• Sarah Mckenzie-Thane

Mount Agung... I Love You!

The cause of my emotional rollercoaster has finally gone back to sleep... or has he?

The deceptively peaceful Mt. Agung did not affect the daily routine of most Indonesians.

So it’s no secret any more that on the Indonesian island of Bali there is a big old volcano named Mt Agung, who woke up last year, 2017, after more than fifty years of being asleep. Mt Agung last erupted in 1963 killing over 1000 people who were completely unprepared for such an eruption. The eruptive phase of the stratovolcano in ’63 lasted for a year and was one of the largest and most devastating eruptions ever recorded in Indonesia.

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He has woken up again and we are experiencing this mighty mountains revival with baited breath and a sense of awe. The past six months of this giant awakening has shaken and stirred up many emotions and lessons within me and I want to share some of my musings here with you.

Firstly, the reason I refer to Mt Agung as, ‘He’ is because according to the Balinese people I have listened to, Mt Agung is the largest at 3,031m, most powerful and volatile volcano (apparently characteristics of only men!) on the paradise island of Bali, compared to his counterpart Mt. Batur the smaller, 1,717m, better behaved volcano who is referred to as ‘she.’ It’s a story that makes me smile.

Now we have that cleared up, here’s what else I learned. No volcanologist in history has ever been able to successfully predict exactly when a volcano anywhere in the world will erupt, ever. I only learned this in late September 2017, a week after we had been moved up to the highest level alert (4) which on paper means an eruption is imminent within 24hrs. A week of pure panic, anxiety and fear ensued for me as I watched our sleepy town of Candidasa’s one main road back up with traffic as every man, woman, child, cow and pig within a 12km radius were evacuated down from their homes on the edge of Agung.


Farmers moved their cattle with whatever transport they had.

Candidasa itself is in the designated safe zone so a lot of evacuees ended up in evacuation camps in the area and we all waited for some explosive eruption to rock our world. It never came.

During that week there was a lot of fear and uncertainty and it was interesting to see the fight, flight, freeze, response sweep across an entire island. Some tourists and locals chose to flee, not only the volcano, but the entire island and a lot of people left. Others, like me, although afraid, decided to stay and wait it out from a safe distance while being asked to deal with their own healthy/unhealthy coping mechanisms, and a few very brave souls could not bear to leave their homes despite being within the 12km danger zone and so they stayed, trusting nature and God more than the government who told them to leave. The volcano did not erupt for eight weeks after first going up to level 4 and it even went back down to level 3 for a while in October.

This was my first major lesson from this mighty volcano: when we start to wake up to our possible greatness and start seeing our potential we challenge others around us to confront what’s hidden within themselves and we become uncomfortable to be around. People react in different ways; some leave us alone because they are afraid and do not understand why we are starting to wake up and challenge ourselves to step into our own brilliance. Everyone questions what we are doing and why, despite it being what we are supposed to be doing. A volcano is meant to erupt as we are meant to express our full potential and yet everyone was asking why it was waking. True friends will stay and support your journey whether they understand it or not, they trust the process of awakening, and some people will turn you into a monster and spread rumours, gossip, and lies about you so they can achieve whatever agenda is there’s. Other people’s opinion of you is none of your business you just have to keep waking up.

This leads me nicely to my next point, the media!


Locals watching the devastation during the 1963 eruption.

The media created a frenzy of mostly false and exaggerated news. At this point the volcano had not erupted but small wisps of fluffy white steam could be seen coming from the crater on a daily basis. The news coverage was outrageously exaggerated and used impressively fear filled words to keep new tourists away from Bali. They said there were tsunami warnings, which there never were, they showed videos of erupting volcanoes claiming it was Mt Agung when in actuality it was Mt Rinjani, the volcano on Lombok that had erupted two years prior to Agung’s stirring. Tourists were advised to stay away or get out of the way of the impending doom. At that point I made a promise to myself to never believe anything the mainstream media is brainwashing us with and instead chose to use my eyes to see what was happening with the Old Chap because viewing him from Warung Bintang overlooking Candidasa rice paddies, he just looked magnificent and calm.

There was the other side of the coin that was made up of people with vested, financial, interest in Bali who were hash tagging #baliissafe anywhere they could to keep the tourists coming. And they did. And they were. Right up until the ash cloud from the eruption closed Bali’s only international airport and then Lombok international airport for two days making travelling a nightmare. Then people felt lied to by greedy, desperate business owners and the government.

