Why did I decide to hike Mount Batur alone, fully knowing that there was a mafia who demanded money to climb the mountain, and that I would most likely encounter them? The honest answer is twofold. One: I’ve found myself in dozens of sticky situations from Kenya to Kathmandu, so I wasn’t really afraid of them. And two: I was curious as to what would actually happen if and when I did encounter them.
Curious enough to disregard all the online reviews I read—reviews that read like short horror stories. “One dude kept yelling at me and slapping his dirty, crooked finger on the top of my nose,” one hiker wrote. “I couldn’t believe it. It got to the point where the skinniest, little punk of a fake mafia member actually spit in Rhys’s face. It was something out of a movie.”
Another review: “They pushed my fiancé back as we wanted to walk the track. We explained that we know that it is possible to go without a guide. There would be no difficult passages. We would not need a guide… But then it all went pretty fast. The man stood up and slammed his fist on the chest of my fiancé.”
I seemed to have forgotten that curiosity killed the cat.
Was it stupid and foolhardy to hike Mount Batur alone? Sure. Possibly the type of test that only an inordinate (or imbalanced) amount of testosterone would cause someone to subject themselves to? Maybe so. Regardless, I was determined.
From when I first set foot in Bali, Indonesia, hiking Mount Batur alone was at the top of my list. And if you’re familiar with the sunk-cost theory, which states that people are less likely to decide not to do something if they’ve already invested time and money into it, I felt as though I had invested a good amount of thought and emotion into hiking the mountain alone, irrespective of how irrational that may have been. So, I went.
Getting to Mount Batur was straightforward. After an hour of following signs and stopping to speak with locals, the mountain came into view. It seemed to have two or three peaks, and there were both locals and tourists snapping photos from a viewpoint near the dusty town I entered.
I stopped my scooter and took a breath of almost-fresh air. I looked toward the mountain and imagined myself at the top; I was there in my mind before I ever started my ascent. It was a good day.
A policeman saw that I was standing in the middle of the intersection, wondering which way to go, and approached me. “Where are you going?” he asked. “To hike the mountain,” I replied with a tone of blind enthusiasm. Blind to the real danger I was about to encounter.
With a smile, he pointed me down the direction of a hill, and I took off. This familiar generosity and openness towards travellers is what led me to believe that the mafia wasn’t as bad as people said it was. That there were “just a few bad eggs,” and that I would be able to avoid them. But this overconfidence has proven, time and again, to be a double-edged sword, sharp enough to cut down obstacles in my way and, at the same time, leave me with wounds of my own.
I wondered if I’d have any wounds, physical or otherwise, by the end of this day.
As I headed in the direction where the policeman pointed me, I briefly closed my eyes and felt the breeze racing past my face; it felt amazing, and the air became warmer as I descended into the valley surrounding Danau Batur, the largest lake in Bali. The lake contained a handful of boats, and reflected the clouds above like a liquid mirror. If it suddenly turned to ice, I wondered if the image of the clouds would crystallize in it like a photograph. This caused me to pause, just for a moment, and marvel at all that I saw. A picturesque lake with Mount Batur for a backdrop. What could go wrong?
An elderly local man pulled over next to me and asked where I was from. For the last few days, before I went to Batur, I avoided telling locals I was from the United States. So as the elderly man stared at me with eager eyes, “Switzerland” is how I replied.
“Oh, great,” he replied. “You need guide?” Even though he would likely be cheaper than a guide closer to the mountain, I declined. The objective was to climb the mountain alone—something I’d never done before with any mountain. I bid him farewell, and noticed a look of concern on his face as I rode away.
All my previous hikes began with a starting point, of course, but I had no idea where this mountain’s starting point was. So I just kept driving closer toward the mountain itself, hoping I’d see some sort of obvious path. I found myself on a relentlessly bumpy road, where my butt was flying off my scooter’s seat every few seconds. But I was having a blast.
As I neared the mountain, the road became worse and I was surrounded by grass made dry and stiff from the sun. I ended up in a little town and saw a tourist information office, bearing the stamp of a local tour-guide association. “That must be the mafia,” I figured. Not wanting to make myself known, I sped past the building and found myself in another, smaller village.
