I awoke at 2:45. Sleep had been short, and poor, but at least I had not dozed past 3 am. I reached for my phone to cancel the alarm, and noticed a message from a close friend. Bleary eyed, I sat up – she shared her tears of relief at the confirmation of Joe Biden’s election victory. Here, thousands of miles away, in the heart of Bali, such tidings felt surreal. I boiled water for a quick coffee and transferred supplies from the fridge to my pack.
In the dead of night, there was a chill in the air, though it was still warmer than mornings and evenings here in Kintamani some months earlier. But as I rode my scooter along the dark and empty road, the wind clawing at my shirt was almost cold. There were few roadside lights, only the odd lit-up and shuttered shopfront or house, and in spite of the full-beam on my two wheels, at every bump or moderate bend, the world beyond the tip of my nose was entirely clothed in blackness. In these places I slowed, having no idea what lay ahead – a sharp drop or a steep climb, a bend to the left or to the right, a string of potholes or a combination of them all. Each time I felt a mild sense of relief as the way became visible, and it occurred to me that this was a wonderful metaphor for life – at least for my own. On so many occasions, little seemed clear beyond the immediate future, and the unfolding of things was often only revealed in frustratingly minuscule chunks. Beyond these, everything remained the great unknown. However much I might surmise, guess or extrapolate, glimpses ahead were rare and fleeting.
The road I followed runs along the shore of Lake Batur. It ends at the lake’s northwest point, where I had stayed the night – I was now heading back south towards a mountain, Mount Abang on the lake’s eastern flank. Heavy dew had fallen, as my wet and clammy seat, which I had nothing to wipe with, reminded me, and the air was awash with the smell of damp earth and vegetation, sweet and enticing. For a moment, I was whisked back to the south of France, and to the Mediterranean, to a night when, hitch-hiking our way down to Marseille to catch a ferry to Corsica, a friend and I had slept out in the open, in the bushes not far from a motorway toll gate. And I wondered once again that smells could bring back memories in such an intense way – and at the power of the mind to render them so vivid, not just as images, but as sensations in the body.
At the southern tip of the lake, the road climbed in steep hairpins up to the Geopark. At the sharp turn back onto the main road at the top, market salespeople, on foot or run-down scooters, or with battered vans parked in the shadows, some with woven baskets balanced on their heads, were already gathered, unrolling nylon mats on the uneven roadside for their wares. I headed by without slowing, and with a growing sense of mission, keen to reach the foot of the Abang trail. A little later, with a renewed nip in the air and a breeze, I pulled off the road and up a steep incline to my destination. But where I expected to turn onto the track through the forest to the car park, I was met by a makeshift barrier of plastic piping. A shack of wooden boards, like a sentry post, now stood above it, and its occupants were very much awake – light and music spilled out into the dark woods, and as the whine of my straining engine (sounding much louder than usual in the peace of the night) drew near, a young man leapt out and motioned to me to park, followed by two others who almost tripped over in their haste to follow. Quite why my arrival seemed such an exciting event was a mystery and a mild irritation. I had been forewarned there was now a small fee to pay, to the volunteers who keep litter off the mountain, but I had not expected such enthusiasm, nor to have a pen and notebook thrust into my hands so that I could write my name, nationality, address, and the sum of my contribution. At least the extortion was by donation, and after I had parted with a sum I sensed was reasonable, the plastic pipe swung up and I was allowed to proceed, happy to leave this short explosion of sensory input and action behind me.
