Published in 1925, it was as big as a broadsheet and as heavy as Moses' stone tablets. Blowing away the dust, with an eerie thud it opened itself on page 67; The Dutch East Indies... modern day Indonesia.Scanning the hand-drawn contours and coastlines I was miffed to find no volcanic island east of Java. "Muuuuum! Gumpah’s map is wrong" I bellowed over my shoulder. Krakatoa was nowhere to be seen, not even with my spies’ magnifying glass. But then, in old-fashioned calligraphy, on the wrong side of Java there it was… “The Site of Krakatoa” west of Java. West? Someone was wrong and I was going to get to the bottom of who….
Hours in libraries revealed the movie producers believed “Krakatoa; East of Java” sounded more exotic. The Bastards. How could they do this to me? Worse, all these leather-bound old maps either stated “The Site of Krakatoa” or showed no Krakatoa whatsoever because the eruption I’d seen in the film had ripped the island asunder.
Balls! I thought... My days as an explorer were over.
My fascination with all things volcanic was just beginning though...
To cut millennia of subduction zone movement and plate tectonics short, with the force of thirteen thousand Hiroshimas, the explosions of 26th and 27th August 1883 were heard as far away as Perth in West Australia and Mauritius. The island ripping herself apart was the loudest sound in the history of mankind.
Hundreds of facts peaked my interest over the years; thirteen cubic kilometers of ash propelled fifty miles into the atmosphere, the shockwave reverberating seven times round the globe, pyroclasts riding the ocean on cushions of air like nuclear hovercrafts to engulf Sumatran villages, the ensuing tsunami affecting the tide in The English Channel, halos around the sun and moon, a micro ice-age gripping the globe for the next five years, the list goes on...
Even better were the legends; the tale of the German man who rode a forty metre tsunami on the back of a crocodile before being dumped safely on terra firma, the steamboat Berouw being deposited within dense jungle miles inland, tales of human skeletons melded to rafts of pumice sailing themselves across the Indian Ocean to be discovered on African shores a year later, the San Francisco Fire Department being called to a fire in the west of the city, but arriving at the coast to find no fire, just a burning red sky like the ones seen in J W Turner's watercolours.
In his native Norwegian skies, Edvard Munch described melancholy-inducing "Clouds like blood and tongues of fire" and a "great, unending scream piercing through nature" possibly influencing his most famous work "The Scream"
Over two devastating short days, and four globe-shattering eruptions, millions of years worth of mantle and lava made their way to the surface to become a colossal pressure-cooker waiting to go off.
The island collapsed into the caldera and Krakatoa was no more.
Until two years after Grandfather’s atlas was published, that is. For, in the dying days of 1927, debris was witnessed spouting from the ocean above the collapsed caldera. This debris continued until January 26, 1928 when the rim of a new volcanic cone emerged from below sea level and Anak Krakatau, Son of Krakatoa was born.
Jakarta is one of the nicest airports I’ve been through. Terracotta tiles adorn the walls; musicians play traditional Javan pentamic-scale music as polite signs remind of the DEATH SENTENCE FOR DRUG TRAFFIKERS. Outside, waiting by the pre-arranged, ubiquitous bowing Ronald McDonald I was greeted by Doni, my guide for the next ten days. So far we had only communicated by text or e-mail and this, coupled with his years of volcanology studies, made me think he'd be a serious academic, an uber-geek with one of those annoying fact-regurgitating brains. I couldn't have been further from the mark…
From my e-mails, Doni thought I was 53, would be sporting a Panama hat, short-sleeved shirt, linen suit, socks with sandals and wielding an umbrella, briefcase and copy of the thoroughly pink Financial Times. He too couldn't have been further from the mark. Sitting in a café with his friend Sirkip I asked what it was like to be on a volcano when it erupted. Doni replied with a long, one-word answer. I won’t tell you what it is just yet, but it sounded like something a potty-mouthed Indonesian Dick Van Dyke might say.
Anak Krakatau was on volcanic alert and the US Geological Services recommended not venturing within several miles of the island, but I had come a long, long way. The thought of finally seeing my first volcano up close filled me with joy, but following a six-hour drive from Jakarta, a two-hour boat ride with Javan fishermen on the Sunda Strait still stood in my way, like a vast expanse of oceanic water, which is precisely what it is. We careened through the jade green water for an hour before she slowly revealed herself...
As we neared, I regressed in age with excitement, back to that wide-eyed seven-year-old - drumming the side of the boat with my palms and whooping with delight as she unveiled her perfect form until she loomed over us.
Then "Mr Stern Face" and "Mr Pink Jumper" brought the engine to an idle.
Bobbing up and down, I stared at the behemoth with wonderment. It resembled a giant grey-brown chocolate pudding rising from a sea of green custard, the caldera a giant spoonful the Indonesian Gods had scooped away. Joking with my guides we found out from the local fishermen that there were major eruptions just three days before.
We dropped anchor and waited… and waited… drank lukewarm coffee from a flask… and waited some more while they smoked hideous clove kretek cigarettes… and we waited.
Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch.
Best go climb it...
For Part 2 click here