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Paluweh (Rokatenda) volcano, Flores, Indonesia - 8th - 10th June 2013

Close to the Northern coast of Flores lies the tiny, almost-circular island of Palu'e (Paluweh), inhabited until very recently by around 1,200 people, who have their own, very expressive, language. Rising up to a maximum height somewhere just below the 900m mark at its highest, the island consists primarily of thickly-vegetated, jungle-clad slopes with arable farming evident wherever people have managed to build villages. At the highest point of the island are craters from within which bulge two huge lava domes consisting of bare rock - the now-inactive Rokatenda dome to the East (formed in 1981), and the new dome - also, somewhat confusingly, referred to as Rokatenda by the local volcano observatory - which began to grow in 2012. It was this latter, actively-growing lava dome that we travelled to observe from 8th - 10th June 2013.

As the car we were in bumped and rattled along the half-collapsed road that clung desperately to the coast of Flores towards the little village of Ropa, we stopped at an area where the retaining sea-wall had now succumbed to the sea itself, taking a fair bit of the road with it. It was from here that we got our first glimpse of Paluweh island - or not, as a thick cloud of volcanic ash blowing strongly to the West almost completely obscured it. Clearly Paluweh was still active - but what would we get to see?

At the refugee camp near Ropa - important negotiations underway with the displaced islanders.


We visited one of the refugee camps close to Ropa, where many of the island's indigenous population had been evacuated to following increasing concerns over the activity of the lava dome and the associated pyroclastic flows, strong seismic tremors and acid rain. Additionally, we discovered that two villagers had recently been killed by a lahar (volcanic mud flow) - a sad note to begin our trip to this remote and rather disconcerting volcano. A pleasant two-hour boat ride from the refugee camp followed by an inelegant landing in slightly-too-deep water with a powerful undertow and we had arrived..... On the trip over we had seen a number of explosions and rockfalls, with small pyroclastic flows visible, and we'd also noted some of the interesting fumaroles that could be seen amongst the rich green of the jungle.

We quickly made the acquaintance of the new doctor on the island, Albert, who spoke excellent English as well as the local language of the island (which none of us understood, so Albert's presence was a real bonus!). His request to join us on our trek to the summit was warmly accepted.

Large areas of the island are covered by a thick layer of volcanic ash, which has destroyed many of the islanders' crops.

A short but exciting moped ride up an absurdly steep hill and we were at our base for the next few hours, a local village that most people had now left. Thirty to forty staunch souls remained, determined that they would not be driven from their homes by the volcano's angry outbursts. We spent several hours socialising with the villagers and sharing simple fare with them, waiting for a rather spectacular storm to pass before deeming it safe to start our climb to the lava dome at around 9pm. It was whilst we were in the village we felt our first earthquakes (earth tremors) from the volcano. Again mopeds took us up to the start of our walk, but the road had been all-but destroyed in several places - fortunately the moped riders managed to skilfully negotiate their way past such hazards! The relentlessly steep path wove ever-upwards through the hot, humid darkness of the jungle, until we came across a chasm that stopped us from ascending further that night. We backtracked to a (relatively) safe area, pitched a simple shelter, lined it with banana leaves for "comfort" and the six of us lay down side-by-side like sardines to attempt to get a few hours' sleep. Outside the shelter, the wind blew, the cloud lowered, and fine volcanic ash swirled around. And the tremors came.... just when you managed to fall asleep on the incredibly-uncomfortable surface below, a big quake would come that would jolt you awake again, followed by two or three aftershocks. Nobody sleeps on Paluweh.

In the morning, cloud quickly lifted to reveal a beautiful sunny day - we were in luck. Two hours or so of hard jungle-bashing and our guides had hacked a new route to the summit - one that we could not hope to retrace safely in the dark, despite having (sensibly) recorded the route using GPS. At last. Thick jungle gave way to a bare savannah and ahead was the old Rokatenda lava dome - a mighty impressive sight in its own right. But the sight of the new lava dome stopped us in our tracks. Like a giant, steaming, smoking, rattling, roaring, quaking jelly. Like something out of an old episode of Star Trek, the behemoth rose before us, a huge amorphous, enormous blob. It was a sight we felt privileged to behold, but at the same time, it was terrifying. Paluweh's child was growing out of all proportion and I could honestly swear the thing was alive.

Paluweh lava dome immediately after an earthquake and simultaneous explosion - 09/06/2013. Older Rokatenda dome to left.

Rockfalls and ash cloud from Paluweh lava dome following inital earthquake and simultaneous explosion - 09/06/2013.

Aris, who had been here a few months before in February with a couple of other adventurers, told us that the fumaroles on the part of the hill on which we were standing were new - as was the fissure through the valley floor way below us, crossing in front of the two lava domes like a great, ragged tear in the Earth's crust.

We had all day to observe, and the weather was perfect, so we set up a rudimentary shelter to keep the heat of the sun off us and settled down to watch.

An interesting observation was the fact that the earthquakes and the rockfalls/pyroclastic flows seemed to occur simultaneously - I'd expected that the quakes would come first. Most of the action appeared to be on the seaward side on the far side of the dome, so we couldn't observe it directly - but interestingly enough, to my ears at least, the sound coming from here was more akin to the tinkling of sizeable blobs of a'a lava flowing downhill - a very different sound from the rockfalls we observed on the side of the dome facing us. We also saw many impressive ash plumes during the day, fortunately being blown away from us by a reliably steady westerly wind. The villagers in the refugee camp had talked about how they "could see the red fire at night" from their camp - perhaps time or further observation will tell?

Suffice to say, having the entire day to observe the dome in really good weather gave us an opportunity to learn a considerable amount about how the volcano is currently behaving - in terms of timing and frequency of earthquakes/rockfalls/pyroclastic flows. There appears to be a massively wide crater of sorts at the top of the dome, with a smaller 'plug' rising up within it. Eventually, as the sun began to set through ash-laden skies, we could see faint spots of red start to appear on the flanks of the dome - but these were nothing compared with how they'd been earlier in the year. Paluweh's active lava dome may be slowing down, as some of the local volcanologists think, or it may have something else in store. It's difficult if not impossible to predict, but one thing is for sure. It's a dark and sinister creature, and it demands respect.

Photographing the immense Paluweh lava dome.

Part of the Paluweh lava dome at nightfall on 9th June 2013.

Again we wish to express our gratitude to Aris Yanto of, who planned, coordinated, coaxed, cajoled and finally made this trip happen for us - as well as showing himself to be a real ambassador in the field of human relations. Thank you Aris - this was an unforgettable experience and we feel honoured to have shared it with you.

Our sincere and heartfelt thanks are also extended to the friendly refugees we met, and to the remaining villagers on Paluweh, in particular the last inhabitants of the village we passed through on the way down from the summit. These brave and noble people had nothing left for themselves, their crops and houses destroyed by the volcano - yet offered to kill their only remaining chicken for us to eat, and to give us sleeping space for the night if we wanted it as they were concerned for our safety on the steep mountain paths in the darkness. We declined courteously on both counts - their need was far, far greater than ours. The memories will always remain. We are forever humbled by our experiences on Paluweh.