The long and the short of Mt Raung in Indonesia – for travelers to and from Bali.
Mother Nature strikes in many forms and as humans, there is little we can do to control her. When Mt Raung began showing signs of increased activity on 29 June 2015, it was initially only felt by the 2,088 residents who were evacuated by the Indonesian Government. A few articles heralded the event but for most of us, life went on. Even while it spewed lava and ash 300 meters into the sky, tourists, and pending tourists into Bali, carried on life as usual.
On July 2, the level of activity was reported to have decreased, although the watch remained on high alert. None of us gave it much thought. Volcanoes spit stuff out all the time in Indonesia. It was barely reported in the Australian news.
And then, Mother Nature threw a curve ball. On July 4, the 3,332-meter-high volcano produced intensive tremors and fire could be seen coming from its mouth. While authorities increased their caution, Mt Raung was biding her time. Flights were put on alert, but the rest was yet to come.
On July 5, 18 flights were cancelled, sending Bali airport into chaos. By July 10, the airport was closed, and passengers were mounting up in locations around the globe. Australian and Bali’s airports were impacted the most.
I left for Bangkok on July 9, getting out almost by the skin of my teeth. But as the mountain continued to roll her gases and guts into the air, the airport remained closed. It opened briefly on July 11 but by the morning of July 12, it closed again.
It threw airlines into a logistics nightmare of monumental proportions. Australian safety standards are high, and airlines also employ their own authorities to assess the information. While some passengers reveled in being stuck in Bali, reality for others took hold. And it highlighted the vulnerability of the small Indonesian island.
The moment the airport closed, the only way to get out of Bali was by boat and bus or car. As the Balinese Hindu ceremony of Galungan approaches tomorrow, with all the build up of Christmas for locals, and Muslim Ramadan comes to a close, literally hundreds of thousands of people are scrambling to get home to family for celebrations, whether it be back to Java, or to Bali.
Mother Nature could not have chosen a more poignant moment in time to make her point. We are at the hands of Nature’s fate, and there is very little we can do about it.
While for some it was the inconvenience of not getting to their holiday destination, for others it was direr. If you needed repatriation for health reasons, this was impossible if the airport shut down all departures and arrivals. Some were running out of critical medications and others, money. For those who were not insured, a harsh lesson was about to be learned:
Take travel insurance out when you book your holiday.
There are two key words here. ‘Take‘ – actually get insurance; don’t take pot luck by saying ‘nothing will happen to me’. Sorry, but you can’t control a volcano, no matter how you wiggle your nose. And ‘when‘ – take it out when you book your flights. The price is the same. Insurance companies tend to not have sales.
For insurers, the situation led to congested phone lines and long delays on chat-portals. They issued statements regarding who was and was not covered. Those who took insurance out after July 2 were not covered. I received a message this morning from a family who had lost hundreds of dollars in pre-paid accommodation and re-booked flights. My social media has gone into meltdown with messages asking questions via my Things you need to know about Bali messenger, and Bali Travel groups are flooded with comments, advice and pleas for information.
Travel, it would seem, is a common leveler. While a few have expressed anger at the airlines and ignorance of the danger of flying into an ash cloud, most simply want answers. When you are dealing with issues like money, insurance, work and family commitments, special events and holidays, it can seem as though they are flippant about the risks to them and their family.
I see it differently. (Although one Perth passenger did say that she would never return to Bali and that it was ‘a joke’. In saying that, I don’t know what pressing issues she may have been facing when she let her own little volcano blow on Bangkok television.)
The issues for passengers are simple. Let me summarise the key questions and complaints:
- Am I insured? An article written in 2013 stated that only one company insured for delays caused by Acts of God. Fortunately, this has changed, and it all comes down to what date you took out the insurance and what type of insurance you took out. Cancellation only insurance may not be enough. Comprehensive insurance is more expensive, but covers you when Mother Nature vents. Or demonstrates, however you like to look at it.
- When am I flying? Air Asia would have to be the worst performer in terms of airline communication or lack thereof.
