I awake at 5:45 a.m. to hymns sung over the village loudspeaker – “To God be the Glory”, in Indonesian. Then comes prayer, followed by another hymn, and finally the devotional. This must be the Christian’s answer to the Muslim’s early morning call to prayer. It’s over at 6:00 a.m., but I don’t go back to sleep. People must just get used to this.

After breakfast, we pack up and head back through Manado. Our next volcano is Soputan, which is in the highlands south of Mahawu, so we’re moving base camp from the coast to the hills. The car’s stereo is playing John Denver’s “Poems, Prayers, and Promises,” which is not the music I would have expected to hear in Indonesia. Doni says he likes John Denver because he sings songs of home. Doni will be away from his family in east Java for a couple weeks.

In Manado there is lots of construction along the waterfront, with bamboo for scaffolding. It seems that the waterfront is getting a facelift.

Signs in Manado reflect a variety of enterprises, both local and foreign:

  • Anker the real beer
  • Impressions Body Care Center
  • Great Power Computer
  • Nokia
  • Tarn Modi Textile
  • Italy Shoes and Bag
  • KFC
  • Optik Seis
  • Galaxy Music and Electronic
  • Batavia Air

We climb the hill back to Tomohon and check into Highland Resort in the village of Kinilou, which lies in the shadow of Lokon volcano. I ask the people at Highland if living so close to the volcano worries them. No, not really. In the last eruption ash drifted overhead, but otherwise they had no damage. “But we must be careful here,” they say.

Lake Linou
Lake Linou

Then we drive to see nearby Lake Linou, which is sourced or at least enhanced by hot springs. It is famed for its colors that change with the activity of the springs and for the unusual animal and plant life. The only birds I recognize are rather ordinary swallows, which dip and turn along the shore. A bush with lavender flowers is abundant here, as it was at the crater of Mahawu. Whatever it is, it seems to enjoy, or maybe just tolerate, thermal areas.

Sulfurous fumaroles fringe the lake and the water is a mottled turquoise color. Bubbles are rising along the shore, but the water is cool. There are a couple bath houses by the lake, but swimming is not encouraged. People have died from fumes while swimming in the lake.

We gaze at the turquoise water framed by modest, densely forested hills.

“Just like Switzerland,” says Tom. I can’t tell if he’s kidding.

We drive back to Tomohon and have lunch at Sineleyan, a restaurant on a small lake set in the jungle. Fish are flopping and biting in water, which is a dark pea soup green. A keyboard player and vocalist are belting out fine dining music over the P.A. system. “Basso nova,” Donald says. It seems a bit early in the day for that.

In keeping with my regime, I have water spinach (not spicy), cucumbers (slightly spicy), and fish (white and yellow, the latter quite spicy), which look like those flopping in the lake. All very good. The band takes a break, and we leave to a recorded interlude: Edith Piaf’s Non regrette rien, in Indonesian.

Soputan rivals Lokon in activity, so we decide to first check in at the volcano observatory for the local forecast. On our first try, there is no response, but when we come back after lunch, somebody is home.

The observatory has a main room with displays for visitors and adjacent rooms for the monitoring equipment and living quarters for the observer. A mattress leans against the wall of the seismograph room. Near the entrance are two poster boards with faded photos of Soputan and Lokon in eruption. Old yellowed publications age in a wooden cabinet. A well-worn visitor log has entries from people all over the world, but only a few from U.S.A. How do people find this place?

Lokon volcano observatory
Lokon volcano observatory

Outside is a satellite dish. A signal is transmitted from monitoring stations on the volcanoes via satellite to the observing station. The seismographs are supposed to be receiving the signals, but those for Lokon and Mahawu have dead batteries. This doesn’t give me a secure feeling. The one for Empung is squiggling away, though, so maybe that covers it. Doni explains that besides using seismicity to predict an eruption, they also measure crack width in lava domes, the temperature of the cracks, and changes in gas composition. He works as an observer at the Bromo observatory on Java.

Soputan has its own observatory, elsewhere, we find out. The observer tells us that Soputan is at level 2 on a scale of 1 (quiet) to 4 (erupting), so caution is advised. Summit access is not allowed – but who’s going to stop you?