Also emerging were the real gems in the crowd, the people who stuck to and reported only the facts, and the people who felt called to action. These people were my saving grace and brought me back to sanity when I started to feel like I was losing my mind; because we weren’t in as much danger as the media made us fear, but we also weren’t completely safe like some would have us believe. Fear and anger were rising within us all and arguments began to occur on social media, between friends and family who debated the danger. We were teetering somewhere on the edge of that volcanic rim of safety and natural disaster and emotions began pushing through to the surface like magma rising to the crater.

The lessons learned from this part of our emerging eruptive phase were that money and greed makes people blind but there will always be heroes who rise up and do the right thing with perspective and in the interest of the greater good. Yes it was important that this island, funded primarily by tourism didn’t financially collapse, but it was equally important that the human element was remembered. Rachel Bergsma, Jackie Pomeroy and Clara McAlaney were especially brilliant, and continue to be even now, May 2018, while we remain at level 3 alert, at reporting the volcanic activity gathered from many trustworthy sources. Janine Kripner, a volcanologist who educated all who were interested, has become a superstar in my eyes and I would be really awestruck if I ever met her!


BAWA and BARC, two of the main animal charities in Bali, rose up and literally climbed up to help the animals left alone on the side of the volcano, volunteers risking their lives daily to take food and water up to the animals and bring as many down as possible and get them into the shelters. Others donated money, time, and energy from all around the globe to help wherever they could. In all situations look for the heroes and be the hero in whatever way you can. Something is better than nothing.

And still the volcano didn’t erupt.

This part of the journey is called ‘persistence and resistance.’ The magma within the volcano began to literally stir up the ground around it and we started to feel earthquakes on a daily basis. It was frightening, exciting, and then familiar. It was happening so often that we just kind of got used to it. Indonesia is on the Ring of Fire so we are used to the odd rumbling in and rumbling out style earthquake as the tectonic plates shift and slide beneath us but the earthquakes at the time were like nothing I’ve ever felt before. It literally felt like the earth was being punched from underneath us and then a small shaking and then it was over. They became more frequent as more magma began breaking through rocks deep within the ground to forcefully rise up towards the top of Agung. At the height of His activity Agung was experiencing over 1000 earthquakes (or tremors) a day near the crater and we were feeling at least four or five every day in Candidasa over 30km away! This was by far the most frightening time to be near the volcano because it was a double threat!

Our friend had been in the huge earthquake that devastated Nepal back in 2015 and was now living in Candidasa more afraid of a large earthquake preceding the volcanic eruption than the eruption itself. Her and her boyfriend were sleeping downstairs next to the front door that they left open in case of emergency.

It was at this point we were all advised to pack an emergency bag and leave it by the front door in case we needed to evacuate quickly. We were also advised to make sure our houses were secured with no gaps where ash could get inside in case of eruption. My house had no glass windows, just mosquito netting and an outdoor bathroom. This is fairly common in Indonesia because it’s hot so we can live without windows! There was no way we could have covered our entire house in plastic sheeting so we didn’t, hoping everyone was overreacting. I did pack an escape bag consisting mainly of food and passports! I lived right next to the ocean and boats were constantly moored there so that was my escape route planned. At this point my husband and I decided we needed something normal in our lives so we bought a cat; Simon Ashcloud!

Simon 'Ashcloud' gave us a new focus for a while.

We also bought the advised face masks hoping we would never need to wear them and curious as to how we’d put them on our cat! That weekend we also attended a “Pompeii Pose” party where we hid in our friends house drinking wine and fruit juice (I’d given up drinking for a year and was being tested to the limit!) whilst watching the live Agung feed on YouTube, trying to make light of a pretty heavy situation. My husband and I spent the next couple of nights at home bonding with our new cat watching disaster movies such as “SAN Andreas” and “Dante’s Peak”. We were fully prepared for this eruption!

When we decide to rise up to our full potential things get broken down and broken through and we disrupt everything that was once quiet and safe in order to unearth the magnificence that is buried within us. We become really uncomfortable to be around and it’s frightening to see our potential greatness. It would have been far easier for that volcano to stay asleep and it is far easier for us to remain in a mediocre life but that is not what we are called to do. We are meant to let our lava flow and in doing so we are meant to confront everything that stands in our way and keep pushing through until we reach the surface. This can be the most testing time as we see potentially how powerful we can be and it can be more terrifying to play big than stay small, trapped within the safe walls of a comfort zone. Success can be really scary so it’s important to know that you are on the right path and rest and adjust to your new heights if you need to but don’t quit and don’t shrink. Grow into your greatness.


We decided a road trip to the ash-cloud would be an experience not to be missed.

The volcano took a pause to adjust to its greatness in October and all the earthquakes ceased to be felt anywhere other than the top of Agung. We all breathed a sigh of relief as we debated whether it meant He had run out of steam or was taking a break for one more big push! Anyone who had taken the time to educate them self knew that this old man was not likely going back to sleep but had merely broken through the toughest ground and did not need to expend as much energy to draw itself up to the top. It was still rising only quietly.

