When you think of Bali you think of beaches. And yoga. And perhaps, if you know a little something about the Indonesian island, verdant rice paddies and colorful Hindu offerings. Trekking is not on most people’s radars. At least it wasn’t on mine when I first began traveling there. But Bali is made up of eleven mountains, including two still-active volcanoes, Mount Agung (which last erupted in 1963 and is the highest point on the island) and Mount Batur (which last erupted in 2000). These mountains dominate the landscape and provide excellent hiking for those in the know. Nighttime hikes on the active volcanoes are particularly popular. A trip to their summits can change the way you see the island—and, as I learned over the course of a couple trips there, they can yield dramatically different adventures.
I had been in Bali for about a week when a friend I met there told me about an overnight hike you can take up Batur to see the sunrise. As a night owl, I can count the number of sunrises I’ve seen on one hand, but after hearing that the hike was the most popular on the island, I was intrigued.
My hotel called a local hiking guide, and at 1:30 the next morning, armed with a backpack, a sweatshirt, water, and sunscreen, I climbed into a van with five other hikers and headed to the base of the hike, in the village of Kintamani.
We met our guides at Pura Jati Temple and headed out into the dark. At first the walk was flat and easy. A few waves of my flashlight revealed a wide, sandy path under tall trees. But after an hour or so, the dark outline of the mountain came into view, and the real work began. As we climbed, the rock-strewn pathway grew narrower and more challenging. Large, round stones gave way to loose, soft black soil that filled my shoes.
Just as I was wishing I could take a break, I noticed a subtle red glow in the distance to my right. Wispy black clouds emerged against the midnight blue sky and I could see the outline of Mount Agung in the distance and the subtle reflection of Lake Batur below us. The red intensified, bleeding into orange as the sky lightened, and suddenly, the clouds lit up too, turning red and coral and gold. It was more beautiful than I could have imagined. I hustled up the steep incline and reached the summit just as the sun appeared on the horizon. The sunrise seemed to go on forever as our group huddled together, eating banana sandwiches while our guides practiced a gimmicky yet charming tradition of cooking eggs over volcanic steam.
Around 6:30 we headed back down the mountain. The return trip was fast; thanks to the pebbles and soft dirt I essentially skied down. By the time I had reached the bottom I was tired and sore but high on the ecstasy of the most enduring and well-deserved sunrise of my life.
I returned to Bali eight months later with my sister, and when she suggested, on a whim, that we hike Mount Agung, I agreed, thinking I’d have a euphoric experience like the one I'd had climbing Mount Batur. Our hotel called a guide, and at midnight, with the stars glittering above us, we headed out. What we didn’t know at the time was that we were in for a much more difficult night.
We set out from Pura Pasar Agung Temple, already 5,085 feet above sea level, with a cheerful guide named Made who seemed to know just one word of English: “slowly.” Slowly became our mantra as we began the climb, trying to use the wooden sticks Made gave us to steady ourselves.
At first we walked through the forest, but soon we found ourselves on slippery, broken rock. “Slowly,” Made repeated as we stumbled, sweat and shivered our way up, up, up, climbing at a very steep angle all the way. We saw nothing; the sky had filled with clouds and wrapped us up in them. It started to rain lightly. Around 3 a.m. we stopped at another temple where some guides had built a fire. There we noticed that the other hikers there were bundled up in gloves, hats, and coats. I felt ridiculous with my yellow tie-dyed sarong on my head like a turban.
The next two hours we climbed sheer volcanic rock, often clinging to wet boulders with a white-knuckle grip. A few times my flashlight strayed to the nothingness below and I actually felt scared for my life. I longed for the glorious moment when our struggle would be rewarded with a memorable sunrise. When we reached the summit, we joined the other hikers around a dwindling fire, and waited. And waited. And waited.
At 6:45 a.m. Made gave up and signaled to us that it was time to leave. The sun wasn’t rising. Or, rather, it had risen, but it would not light up our part of the sky in the blaze of glory I had longed for. We were stuck inside the thick dove-gray haze of a cloud.
The hike down the mountain was trippy in every sense. We were loopy from the altitude and the exhaustion. And we began falling. A lot. That’s when Made debuted a second English word: “Why.” As in, Why do you silly girls keep falling down? He always asked it with a huge smile on his face. “Why?” we repeated, as we wearily laughed our way down the mountain.
It wasn’t until later, when we emerged from the fog and could see Agung’s steep summit, that we realized the magnitude of what we’d done. Without knowing it, we had climbed a total of 4,100 feet. Suddenly we felt something else: accomplishment. And when we woke the next morning to a perfect sunrise, I looked up at the peak of the mountain and thought of how happy the people at the summit must have been. Surely that day hikers on both Batur and Agung got the reward they had earned.
If You Go:
Mount Batur is Bali’s most popular hiking trail, especially during the dry season (May-November) when there is a good possibility of seeing the sunrise. Tours from outfitters like Bali Hiking and Bali Eco Cycling make pickups in Ubud, Seminyak, and Kuta. A tour with Bali Hiking is $60/person and includes a certified guide and a visit to Batur Natura Hot Springs (to soothe your muscles after the hike).
Mount Agung is a much more challenging hike and sees far fewer hikers—usually just 30-40 per day during high season. Bali Hiking’s tour is $150/person and includes two guides and lunch.