As I neared the end of the stony trail, the unsteady beam of my headlight revealed a phalanx of bikes at the foot of the path up the mountain. And yet, as I leaned my scooter on its stand and switched on my head torch, I was greeted only by silence. I looked at my watch – 4:04 – “the angel’s time”, when hours and minutes match, as a French acquaintance would say. My current location was more likely to be home to spirits, I reflected, and, hoisting my pack onto my back, I took a deep breath, and prepared for almost 1,000 metres of uphill exertion. The climb up Mount Abang passes two modest shrines, with a third, slightly more opulent, on the summit at some 2,150 metres. Aside from a few short stretches of respite before the first of these, it is relentless, steep, often slippery on damp and smooth or loose earth, criss-crossed by roots and eroded into deep gullies. It was an eerie, but also magical feeling, to be climbing through the forest at night. The insects were surprisingly quiet. I listened hopefully for an owl, but my wish was not granted. The sky was clear and starry, and the moon bright, but little of its light filtered down to the ground, and I did not have the luxury of doing without my torch. Where the path fell away to the left, to the dark lake below, I could see the dull glow of village lights, and hear the muffled sound of the odd vehicle, but these were the only signs of life. Tired and poorly rested, my body was not responding with enthusiasm to the exertion, and I sensed it would be a long, hard slog to the top. And yet, in those early hours of the morning, with my mind still partly turned in upon itself, I seemed to climb quickly and smoothly, and before I knew it, the first shrine emerged from the gloom ahead. I felt a slight exhilaration as I passed it, pausing only for water, and soon, still alone and now drenched in sweat, found myself in a slightly meditative state, in the flow, with my breath even and my legs pushing. But even by the light of my lamp I recognized parts of the trail, and these brought back memories – some months previously I had climbed this very path in the company of one dear to me. It had been a different kind of magic. Alas, the closeness had been broken, and I reflected sadly that nowhere would I now find a path, however steep and rugged, by which I might climb my way back up to her. And even if some arduous route were to miraculously appear, I doubted that a dawn chorus and spectacle of light would be what awaited me at its end. Thankfully, the ache of my straining calf muscles against the gradient distracted me from the pain of loss, and, once again, I found I had made more progress than I thought. The mind, kneaded by lack of sleep, and one-pointed in its focus on the beam of light and each footstep, seemed to have entered a timeless space, in which the present moment expanded in all directions. The artificial light played tricks on my sight also, and shadowy forms which I could not make sense of seemed to appear left and right, so that at times, for a moment, I could not tell which way was up and which down. Suddenly, the ghostly shapes of tents, their colours – red, blue, orange – dull in the half-light, appeared by the wayside. A sizeable group of local people had camped here overnight. Here and there, hushed voices could be heard, and for the first time I encountered fellow walkers. We acknowledged each other’s presence, but not wanting to rest for fear of breaking my momentum, I forged on ahead. The first glimmer of daylight filtering through branches gave me an added sense of urgency – I did not want to miss the sun’s appearance by a just a few minutes. My senses became more alive, and, high above the world, birdsong filled the clear air, until forest and sky were ringing with its harmonies. The first of the dawn colours seeped through the foliage, rich and deep, as though enhanced by the altitude, against the canvas of an empty, expectant sky. I passed more familiar landmarks – a log we had rested at previously, a fallen tree, like an arch over the path, beneath which we had passed. And then once again, the summit appeared, almost unexpected. First came a thinning of the trees, then a view of Lake Batur to the left, more tents spread out among the bushes, and suddenly, the small, flat area on the summit. To my astonishment, a solid crowd of perhaps fifty people, all young and mostly raucous, was already assembled there. Some had made small fires, others huddled together around camping stoves drinking sweet, instant 3-in-1 coffee, others vied to find the best spot or angle for selfies or group photographs. After the intensity and focus of the climb, the loud gathering and unfocused, scattered energy felt unsettling – but the mood was merry. My arrival caused few ripples, a nod, a smile or two, a mumbled greeting, and my presence, as the only foreigner I could see (and also, I thought, the oldest person there!) passed largely unnoticed. Seeking space, I wiggled my way across and just a little way down the ridge the opposite side, and, finding a rock no doubt put there by Mother Nature for this purpose, took up my position in readiness for the matahari terbit, or sunrise. Whichever way I looked – ahead and east to the luminous sky, behind and west over the lake at the crater of Mount Batur, or left and right at the forest, rocks or skyline, all around me was beauty. The light played with strands of colour, that seeped and wove their way into each other, before merging into new patterns as glowing bands on the horizon, and then, as a fringe of gold spread above the ridge of the hills beyond, a burning disc inched its way over the treeline, and in a moment the sun had risen, glorious and fiery, so that even the crowd above me ceased its chatter for a while. Not so the birds, who seemed to begin chirping with renewed vigour, in celebration of this breathtaking display. Let there be light! – The heavens had spoken.