A tarted up brochure photo of Mt Agung

There is a sense of ‘merry’ fatalism in the morning media today as a claimed 50,000 Australian school holiday makers converge on Bali, where the towering signature landmark of Mt Agung is threatening to erupt on a massive scale for the first time since it went on a volcanic rampage in 1963-64.

Do keep an eye on the news, and your airline’s advisory updates, before going to an airport.

Mt Agung has the potential to shut down large parts of Bali as well as its airport at Denpasar, and the detailed warnings from the natural disaster agency in Indonesia don’t allow too much room for optimism other than the hope that the eruptions, when they occur, will not be as severe in their consequences as they were 54 years ago.

At least 1700 deaths were directly attributable to the Agung eruptions, which disrupted a Bali that had not become a high volume tourism resort, and seemed to many of those who made the adventurous visit to its shores at that time to be a truly unspoiled and wonderful place to explore and absorb.

The 60s eruptions changed the entire world, in that massive clouds of volcanic dusts that were emitted circled the globe at high altitude for several years, causing vivid stratospheric glows, often persisting well before or after sunrise or sunset.

The dust was also linked in some studies to a brief global cooling that saw minor glacial responses persisting into the following decade. In 1964 and 1965 there were the heaviest and most persistent snow falls in living memory in SE Australia, extending at times well outside the depths and extents then considered normal in the Snowies, the Blue Mountains, and across Tasmania and into central Queensland. Snow settled on Mangrove Mountain near Gosford, and blanketed the Razorback range between Picton and Camden.

(Today, the day of the southern spring equinox, SE Australia faces record breaking heat exceeding 40C in some centres, with high 30s likely in the western parts of Sydney.)

Mt Agung’s beautiful walking tracks to its 3031 metre high summit are of course, closed, and likely to remain so for some time. On April 22, 1974, just as Bali began to gain in visitor popularity, a Pan Am 707-320B the Clipper Climax was making an approach to Denpasar when it busted the safe minimum altitudes and heading required, and crashed into its slopes killing all 107 people onboard. The circumstances of the loss of PanAm flight 812 contributed to a major shakeup not just in the airline but in the reshaping of cockpit procedures in many other carriers. It was the third loss of a Pan American 707 in the greater Asia Pacific area in a year, the others being near Papeete and Pago Pago, and caused the airline serious reputational problems in this country.

The Agung crash claimed 16 Australian lives, even though the flight originated in Hong Kong, and was destined to fly to Los Angeles via Denpasar, Sydney, Nadi and Honolulu. Pan Am had been a major player on the Hong Kong-Sydney route, in a time when post war air treaty arrangements had resulted in agreements that seem bizarre by today’s standards.

Indonesian authorities this morning greatly increased the area of the exclusion zone around Mt Agung by doubling its major axis from six to 12 kilometres. Hundreds of tremors are being recorded by seismic detectors on its slopes, and are attributed to rising concentrations of gas and volcanic magma.

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