3am. Bleary-eyed. Bali's skies are pitch black. We're stood at the foot of Batur Volcano, ready to hike up to its peak in time for sunrise. We set off in high spirits, armed with headlamps and hiking sticks.
Gode, our Balinese guide, clocks my worried face. Sees my shaky breaths, my discomfort, my fear. Saying nothing, he turns towards me. My torchlight falls upon his outstretched hand.
Hand over mine, Gode guides me up the rocky terrain. I focus on my breathing as we ascend through the darkness, legs burning, calves on fire, heat searing up the small of my back. Step by agonising step, in my battered, worn-out Nike Lunarglides, Gode pulls me onwards.
"5 more minutes," he tells us, every 20 minutes. "Just 5 more minutes." I will myself to play along. He distracts me with talk about his kids, his wife, his life. I'm so focused on the pep talk in my head, on pushing past the anxiety of letting the team down, that when we finally hit the peak, I think everyone's having a laugh.
I let go of Gode's hand, reluctant. But sure enough, the ground is flat. Cackling whoops of ecstasy. High fives all round.
Torchlight and phone screens glow like stars across the terraneous black landscape. Gode guides us to a wooden hut where we restore our energy. In the chilling wind, wrapped up in thick woollen blankets, we nibble bananas and boiled egg sandwiches. We sip hot tea, murmuring quietly about this and that. We wait for the magic to happen. Our eyes glaze over in anticipation. We wait. We wait.
At 6am, like clockwork, the darkness dissolves into a misty pastel sunrise obscured by thick wisps of fog. Gasps and shutter clicks abound. Silhouettes fade into people, colourful and bright. Light begins to break beyond Mount Agung. Hani and Tom stare out together at the magical vistas below, leaning inwards, close.
Gode lights a cigarette behind us, nonplussed by the view. But he catches my eye, gives me a kind smile. Then he pulls his hood over his head and gestures for us to follow him to some cliffside caves that, after blowing smoke inside, become hot enough to boil eggs on.
Morning daylight takes hold of the skies. We begin to descend. We see monkeys, craters, Kintamani Lake. We slide down asphalt sand and mud. Gode's hand is always there to help. Hani and Tom, cheeky, congratulate me on finding a loyal mountain husband. Ha, ha.
Eventually, though, once I let mother nature loose behind a bush, Gode stops taking my hand. (I don't blame him, really.)
On our way down, as Gode and Hani begin to chat, Tom chats to me about travel, his girlfriend, his degree. We bond over a number of common interests. I think it surprises us both, since at university, we were only mutual acquaintances. Or maybe we just never took the time to speak. But now here we are, on a volcano in Bali, speaking.
Uncovering newfound connections with people from your past is a funny old thing. How wonderful that these things can happen.
Soon, faster than it took us to climb up, we're back at our dusty white van at the base of the mountain. Time to return to Ubud. Through the window, Gode waves and smiles: goodbye. I wave back, share an acknowledging nod. Thank you.
We all close our eyes, exhausted and alive, as the wheels begin to spin. My limbs are aching in the most delightful way. I feel myself growing drowsy. As my whole body relaxes, and my mind begins to clear, I think one more thing before slipping into sleep: How emotionally complex, and how wonderfully human, the simple gesture of offering a helping hand can be.
If you find yourself in Bali, definitely hike Batur.
Mel left London to chase summer around the world, one country at a time. She loves the ocean, writing postcards, and solo exploration. Travel with her on Instagram.