Last Updated:
9 August 2003
Date Arrived:
12 May 2003
Date Left:
21 May 2003
Total Days:
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Climbing Merapi and witnessing Semeru blow her top

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(12 May 2003 - 21 May 2003)


12-15 May – Five in the morning and I’m walking down the, for now silent, main road running North to South through Yogyakarta. It had been over a day ago when I stepped onto an aeroplane in Pedang, the capital of Sumatra, and I had since then arrived in Java’s capital, Jakarta, and taken the overnight train to Yogyakarta (or yogya, pronounced ‘jogja’, by the locals). My determination to find a suitably comfortable room after this long-haul trip led me on a marathon two-hour hunt carrying all my kit, but I was eventually rewarded when I found a hotel room with swimming pool which I was able to haggle down to almost half the usual price.

After a shower and swim I became orientated with Yogya, Java’s most popular and probably nicest city, visiting the Sultans Palace and the remarkable night market with its snake oil merchants selling ground scorpions and dried iguana to cure baldness, impotence, lack of facial hair and anything else the locals were willing to part money for. One of the most intriguing features of Yogya is the number of hidden gangs (Javanese for backstreet alleys), often overlooked or missed by foreign visitors, which are packed full of live-animal merchants and salt and charcoal traders, most whom live in there stalls and are filthy from soot, animal blood and mud. It’s not a pretty or comfortable sight, but I got the impression this is where the real trading takes place, the shops on the main street being the polite facade for the tourists.

Like every gullible visitor I ended up being led to a Batik art shop and being wowed by the handmade wax-work prints, enough to part with my money and buy some originals, only to learn later that I’d massively overpaid. It was impressive artwork though; a sheet of cloth is painted with wax and repeatedly dyed in different colours, with more wax being applied each time until a picture emerges.

The two main attractions near Yogya are Borobudour, the 8th Century Buddhist Temple, the largest of its kind in the world, and Parambabanan, the Hindu temple built only a few years after. Unfortunately to see them both is over a hundred mile round trip so I decided to hire a motorbike and see them both in the same day. The Indonesian guy I hired the bike from gave me a tip of a secret entrance to Borobudour which means I wouldn’t have to pay the huge tourist price, so I thanked him and left on my way.

A few points about traffic rules in Indonesia; first there aren’t any. Forget everything you ever learned about road safety and etiquette, because driving a motorbike anywhere in Indonesia is tantamount to suicide, and that goes double for an overcrowded city like Yogya. Its okay to drive the wrong way up a one-way street, and overtaking on the inside is good form, although don’t expect oncoming traffic to swerve to avoid you. Traffic lights are merely colourful street decorations, and when you reach an intersection cars, mopeds, bikes, rickshaws and pedestrians all simultaneously have right of way. Having said that, it’s quite a rush to be driving a motorbike at high speed down a road weaving your way in and out of other vehicles, only just avoiding several near misses, and all in the name of keeping with the flow of the traffic.

Against all probability I arrived in one peice a couple of hours later at Borobudour, found the hotel entrance around the back, passed security by saying I was visiting the restaurant, and kept driving past the restaurant to arrive at the Temple. It was pretty impressive to see, a vast bell-shaped dome, surrounded by several walkways, each level representing the levels of the Buddhist model of the universe. The nearside wall of each walkway displayed delicate carvings, depicting religious stories, and at the top, hundreds of bell-shaped stone structures inside of each sat a statue of the Budda. There were already quite a few snap-happy Asian visitors, many of which were more interested in photographing me than the temple. I think the novelty of meeting a westerner is why they do this, but I’ve been told that being photographed standing next to a westerner is some form of prestige when they show their friends back home – very strange.

Wandering outside of the temple I saw a large gathering of hundreds of monks. There was also a large tent and a stage, which made me curious to know what was happening, and so seeing a small group of novice monks sitting and eating on the lawn, I went over and introduced myself to them. They offered me some food and while I ate, they told me that today was the Budda’s birthday and monks from all over Java had congregated here for a birthday ceremony which would take place in less than an hour. The press and media were out in force and being the only westerner around I was naturally bombarded with photographers who wanted a picture of the traveller sitting on the ground, eating with the monks. I wonder if any actually reached the Javanese Newspapers? I stayed around to see some of the ceremony which was slightly bizarre, with its out of tune music, odd instruments and large headdresses, but fascinating nonetheless.

My next stop was Parambabanan Temple, built in response to Borobudour by the Hindus also in the 8th Century. It too was equally magnificent, and it too was built to model the universe according to the Hindus, and it too was full of snap-happy Asians all queuing up to take a picture with me. After an hour of posing with literally dozens of people for their photo albums I actually found myself hiding to avoid large groups of tourists eager to photograph me. It’s a strange thing to be a tourist attraction. By the time I got to actually look at the temple it was getting dark so I left to make the precarious journey back into the city before nightfall.

When I arrived back at the hotel I discovered there was a blackout and my room floor and walls were covered in cockroaches, clearly at home in the darkness. I resolved to leave the next morning.

