Culture and Geology of Bali’s Mountains and Lakes: Part Two

Bali, as it is today, was created and shaped by the growth and eruption of three major volcanoes. Its lakes and peaks form a stunning backdrop to the tourist-laden areas that most are familiar with, but Bali offers much more. In the second part of his article, Simon Pridmore takes a closer look at Bali’s mountains and mountain lakes (read part one of Culture and Geology of Bali's Mountains and Lakes here). 

Denpasar, Bali, 14 April 2017. Bali, as it is today, was created and shaped by the growth and subsequent eruption of three major volcanoes. Today’s most recognisable, Mount Agung, is actually the smallest and most recent of the three. It is classically volcano-shaped, a tall pyramid dominating the East Bali skyline. The other two are now only visible by subordinate peaks on the rims of vast calderas and their associated crater lakes.

It is their crater lakes by which the other two volcanoes are now best known; the cones of both were obliterated by cataclysmic eruptions. All that remains are vast calderas. The more recent of these two systems, Batur, is still instantly recognizable as a volcano and, indeed, it is still active – it has erupted more than 20 times in the past 200 years. The second, Mount Catur is harder to locate – but can be traced by its crater lakes.

The original Batur was approximately 4,000 metres high; nearly a kilometre taller than the present-day peak of Agung. The caldera was formed by two colossal eruptions, the first 29,000 years ago, the second 20,000 years ago.

Ancient Mt Batur cater lake remains a top attraction in Bali tourism.

Ancient Mt Batur cater lake remains a top attraction in Bali tourism.

The Batur viewpoint in the village of Kintamani is one of Bali’s most popular tourist sites and iconic vistas. Visitors stand on the crater edge and gaze out at the lava field from the most recent eruption.

A huge lake lies beneath the crater wall to the southeast and the small central Batur cone rises to the north in the centre of the plateau. The far side of the crater is 7.5 kilometres away in the distance. To the northeast, Mount Abang, Bali’s third highest point, is a new volcano growing out of Batur’s crater wall.

The Batur cone is popular for sunrise treks, as its peak is free from forest cover, it is relatively easily accessible and the summit offers spectacular views.

Village in the Volcano

There are hot springs near the Batur crater lake and the village of Trunyan, a Bali Aga village, sits on its shores. The Bali Aga, or mountain people, are an ethnic minority that did not accept the ways of Javanese Hindu Majapahit after he invaded Bali in the 14th century and remained in control of the island until the early 20th century.

Unique Trunyan funeral rites take place within a bamboo cage under an old banyan tree.Ancient Bali Aga rites are followed to this day in Trunyan and one or two other mountain villages dotted around the island. In one particular respect, the customs of Trunyan are utterly unique. Unlike the majority of Balinese, the Trunyan villagers do not practise cremation. Instead, after a ritual cleansing with rainwater, the body of the deceased is placed in a bamboo cage under an enormous 1100 year-old banyan tree called the taru menyan (sweet-smelling) tree and allowed to decompose naturally until only the skeleton remains. Then the skull is placed on a stone altar. The Trunyan cemetery is only accessible by boat. Experienced Indonesian travellers will immediately see parallels in the culture of the mountain people of Toraja in Central Sulawesi.

The oldest of Bali’s three major volcanic systems is one where the caldera is so huge and covered in greenery that most of the millions of people who visit the area every year do not even know it is there.

Travelling due north from Denpasar, the road rises gently for a long way then becomes very steep and you get views to the east of Bali’s central plain below and Mount Agung rising in the distance. To the west a number of smaller volcanic peaks reach for the sky. The lush vegetation everywhere conceals the fact that you are climbing up the ridge of the Buyan-Bratan volcanic complex, also known as the Bedugul caldera or Catur caldera. The cones to the west are actually new volcanoes growing out of the southwestern rim of the crater.

The Most Ancient Peak

The eruption or series of eruptions that led to the formation of this enormous pit are thought to have taken place hundreds of thousands of years ago. Scientists guess that the mountain that once stood here, Mount Catur, would have been well over 3000m high. There is no recorded evidence of eruptions here but there is still plenty of geo-thermal activity in the crater, with over a dozen hot springs.

Today, Bedugul is a very popular resort destination. It draws visitors because its elevation gives it a cool, fresh climate and this is very attractive to city dwellers, tired of sweltering in the heat of the lowlands. Bedugul’s three large lakes, Bratan, Buyan and Tamblingan, are the major features.

Lake Bratan is a very holy spot for the Balinese, and Pura Ulun Danu Bratan is one of the most photographed temples on the island. Viewed from the right angle, it can seem to be floating on the water. Built in 1633, it is devoted to the goddess Dewi Danu.

Prayers are often conducted by the holy Lake Bratan in Bali

Prayers are often conducted by the holy Lake Bratan in Bali

At 4.5 sq. kms, Danau Buyan is Bali's second-largest lake, behind Lake Batur. It is quite shallow and is situated below the northern rim of the caldera. The third of Bedugul’s lakes, Danau Tamblingan, is a smaller body of water. It is popular among hikers and there are over 30 temples dotted around its shores. Buyan and Tamblingan used to be one body of water until a landslide separated them in the early 19th century.

Bali’s Fruit Basket

The volcanic soils in the Bedugul area are prodigiously fertile and this deep bowl lays a good claim to be Bali’s fruit and vegetable basket. Cultivated plots take up almost every spare inch of open ground; you know you have arrived in the area when you begin to see strawberry sellers lining the road. In the morning especially, there is a lot of activity around the Bukit Mungsu traditional market.

This market boasts all manner of very fresh local produce, as well as a great selection of classic Indonesian spices. It is located in the town centre, but a little away from the main road, near a unique and unforgettable yellow concrete corncob.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan by Lake Bratan in Bali was built in 1633.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan by Lake Bratan in Bali was built in 1633.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan by Lake Bratan in Bali was built in 1633.

The bed of the ancient caldera is the perfect spot for the Bali Botanical Garden, one of only four official botanical gardens in the whole of Indonesia. It is not well signposted from the main road but is a must see - again, the corncob is your marker for the entrance, a large Balinese split gate. The garden is truly world-class and has won a number of international awards. It covers some 1500 hectares, but getting around is easy even in a wheelchair with excellent roads and concrete pathways. Benches and gazebos are liberally provided so you can sit down if you need to.

The garden is divided into a number of areas, featuring varieties of the main tropical plant species. There are patches of dark, mossy rain forest, open grassy conifer forest and palm groves. You will also find tall tree fern walks and herb gardens. The Botanical Garden is not on the usual tourist trail so there is a good chance you will have the place to yourself, except at weekends and on public holidays when crowds of local people go there.

But to get the best photographs of the impressive Bedugul caldera and its lakes, head north towards the mountain villages of Gobleg and Munduk, where plantations of cloves, coffee and cacao cover the slopes.

Here, the road will take you right along the edge of the crater for several kilometres and there are plenty of places where you can pull off the road to capture the best of Bali’s astonishing lakes and peaks. Just watch out for hungry monkeys who will steal your lunch and sunglasses if they can.

Photos by Simon Pridmore. Simon Pridmore is a frequent contributor to Gaia Discovery. He is based in Bali, Indonesia and is the author of a number of books on travel and scuba diving. His latest book, Under the Flight Path: 15,000 kms overland across Russia, Mongolia & China is now available on Amazon in paperback and e-book versions.

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