Hermit crab vendor
Hermit crab vendor

The beach at Carita on the west coast of Java is lined with hotels, condos, and beach bungalows. Above high-tide line, vendors are selling T-shirts, surf shorts, and sun hats. Inner tubes and surf boards are stacked up, waiting for customers. Vendors ply the tourists with bunches of bananas, bags of shrimp crackers, baskets of clothing, and local handicrafts. Little boys with buckets of hermit crabs follow me around, trying to make a sale. I take a peek in the buckets at the mass of crawling and scratching crabs and wonder if they are to eat or for pets.

It’s hard to imagine that this beach was inundated by a 15 m tsunami. No, not the one from the Sumatra trench on Dec 26, 2005. The one from Krakatoa on Aug 26, 1883, following the fourth and most cataclysmic eruption of the volcano. Over 30,000 people died from the tsunami that swept the west coast of Java and the island of Sumatra across the Sunda Strait.

Even with the recent reminder of this winter, a tsunami is far from anyone’s mind. Kids surf the gentle half-meter waves and have barely enough time to stand up before they fall giggling into the swash zone. People pile onto the “banana boats” for a zoom around the bay. But the volcano, or what’s left of it, is on our minds this morning, as that is our destination.

A visit to Krakatoa is like going to Ground Zero. The mountain blew itself inside out, leaving only a shadow of its former self in the form of island remnants. The ash circled the world, the tsunami obliterated the coast, and shipping lanes were clogged with pumice.

We are motoring to the remnants of the caldera to see Anak Krakatoa (“Child of Krakatoa”), which emerged from the sea in 1923. The boat is loaded with coolers of water, sacks of vegetables, and boxes of fruit, as well as stoves, tents, and tarps. It’s about a two-hour ride to Anak Krakatoa.

Anak Krakatoa
Anak Krakatoa

First we see island remnants from the older caldera, which are covered with vegetation. Mentally projecting from the circle of islands, one can get an idea of the extent of the original cone. But it’s still difficult to imagine a 2600 m peak sitting here in the middle of the sea. That’s higher than Bromo or Merapi, the volcanoes that pokes their heads out of the clouds on the plane flight over Java.

Once inside the circle of islands, we see Anak Krakatoa, a mostly barren cone of scoria and lava with patches of vegetation like a bad haircut. Although only 80-some years old, it is 500 m high and growing.

We motor part way around the island to where another group of tourists is camped, then go back to a secluded beach on the southern coast and debark. The beach is a black sand sprinkled with pebbles of rounded pumice that mark old swash lines. The crew pitches the tents in a row on a grass-covered bench. They’re way too close together for my sense of space, but I can live with it.

Krakatoa geology
Krakatoa geology

I walk down the beach and take a swim. There are some hot water vents near a recent lava flow, and with my head in the water, they sound like a bubbling Jacuzzi. I place my hand over a vent in the sand to catch the warmth directly from the earth. I drift away into cooler waters, then back to the warm. It’s so easy to float in salt water. Lying on my back, swashing with the waves, rechargin from heat of the volcano, I feel I could enter an alternate universe.

There’s an afternoon group hike to the crater of Anak Krakatoa. Why we wait until 3:30 p.m. to begin is a mystery to everyone but the trip leaders. Supposedly it is cooler, but it seems as hot as ever to me. Perhaps the temperature is like the subtle variations of tropical shade.

We follow the lava flow next to camp and make trail through the jungle. It’s amazing how much vegetation has taken root and survived on an island that is constantly resurfacing itself. We emerge from the forest and hike up a scree slope of crunchy lapilli and volcanic blocks. Eelalong grass and the lavender crater bush, Melastoma, are already getting a foothold in their favorite territory. Then we connect with the trail from the main camp and meet up with a bunch of French tourists.

Krakatoa trail
Krakatoa trail

At a seismic monitoring station, the trail steepens and we climb, or rather slide, up the scree to the crater rim. One step up, half-a-slip down. Someone in the French group says that when they were here five years ago, the mountain was erupting and they couldn’t get very close because of the bombs. It is quiet today. They are disappointed.

The sun beats down on black rock and I sweat buckets of water. At the summit, there’s not much to see – the scree slopes into ground zero and there are some steam vents, but there’s no stunning lake or sulfur pits or hot springs. The afternoon haze dulls the view and the sulfurous gas leaves a funny taste in my throat.

Someone picks up a rock to throw into the vent.