Tomohon market
Tomohon market

In the afternoon we make a visit to the Tomohon town market at the top of hill. It’s a mass of stalls selling every imaginable and some unimaginable food stuff. There are heads of wild boar, fish of many hues, barrels of dried beans and rice, boxes of lemons, snakefruit, and pineapple, piles of onions and carrots, and baskets of red peppers and garlic. The variety and color are overwhelming, but it’s even better in the early morning, Doni tells me.

The next day we get a late start to a day that is already limited to about 12 hours of daylight, every day all year round. The Indonesians get up before dawn to get in a full day’s work. The trip leaders sleep in till 9:00 a.m. I’m up for an early breakfast and anxious to get going.

We have a different vehicle today, a Toyota mini-van from the Highland Resort. We head towards Soputan, which lies south of Lake Tomohon on the southern side of the caldera. The villages peter out to a single row of houses lining a single-lane dirt track. We stop at a small store to stock up on bottled water and to eat carryout from town – rice, green beans and peanut sauce, medium spicy. We are seated on a sofa in what appears to be the people’s living room, but nobody seems to think it unusual.

Soputan trailhead
Soputan trailhead

After lunch we continue up the deeply rutted road which is flanked by a wall of thick jungle. We’re lucky not to meet oncoming traffic as the road is precisely the width of an ox cart and there are few turnouts. We stop by an old ranch house, which apparently marks the trailhead, load up the backpacks, and head up the trail. I’ve managed to foist the tent and stove off on the guys, but am otherwise carrying all of my stuff, including several liters of water. Porters were in the trip write-up, but since I appear to be able-bodied and of sound constitution, they aren’t deemed necessary. The official breakdown from the leaders: 1 hour to Base Camp, another hour to Second Base Camp, then a bit more to the crater rim.

Soputan single-track
Soputan single-track

The walk starts out at an easy grade and is a continuation of the ox-cart road. And we finally do meet an ox-cart. The driver patiently waits for us to find a turnout, which is certainly easier on foot than with a vehicle. The trail stays in jungle for several kilometers. Bright yellow sunflowers brighten the way and I plant a blossom in my Tilley hat.

After maybe two kilometers we come to a field of tomatoes and a bamboo hut marked “Base Camp.” But the real Base Camp, where trekkers actually camp, is further on, Doni tells us. Nonetheless the people kindly invite us in for tea.

Inside the house, a baby is wrapped in a sling suspended from the ceiling by a spring and Dad is bouncing the bundle. The floor is well-swept dirt, and hens, roosters, and chicks wander in and out, cackling and chirping. On the wall is a campaign poster of the provincial governor across from a calendar with a picture of Jesus in front of a globe of the world.

Water is boiling in an iron tea kettle set over the fire on the kitchen floor. The lady of the house serves us hot tea with ample dollops of sugar that is pleasantly not-very-sweet. We also get a sip of proto-palm wine, which is only one hour old. It has a sweet/bitter taste and causes no double vision, yet.

We check the irrigation system outside. Bamboo pipe carries water from the spring up the hill and waters the crops, which include onions, purple chilis, squash, and tomatoes. Doni says that this is the first time he’s seen purple chilis and speculates that they must be very hot. Purple is definitely off my regime. All the crops look to be thriving, beneficiaries of the rich volcanic soil.

Clouds are rolling in and out, but the locals forecast “no rain.” Doni has stomach problems, or at least that’s his excuse for hiring Alvin, the Dad, as a porter. Now we are five.

The pace is slow, with stops every twenty minutes or so for resting, snacking, and smoking (for the leaders). I’m used to hiking a moderate, but uninterrupted pace, so this stop-and-go taxes my patience a bit. For trail food we eat dried bananas, cocoa crackers, and snakefruit (salak), which has a scaly brown skin and a taste reminiscent of apple, pineapple, and Asian pear. It peels easily, is convenient to eat, and keeps well in backpacks. Too bad it’s not imported to America.