But because so few locals spoke English, and I couldn’t find the path entrance, I circled back to the office to ask for advice. The whole place emanated this Wild West vibe, where a saloon was going to appear out of nowhere and a bandit would push himself through a set of creaky wooden double-doors with a holstered pistol.
Of course, no saloon appeared. But I did see a bandit.
“What you doing here?” a skinny man with long black hair seated on a scooter asked in a high-pitched voice.
“I want to hike the mountain,” I said.
“You need guide.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“No money? This is a trick, I know it. You don’t have money for petrol? For hotel?”
I don’t know why, but it seemed this man had it out for me from the get go. “No, look at me. I drove here by myself. I came from Ubud,” I innocently replied. Now, I shouldn’t have told the man I had no money; I should have said I had little money. No money isn’t realistic. If heading to hike Mount Batur alone was my first mistake, lying to this man was my second.
“You know, you look like terrorist to me,” the man said in an accusing tone as he stroked his chin. I had watched some Indonesian television earlier on my journey, and knew that terrorism was a real and palpable fear in the country. “Yes,” he went on, “you look like terrorist. You know what we do with terrorists?” With that, I turned my scooter on and drove away.
If I did really need a guide, it wouldn’t be that guy. There was something desolate about this town; something nightmarish. My hands began to sweat a bit, but I wouldn’t be deterred. “Lesser people would turn back,” a voice inside me said. “You’re supposed to be an adventurer, right?”
It’s sometimes difficult to discern between intuition and ego.
I drove around a while more looking for the beginning of a trail. I saw a sign imploring tourists to respect the holiness of the mountain, and that a guide was required. I read it as, “The holiness of this mountain is preserved by you paying us to guide you, even though it’s unnecessary.” There was a man in a building next to the sign, and I asked him where the trail to the mountain was. He said, “You need guide. This is an association. You need a guide.” I thanked him and headed back, once again, through the field of straw. The nightmare I was finding myself in began to take on a repetitive Groundhog Day texture. It was unnerving.
I began slowly accepting the idea that I may actually need a guide, if only to find out where the starting point of the trail was. So I eventually found some people who pointed me in the direction of the “main tourist office,” which I hadn’t visited yet.
The main tourist office was a cross between a United States post office and a ticket counter at Six Flags, except there were no people behind the windows. Instead, a large man donning a checkered sarong and a shirt with the sleeves cut off approached me. He was tall, and had beautifully tattooed arms from his shoulder to his wrists.
“How can I help you?” he asked.
“I want to hike the mountain,” I began, knowing where the conversation was going.
“Yes, you need guide. This is sacred mountain. UNESCO site. You need guide.”
Thinking that it would be better to negotiate with a guide, I asked him where I could find one. He pumped his shoulders and looked around. “This is my guide,” he said as he pointed to a teenager in a burgundy polo fetching him tea. “This is my guide,” he said as he pointed to another young boy. “This is my guide,” he said, again, as he pointed to another. I tentatively asked him how much it would cost. “500,000 rupiah,” he said—about US$37. “We have three trips. One simple hike to the top. Another around some of the craters. And another where you return down the other side of the mountain. You have a bike, so you can drive half of it. It will be easy.”
“Five hundred thousand is too much for me, man,” I replied. “I don’t have that type of money. I planned to hike this alone.”
He began to rub the full lengths of his arms as if he were brandishing barrels of two shotguns. Another bandit, but not so much in disguise. “Well, it’s very rare that anyone wants to hike this alone. I didn’t set this price. The government and UNESCO set it. So, if you want to hike, you have to pay 500,000. You can’t hike without a guide. Simple as that.”
Something told me this was the boss of the operation. His confidence, his measured speech, how casual his whole demeanor was, as well as the way he subtly rubbed his biceps, of course, all pointed to that. I wished I had never made myself known, but I had. I thanked him, shook hands and sped off.
After a while longer of driving, I eventually noticed a large yellow sign that said, “UNESCO SITE! DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT GUIDE!” A large grin formed on my face—the sign that was supposed to keep people out was the only one that would get me in.
I crept past the sign and down a narrow road, which must have been the road that the Bald Boss told me about. As I drove, I remembered reading that the mafia was known to slash tires, so I parked my scooter a few metres away from a nearby house, disguising it as belonged to the homeowner instead of a sneaky traveller.
