Krakatoa is one of the most infamous volcanoes, right up there with Etna and Vesuvius. But it's only when I'm sailing through Krakatoa – yes, through it – that I come to realise how little I know about the deadliest volcano to strike the modern world.
I encounter the legend when it looms from the pale, tropical waters of Indonesia's Sunda Strait. I'm stood at the prow of the Coral Adventurer, looking up at a soaring wall of rock, 800 metres high and thick with verdant vegetation. The edifice is remote, exotic and impressive. But it's not the super-volcano I've come to expect courtesy the 1969 disaster movie Krakatoa, East of Java.
For one thing, the volcano is west of Java, about 50 kilometres out to sea. For another, most of the original structure blew itself to bits. And to cap it all, it's not even called Krakatoa.
The charts of our adventure cruise ship are marked with the correct name, Krakatau ("tau" rhymes with "how"). Krakatoa was a misspelling by Victorian-era reporters who were too excited by the cataclysmic eruption of 1883 to properly record the Indonesian name. But people liked to say it and it stuck.
As we cruise into an archipelago of four pieces of land, most of the passengers on the vessel are similarly puzzling over which bit is Krakatoa. Eventually we're satisfied the towering edifice is a surviving portion of what was Krakatau, a bit of wall left poking from the sea. But adding to our confusion, the ship passes this by and heads four kilometres to another island – a low, smooth piece of land that's been scoured by fire and blackened by ash.
As one passenger succinctly puts it: "So what the hell is that?"
One hundred and fifty years ago, it was all a single island 10 kilometres across. It was home to three volcanoes, including the symmetrical 800-metre cone that had disaster written all over it.
On August 26, Krakatau began erupting, culminating in a colossal third explosion said to be 13,000 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and heard up to 5000 kilometres away. Tsunamis raged across surrounding islands in the Sunda Strait, inundating the coastlines of Java and Sumatra. The world's newspapers were captivated by the scale of it, evidenced by the strangely precise number of 36,417, said to be the number of souls lost to the event.
Krakatau not only blew itself to bits, it took 70 per cent of the island with it. On-board lecturer Mike Sugden explains the world's weather was affected for five years. "The volume of ash thrown up into the air created spectacular sunsets as far away as London," he says. "If you've ever seen Turner's painting, 'The Fighting Temeraire', that's believed to show one of those sunsets." The fiery, swirling background to Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' is said to be similarly influenced.
Though the Sunda seawaters occupied the great hole where the island used to be, it wasn't the end of Krakatau. In 1927, a new cone began to rise on a piece of island left behind. The peptic ulcer in the body of the planet was still leaking molten rock, and Anak Krakatau – "the child of Krakatau" – would steadily rise, engorged with lava and ash.
By 2018 Anak Krakatau was a 400m-high cone. Although half the height of its "father", it still had a lot of pent-up anger and was given to lively displays of ash and roiling clouds of sulphurous steam and became a popular day trip out of Jakarta. Small motor launches ferried groups of tourists out to the island where they were met by trekking guides from local mainland villages.
I meet three of these guides – Irwan, Ateng and Heri – when our cruise ship calls into nearby Ujung Kulon National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 60 kilometres away on the western-most tip of Java.
"Until December last year we used to take many foreign tourists onto Anak Krakatau," says Irwan. "Australians, Europeans, Americans…" A video on his phone shows young western backpackers hooting with delight at a hissing vent on Anak Krakatua. "We guides were living in local villages along this coast. Then the eruption happened and the tsunami came…"
In December 2018, Anak Krakatau erupted and collapsed into the sea, causing a wave that reached five metres.
Ateng tells me his village was all but destroyed in the eruption. "I remember a thousand people, running, looking for high land." He moves his hands, describing the chaos: "Cars, motorbikes, people, running, running…"
Heri's wife, two children and parents were among the 426 killed.
These days the guides must earn their living by taking visitors on rainforest walks through the national park. Ujung Kulon earned its UNESCO World Heritage listing as the largest remaining lowland rainforest where the world's last 76 Javan rhinos survive. Paradoxically, it exists because of the eruption of Krakatau in 1883: the explosion and tsunami spared no one across the entire peninsula and the area was never resettled nor cleared for farming.
Anak Krakatau is the low, blackened island that we skirt in the Coral Adventurer. After the December eruption, its 400-metre cone was reduced by a full three-quarters to this low black bump. Today, all vessels are forbidden from landing people on its shores, but we get close enough to see blackened fissures, lava spills and scorched tree stumps.
Of course, the zone is still active, so new eruptions will push up from deep beneath, and the process will begin again. In 70 years' time, visitors to this volatile and very beautiful part of the world may well be looking up at the grandchild of Krakatau.
Coral Expeditions' 18-night Islands of Indonesia cruise departs February 2, 2020, sailing from Singapore to Darwin with Coral Adventurer suites starting at $29,500 (twin share) all-inclusive except flights, drinks outside meals and scuba diving. They also have a range of other 2020 cruises between Singapore and Darwin, stopping at Krakatau and Ujung Kulon. See coralexpeditions.com
Max Anderson was a guest of Coral Expeditions
FIVE AWESOME VOLCANOES THAT DESERVE A CLOSER LOOK…
WHITE ISLAND, NEW ZEALAND
Offering one of the world's most spectacular up-close volcanic experiences, White Island pokes out of the sea 50 kilometres off Whakatane on North Island. Visitors can land by boat or by helicopter onto the more than 300 hectare site, before hiking to the mouth of the volcano through a yellow landscape that hisses and steams. The volcano is pretty grumpy and, on a good day, you'll see great bursts of boiling mud shooting 30 metres into the air.
The volcano that buried Pompeii in AD97 is nine kilometres east of Naples. The last eruption was in 1944, but, with 3 million people living in its shadow, it's considered one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes. The spectacular 1200-metre cone (Gran Cono) is partially encircled by an older and taller caldera called Mount Somma; tourists climb the peak for views, though Pompeii is a bigger draw, with some 2.5 million visiting the ancient ruins each year.
MAYON VOLCANO, PHILIPPINES
Mayon vies for the world's most beautiful volcano (with stiff competition from Japan's Mount Fuji) but it might be a case of "last chance to see". Standing tall in the Albay region on Luzon, Mayon is steep, slender and almost perfectly conical. It's also foul-tempered, last spilling lava from its peak in 2018 and clearly capable of destroying its own glorious symmetry. Climbing to the summit was banned in 2012, but the true glory of the thing is best appreciated from afar.
KILAUEA, UNITED STATES
The Hawaiian islands are blobs of cooled magma squeezed up though fissures in the Pacific Plate and moved on by plate tectonics like they're on a conveyor belt. The process can be seen at work on "Big Island" (the island of Hawaii). Kilauea is a low shield volcano that has been reliably erupting since 1983. As well as getting close to the enormous vent, visitors can drive south (conditions allowing) to the coast. Here, among incredible fields of basalt, molten lava plops ominously from cliffy fissures into the sea.
Erebus is clad in snow and ice and definitely one for super-keen vulcanologists. The 3800-metre cone is the planet's southern-most volcano and makes a spectacular backdrop to the American and New Zealand bases on the less-visited Ross Sea. The crater (complete with volcanic lake) is difficult to access. Climbing expeditions report ice caves as well as "ice fumaroles", curious ice chimneys that stand up to 15 metres tall and release sulphurous steam out the top.