Their website was often 12-16 hours out of date, and the Air Asia Facebook page would omit flights in belated updates. Emails were sparse. I received one six hours into our flight delay, letting me know about the delay. Getting through to them was impossible, with long waits on the phone, and their chat portal crashing. In their silence, they managed to post happy snaps of a new route to the Maldives…just a tad lacking in empathy for the thousands stranded, leaving many wondering how they had time to post that, but not updates on their website or page.
Other airlines such as Jetstar, Virgin and Garuda seem better equipped with how to get information out to passengers. The airport did not help, with little at all said, so it was left to social media and the news to update information.
- Why are some flying and not others? Virgin Airlines came under fire from many furious passengers for being the strictest with regards to not flying. This level of caution was closely followed by Jetstar and Qantas. Air Asia and Garuda were flying despite all Australia’s airlines saying it was simply too dangerous. Which begs the question – do you fly, or do you not fly?
We chose to not fly. In fact, it was a comment at the gate by the co-pilot that cemented the decision, apart from the fact that no Australian airlines were flying, particularly at night. “I’m nervous too,” she said to me. “I have two small children.” A nervous co-pilot is not someone I want backing up the captain. Sorry. I get to choose, and I choose life with reduced risk.
If your airline chooses to not fly, like it or not, you need to abide by a decision that is only made in the interests of human safety concerns. It’s not to inconvenience you. In fact, the cost to airlines is enormous.
But if you are nervous about flying when others aren’t, most airlines will move you to another flight on another day, as Air Asia happily did for us. And I am thankful that they did, as I captured some incredible shots of Mt Raung as we neared Bali.
- Will I lose my accommodation money? If you have paid in full or a deposit, contact the accommodation and ask if you can defer your stay. Many businesses will allow this although you may need to be flexible with dates because they are juggling stranded guests with those who cannot get to Bali. Smaller venues will be unable to do this unless they can fill your dates.
If you are insured, you are covered.
If not, working with the business calmly and with respect may help you can come to an arrangement. Try to offer a solution that works for both of you. However, the important thing to understand is that insurance saves a lot of grief, and if you did not take it out, the consequences will have to be accepted if the business is unable to refund your deposit or payment. Check the terms and conditions, and if you are made to abide by them, there is little you will be able to do if the villa owner is in a situation that they need to enforce them.
Obviously, there is no guarantee with volcanoes. They don’t offer up an itinerary. Mt Raung is still rumbling, but the ash plume remains, hovering to the south west of Bali airport. And she is speaking loudly, reminding us that we cannot control her or any of her other activities such as earthquakes, tsunamis and floods. All we can do is prepare before we travel, and so long as we are safe, try to pack our sense of humour and patience as well.
For me, now safely arrived in Bali, I am in awe of her. She creates incredible opportunities for photographers and writers as she reminds us that ultimately, the planet is a complex grid that we are but players in. For the beauty she offers to inspire creativity, I am grateful. And I should add, I was not in need of urgent repatriation out of Bali. My plans were simply altered, with insurance easing the financial pain.
But, gratitude comes with a post-it note…So long as she remains at a safe distance and the people in the villages near her are out of harm’s way. That’s all. Otherwise, Madame Volcano, you have a job to do, and you have made it very clear that you will do it, regardless of how we mortals feel about it.
Scroll down for photographs taken as we flew past Mt Raung.
Clare McAlaney is an author and photographer, marketer and designer. She wrote, designed and co-photographed Bali Soul Journals. Bali Essence is a new release written and designed by Clare with the stunning photography of David Metcalf, Master Photographer. The Bootongs of Bali is a wonderful novel for all ages, written by Clare and illustrated by her. Things you need to know about Bali is an Amazon bestseller and one of the most informative e-books on Bali available. Clare also designed and published Looking for Borneo by David Metcalf, Mark Heyward and Khan Wilson. She is currently working from Perth, teaching others how to bring their visions to life.
When she has time, she is a freelance travel writer and photographer. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to commission her for an article. She writes on SE Asia and Australia.