Kali Urang (South face of Merapi)

16-17 May – I took the early morning bus to Kali Urang, where the skyline was dominated by the imposing south face of Mt. Merapi, Java’s most active volcano. It was a remarkable sight as Merapi fits the archetypical idea of the perfect conical mountain and smoking crater at the top. I wanted to climb the 2900meters to the summit of Merapi and here it was supposed to be possible, although only with an experienced guide. Luckily I found the best, a very old and tiny Indonesian with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Merapi, and who had lived through several of its eruptions, including one of the more recent ones which almost wiped out the town.

I was up the next morning at 2.15am, and attending the trek briefing at 2.30am. I and a few other climbers were warned that Merapi was currently at activity level 2, meaning it can blow at any moment without warning so proceed with caution. Should it erupt during climbing we were instructed to run as fast as possible back down, although this advice seemed a bit pointless after we were then told the lava flows at 300 kph.

By 3am I was walking through the forest at the foot of Merapi and crossed the broad lava trail from last year’s eruption. However, before I felt we had even really started climbing, the guide stopped us and said it was impossible and too dangerous to continue. It was a bitter disappointment, especially when looking at the red cone of Merapi in the rising sun and its seething crater in the distance. However on the way back down I got chatting to an Indonesian guy called Santos who now lived in Singapore, and who like me was unable to let go of the idea of climbing Merapi. On reaching the village we both visited the seismologists that study Merapi in their station and subtly enquired what routes up Merapi were currently climbable. We managed to find out that the North face was passable and so the two of us spent the rest of the day riding busses and the hitching rides on the backs of fruit trucks to get around Merapi and reach the town of Selo at the foot of its North face.

Selo (North Face of Merapi)

18 May – There was really nothing at Selo except a few farm houses and a small number of dingy looking food shops. Santos and I found a really basic losman (home stay) and began preparations for the climb the next day. Since santos could speak Indonesian he was able to find out from the locals the best route up Merapi while I purchased food and water for the expedition. That night we ate at one of the very few places that served food, or closer to the truth, left precooked and cooled meat and vegetables in the window for those with strong constitutions to eat. The food was crawling with flies, and cockroaches could be seen living in the rice, but seeing as there was little other choice, Santos and I sat down to eat some.

That night I lay awake the whole time as my breathing became shallow and I became feverish. I was so completely congested that I had to breathe entirely through my mouth, but really began worrying when my lungs began filling up with fluid. Several times during the night I found myself having to step outside to gasp for air and tip out the build up of water from my lungs. So much liquid came out only to be replaced minutes later by more that I seriously began wondering if I had in fact caught SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). I had after all been travelling with a person who had just come from Singapore where at the time had several cases of SARS. Uncertain about what to do, but realising I was too far from any medical assistance to make any difference, I decided to say nothing to Santos and continue with the climb whatever the consequences. I knew this was going to be a real test of my metal.

The night was mercifully short, as we were up at 2.30am once again climbing Merapi in total darkness. The altitude and physical exertion made breathing difficult, but I soon forgot about it with the task at hand requiring my full attention just to avoid getting lost or falling in the darkness. The way up was extremely steep, and early on we found ourselves clambering up vertical rocks using both hands and feet. I had to concentrate on every step, being fully aware that should I again twist my already weakened ankle that there would be absolutely no way back down or for medical help to get to me. Despite these risks, Santos and I made good progress and about four hours in beat all expectations when the first rays of the sun showed us we were only about a kilometre from reaching the summit.

However this last kilometer was fraught with danger, being almost entirely vertical, all loose volcanic rock and scree, and full of smoking vents pouring out poisonous sulphur gasses. It was hard going, icy cold wind cut through my clothing and every step required a huge effort of will as we approached the crater at the summit. But it was also awe inspiring. Picture this; newly-formed, glassy black volcanic rock underfoot, the titanic craters rim above, sulphur vents pock marking the path ahead, sending pillars of gas into the air to meet the huge cloud emerging slowly from the mouth of Merapi. All this time the sun is rising behind, reflecting ever-changing colours off the rock and smoke, gradually revealing the surrounding vista of mountains and fields far below. It took a further hour to climb the remaining kilometre to the top, where we took the obligatory summit pictures of each other, before resting and warming up in the suns morning rays.

We climbed towards the crater rim to peer into the abyss and even climbed the descent into it as far as possible, which was before the sulphurous smoke became unbearable. Looking up from inside the crater was a remarkable sight as the sunlight struck the smoke as it escaped over the rim and was lit up for the first time. We even came across the seismology equipment that belonged to the scientists we had spoken to the previous day. It was truly remarkable and a once in a lifetime experience to be standing on top of one of the worlds most active volcanos looking down on everything, and one I’ll never forget. But just when I thought it couldn’t get much better I was to find out in only a couple of days it most certainly could.