“No, don’t do that!” cries Tom. “If you throw rocks into the vent, the volcano might throw them back.” He is serious. This must be a volcanology myth like those held by sailors at sea. But we aren’t about to test the theory.

I sit mesmerized by a steam vent, when a French girl behind me mutters, “Regarde!” Watch out! Tom is sliding into the crater, intentionally. Doni shouts for him not to. He goes anyway. Is this the same person that didn’t want to scoot into Mahawu? There’s not a thing to see down there and…what if it did…throw him back? The only sense anyone can make of this action is that the girls will be impressed.

I tire of the antics and want to get back before dark. So I head down the trail with Doni…and the other tourists. We slide back down the trail, kicking up clouds of ash. Back at camp, I take another swim to wash off the grit and then dry out by the smoky campfire. The others eventually make it back.

Dinner's on!
Dinner's on!

Dinner is fresh fish fried over the campfire, vegetables, rice, and fresh papaya for dessert -- bagus. As we are eating, the clouds move in and it starts to rain. Then come the thunder and lightning. We huddle under the tarp, dodging rivulets and trying to finish our plates of food. We talk of mines in Australia, trains in Switzerland, tunnel fires, earthquakes, and volcanoes, and how we live with natural and unnatural disasters. Tonight we sleep with an active volcano.

My plan for tomorrow is an early morning hike to the crater – when it’s cool. The two Swiss guys in the group say they want to go, so I tell them to set their alarms for 5:00 a.m.

I wake before the alarm at 4:38 a.m., or maybe never really went to sleep. I quietly unzip the tent and pop out into the darkness. At 5:00 a.m. there’s no stirring from the others, so I assume they’ve reconsidered and want to sleep.

Although the sun is not yet up, I can see well enough to follow the lava flow up the hill. The flashlight flickers through the jungle, glinting off large drip-pointed leaves. Clouds are moving around, trying to decide whether to sail on, and they still manage to wring out a few sprinkles.

There’s a nearly full moon out, but it is partially shrouded by clouds. I swish through grass and vines along the edge of the lava flow, panning the flashlight right and left to follow the faint trail from yesterday’s trek.

I break out of jungle into the field of bombs and follow the slope up to a bench. Then I pick my way carefully over the tumble of boulders around the flank of the mountain to the monitoring station. By now it’s starting to get light, so I switch off the flashlight at the start of the steep trail to the rim. The rain has packed down the dust, so boots stay where put and climbing is much easier.


As I ascend the steep cindery trail, the sun streaks over the island to the west. Near the top I can feel the heat from the steam vents and when I put the daypack down, it gets warm just sitting on the ground. The steam is more pronounced in the cool morning air and the whole mountaintop seems alive and breathing.

I walk clockwise around the crater, holding my breath through the sulfurous fumes. About halfway around, the sun comes up behind the crater and ignites the rim a fiery red. Sulfurous yellow rocks glow in the early morning rays. If Dante needs brimstone, passable specimens can be found here. By 6:30 a.m., I’ve circumnavigated the crater.

I sit on a boulder and contemplate the volcano. It could blow up any time and kill me. But it won’t. I don’t throw rocks in the crater, either. I wonder if Anak Krakatoa will ever grow into the giant stratovolcano that Krakatoa once was. Or will the focus of activity shift to the next big cone that stands alone? Who will be next?

Meditation over, I head down the mountain and arrive back at camp by 8:00 a.m. The camp is stirring and people are packing gear, stoking the fire, and beach combing. Apparently breakfast has been eaten already. But there’s fresh papaya, bananas, and pineapple, leftover from last night. The Swiss are disappointed that I didn’t wake them – their alarms didn’t go off. Well, for the purveyors of precision timepieces, that’s different.

I take my morning shower -- a brief snorkel next to the lava flow, which is only a few years old, but already festooned with corals. I can make out the blurry outlines of starfish, coral, and brightly colored fish, but I really need a mask with prescription lenses to appreciate the details.

While camp is being packed up, Tom burns garbage in a very smoky fire that chokes everyone. He seems transfixed by this operation and everyone wonders “is it necessary?” Maybe he’s trying to recreate Krakatoa. With gear back on the boat, we head back to Java. The remnants of the caldera disappear in the haze.

Carita beach
Carita beach

We land at Carita and the beach vendors materialize around us. The hermit crab boys are still hard at work and the crabs are stilling trying to get out of their buckets. The surf shacks are offering boards for rent, and the banana boat is waiting for tourists.

A visit to the volcano observatory is suggested, but it looks like rain this afternoon, so the group doesn’t bother. We can only hope that somebody is watching.