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Asia travel

Bali’s Three Peaks Challenge: climb them all in 24 hours, if your legs don’t turn to jelly along the way

Most visitors to the Indonesian holiday island are happy if they reach the top of one of its three big volcanoes; Graeme Green scales all three in 16 hours, with views of a Bali sunrise and sunset compensation for his labours

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 July, 2017, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 July, 2017, 10:52pm

The forest is still and quiet. Hiking guide Wayan Ariana lights an incense stick, smoke drifting up into the night sky, as he kneels to say a silent prayer at a Hindu shrine.

“The offering is to request permission to receive our trek on the volcano today,” he tells me afterwards, as we resume our hike up the muddy trail towards the summit of Mount Agung. “Balinese people believe this is a holy mountain. There are spirits at the top. Magic supernatural spirits. Good spirits. They give you luck.”

If that’s the case, we’ll be asking for their permission to be up on Bali’s peaks more than once today. While most people come to Bali to lie on the famous beaches, sip cocktails and generally take it easy, there are also far less well-known hiking trails around and up the mountains and volcanoes of this green island on the Pacific Ocean’s explosive Ring of Fire.

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Hiking up any one of the island’s peaks should be enough for most rational-minded travellers, but a new Three Peaks Challenge sets the daunting task of climbing Bali’s three highest summits – Mount Agung (3,031 metres) and Mount Batur (1,717 metres), and Mount Abang (2,151 metres), which is technically a mountain, but part of the Batur caldera – in the space of 24 hours. It’s a world away from the standard Balinese beach holiday.

I meet Wayan at Pasar Agung Temple in the east of the island, 1,200 metres above sea level, and start the challenge shortly after midnight, picking up the trail leading up Mt Agung. There’s no time to break legs in gently, the pathway immediately climbing steeply through the cool forest, head torches lighting our way. Over the next six hours, it rarely lets up. The summit of the still active volcano is the highest point on the island.

“This is the toughest volcano on the island. The steepest,” Wayan informs me, meaning we’re getting the hardest peak out of the way first.

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The sky’s full of stars. Through the roof of the forest, I see an orange crescent moon, which rises along with us as we climb uphill in the early hours of the morning. Grasshoppers and other insects provide a soundtrack from the trees.

It feels strange to be out here, hiking, while the majority of people on the island are tucked up in bed. We stop at a ledge to look out across the island, the lights of the capital, Denpasar, far below us. Bursts of lightning flash, lighting up the clouds.

Higher up Agung, the forest fades out and wind whips around us. The path becomes steeper, the climb more difficult. We use hands and feet to haul ourselves up the trail of slick volcanic rock and over big boulders until, around 5am, we take a few final tired steps to the summit, the highest point on Bali.

I peer over the edge of the crater into the black abyss. “The last eruption was in 1963,” Wayun tells me. “No chance of an eruption tonight.”

With a fire lit and cups of hot tea in hand, we sit to watch the sun rise. “All of Bali,” Wayan gestures, as Bali’s coastline, rice paddies and green hills are slowly bathed in light. One peak down, two to go.

After a tough, sometimes treacherous descent, we drive from Pasar Agung Temple across Bali, through villages and past the massive Batur Lake, picking up fresh-legged guide Mangky Suryadi en route.

We start the day’s second hike, up Mt Abang, from around 1,500 metres. I feel optimistic for a while, hiking the easy pathway high above Batur lake and the fish farms along the shore.

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Mangky stops to burn incense and pray at the first of several shrines. “High places in Bali are holy,” he explains. “In the Hindu religion, we use them for prayer and meditations. We consider the mountains and volcanoes to be closer to nirvana, a divine state of existence. To climb up the volcanoes and mountains is a way to receive blessings.”

Abang is an even tougher climb than Agung. The deceptively easy start soon gives way to a relentlessly tough and steep climb up a pathway washed out by recent rains. We pass through a dank forest of trees, whose trunks are coated with straggly moss, a sign of good air quality up here, then pull ourselves up the crumbly path using overhanging branches and tree roots.

The summit, reached in the early afternoon, couldn’t come soon enough. Thick banks of white cloud block the view, annoying after the work we’ve put in, but I’m happy to have completed another peak. Mist crawls over the crumbled walls of 300-year-old Tuluk Biu Temple, the highest temple on the island. “This is one of the holiest places in Bali,” Mangky tells me, after kneeling to offer another prayer.

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My quad muscles having taken some punishment and my legs turned to jelly, we drive across to Mt Batur, the day’s final climb. We’re making good time. Mangky borrows a motorbike to take us through local farms around the slopes to the starting point.

Mt Batur was the most recent of Bali’s volcanoes to erupt, with a small eruption in 2000. The volcano’s busy in the mornings, with travellers setting out early to watch the sun rise from the top. At the opposite end of the day, we have the place almost to ourselves.

Cloud drifts over the summit of our earlier killer climb, Abang, across Batur lake, as we make our way up the peaceful path. The final ascent is by far the easiest of the three hikes, but Agung and Abang have used up almost all my energy. My legs feel leaden.

“I have respect for you,” Mangky encourages me. “For most people, one trek in a day is enough.”

The final stretch is almost humorously tough, as if someone is playing a trick on us: a steep trudge through thick deep sand.

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I’m aware of dogs howling into the night, as we reach the 1,717-metre summit, my third and final peak of the day. I settle down happily on one of the benches to drink more hot tea and wait as the sun sets and the sky turns pink.

Darkness falls on Bali as we hike back down, completing the challenge in a little over 16 hours, exhausted and filthy. With traffic for a big local Hindu ceremony clogging the roads, it takes a while to reach the Four Seasons Jimbaran resort where I'm staying. But I’m in no rush, resting happily in the car, knowing that tomorrow there will be beaches and cocktails, and not a single volcano to climb.

The writer travelled with Experience Travel Group (experiencetravelgroup.com), which offers tailor-made Bali Three Peaks packages including accommodation, transport and guides. He also stayed at Four Seasons Jimbaran resort on the coast (fourseasons.com).

How to get there

Hong Kong Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Garuda Indonesia operate direct flights between Hong Kong and Denpasar