Living in the shadow of Bali's Mount Agung, refusing to leave

A farmer carries fresh crop from a field as Mount Agung volcano spews smoke and ash. PHOTO: REUTERS

KARANGASEM, INDONESIA (AFP) - Thousands of villagers living in the shadow of a rumbling Bali volcano have been fleeing for days, but some are now risking life and limb by sneaking back into the danger zone - along with thrill-seeking tourists.

The 10-km radius around Mount Agung is littered with roadside signs that read "Volcanic danger zone. No entry!", underscoring the potential risks.

But for chicken farmer Wayan Kompyang, a father of nine, heading into the no-go area was no choice at all - his livelihood depends on it.

"I keep coming back to the village to check on my chickens and feed them," he told AFP in Pring Sari, a tiny community less than 8km from the belching crater.

The 45-year-old's prized poultry isn't for eating though - the chickens are used in Sabung, a traditional rooster fighting contest in which villagers bet on the outcome.

There hasn't been much chicken fighting since the volcano burst to life again in the past week. But with his family safe in an evacuation centre, Kompyang is now afraid of losing his only source of income.

"I have to keep taking care of them to make sure they are healthy and ready to fight after this situation calms down," he added.

'Don't challenge nature'

The crater is about 75km from the beachside tourist hub of Kuta, so there is relatively little risk to most of the 120,000 tourists stranded by a nearly three-day airport shutdown earlier this week.

But the dangers are real for tens of thousands who have already fled from homes around the volcano - which last erupted in 1963, killing around 1,600 people.

As many as 100,000 will likely be forced to leave their homes in case of another full eruption, disaster agency officials have said.

Added to local officials' headaches are foreign "eruption chasers", who are sneaking into the red zone to get close to the burbling mountain.

"We just wanna see it," said French tourist Anna Mangler, who was on a motorbike with her German companion when police stopped them from entering the restricted area.

"We are here for vacation... so why not? Of course it is scary, but it's gonna be okay," she told AFP.

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency, urged others to reconsider.

"We're asking foreign tourists trespassing into the exclusion zone to please don't do it," he said.

"Yesterday, rocks were falling up to 4km away from the crater so it's really dangerous... Don't challenge nature."

The local government has set up a livestock rescue taskforce to rush thousands of at-risk animals to safety with some 8,200 pigs, cows and goats so far cleared from the area.

The slopes of Agung are a hub for cattle farming in the region, providing an important source of income for local communities.

But the mountain is also an important spiritual centre for many of Bali's mostly Hindu population.

"I admit we're having difficulties in evacuating people," Nugroho said.

"Some people think a Mount Agung eruption is a spiritual event and want to leave their fate and safety in God's hands.

"There are also elderly people who have surrendered completely to nature and refused to leave."

'I will run'

Octogenarian Hindu cleric Jero Mangku Darma - who witnessed the 1963 eruption - said he is the lone holdout in Sebudi, a small community about 5km from Agung.

"I don't want to be evacuated. Why should I?" asked Darma, dressed in a traditional Balinese sarong, as the overwhelming smell of sulphur from the volcano filled the air.

"I will stay here. Unless the volcano really erupts, then I will run."

Hundreds of people who snuck back to their villages died in a 2010 eruption at Java's Mount Merapi - one of the world's most active and dangerous volcanoes.

But with no work and running low on cash, Wayan Sinta Presana said he would take his chances as he returned from an evacuation centre.

"There haven't been any construction jobs at all for five days," said the 49-year-old whose home in Pakraman Presana village sits near the mountain.

"We have been spending money on food but I don't have any new income. It's very stressful. At home, at least I can relieve the anxiety by looking after my birds."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.