It was the year of the 100th anniversary of the eruption of Krakatoa. We set out from the coastal village of Carita in West Java, five backpackers in a narrow perahu powered by a tiny outboard motor and steered by a poker-faced fisherman.
We hoped to climb Anak Krakatoa – “Child of Krakatoa” – the volcano rising up slowly in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra on the exact spot where the original Krakatoa had blown itself to bits a century earlier.
Between my feet was a new camera bag filled with equipment recently bought in Singapore. The 100th anniversary seemed a likely story I could easily sell, especially with some photos of the new volcano.
Krakatoa’s eruption on 27th August, 1883, was the most destructive explosion of our time, a bang so loud it was reportedly heard in Alice Springs in the middle of Australia! Several cubic kilometres of rock and dust was blasted into the atmosphere. The resultant tidal wave, 36m high, killed an estimated 36,000 people in villages on Java and Sumatra.
Our crossing took a couple of hours. The new volcano, created by small, irregular eruptions since 1927, already rose 200m above the sea. From its slopes I could see remnants of the original Krakatoa poking from the sea at three distant points.
It was a torrid climb up to the crater of Anak Krakatoa, sinking ankle deep in the steep, crunchy surface of black cinders. By the time we returned to the boat we were exhausted and slightly sun-struck. The shivers began once we set sail.
The first squall struck within an hour. Black clouds appeared overhead and the afternoon grew cold. Light rain quickly turned into tropical deluge. The wind picked up pace and the sky darkened alarmingly as the situation grew more ominous. The five of us huddled in the bottom of the boat, shivering with the rain lashing our backs. The fisherman wrestled with the tiller, staring impassively ahead, refusing to meet our worried glances.
The sea grew angrier. Our tiny craft was tossed on heaving swells. We grew quiet and very afraid. Not a flicker of emotion crossed the fisherman’s face as he battled the storm. It seemed he was also rigid with fear. Drowning in the Sunda Strait seemed certain.
I thought about family and friends and that no-one would ever know what had happened to me. My passport was in my money belt strapped around my waist. All that was left in my backpack at the guesthouse in Carita was anonymous clothing. Tight-lipped and grim-faced we five sodden passengers clutched each other as the boat pitched and rolled perilously. At times we prayed out loud.
Our peril seemed to last forever but finally the storm abated, leaving us drenched and cold yet elated at our survival. After what seemed like endless hours we reached land only to discover that we’d been blown far south of our departure point.
The sand seemed to heave continuously under our feet as we trudged north along the beach, mildly hysterical at our good fortune at being alive. Not even my drenched camera bag with its brand new but probably ruined contents really seemed to matter.