Abandoned homes, villages line the path to Bali’s Mount Doom
AS Mt Agung, a 3,031m volcano on Bali's northeast corner threatens to erupt, Dean McPherson of Adelaide sums up the concerns of tens of thousands of Australia holidaying on the Indonesian island.
"My only fear is the safety of my daughters," he says while enjoying a lazy breakfast with his family at Murni's Houses, a traditional Balinese compound adorned with water fountains and little shrines in the tourist hotspot of Ubud.
"But we'd already bought the tickets and paid for accommodation, so the decision to come was already made."
Real as they are, McPherson's concerns pale in comparison to those of eastern Bali, more than 120,000 of whom have abandoned their homes and fled to one of 238 official evacuation centres.
And so it was, that I set out on a motorbike from Ubud to see how the other half is dealing with the volcanic threat that killed some 1,700 people, destroyed hundreds of homes and caused a severe famine throughout Bali the last time Mt Agung erupted a little more than half a century ago.
THE ROAD TO SHELTER
Before leaving town, I stop at Ubud's bustling central market to buy a mask to protect my lungs from toxic ash, gases and vapour in the event of an eruption. Only masks and respirators classified as N95 offer adequate protection. Yet all I can find are cheap dust masks in a city of 30,000 that lies only 30km as the crow flies from the heart of the volcano.
Thinking I have a bright idea, I try Kopernik, one of many charities raising money and collecting supplies for the evacuees in eastern Bali.
"Lots of locals and tourists have been coming in and donating funds and goods," says Ewa Wojkowska, a Kopernik co-founder from Canberra. "But what we really need are N95 masks because there's a huge shortage of them and typical face masks don't do anything. We just received our first delivery of 300 yesterday."
Wojkowska lends me one of the precious masks and I continue on my way, riding east for an hour to the town of Semarapura.
My destination is the town's sports stadium, one of the largest evacuation centres in Bali where 3,804 people are currently camped out in army tents and on the stadium floor.
"I am happy that my daughter and I are safe here but I can't sleep at night because I worry my house and crops will be destroyed by the volcano," says evacuee Nengah Nu Kari. "But we must endure. I heard someone saying we may have to stay here for six months until it's safe to go home."
Filled with thousands of people and their meagre belongings, the air inside the stadium is sticky and stifling, while the toilets are hopelessly inadequate. Inside one bathroom I see a woman struggling to sponge bath a screaming baby in a filthy sink. The stench of urine is palpable.
Yet the charity of ordinary Balinese who have flocked here in their hundreds to donate goods and their time, helps make light of the situation.
Among them is Agung Bayu, a volunteer who drove for three hours from his home in Kerobokan in southern Bali to distribute toys.
"I brought toys for the children because the basic needs of the people here are taken care of but for children their basic needs are toys," he says.
"It makes them happy and stops them from getting bored and annoying their parents. It's a very important part of the relief."
I also speak to Devi Suryani, a 22-year-old massage therapist who drove from the capital Denpasar with her mother to pitch in.
"I am so sad for the grandmothers and little children," says Devi as tears pool in her eyes. "We brought 10 boxes of sugar, rice coffee and water. It cost us about 1 million rupiahs (AU$100). It's a lot of money for us but we had to do something. These are some the poorest people in Bali."
There are literally thousands of boxes, sacks and crates of food, water and other essential supplies stacked around the stadium - it seems like enough to feed an army for a year. But according to the centre's co-ordinator Putu Widi Ada, it won't come close.
"These supplies will last only seven days - if no more people come here," he says. "But we are expecting thousands of more people to come here for protection and we can't predict how long it will be until they can go home. It's up to Agung," he adds, looking in the direction of the volcano - the place I'm heading next.
THE ROAD TO THE TEMPLE
From Semarapura, I head north, stopping along the way at a roadside stall for some cheap and delicious satay and rice. After learning of my mission, the stall holder urges me not to ride on because it's "dangerous" while maintaining this place is "safe" - even though we are now in sight of the volcano. Adding further irony is a tsunami evacuation signpost that points me in the direction of the rumbling volcano.
An hour after leaving Semarapura I pass another noticeable sign - a banner that says "Warning. You're entering an active volcanic hazard zone".
