Mahawu produce
Mahawu produce

The hike to the rim of Mahawu starts in a field of carrots. The carrots, along with sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and spring onions prosper in the cool mountain climate and rich volcanic soil courtesy of Mahawu. In an hour’s drive, we’ve climbed over a 1000 m from the steamy coast of North Sulawesi near the port city of Manado to the cooler Minahasan Highlands, which are dotted with small villages and active craters. Though Mahawu has been quiet for several decades, it can hardly be considered in “repose.”

“My grandmother remembers seeing mud explosions from the lahar that traveled down the valley,” says our guide, Donald, who grew up in a nearby village and is well acquainted with living in the shadow of erupting volcanoes.

Of more concern to the local population is neighboring Lokon, which sends a plume of ash over the countryside every couple years, destroying crops and causing much damage to the villages. Lokon last erupted two years ago.

“It was like snow in the village,” Donald remembers of the last ash eruption.

How would we get warning of an impending eruption? I wonder. Doni, our Indonesian guide, explains that the volcanoes are monitored by seismographs round-the-clock and that an increase in seismic activity often precedes an eruption. By how many days? Sometimes over several weeks, sometimes less. And how do they alert the people? The volcano observatory issues a warning and the officials come around and order a prioritized evacuation if a major eruption is pending. I wonder where we would be in the priority and how we would be notified up here on the mountain.

We follow a well-used trail that climbs above the carrot patch and soon enters the jungle. Donald explains that the path is used by hunters stalking jungle rat and flying fox (bat), which are among the local delicacies. The Minahasan cuisine takes a cue from its volcanic heritage: it is famously hot to the point of scorching. With the addition of fiery chili sauce, the starting material may not matter, be it rat, bat, dog, snake, cow, fish, or boar.

As we tromp through the jungle, there’s a knock, knock, knock from high overhead, like a woodpecker slowly pecking. Then come snatches of whistling and the rustling of the fronds, and we peer up at a man in the crown of a palm tree. Donald explains that he is tapping the sap for palm wine, known as tuak. The sap is distilled in bamboo pipes and the condensate caught in pans. It is apparently the Indonesian equivalent of grappa or vodka.

“Makes you fly like helicopter,” according to Doni.

“Makes you see double,” says Donald. Then on further thought, “No, makes you fly like a jet – zing, zing, zing.” They promise to find me a sample when we get back to the village.

At higher altitude, we pass through a grove of bluish two-needled pine with cones that look like those of Ponderosa. It is shady and refreshingly cool in the pine grove. Then we emerge to a thicket of tall grass that stands over our heads. The Indonesians call it eelalong and it evidently is an aggressive colonizer of active craters. Its thick blades are razor-sharp and my legs are soon cross-hatched with red cuts. But it’s a sort of battle-wound for climbing the volcano and not any more irritating than wearing long pants in the heat of the day.

With our heads in the grass, it’s difficult to get a sense of where we are going.

“I’ve been on this trail over a hundred times,” Donald assures us. Ever since he saw a Discovery Channel feature on an expedition to the Himalayas, his dream has been to climb Mt. Everest. He’s now studying English so he can travel abroad.

Mahawu crater
Mahawu crater

The grass finally parts at the rim of the crater, giving us a spectacular view of the twin volcanoes Lokon and Empung, with Tatawiran and Manado Tua in the distance. Young and shapely Lokon, at nearly 1600 m, makes Mahawu, at 1324 m, seem like the reticent cousin of the clan. But Mahawu is still kicking. In the bottom of the crater are mud pots, fumaroles, and a small lake.

For a warm-up exercise, the scene is as good as a volcano hunter could hope for. I ask Doni what the appropriate phrase would be in Indonesian. It’s bagus (pronounced "bagoose"), good, accompanied by a thumbs-up gesture.

We walk part way around the rim, and then Donald decides to take us down to the crater floor. Doni says he’ll wait for us in the shade, or what little there is to be had, in a mound of grass.

Into the crater
Into the crater

The route to the crater floor follows a steep gulch dotted with bushes, clumps of grass, and boulders which may or may not stay put long enough for a foothold.

“I’ve been down here at least fifty times,” Donald assures us. The switchblade grass cuts my hands and the volcanic grit scrapes my legs. Tom thinks that continuing maybe isn’t such a good idea. But except for a couple queasy stretches, the scramble isn’t that bad, and Donald and I keep scooting our way down, with Tom following reluctantly.

Perhaps my brain is already feeling the effects of tropical paralysis. Volcano erupt? Naw. Tumble down the gulch? Nope. Everything is just fine. The sun beats down on the black rocks, sweat runs down my back, and the crater fumes below.

Mahawu crater floor
Mahawu crater floor

Once on the crater floor we find ourselves on solid, if somewhat sticky and sulfurous ground. Here and there are patches of slimy yellow mud, which sucks my feet out from under my butt, baptizing my nice clean hiking shorts with a persistent coating of sulfurous mud.

