© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Krakatau, a killer volcano near Java

3 minutes to read

Few topographic objects have drawn as much attention in human history as Krakatau volcano. The cone rising out of the sea between Java and Sumatra looks humble, but it is, in fact, anything but. Krakatau is one of the most active volcanoes on Earth and a habitual killer. Its eruption in 1883 was a volume explosion four times more powerful than the mightiest nuke ever created. Just recently, in 2018, it collapsed, launching a tsunami wave that took hundreds of lives on nearby Java. While slightly risky, a visit to the volcano can be arranged, and with luck, this is one of the best chances you will ever get to see an explosive eruption and come back to tell the tale. If a night on a barren, shockwave-swept coast of Rakata, a nearby island and the usual viewpoint, takes too large a toll,  stop on Pulau Sebesi on the way back: a tropical islet with a fishing village, two guesthouses, lots of wild beach, and coral gardens beneath the sea surface.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Explosive history

Krakatau made a name for itself in 1883, when it blew up with the explosive force of approximately 200 Mt - roughly 13000 more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There goes the human hubris - "destroying our planet, saving our planet..." This planet is not ours, and it can take care of itself - and of us if we are unlucky. The blast created a tsunami wave that circled the globe; on nearby landmasses, tens of thousands were killed. Paradoxically, the actual explosion did not harm anyone - the island had been (and still is, for obvious reasons) uninhabited. Most of the cone was blasted away, with only three shards remaining above the water on the periphery. The vent ended up under the sea, but a new cone started growing from the bottom. By the late 20th century, the new cone, called Anak Krakatau - literally, Krakatau's child - was over 300 m tall and intermittently active. But there was no rest for the wicked - during one of its eruptive phases in 2018, Anak Krakatau imploded. Collapsing rocks again launched a tsunami that hit nearby Java, killing hundreds - including an entire popular rock band that was apparently about to perform in a beach resort. The cycle went on: water covered the crater again, causing curious and relatively safe steam eruptions, but a fresh cone rose quickly and erupted massively in 2020. At the moment, Krakatau is quiet by its own restless standards and can be visited. 

Anak Krakatau
Anak Krakatau
Krakatoa, Anak Krakatau Island, Pulau, South Lampung Regency, Lampung, Indonesia
© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Sebesi island

If a night of volcano-watching leaves you desperate for some R&R, consider a stop on Sebesi Island on the way back. The island is tiny, just a fringe of sand surrounding another volcano (this one - dormant). A fishing village stands on the shore, with at least two local families letting out rooms - rather overpriced and very basic, but you would be paying for a piece of tropical paradise close to the capital. The sea is calm, since Java and Sumatra block waves on both sides, there is a fair bit of live coral and an even smaller uninhabited islet mostly made of beach within a short boat ride. There is not much to do out of the water, but this is the whole point, isn't it?

Sebesi Island
Sebesi Island
Sebesi Island, Lampung, Indonesia
© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Trips to Krakatau can be arranged from either Java or Sumatra. A few tour agencies in Jakarta are willing to take care of everything - for a price, clearly. To do it yourself, first get to Kalianda, a small Sumatran town facing Sunda strait, easily accessible by bus. Hiring a boat directly from there will still be rather expensive. The cheapest way would be to board the daily ferry (in fact, a single-deck wooden vessel carrying both passengers and cargo, mainly bananas) to Sebesi Island, then negotiate with the fishermen. To see the volcano at its best, spend the night near it - this means camping on one of the three shards of the former Big Krakatau. Usually, the best views are from Rakata Island, south of the main cone. This puts you less than 3 km from the active vent - if the eruption is strong enough, you will not even need a telephoto lens (if it blasts full force - ever again). If Krakatau is unusually peaceful, it may be possible to disembark on the volcano itself, and in some rare cases - even climb to the crater. Still, it is better to exercise extreme caution: Krakatau is a killer. Do not expect your boatman to be volcano-savvy - the fishermen of Sebesi do enjoy fishing next to the cone, where sulfuric gas makes fish slow and easy to scoop, but they commonly get pulverized every time Krakatau blows up. Trust your eyes, recall your physics, learn some volcanology, and just in case, leave a will.

Rakata Island
Rakata Island
Gunung Rakkata, Anak Krakatau Island, Pulau, South Lampung Regency, Lampung, Indonesia

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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