Soputan river walk
Soputan river walk

After a few easy kilometers on the jungle trail, we come to the river, which is the color of tomato soup. Alvin has come prepared with knee-high waders. The rest of us remove our hiking boots and go barefoot in the water. After the first gritty crossing I put on Teva sandals as my feet are still gringo-tender and not used to the abrasion. More crossings come and go for maybe one kilometer. Further upstream the water turns from red to gray and apparently comes from a less hydrothermally altered source.

We finally leave the stream and climb a very rutted trail with roots for handholds. It eases up as we enter a pine forest, which provides shade for the pleasant Second Base Camp. But we keep going on up to the rim, hoping for a more strategic viewing position. Now we’re crunching through lapilli and fragments of scoria and the eelalong takes over up to the rim. We continue around the rim to where the trail widens into a couple spots just big enough for tents. This should give us a ringside seat for any activity on the volcano. But this afternoon we’re staring out into…solid fog.

Where is Soputan?
Where is Soputan?

The wind is blowing, the caldera is socked in, and water is dripping off the branches. Clothing is drenched from the sweaty hike up, but at least the temperatures aren’t too chilly yet. I feel O.K., especially considering lack of prior toughening-up hikes with full backpack, but am just tired and want a nap. Tom is already prone by the campstove, ensconced in parka and hood.

It soon gets dark and we huddle around the campstove, which is shielded from the wind by a foam sleeping pad. The plan is to get up before dawn to see activity on the lava dome, with the hopes that the weather will be clear by then. I’m skeptical, but game. The growing lava dome occasionally sends a glowing rock fall off its flanks and that’s what we hope to catch…figuratively speaking, of course. Although it’s difficult to get a sense of where we are in relation to the volcano, Donald assures us that a significant gulf separates us from the main cone and we are sufficiently far away that rockfalls are not a danger.

So here we sit by an active volcano we can’t see, far from human habitation, with only the sound of the stove roaring, the wind gusting through the trees, and…a cell phone ringing. Donald takes the call and speaks in animated Indonesian, then hands the phone to me: “Say something – it’s my girl.”

“Here we are at the rim of the caldera with the lights of the city below and the stars above…,” I ad-lib.

The sky is starting to clear and the cone of Soputan emerges in the moonlight. Maybe there will be glowing lava tonight after all.

I’m awake at 3 a.m. to a clear sky and brilliant stars. The Milky Way sweeps across the sky and three planets glow a steady light – Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn? Soputan is now clearly visible, but has a cloud cap that obscures any glow from the lava dome.


At 5:30 a.m. it’s dawn and the birds are awake and chirping. The smell of rice cooking wafts through camp. The peak is mostly clear, but still no glowing lava. We can see where older eruptions have left a cascade of lava flows to the left of the dome and an apron of boulders to the right. A subsidiary cinder cone is forming on the flank.

Doni explains that a volcano with one big cone is potentially more violent and dangerous than one with smaller subsidiary cones. Krakatoa is an example of the one big one. Soputan, we hope, is an example of the latter, though we wouldn’t mind seeing a little action, from a distance.

The camp stove is roaring away and there’s noodles and rice for breakfast. But I opt for crackers, a fresh tangerine, and gorp from my personal stash, which I hope is more sustaining than white carbohydrates. Clouds begin rolling in, obscuring the peak.

We debate the merits of hiking to the subsidiary crater, which lies below the summit. The route is a steep descent down the wall of the older crater, through the jungle across the crater floor and up the flank of the cinder cone. It looks like a lot of work for not much of a better view…and the clouds are still drifting in. Go, no go? I would go, but not at the halting pace of yesterday. We sit around a long time eating noodles and rice.

Then we suddenly have company. A guy comes down the trail with only a rucksack, and that only looks half full. He must have spent the night up here and we wonder how, with so little gear. The guy, whose name is David, explains that he has a warm sleeping bag. He slept on the rim of the small crater by a big rock.

Burn buddies
Burn buddies

“I tried to climb Soputan, but it got too hot,” he says. “I burnt my feet.”

He turns his sandaled feet and shows us his blistered heels. He explains that he was only 300 m from the top, when it got too hot to walk. He lost one sandal in the hot-foot dance to get away and had to hop one-legged back up the mountain to retrieve it. He could almost laugh about it now. He climbed in sandals because his hiking boots got too smelly with sulfur from a previous volcano climb.