The paved path quickly turned into dirt, and I walked past a tomato garden. A few metres later, I saw a broken-down house with a zinc roof. Young children with dirt on their faces were sitting on some steps and laughing to one another. They waved, and I waved back. Little did I know I was sounding the alarm.
Their mother came out and said, “Hello! Where you from?”
I didn’t want to dally, so I said, “Just hiking the mountain.” She smiled at me, then screamed toward a few homes up the path. “No, no,” I insisted, putting my finger over my mouth. “No guide, please.” She smiled and nodded her head—but it was too late.
Two men emerged on the dirt path, eyeing me with suspicion. “Where’s your guide?” the older one asked. “No guide,” I said without stopping to talk. He then hopped on his scooter and headed in the opposite direction I came from, possibly to tell the “association” about the solo traveller trekking without a guide.
“Not the largest. Black-skinned. Black hat with white lettering, blue shorts, tan shirt and brown boots,” was how I imagined the man describing me to the boss. I laughed and continued on, despite a hunger rising in my belly. I’d packed some apples, water, an electrolyte drink and some tempeh chips (sort of delicious), and had only eaten an apple that morning. But I couldn’t stop—I firmly believed that if I stopped, I was more likely to be caught. So I pressed on.
The zinc-roofed homes and fields of tomatoes receded, and I found myself in a quiet forest. Tall trees, with bark stripped bare, lined my path. I looked around in amazement of all the deciduous flora, marvelling at how much the landscape suddenly resembled North America.
The path narrowed, and I saw many turns up ahead when I noticed a man heading in my direction on a scooter. He saw me and stopped. If I had to pinpoint the look he gave me, I’d imagine it’s the same look a wolf has when it happens upon a rabbit.
The man stepped off his bike and blocked my path. He wasn’t larger than me, but I resolved to never engage anyone physically. “Where’s your guide?” he asked.
“I don’t have one—want to be mine?” I asked with a smile. I was looking to show him that I wasn’t a threat, and that, if anything, I could be an ally.
“How much do you have?” he asked.
“Just 100,000. I don’t have much. But let’s go,” I casually said with another smile.
“Just 100,000? That’s nothing. You can pay me 100,000 to pass. If not, you have to go back down. For two people, it’s usually 700,000. If not, we can go down and talk to the boss.”
“No, no need to talk to the boss. Let’s just go up. 100,000, come on.” His frustration was beginning to show, and he hopped on the bike. “We’re a very big organization, you know. I go down, talk to my boss, more people come up here and”—he stopped speaking and drew his hand across his throat, then mimicked a boxer, jabbing at the air.
That was when I realized this was not a drill. The theoretical trip I had in my mind, the second-hand experiences I read in those reviews of the Mountain Mafia, suddenly became real.
Something important happens when a thought crosses the threshold of abstract to real. The moment you print out a set of words you’ve written and hold them in your hands. When a baby is born and stares at you with more life than you could have ever imagined an idea would possess. The last breath a loved one takes when they, even if for only a second, take hold of the ephemeral presence of death. That was what I felt in that moment—the visceral authenticity of life.
“Okay, 100,000 to pass?” I asked, no longer with a smile.
“No, now 150,000.”
“You’re getting 100,000,” I said, feeling around in my pocket for just one of my bills; I didn’t want him knowing I had more on me.
With my money in his hand, he hopped back on the bike. “Slowly, slowly, yeah?” he said, driving away. I immediately took out my wallet, put a few bills in my backpack, a few in my pocket and then stowed the rest, with my wallet, in a hidden compartment at the bottom of my bag. I almost put a few bills in my socks, but I knew they’d get wet from sweat. I took a big breath, wiped my brow and pressed on. The hike was just beginning.
As I walked farther, a few temples came into view. But I didn’t stop. I just wanted to make it to the top. The path split off in certain locations, but I continued to follow the large “UNESCO! STOP! DON’T GO WITHOUT A GUIDE” signs.
Thirty minutes passed and I noticed a house. Shit—another toll. Children were playing outside, and I noticed a few women. Then, a man. “Excuse me, sir, can we talk please for a moment?”