Four hours later I was back at Selo, all memories of the previous night’s illness replaced by the elation of having climbed Merapi, and riding on the back of a fruit truck with Santos back towards Yogya. There Santos and I showered at my hotel, relaxed around the pool, visited the night market and had a welcomely delicious restaurant meal. But even that did not cool our desire to visit more volcanos, and so we agreed to continue on together to another huge range of volcanos in the south of Java.

Bromo Volcanic Range

19-21 May – we were late getting a bus to Mt Bromo and so didn’t arrive at the hostel situated just below its rim until midnight.

Bromo is actually the name given to an area that is the site of three volcanos, Mt Batok (2440m), Mt Widodaren (2614m) Mt. Bromo (2392m) itself, which are all contained inside a vast 4 km wide caldera and surrounded by a high, crater wall – the remnants of a truly ancient and extinct volcano. Bromo is the only active volcano of the three inside the caldera, however, another active volcano, Mt Semeru (3676m), can be seen just outside of the caldera rim. The range is also unusual in that there is a road leading from the nearby town of Probolinggo to the caldera rim which makes it very accessible.

We rose early (by now we were waking early whether we wanted to of not) and made the short walk to the top of the caldera rim and then down to the caldera floor. Seeing it for the first time is quite a shock to the senses. The perfectly flat and sandy floor, known as the Sand Sea, stretches out for 4 kilometers, with only the three cones of Batok, Windodaren and Bromo sitting in its centre. The Sand Sea is also strange to walk on, although it took a while to realise why. Santos discovered it first by accident, by throwing a rock, and the sound it made as it landed was like that of hitting a huge kettle drum. The caldera floor was hollow underneath and as we discovered later when we saw a cross-section of broken ground, only about half a meter thick. We walked to the volcanos which, although high above sea-level only were half a kilometre or less from the caldera floor, and so would be easy to climb. Between Batok and Bromo stood a hindu temple in what seemed a surreal juxtaposition of nature and architecture. Quite why anyone would chose to build anything under an active volcano I never did find out but I think it’s been some time since Bromo last erupted.

Nevertheless, Bromo was smoking quite a lot while we were there and so to get a better look inside we climbed the short climb up to the summit of Batok. We had climbed to get a better view of Bromo, but instead found ourselves in for the shock of our lives. We wandered the summit of Batok and eventually sat down to tuck into some food we had brought with us, when a rumbling sound caught our attention. We looked up to see it just in time, for right before us Mt Semeru had begun to erupt.

Jumping to our feet we shouted in shock, only to then rush to get our cameras out to record every moment. What we recorded was the cap of Semeru being blown away and, at first small, but then rapidly growing pyroclastic clouds forming many kilometres into the sky. A mushroom cloud of smoke and ash towered above us and then began to descend in a flowing motion down the sides of Semeru. This continued for about an hour and then stopped, but only temporarily as twenty minutes later it was repeating the whole display again.

We both watched and listened in excited awe before returning to the hindu temple at the foot of Batok. Near the temple we met a couple of Indonesians with horses that they were willing to hire us and so Santos and I raced our horses the length of the Sand Sea and to the exit of the caldera – a great way to work off the adrenalin rush. By the time we reached the village there was ash everywhere, and the air was full of faint specks of ash falling like a light drizzle.

We spent the rest of the day enjoying the buzz in the hostel that the eruption had generated and getting to know a nice couple from Holland called Peta and Mirijam and we all agreed to go see the sunrise the next morning from the viewpoint on nearby Mt. Pananjakan (2770m) which would also give us a great view of Semeru erupting.

Again I was up at 2.30am for the jeep drive up to the viewpoint, arriving just in time for the sunrise. Semeru was erupting every 20 minutes or so now and so a large ash haze covered most of it, but it did make for a spectacular sunrise. I would say with certainty that that sunrise was the most beautiful and memorable one I’ve ever seen, with the Sand Sea below, containing its three volcanoes, Bromo still smoking and beyond that the mighty Semeru violently erupting into the red and purple sky. A greater display of the earths titanic forces in action I doubt I’ll ever see.

The climax to my stay at Bromo was to climb Bromo itself. The climb was very easy, most of it having steps carved into the rock, but the sight from the rim into Bromo’s smoking core was fascinating. Walking around the rim the hot sulphur would occasionally blow my way and burn my eyes and skin, making breathing near impossible, but when I was upwind I could see into its interior. In its centre was a large ten meter wide pit that, when the smoke cleared, could be seen to descend seemingly forever. Just thinking that this hole goes far into the earths crust from where all the sulphurous smoke originates made my head spin. Or maybe that was just from breathing too much ash and poisonous gas.

The next morning I said goodbye to Santos who was heading back to Jakarta, and joined Peta and Mirijam the couple from Holland I’d met in the Hostel for the long bus and ferry journey to Bali. The Southeast Asian part of my journey was nearly at an end, and with Bali being such a tourist resort I felt I was leaving behind the best of Asia. I was re-entering civilisation, and that very night me and my two new travel companions were going to get a rude awakening.

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