Why and How

Leg-scorching mudpits, eye-watering fumaroles, and lung-clogging clouds of volcanic ash. It's the perfect vacation! This year after feeling too much heat and pressure at work, I was ready to decompress in the field, and erupting volcanoes seemed like the perfect antidote.

I’ve been fascinated by volcanoes since childhood, as part of the general question of how mountains came to be. I would read the articles on volcanoes in the encyclopedia and study the cross-sections of strato-volcanoes, which showed orange streaks of magma shooting up from a magma chamber and lava flows cascading down the flanks. It was like looking into the heart of the earth.

I grew up in southeastern Washington at the edge of the Columbia River Plateau, an enormous pile of basalt that was later buckled into folds and scoured by glacial floods. Recreational activities took me climbing in the Cascade Mountains, where the spectacular volcanic cones sport active fumaroles, as well as active glaciers.

My training as a geologist, though, only marginally touched on volcanoes – the fossil plants I studied were encased in volcanic ash. My later employment as a petroleum geologist didn’t include much lava, though I did have to deal with a lot of hot air. So I compensated by seeking out volcanoes just for fun, and joined several Geological Society of America fieldtrips to volcanic regions, including Iceland, southern Italy, and New Zealand.

This spring, Rosaly Lopes notified me that her book, “The Volcano Adventure Guide” had just been published. Rosaly was co-leader of the GSA Geotrip to southern Italy in 1997, and at the time, she mentioned that she was gathering material for a book. Boy, I thought, what a great excuse to travel to some of the most exciting places and see some of the best geology on the planet. But will she ever actually write the book? She did! After reading her excellent descriptions and entertaining personal accounts, I was especially motivated to see glowing rocks up close.

Though Indonesia is not featured in the book (so many volcanoes to choose from!), I found a trip led by Tom Pfeiffer and Doni Wijayonto of VolcanoDiscovery that matched my vacation schedule and interests. The tour I signed up for, which involved more trekking than most, didn’t attract any other clients, but the leaders said they would run it anyway as a reconnaissance. The Sulawesi leg was new to everyone, but went remarkably well as a pilot trip. The second part of the trip, in central and east Java, was a bit condensed from the original trekking concept due to our time in Sulawesi. The final part of the trip, in west Java, was under the banner of a second tour, “Krakatau to Bali,” and I participated for only the first week, till we intersected our previous route in Yogyakarta.

One big advantage of being on an organized tour was having a local guide or travel agent to help sort out transportation options and secure a reasonable price. Airfares can be had for a quarter of the price one can get online. As a general rule foreigners, and especially Americans, are expected to pay more for goods and services in Indonesia. If you have more, you pay more, so the thinking goes, and Americans are viewed as filthy rich compared to anyone of average means living in Indonesia (though this could be debated considering the differences in cost-of-living). In a way this is fair because the government subsidizes such things as fuel and transportation, which otherwise the people wouldn’t be able to afford. But the concept can be quickly escalated to a rip-off, and is at least a continual annoyance. It saves a lot of frustration, if not money, to engage someone with knowledge of local customs and language to steer through the throngs of hawkers and negotiate a decent price with a reputable business.

Although I didn’t mind the reconnaissance nature of the tour, the one thing I found difficult to deal with is that both trip leaders chain-smoked. It’s been so long since I’ve been on a tour where smoking is an issue that I didn’t even think to ask. Although they stopped when asked, the smoking led to a division in social activities that detracted from the experience and interrupted the cadence of physical activities.

There still are some things to work out on the Indonesian VolcanoDiscovery tours, but the itinerary is interesting and the leaders are committed to improvement. Certainly the enthusiasm for volcanoes is there and the tour benefits from the expertise of local guides. The people of Indonesia are wonderful, and the volcanoes are the best!