Despite his tone being friendlier than the first man, I didn’t want to stop. “Yes, we can. But walk with me.” I kept moving but eventually an older, elderly man blocked my path.
“Do you have a ticket?” the friendly man asked.
“No, but I just paid a guy down there,” I said.
“Oh, okay. So, if I call the boss and ask him about you, he’ll say you paid?” I nodded. “Okay, sir. Have a good trip.” With that, the elderly man moved out of the way.
The steepness of the mountain began to make itself felt. And as I crawled over rocks large and small, smooth and jagged, my boots were being put to the test. I could almost see the top. “I’m going to make it,” I said to myself. I made a quick stop for water and looked behind me to see the lake in all its splendor. It was a bit cloudy out, but I appreciated its beauty more from the where I stood than when I was down below. The reality of making it to the top, which I had envisioned before, was coming into view. That was when one of the boss’s burgundy-shirted guides appeared. Upon seeing me, his eyes widened and he almost tripped over a rock.
“Where’s your guide?” he asked.
“I don’t have one, but I paid a man already; he let me through.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s better for you to go down.”
“How far is it to the top?”
“Only 20 minutes,” he replied. He looked as if he were going to get in trouble just from allowing me to speak to him without a guide.
“Okay, so come with me. Be my guide. Let’s go,” I said in a tone of weary desperation.
“No, I need to watch this path.”
I felt like this mafia member was different—not as angry, a little more human. So I grabbed his hand and asked him his name, and he told me: Uduyianyar. “Uduyianyar,” I repeated. “I’m Mateo. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said without a smile.
“I’m so close, brother. I already paid a guy. Can you just please let me up?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t. If you paid a guy who wasn’t a guide, that was illegal. I’m sorry.”
I continued to plead, and eventually convinced him to let me go up, but with one stipulation. “You pay 100,000 and I’ll give you a ticket, so no one will bother you,” he said.
“Okay,” I agreed, “but on the way back down.”
“No, I’m sorry. People always say that, and then just exit on the other side of the mountain.”
“Look into my eyes, man,” I said. “You can trust me.”
He stared down and reluctantly agreed. The score was beginning to show in my favor. Mafia: one, Mateo: two.
Something told me he was the last line of defence before the peak. I hiked until I encountered a ton of slippery volcanic dirt. There was no path, just pure mountain. And I noticed that if I fell or broke my leg, it would be less than ideal. Something told me to turn back, but I couldn’t. I saw footprints in the dirt, and figured if someone else climbed here, I could, too.
I climbed higher, and eventually noticed no more footprints. There was a group of people, no doubt other travellers, around a crater below the peak where I stood, and I looked at them for a bit. I was almost at the top—I’d made it nearly as far as I could have expected to go. But something told me to stop. I thought of the movie, Into the Wild, where the main character dies an otherwise avoidable death because he thinks he’s trapped in an isolated part of Alaska, when there was actually a bridge a few hundred metres away.
I didn’t want to fall off this mountain and die an otherwise avoidable death. I was alone. Intuition began to win the war against my ego. “I’d like to live until I’m old,” I said aloud. So I began my descent.
But not before stopping at that crater. Steam rose from the volcanic crater beyond the official sign bearing the mountain’s name. The guide I’d spotted with the group of travellers, of course, asked where my guide was.
“Oh, Uduyianyar?” I asked. “He’s behind.” The guide nodded.
I followed my footprints back to where I came from, and found Uduyianyar sleeping a little farther down, where I met the second of three gatekeepers. Uduyianyar sprang awake when I walked by and asked for the 100,000. I gave it to him and kept on.
An hour later, a pack of dogs steered me down an unfamiliar path. I realized I was heading away from my scooter—it was the most lost I’d been all day, and, ironically, a moment when a guide would have been genuinely helpful.
But instead I asked for help from some locals, and eventually found the main road. I found my scooter where I’d left it, all in one piece and with the tires thankfully full of air. “Thank you, universe,” I said aloud as I mounted it.
With volcanic dirt on my boots, sweat soaking my shirt, shorts and socks, and a weariness borne more from a test of my emotions and mind than of my body, I turned on my scooter and drove far away from the mountain and the mafia that “protects” it. I had done what I came to do, and it was this knowledge that buoyed me all the way home.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.