High places in Bali are holy,” says Balinese trekking guide Mangku Suryadi. “We consider mountains and volcanoes to be closer to nirvana, a divine state of existence. Climbing them is a way to receive blessings.” Most people come to Bali to take it easy on paradise shores, sip cocktails and temple-hop; surfing is about as adventure-centric as it gets. But this largely Hindu island, situated on the Pacific’s combustible “Ring of Fire”, has some daunting – and curiously little‑known – hiking trails up its mountains and volcanoes.
Three of Bali’s four highest summits – volcanoes Mount Agung (3,142m), Mount Batur (1,717m) and Mount Abang (2,151m), which is technically a mountain, though part of the Batur caldera – are each a challenge in their own right. But I’m opting for the Three Peaks Challenge, which means climbing all three in less than 24 hours. My plan is to fly from London on a Thursday evening and go directly to the start point at midnight on Friday, hiking through the blackness of night and the humid heat of day to complete the challenge (hopefully) within the allotted time – leaving just a night and a day to explore Bali, including some full-on rafting action, before starting the reverse journey in time to make the office on Monday. Given that I will have to climb most of the height of the three peaks – which is roughly equal to five-and-a-half times Scotland’s Ben Nevis – those blessings will be hard-earned.
The Emirates Airbus A380 I fly out on has an on-board bar; it takes all my willpower, and goes against everything I believe in, to remain booze-free for the duration of the flight; but I know I need to be at peak fitness when I land.
After a quick connection in Dubai, I’m speeding in darkness over the Andaman Sea; the ridiculousness of stepping off a plane to climb three large peaks back to back in 24 hours begins to weigh on me.
I’m collected at the airport in Denpasar, the capital, and we drive across the sleeping island on dark country roads. “Mount Agung is considered the sixth most dangerous volcano in the world,” Puta, my driver, informs me. “But it’s been sleeping a long time.”
I’m introduced to my hiking guide, Wayan Ariana. As Friday gives way to Saturday, we set off from Pura Pasar Agung at 1,200m above sea level, the faint black outline of Mt Agung just visible against the indigo sky. There’s no easing into it; the trail is immediately steep and continues that way, our head torches carving caves of light in the blackness. “This is the toughest volcano on the island,” Wayan informs me, so at least we’re getting the hardest peak out of the way first. There’s an electric buzz of grasshoppers and other insects in the thick forest. Above us, a sky full of bright stars; to the west, an orange crescent moon.
As we rise, the moon rises with us. Climbing higher, the sound of grasshoppers fades, until we’re scrambling and labouring through a surreally still forest. Higher still, wind whispers through the trees, joined by the deep breathing of an already exhausted climber, fresh off a plane.
Wayan stops to make an offering at a Hindu shrine, lighting incense and kneeling. “Balinese people believe Agung is a holy mountain,” he tells me. “There are spirits at the top. Good spirits. They give you luck and blessings.” We’ll be needing them.
We pause on a ledge to catch our breath and look out across the southern island, the lights of Denpasar and the sprawling villages far below. As if the whole thing isn’t dramatic enough, massive forks of lightning start flickering through clouds on the horizon. The ascent becomes steeper, tougher. With the forest thinned, then gone altogether, we climb using feet and hands up a trail of exposed volcanic rock. Wind shrieks around us.
We take our final steps to the summit – the highest point on Bali. I peer curiously over the edge of the crater into the black abyss. “The last eruption was in 1963,” Wayun reassures me.
With a fire started and a breakfast of bread, eggs and hot tea, we wait for sunrise. Daylight creeps up slowly, revealing the coastline and ocean, the rice terraces and green hills lush with thickets of coco palms. The improbability of my transition from just a few hours before – from a seat on an A380 to the lip of a deserted volcano on the Island of the Gods – strikes me in the huge silence.
What goes up… We make our way slowly and cautiously down over loose stones and slippery smooth lava rock, each step demanding careful attention, the steep descent working aching quads and knees far harder than the climb. A troop of brown monkeys gambols through the forest as we approach Pura Pasar Agung Temple. That’s peak one down.
We speed past Lake Batur, the largest on Bali, formed inside an ancient volcanic caldera, picking up Mangku Suryadi – a new guide and fresh pair of legs.
We hike along a pleasant pathway, high above the fish farms on the lake. The easy ascent lulls me into a false sense of security. Within half an hour, the path starts to aim upwards and, as before, it just keeps doing so. My body can’t believe it’s climbing again.
Cloud moves in over a forest of trees bearded with long straggly moss. The upward slog is relentless; my legs are like lead, my energy tank empty. Every step feels like a battle. I wouldn’t say no to some sleep. If anything, Abang is even tougher than Agung, the trail washed out by rain, so it’s perilously loose and crumbly, as well as steep. We stumble on tree roots and use overhanging branches to pull ourselves up and onward.
Finally, the summit – but the views are completely obscured by a whiteout of cloud. Mist licks at the walls of 300-year-old Tuluk Biyu Temple, 1,500m above sea level. While I sit and try to recharge, Mangku kneels to pray. “This is one of the holiest places in Bali,” he tells me, though my mind is focused only on rest, recovery and a strong desire to sleep. I half think my legs would slap me on the back and buy me a beer if I just stopped going up and down volcanoes right about now. And then, once again, the descent.
Our 4x4 meanders through rice terraces and villages to Mt Batur, whose small eruption in 2000 was the island’s most recent. It’s a popular early morning climb with hikers coming to watch the sunrise; in the cool evening, it’s almost empty. Buoyed by the fact this is the last peak, we start to head up. And it is the easiest hike of the day, by far, a comparatively gentle, mostly forested slope. The final steps to the summit are happy ones.
From a bench at 1,717m, Mangku and I watch the skies turn pink. Cloud drifts over the crater of Abang. A dog howls into the fading light; I know how he feels. Night falls as we hike down, completing the challenge in just over 16 hours; I feel utterly spent but proud of my time, and I end the day as I started it: walking in darkness, under a roof of stars, with flashes of lightning and a soundtrack of grasshoppers.
It takes two hours to reach my hotel, Mandapa, a new Ritz-Carlton Reserve, opened in 2015 in inland Ubud. From the welcoming cup of ginger tea onwards, it’s exactly what I need: instantly soothing.
It’s quite a place to wake up to: my villa is decked out in teak and richly coloured paintings, with its own private pool overlooking the Ayung river gorge. After breakfast, I reward the previous day’s efforts with a 90-minute Mepijet treatment: a firm stretch and massage that helps ease and relax the muscles in my legs – just what the doctor ordered.
After lunch (a perfectly cooked barramundi), I take a taxi upriver, where it’s my arms rather than legs that get a workout with a bit of whitewater on the Ayung, the longest river in Bali. My knees groan as I go down 500 steps (I thought I was done with descending) to board our raft. After an impressive set of class 2 rapids, we float and paddle hard along the twisting, high-walled ravine, through overhanging vines and arches of long bamboo, colliding gently with rocks. At Mandapa, I simply jump off.
A couple of hours to go before my night flight leaves for the UK, I order a glass of Malbec back at my villa and enjoy a few lengths in the pool, listening to the rush of the river and thinking it doesn’t necessarily take altitude to achieve a fairly divine state of existence.