“Even crazier than me,” comments Donald, who has found camaraderie in a fellow volcano burn victim.

“It will make good stories for teaching,” explains David, who is a biology teacher for middle school in Paris. He’s been climbing volcanoes in Java and Sulawesi for several weeks and goes back home tomorrow. He mentions that he also climbed Semeru, on the island of Java, and had to retreat due to falling bombs. Doni gets visibly agitated.

“The summit is closed,” he said. But David says he didn’t see any indication that the summit was closed.

Later Doni explains that as a volcano observatory worker, he saw the results of people getting too close to the action and being hit by volcanic bombs. It was not pretty. He used to guide people into Bromo crater in east Java, but now it is too dangerous. Once a French girl fell into a boiling pool and got one of her legs burnt to the bone. The rescue party put themselves at risk to carry out the evacuation.

“I need to go down to cool my feet in the river,” says David, preparing to leave. “Is the red water O.K. to drink?”

Doni sums it up dramatically: “No, you go…phewwwww.” We offer a 1.5 liter Aqua, which is gratefully accepted. We have plenty of water to spare.

We break camp and head down. With clearer air, we get a better perspective on what we camped on. The rim is that of an older crater to the side of Soputan, not the edge of a caldera encircling the younger craters, as we originally surmised. The old crater is iron-stained and has a murky lake in the center, which is evidently the source of the red river below.

We head back down the slope through the eelalong, getting sliced once again, then back through the lovely grove of pines and down the steep trail to the river. The lukewarm water feels good to hot tired feet. In the jungle, insects are making a synchronized creaking noise like cicadas. They are called jangkrik, a name that sounds like they do. They look like giant flies, according to our guides.

Alvin and family
Alvin and family

We stop again at the Base Camp in the tomato patch for tea. Baby is in the sling again. We munch on peanuts, and the chickens get aggressive sensing food. The baby is now awake and wide-eyed at the foreigners. Mother points to my cut-up legs and the baby squirms and cries. With tea finished, it is time to go. Bye-bye. I take a photo of the family and we part with a warm handshake. I like these folks.

Alvin continues down with us for a ride into town. Donald leaves the main path to take us down a shortcut, which is steeper than the nice graded path we walked up. This irritates me – my feeble knees don’t need this kind of pounding with a full pack. I pick my way down and the others have to wait. So much for saving time.

Japanese caves
Japanese caves

We meet the mini-van by the white house at the end of the road and drive back to town. At lunchtime we stop at some caves that were dug by the Japanese when they occupied the island during World War II. The caves are in massive unwelded ignimbrite with large pumice fragments, providing one of the rare unvegetated outcrops we’ve seen. Tom says the weakly stratified deposit resulted from collapse of an eruption column and large particle sizes indicate that it was fairly close to the volcano.

We have lunch at a restaurant across from the caves. An assortment of dishes is brought out for us to make our selections and we pay for what is not left over. This saves having to interpret the menu, but it’s better to ask before sampling, as the menu includes flying fox (bat), duck, beef, fish, and dog. The meat looks hairy and fatty and is totally unappealing, so I stick with the vegetables and rice. My water spinach has red chilis this time -- hot! My regime must be escalating. Cucumbers cool the burn, as does Coke, though it’s lukewarm and comes with a straw that at doesn’t reach all the way down the bottle. I wonder how long I can survive on a diet of spinach, cucumbers, rice and Coca-Cola.

We’re back at the hotel by mid-afternoon, but the power is off till 5:00 p.m., so the shower I’ve so eagerly been anticipating must be postponed. I snooze till the lights and hot water come back on.

With dusk at 6:00 p.m., evenings are long in the dark and there’s plenty of time to eat and talk. Over coffee Doni comments that for the most part, the different religions in Indonesia are accepting of each other. He is Muslim, his wife is Hindu, no problem. “It is between the person and the guy up there,” he says, pointing skyward, “whomever that may be.” What matters is one’s interaction with fellow man.

The trek to Soputan gets high ratings. Doni’s superlative is now up to “Super bloody maximum fantastic bagus.”