiritual interconnectedness between the two.
But at 3.30am, nothing feels natural and my body is sluggish from sleeplessness. How will I ever make my way up that volcanic terrain, let alone in pitch darkness? That’s the idea, to see dawn rise from Batur’s summit. I could have chosen the easier way, riding pillion on a local motorbike halfway up the mountain. The more difficult route — and the path I’m taking — is to ascend by foot in the dark, with sunrise revealing Mount Batur’s crevices and steep slides in all its glory for the descent. I’m determined to try. I’m determined to conquer the fear and procrastination that holds me back from making so many other decisions.
Professionally, I’ve found a place for myself, but in the last few years, my personal life has unravelled. An emotional war has waged for so long that my mind and heart are now fatigued by the question of whether I’m doing the right thing. The dreaded ‘D’ word, and an even uglier reality, looms in my future. And yet, if I can do this, I repeat to myself like a mantra – climb the mountain, raise a young son by myself – I can do anything.
My guide Aron proceeds ahead of me. The darkness doesn’t unmoor me. Although I can see nothing except for the guide showing me the path, the air carries the promise of light. I give myself over to the process, one footstep at a time.
Left. Right. Onwards. Upwards. Aron hears me tiring, and asks if I want a break. But I don’t want to pause. It might have taken me a while to shake off my drowsiness, but now I’ve started, I’m determined to see this through in the muffled hush of pre-dawn.
The sound of my own breath sets the pace. Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking. The adage, first uttered by the fourth-century-BC Greek philosopher Diogenes, has helped so many people over the centuries. And now it’s helping me.
There are life decisions that must be made, but I’ve become stagnant in my refusal to choose, terrified of what resolution might look like. Confronting a life change without a known outcome is far more daunting than climbing a mountain. These are my thoughts as I keep on going. A physical mountain is easier to scale. You can be intimidated by its size or worry that you may not be in peak condition to climb it, but none of that matters when you need to focus on how you put one foot in front of the other. This is especially true in the dark, with nothing to guide you but the knowledge that others have walked this path before, and it has helped them. When I reach the summit, I don’t feel a huge sense of achievement — there is no fanfare, no first ascent I can claim, and daybreak hasn’t even happened.
I ask Aron if there is a temple to pay my respects — a familiar tradition on many sacred peaks. He looks at me curiously and replies, “The mountain is the temple”. It’s said so simply, implying that the mere act of walking up Mount Batur is enough.
Perhaps it is.
The wind whips around me as I wait, and Aron makes some breakfast of hard-boiled eggs cooked by the mountain’s volcanic steam vents. I shuffle around to find the best spot to watch the sunrise, but I soon discover that there is truly no bad view. Mount Agung emerges as a striking silhouette in the foreground, flanked by Mount Seraya and Lombok’s Mount Rinjani in the distance. The chatter of other pilgrims rises and falls. I can see a hazy band of indigo and saffron deepening in the east, burning the horizon with a cleansing fire.
This is the magic. This is what makes the climb worthwhile – bearing witness to atoms weaving their own stories of resilience, shifting from darkness to light. It makes me realise that there are no profound answers waiting for me at the end of any journey — that true transformation is in the doing, or in this case, the walking towards an intention. It’s how we make our way in the world, and how we push through one form into another.
We adapt, we adjust to find equilibrium the best way we know how.
If you’d like to journey to Bali’s second-highest peak on a sunrise climb, our team at COMO Uma Ubud can take care of all the details.