According to the Balinese Hindu beliefs, the cosmos is divided into three layers. The highest level is heaven or suarga, the abode of the gods. In Bali, Suarga is represented on earth by the mountains. The second level is buwah, where humans reside in the foothills and plains below the mountains. The third level bhur, beyond the shores of Bali, belongs to the demons and unfortunate souls that have been banished to hell as a result of earthly misdeeds.
As the highest mountain on Bali at 3,142m, it is no surpise then that Mt Agung is revered as the “Mother Mountain,” created when the Hindu God Pasupati split the sacred Mount Meru (the spiritual axis of the universe) and used a fragment to form Mount Agung. The largest and holiest temple in Bali, Pura Besakih “Mother Temple” is built high on the southern slopes of Agung. Its origins are uncertain but it is believed to be at least 2,000 years old.
Mount Agung’s spiritual significance was reinforced during the last eruption in 1963. Ancient Balinese beliefs dictate that every 100 years at Pura Besakih temple, the most important Hindu ritual of Eka Dasa Rudra is conducted to purify the world. In 1963, the ritual was scheduled for March but in the preceding weeks, Agung began to rumble. Convinced it was a bad omen, high priests argued that the wrong date had been set for the ritual but by then preparations were well underway and President Sukarno was scheduled to attend along with a handful of foreign dignitaries. By the time the scheduled date arrived, Agung was in full eruption mode, spewing lava over much of eastern Bali and sending a poisonous gas cloud drifting over the island, destroying crops, killing livestock and up to 2,000 people. Remarkably the Mother Temple was relatively untouched, further convincing the Balinese that the whole incident was indeed the work of the gods.
Mt Agung is the most popular mountain to climb in Bali but it’s also the most challenging and only suitable for those with a good level of fitness. There are two trails up the mountain. The shortest and least difficult commences from Pasar Agung temple, perched at 1,700m on the southern slopes. The 3-4 hour trek only reaches the top of south-eastern crater rim some 100m shy of the actual summit. Nevertheless, the views are spectacular. To reach this point in time for sunrise you need to set off no later than 2AM.
The second route via Pura Besakih route starts at an elevation of around 1,000m so climbers have a gruelling 6-7 hour, 2,200m ascent in front of them, including a final very steep push onto the summit. It is followed by a knee jarring 6 hour descent. The temple is actually a vast complex of shrines and meru’s so you’ll spend the first 45min of the trek just skirting the complex. To reach the summit for sunrise you need to be on your way before midnight. If you prefer to climb in the daylight, you must be on your way no later than 8AM in order to complete the return trip before darkness falls.
Climbing Mount Agung is not a trek to be taken lightly. As well as a reasonable level of fitness, you need to be well prepared with good, sturdy shoes with plenty of grip, water, snacks and if climbing in the dark, a good headlamp with plenty of battery life. Temperatures on the summit can be freezing so be sure to bring extra warm clothing and at minimum, a lightweight plastic poncho in case damp, misty clouds roll in around the summit as often happens. Long pants are highly recommended; apart from warding off the cold temperatures, they’ll provide some protection if you slip or simply prefer to ease down some of the steeper sections on your backside during the descent.
Guides are compulsory for those wishing to climb Agung and will cost around 600.000 – 1.000.000Rp for an experienced, english speaking guide depending on which route you take. Considering the average weekly income in Indonesia, the fees are exorbitant but unfortunately the guides seemed to have formed some sort of cartel so you’re unlikely to be able to secure a guide for less unless you’re happy with a non-english speaking guide. Really, you’re only following them up and down a well-defined track so the language barrier shouldn’t be too much of an impediment. Be aware there have been reports of english speaking guides being switched for non-english speaking guides at the commencement of the hike so don’t pay out in advance and if a switch is pulled demand a reduction in price. Climbers are also be expected to make a small donation at either of the temples but the guides usually take care of this.
For either route, you will need to arrange your guides at least a day in advance. If starting from Pasar Agung, the nearest village is Salut. Report to the local police for help arranging a guide. If you want to stay nearby, the nearest accommodation is 5km away at Sebudi village. Guides for the Pura Besakih can be arranged at the tourist information centre near the entrance to the temple. There are several homestays in the village close to the temple.
One way of ensuring an experienced English speaking guide and not having to worry about the logistics of getting to and from the trail is to trek with an organised tour company. Treks can be booked with just about any tour agency in Bali and there are plenty of reviews online.
The best time to climb Mount Agung is during the dry season from March to October, however the mountain is off limits during important ceremonies so check ahead once you arrive in Bali.