We get down on our hands and knees to examine the micro-topography of the crater floor. Miniature hoodoos, formed of pebble caps sitting on stalks of stiff mud, dot the crater floor like mushrooms. They apparently form by running water eroding the mud between the pebbles to form the stems.

We pick our way across the crater floor to the more active steam vents and bubbling mud pots near the lake.

“See, here it’s steaming,” says Donald, pointing to a vent. As I stoop to take a photo, there are cries behind me: “Ow, ow, ow, my legs!”

Donald is grabbing his knees and rolling on the ground. A deceptively thin crust gave way to scalding water and burnt his legs from knee-length pant legs to tops of hiking boots. The ground where he broke through looks no different than what we’ve been walking on.

We immediately rinse his legs with bottled water, but it does little in the way of cleaning out the sticky mud. Fortunately the burn appears to be superficial, but we need to seek medical aid immediately. There is nothing to do but climb back out and hope we can find a clinic in the village.

We carefully retrace our steps over previously tested ground and scramble back up to the crater rim. Doni has already retreated to the shade of the vehicle. The switchblade grass makes the descent miserable for Donald, but he keeps up a brave face in spite of the pain.

We meet Doni at the van and head to the nearby village of Tomohon. Good, there’s a medical facility and the doctor is in. Donald is led into an inner chamber for treatment while we lounge about outside.

I walk across the street and get a roll of Marie biscuits, a bottle of Aqua, and a package of dried bananas. I haven’t eaten since 7:00 a.m. and it is now 1:00 p.m. I share my biscuits with an old lady who has joined us on the bench. Most of her teeth are missing, and the dried bananas are too hard for her to chew. But she likes the biscuits.

Between gummy bites, she gestures towards my bottle of Aqua, which is sitting in the shade of the building, and then back to my position on the bench, under the shade of the canopy. I’m not sure what to do about it. Finally a nurse translates: “Bring the water into the shade.” Oh. There must be degrees of shade in the tropics. Like Doni finding “shade” in the tall grass, when to me it looked little different than what we’d been walking through.

Donald emerges from the clinic, half-smiling, half-grimacing. “Only skin burns,” he says, trying to make light of the situation. He is ready to carry on.

Lake Tondano
Lake Tondano

We drive to Lake Tondano and stop at a restaurant built on stilts out over the water. The lake lies in a caldera of Quaternary age that is now rimmed by active cones like Lokon and Mahawu, and dotted with active hot springs and fumarolic areas. Bamboo walkways edge the restaurant and give a fish-eye view of the lake. They also enclose ponds that are stocked with “goldfish” (koi).

“Not for eating, just for keeping,” explains the manager, but I’m not convinced, given the choices on the menu.

We order a range of items tailored to each person’s tolerance of spiciness. I am instructed to work up gradually to an appreciation of the local cuisine and so learn my second Indonesian phrase: Tidak pedas (not spicy). Doni orders me a blended avocado drink with ice. The drink is surprisingly refreshing and a completely new take on avocados, which I’ve otherwise associated with gooey guacamole.

While the others are taking a smoke after lunch, I climb upstairs to enjoy clean air and the view. There I interrupt a prayer meeting being held by pastors of three denominations: Protestant (derived from the original Dutch Protestant religion), Pentecostal, and Seventh-Day Adventist. North Sulawesi is dominantly Christian, unlike most of Indonesia, which is overwhelmingly Muslim with a smattering of Hindu, Buddhist, and indigenous religions. Sulawesi has historically been more aligned with Dutch colonization than other parts of Indonesia and has been less eager to purge that heritage. Churches with crosses dot the villages, though many of them appear to be in a state of arrested construction or repair.

The pastors are reading from Proverbs: …”so that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding.” Indonesian and English Bibles sit side-by-side on the table. They invite me to join them, but just as I sit down and begin reading, Tom comes upstairs and it is time to go.

We head back to our lodging on the coast via the scenic route to the south, which winds like a snake through villages and jungle. The houses in the region commonly sit on pillars or stilts, with a garage/storage/picnic area underneath. I try to imagine the advantage of this setup in the wet season. We pass a “village” of tidy model homes. They are modular wooden structures that can be knocked down and set up on the owner’s site. Very clever. Several kinds of contrasting hardwoods are employed, and the houses are quite attractive, as well as functional.

Back at the hotel, I reflect on our first, somewhat abbreviated, volcano excursion. Was there anything to suggest we shouldn’t have gone into the crater? No, not really. Would we go into hot spring areas again? Probably. Can I trust the judgment of the trip leaders and guides with regards to volcanic hazards? Not sure. Tom was worried about loose rocks, not thin crusts over scalding water. Is my brain already too numbed by the tropical heat to make a clear judgment myself? Can’t tell. Should I be seeking wisdom and applying mine heart to understanding? Without a doubt.

And, what is this attraction to active volcanic areas, anyway? Why even bother, given the obvious risks? Perhaps because volcanoes are a window into the tumultuous heart of the earth.

Or as Doni puts it: “A really good eruption is bagus. It’s super bloody maximum bagus."