Three years ago we embarked in Bali and headed eastward, across the Wallace Line, and island-hopped for a while around the archipelago of Nusa Tenggara. We sailed past the great volcanic edifice of Tambora, originator of the greatest eruption of modern times and the cause of ‘the year without a summer.’ All was peaceful, although the lines of raised beaches along the shore spoke of volcanic and seismic upheaval. The day before we arrived at Komodo – where there indeed be dragons, not to mention spectacular sands – we sailed past the eastern shores of Sumbawa and I photographed the volcano island of Sangeang Api, benignly dormant in the evening light (above left). Today, the tropical languor has been shattered by several major eruptions of Sangean Api over the last 24 hours (above right).
It’s estimated that the ash cloud has reached more than 15 kilometres into the atmosphere, rapidly spreading southward across northern Australia and currently headed for Alice Springs. This dramatic aerial image by Sofyan Efendi (Barcroft Media/Splash News and news.com.au) demonstrates the scale of the eruption.
Not surprisingly, aviation between much of Australia and Indonesia and Singapore is in chaos. Flights have been cancelled and the airport at Darwin closed.
As a geologist, I couldn’t help wishing for the volcanically energetic islands of Nusa Tenggara to demonstrate their prowess as we cruised by, but they remained bashful. What I hadn’t thought of – and I should have, after being stranded in the US by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name a couple of years earlier – was that, as I booked my travel to Alice Springs via Singapore and Darwin for my great outback adventure in 2012, the itinerary came with some risk. Had Sangeang Api decided to put on this kind of show at the beginning of February that year, I would likely never have made it on the expedition – and much of my new book (The Desert: Lands of Lost Borders) would have been very different. Life is uncertain, and I’m grateful to Sangeang Api for waiting a while.