From here on in, Bali's omnipresent traffic begins to thin out and then disappears altogether as I approach Besakih Temple.
A 14th-century temple with six levels and 23 spires perched on the western slope of Mt Agung, Besakih is the largest and most important Hindu temple in Bali - and the number one tourist attraction in eastern Bali.
Every day, 5,000 to 6,000 people visit the complex. But on this day Besakih is deserted, with row upon row of empty stalls and overturned rubbish bins creating an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel.
I park my motorbike and climb to the top as helicopters monitoring the volcano hover overhead. When I reach the innermost sanctum of the temple, I see four Balinese men and one woman dressed in white robes performing some kind of ritual.
At first, they are shocked to see me. But they soon come around and invite me to join them for a cup of potent Indonesian coffee.
"I came here to pray so there will not be an eruption," says Mangku Alit Satia Guna, a realtor from Ubud.
"This is my third day here. The first day there were lots of tremors and yesterday there was a very big one. But today it has stopped.
Mangku tells me the last time Mt Agung erupted in 1963, lava from the volcano missed Besakih Temple by a matter of metres - a miracle according to Balinese Hindus.
"I am not scared because I believe my gods will protect us," he says, placing a hand on his heart. "They will not let this place fall. Because if it falls, Bali will fall."
When I return to the car park, I see two groups of people. The first is military policemen who film me with their phones as I approach. "You are not allowed here. This is a restricted area. Do you have a permit to take photos here?" they demand, pointing at my camera.
I take out my passport, play the dumb tourist and apologise for the infraction, pointing out, rightly, that there are no signs prohibiting entry. They argue among themselves for a while before ordering me to skedaddle.
Before I do, I have a quick chat with the second group - two men, tourists from the Ukraine. They are willing to speak but only on condition of anonymity.
"We were visiting a waterfall and the temple was not so far so we thought we would visit," says the first. "But these soldiers, they said no one is allowed in."
I ask them whether they are concerned about their safety, given the likelihood of an eruption.
"We are from Donetsk," the other replies, referring to the epicentre of his country's two-year-old civil war. "If you ask us if we are scared, then you don't know Ukrainians."
THE END OF THE ROAD
From Besakih Temple, I follow a long and winding road that leads to the start of the trekking route to the very top of the volcano. I pass entire towns and villages that have been abandoned though not everybody has left.
"If I don't tend my crops, they will be eaten and destroyed," says a farmer called Wayan, who like many Indonesians goes by one name only.
The road ebbs and flows through emerald-green rice fields, into deep river valleys and past bubbling rivers and irrigation canals. It's a 22km run from Besakih Temple to the volcano, and I expect to be stopped by policemen or soldiers when I reach the 12km exclusion zone designated by authorities last week when the alert level for Mt Agung was raised to Level 4 - the highest possible rating.
But there are no roadblocks and I'm able to ride all the way to top.
The last sign of human life I see is seven km before the end of the road, where I see a family sitting around the front steps of their home as though everything was normal. As I get even closer to Mt Agung, I pass large packs of dogs apparently abandoned by villagers as they fled to evacuation centres on the coast. Fortunately, the animals are not alone.
"We are sweeping through all the evacuated zones feeding and watering animals in the street," says Alanah Dalton of BARC, a dog refuge in Ubud. "There are thousands of animals in need of help and we're helping as many as we can."
The volcano has been shrouded in cloud for most of the day. But when I reach my final destination - an empty car park encircled by empty food stalls - I'm rewarded with a glimpse of the entire southern face of the crater. I stay there for a few minutes, feeling a slight rush every time a strong gust of wind blows through the trees. But nothing happens. Has the threat dissipated or is this the quiet before the storm?
According to Emeritus Professor Richard Arculus from Australian National University, there's a 70 to 80 per cent probability Mt Agung will erupt this week and a 90 per cent probability it will erupt within weeks to months.
"But I'm reserving that 10 per cent in case it doesn't happen. So the odds are on, but whether it proceeds to an eruption or not is still uncertain," he said.
For the people of eastern Bali who built their homes on the hyper-fertile soil and land surrounding the volcano, that uncertainty is now a part of life.
Donations can be made to Kopernik's relief work in eastern Bali.