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Tags: Indonesia, Mt Tambora Trek, Stories

Finding our way to a long-forgotten buried kingdom

Venturing into the Center of the Earth to discover the Pompeii of the East

I don’t remember exactly how I came across Tambora. But probably like Marco Polo and other great explorers before me, I was scrounging around the internet for places to go. Specifically I was looking for things to do in Sumbawa, the rarely frequented Indonesian island that I found brushing my finger against the map from Bali eastward. What?? Something east of Bali??

Even Lonely Planet didn’t have very much to say about this Lombok adjacent landmass, describing Sumbawa as “the domain of surfers, miners and mullahs”. But I was unabatedly intrigued after I read a National Geographic article about the long-forgotten kingdom of Tambora. The article called the kingdom, the "Pompeii of the East", for it was rich in artefacts and culture. After the eruption of Mt Tambora in 1815 (still the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history), the kingdom was completely buried, and before long, forgotten. The eruption was so severe that its effect was felt all over the world - resulting in severe climate abnormalities and a year without summer. 

Tambora now had my attention.

Upon further research I found Rik. An amateur archaeologist that came to the foothills of Tambora a few years ago to work with the famed Icelandic volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson and fell in love with the quiet. Rik started providing organizational support to local guides and porters to take visitors trekking up and inside the cause of all of this now almost extinguished excitement — Tambora Volcano.

After a few exchanges with Rik ,  I was almost ready to commit to do the trek that would take me close to the epicenter. To increase the incentive even further ,  Rik mentioned that I could make the trip and split the cost with a Finnish scientist that was headed there at the same time to do research.

A few days with a volcanologist where I would learn all about the history and geology behind Tambora seemed like going into Jurassic Park with Alan Grant, or journeying into the centre of the earth with Trevor Anderson (a Jules Verne character). The inner childhood nerd was doing a mental Nae Nae at this point.

On the day of departure, I was waiting for the pickup at Rocket Chicken fast food restaurant in Dompu, a town somewhere in between Tambora and Lakey Peak (more to come on Lakey). Finally a jeep pulled up. Out of it came an Indonesian driver and a very pale and blonde man with tattoos all over his arms. I looked him up and down and wondered if the volcanologist was still inside the car. I got in. The blonde man was indeed the scientist.

He was Finnish — a Nordic and Eastern neighbour — so the conversation was a bit sporadic and we were slow to warm. Finally it came out. He was an anthropologist! He was doing this trek out of personal interest, only tangentially related to his academic work. I had been gravely deceived! I suppose Rik never said he was a volcanologist.

As we traversed Sumbawa, crossing large swaths of cornfields, dodging herds of water buffalos and goats, I sulked a little bit about the sad loss of the volcanologist that never was. But it was too late and now we were in it together.

We held our light lunches in during the nauseating car ride, we hung on tight to the motorbikes on a motor-cross like trail from the park registration to Rik’s guesthouse. And we gritted our teeth and picked out the leeches from our ankles during the trek to the rim.

By sunrise the next day, our jaws dropped almost in perfect synchrony as the sun rose over the volcano to reveal layered brown and red rims and a vast valley like caldera smoking with sulphur steam and morning mist.

As we wrapped up our debate on the meaning of authenticity of traveling experience and he finished the story about his research in Nepal I was very happy to have had the anthropologist along.

As with everything in life it is the story that compels us to move. There is so much worth moving for to get to Tambora.

Afterword: This story was written by Lina, Co-founder of Seek Sophie. Lina still reminisces about her time in Tambora, which is still one of her favourite Seek Sophie experiences. She also keeps in touch with her fellow explorer, the Finnish anthropologist. 

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