Krakatoa has the dubious distinction of being the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. It sits on the crux of the Indonesian subduction zone and is a pressure valve for the immense tectonic forces that have and continue to shape Indonesia. Michael Travers went to see if it is all that it is cracked up to be and came away glad to be alive
“Let’s wait for one more explosion,” I said to the captain as I sat on the front of the chartered speedboat bobbing in the calm waters 500 metres off the south side of Anak Krakatoa. Ten minutes later there was an almighty sonic boom and the island was engulfed in dust and noise. Chang Loos, our local Java Rhino guide, made a sudden beeline for the back of the boat so quickly that I started to panic. Immediately, about 300m to port, a thousand volcanic bombs strafed the waters like a Pearl Harbour morning. Jaws dropped in disbelief as I caught sight of the two torso-sized rocks hurtling through the air towards us. There was no time to think anything before they hit the water not 20m off our starboard side. throwing huge plumes of water into the air. Before I even had a chance to exhale, the captain gunned the engines and headed out of there like his life depended upon it. “Mister, you are very lucky. You almost die,” were the exact words I heard before the shakes set in and we all cracked up in nervous laughter.
Krakatoa sits in the middle of the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra and on August 27, 1883 it erupted in a series of violent explosions that almost entirely destroyed the island, creating a huge tsunami and sending 21 cubic kilometres of rock and ash high into the atmosphere in an explosion so violent that they were heard on the island of Rodriguez in the Indian Ocean, 4,800 km away. Average global temperatures fell by as much as 1.2 degrees Celsius in the year and the dust cloud blanketed the Earth creating darkness in Asia and stunning sunsets as far away as Europe for months to come. The resulting pyroclastic flows and tsunamis killed more than 36,000 people and in a grizzly reminder to the global ferocity of the event, groups of human skeletons were found across the Indian Ocean in East Africa on rafts of volcanic pumice up to a year after the eruption.
On this day, however, the danger was not yet over and we had planned on landing on the island itself. We skirted around the west side of the island to a serene and sandy beach where pine trees grow on the sandy lower slopes. A constant rain of fine sand was falling and covered us and everything around us. After a ten minute walk uphill we reached the tree line, which opened to barren sand and rock slopes covered in volcanic bombs and impact craters. A volcanic bomb is a piece of rock that gets shot out of a volcano during an eruption and they vary in size from a pebble to the size of a small bus. The many broken branches on the tall, mighty pines were testament to this hard rain’s effect. The mountain was erupting with an unnerving frequency and after each successive explosion we could see several bombs falling and landing in the sand around us at a very uncomfortable distance. Even from behind the false security offered by the surrounding trees, Krakatoa is not without risk.
During the 1883 eruption, the entire island was destroyed leaving only three islands of which, Rakata is the only remnant. The active cone that we see today is known as Anak Krakatoa -Child of Krakatoa- and sits in the middle of the deep ocean caldera. It first appeared above the waves in 1930 and it slowly grew from the depths. It has been growing ever since thanks to successive eruptions and has now reached a height of almost 300m.
We were very lucky to be there at a time of heightened volcanic activity, with what seemed like multiple explosions every 15 minutes or less. Indeed, when we visited the seismic laboratory back on the mainland we saw that there had been 153 eruptions in the past 24 hours. The most recent eruptions began in April 2008, when hot gases, rocks, and lava were released and scientists monitoring the volcano warned people to stay out of a 3 km zone around the island. In May 2009 the eruption alert status was raised Level Orange and it hasn’t settled yet.
Rakata is about 3km south of the baby it spawned and with its calm and secluded beach is the perfect place to watch the volcano by night. The guides set up camp, supplies are brought ashore, fish are caught and a fire is laid in preparation for the evening’s entertainment. We sit and stare into the blackness for hours, watching the sky light up as the magma erupts high out of the volcano and snakes down the sides of the mountain like a melted ice cream. This sky show never stops and I was constantly woken from my sleep to fireworks spectacular without equal by each successive explosion of molten rock.
As we leave the next morning we skirt close to the volcano again to see what changes there have been overnight and I saw a boulder the size of a bus three quarters of the way down the western flank, obviously one of the huge red embers we saw being discharged during the night. What forces lie within the furnaces of Vulcan I can only imagine, but I know this much, Krakatoa is an awesome and mighty force that deserves respect. If you don’t you may end up paying for it with your life.
For more information on how to experience Krakatoa contact Java Rhino Eco-Tour Indonesia, a group endorsed by the World Wildlife Fund and dedicated to saving endangered wildlife and threatened cultures and encouraging local communities to conserve their bio-cultural heritage.
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