“The ash was 1 metre high on the ground here. It covered everything and you couldn’t see properly or breathe.” Christophe, a 21-year-old student makes a broad sweep with his arm, pointing out the parts of his village that were entirely hidden by ash when Mount Egon erupted in April 2008. I look over at Egon, rising 1,700 metres, a few kilometres away from where we stand in Wodong village, 27 kilometres from the small city of Maumere. It is still smoking away. “I used to go with tourists for a trek up the mountain to the crater,” Christophe says. “But it’s too dangerous now. It is due for another eruption in the next few months, the government says.”
The Indonesian archipelago, strung across the seismically active ‘Ring of Fire’, has the world’s highest density of volcanoes – 500, of which 128 are active and 65 are “dangerous”. Nobody died during Egon’s last eruption. The nearest village, Egon, was evacuated, and those in the surrounding area, including Wodong, were buried under ash but otherwise undamaged. Christophe, who is utterly charming with a sweet smile and earnest expression (once he finally finishes his high-school retakes he wants to study tourism (of course) or work in a guesthouse), says that the biggest surprise was how quickly the ash cleared. “It rained and all of it flowed away, just flowed into the sea,” he says, pointing at the shoreline, beyond which lie an enticing Japanese wreck sunk by the Americans in WWII, hammerhead sharks and colossal cuttlefish, according to a Dutch diver we speak to.
We’re staying in a tiny bamboo hut on the beach, with a small mandi hut outside that is home to the largest spider I’ve seen outside of Borneo, scorpions and some fearsome looking giant wasps. There is no electricity and I do not linger over my ablutions in the dark hut.
We have two bamboo chairs outside our hut, both of which have been commandeered by tiny bees that have bored minuscule holes into the tubes from which they emerge to waggle-dance before disappearing back in. They are fairly tolerant of Nick sitting in one of the chairs, but their comings and goings are a little unsettling and we move to the makeshift bar area. We are the only people staying here, apart from Francois, a hilariously theatrical Swiss, who turns out to be an actor from Geneva. The first one I have met, or even heard of, from Switzerland, I tell him. He says that Jean-Luc Goddard is Swiss, but I insist he is French (more to be contrary than because I actually know or care). I have just lectured him on the evils of eating endangered animals, after he tells us that he ate turtle, monkey and dog in Sulawesi. Apart from the turtle, though, my argument is pretty hollow – there are certainly plenty of dogs in the world and monkeys (although is eating primates a type of cannibalism?), so really, I think I’m just being squeamish. We’ve certainly been offered all kinds of bizarre fare on our travels, much of which we’ve tried and some we’ve refused. Nick (he’s the man, so he’s usually the one to whom most encounters are initiated), has inexplicably turned down a delicious sounding ‘goat-scrotum hot-pot’ in Cambodia, dog curry with rice in Vietnam, pig anal-sphincter soup in Vietnam, grilled fly-encrusted squirrel in Laos, and all manner of insect.
Our beach hut is in a beautiful setting, albeit rather dangerous because the area is full of laden coconut trees that sway scarily in the wind and drop their cargo at frequent intervals. After a narrow escape from a falling coconut leaf, Nick tells Christophe that the trees are dropping coconuts that can hurt people. “Yes, every year people die from coconuts,” he replies, looking sadly upwards. Nobody, it seems, will be cutting them down.
We and our new friend Francois are the only people here – sometimes tourists come in August, Christophe says – and after sundown we huddle around the flame of our little lamp, sharing stories of people and places. It is then that I spot it: there, on the one shelf, another green bottle of Unicum! Impossible. I grill Christophe in the morning. He looks bewildered and says that it may have been brought by some Italians who stayed here in 2006 “and drank a lot of alcohol”. This is an unconvincing explanation, but I let poor Christophe go, he seems nervous of my questions and wonders if Unicum is some very valuable drink, assuring me that he has nothing to do with the bottle and didn’t take it from anyone.
We spend a couple of nights in this tranquil spot, watching the fishermen drift about the bay. And then it’s time to leave, to head back to Bali and then on to London to contemplate the next stage of our trip.
There are so many more stories to find and tell, so many people, scientists, villagers, communities to meet, but we are running very low on funds.