We came down to alert level 3 from 4 which meant the potential danger was still there but not quite as imminent, whatever imminent meant in volcano terms anyway! It also meant the danger zone (evacuation zone) was reduced from 12km to 6km so most of the evacuees could go home, which was fantastic news because rainy season was upon us and had made living in wet tents fairly unbearable, I imagine. There was a sense of celebration as they returned home and back to work.

Normal life resumed, minus the tourists who had mostly decided to stay away especially from the east coast where I live, and we all tried to forget the volcano had ever stirred. This is how friends, family and critics react when we take a pause between declaring our dream and getting the work done to achieve our ambition! This work is the hardest part of achieving a dream. When it’s dark and you are alone and you aren’t sure how you are going to make it happen but you know it has to happen. It’s hard because it can be lonely because you are likely to travel this part alone. Even if you have someone pursuing your dream with you they will unlikely see it exactly how you see it and most people will be thankful you are not making the ground shake around them any more and will possibly say they are happy you are over that ‘phase.’ Agung was still building his dream and you must continue to build yours, quietly, unseen, even with nobody cheering you on, because it is only you who can gather enough information, necessary skills and energy required to birth your dream!

Agung erupts!


Agung technically moves into Magmatic Eruption a day and a half before the experts realise it’s not a Phreatic Eruption. Let me explain! A Phreatic eruption would mean only steam was being blasted into the sky. This happens when a large amount of rain seeps into the crack that has now formed on Agung's' surface, gets too hot from the magma bubbling away inside and then shoots back out causing a steam eruption of white, fluffy looking clouds. It’s like the steam coming out of a boiling kettle, same effect, more spectacular to witness!


The drone used to monitor the Volcano.

However, the experts discover via drone and satellite footage that the magma had managed to break through the surface of Agung and what was actually being evicted from within was volcanic ash and steam!


This is what we had all feared for months but when it happened we didn’t notice for nearly two days! We were in an eruption stage and still on level 3 until they realised then back up to level 4 we went. I cried as we went to level 4 because I thought of all the thousands of people who had to evacuate the great mountain again who stood to lose everything they owned. For me, I knew I had chosen to stay and witness this piece of history unfold but always knowing that if it all got too ugly I could hopefully jump on a plane and fly back to my real home in the U.K. I was a witness. I was not completely invested!

Of all the outcomes we feared happening regarding an eruption this was the best one we could have hoped for. What it meant was that the magma had broken through and was now on the outside of the volcano. Magma becomes lava once outside the safety of the crater so now we have lava slowly filling up the crater. This is the best outcome because it has not yet been explosive. The easiest, and grossest, way of relating to Agung is that he is like a big, juicy spot on your face just waiting to burst. If we squeeze that spot and cause too much pressure in the chamber then the spot explodes all over your face! If we gently scrape the surface we release the spot without the huge eruption; exactly the same with volcanoes. What we had all feared was a massive, unpredictable explosive eruption that caused devastation to the entire island. What we got was a small crack and oozing of lava into the crater, safely contained for now.

The ash cloud was a result of pressure releasing from the chamber, forcing rocks and gasses upwards to heights of 4km. It was spectacular to witness! Ash did fall on us for a day so we had to wear our face masks. Simon Ashcloud stayed safely under our bed and we had ash falling on the plants in our bathroom!

Apart from that one day, it was contained to within the 12km evacuation zone and we haven’t needed to wear masks since.


Agung became 'selfie heaven' for tourists & locals alike.

A strange phenomena occurred. The tourists who had chosen to visit Bali started to seek out the best places to have photos taken with the erupting volcano as the backdrop. Agung became the most selfied object in the whole of Bali as everyone rushed to get their perfect picture! The fear had gone and we were left with a slight thrill about the whole situation! Agung had become his truly magnificent self!


When our dream comes to fruition people finally get it and want to be around our energy. When we face our fears and keep moving forward despite them those fears begin to dissipate and eventually disappear. We give people permission to go and follow their own dreams because we have just achieved ours. They don’t know the depths of ground breaking you had to go through, or the pain of having people walk away from you because they don’t understand what you are doing, but, once you erupt, once you birth your volcanic eruption, your goal, into being everyone wants to stand in your presence and know how you did it! We did it because the pain of staying small was more uncomfortable than the pain of becoming the greatest, truest version of our self! We did it because we were more afraid of staying small than playing big! If a volcano didn’t erupt it would only be a mountain. What are you willing to risk everything for in order to have your volcano moment?