Adventures in Indonesia – The Ascent of the Merapi Volcano

7 06 2009

Hello again!

My apologies that the last two weeks have been somewhat light in postings. It occurred partially because of a food poisoning in Singapore that put me out of commission for a few days, compounded by the fact that we wound up traveling through areas in Indonesia and Malaysia with limited Internet connections. As a result, there is a lot of stuff to share now!

The following is a “guest post” by my traveling companion, Tolik, about our little adventure in Indonesia (pictures are my own):

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Fun Fact: Mount Merapi – meaning Mountain of Fire – is the most active volcano in Indonesia and has produced more pyroclastic flows than any other volcano in the world. It has been active for 10,000 years with the latest eruption taking place in 2006.

While Mt. Merapi was always on the list of destinations we planned to hit on this trip, the plan for ascending it (as is the case for most things on this trip) was improvised just hours beforehand. Still suffering the aftershocks of his indulgence in Singaporean cuisine, Borya wasn’t sure if he was able to do it. However, another traveler in our guesthouse, Serbian “Socialist” Alexander indicated interest in joining us. After additional research, by 18:00 we have all pretty much agreed to go.

The shortest and currently the only safe way to ascend Mt. Merapi is from the village of Selo. It is a tiny obscure village on its foothills, approximately 2 hours away from Yogyakarta [city in Indonesia where we were staying for a few days]. Having lost my phone with detailed Indonesian maps and GPS a day earlier, our sole navigation aid was a page from a notebook with a hastily drawn semblance of a map.

Our makeshift map

Typically, people start the ascend at night, in order to make the summit by sunrise. So, following that suggestion, we left the guesthouse at 00:30 on our rented motorbikes [which is typically the easiest and fastest way of getting around in the city].

As a quick aside, I must add that it is a very enjoyable experience to start a trip in the middle of the night. There is a large sense of anticipation and adventure afforded by departure after nightfall. Something that is normally banal during the day, becomes magical and filled with possibilities, most of which aren’t likely to occur, but that doesn’t matter. Anticipation is the reward.

Alex rode on the bike with me and Borya was following us on his bike. Thoroughly enjoying the road in the absence of other Indonesian motorbike riders, always intent on cutting you off, we ended up missing our turn to Selo – the trail’s starting point. This innocuous mistake was made significantly more serious given the fact that we were in the middle of the night in a rural area in a foreign country. How do you find someone to ask directions, and once you do, how do you communicate with them with sufficient clarity? Luckily we stumbled upon a gas station that was open 24/7 (unlike everything else in rural Indonesia). The attendant, while he did not speak any English, was able to give us fairly precise directions as to where we needed to go.

As we proceeded to go back to our turn, heavy fog fell, reducing the visibility to just several meters in front. Oncoming trucks turned into large noisy shadows, powerful wind gusts following in their wake. We made note of a non-functioning traffic light, but unfortunately continued for another 5 kilometers, before ascertaining that it was, in fact, our turn. After coming back to it, we were on the road to Selo – behind schedule, but according to plan.

As we proceeded the pitch black symmetrical cone of the volcano on the slightly glowing sky background, a fairly big feature even before, came to dominate the landscape. Half an hour into the turn, we came to a fork. After exploring it and the bizarre shop open in the middle of the night, as well as the closed observation deck (for viewing the volcano), we decided on the correct direction – another 10 kilometers of a winding mountain road going up to the highest lights visible on the slope of the volcano. At one point on that road, I laid the bike down in some very slippery mud, which Alex certainly didn’t appreciate, however in the end we got to highest point reachable by road safely. Giant letters above the parking lot announced: “New Selo.”

As we got off the bikes, we were approached by a few locals offering to guide us to the top. Remembering our previous experience with the guide in Nepal (which proved to be pretty unnecessary), I insisted that we don’t need one. We refused the locals’ offer, but Borya did rent a jacket from one of them for 15,000 Rupiah ($1.50), as it was pretty chilly at this altitude at night (Selo is about 1.5km above sea level). After looking around for an entire 30 seconds we found a path that seemed to go uphill and so, at 3:40, armed with flashlights, we began our ascent, trying to make 1.5km of altitude (the summit of the volcano is almost 3km, it is equivalent to going up the Empire State Building 5 times) by sunrise, while also trying to accommodate Borya’s uncooperative digestive tract.

Path to the top of the volcano

Path to the top of the volcano

First 20 minutes of the ascent took place over pretty clear and easy to walk path winding through tobacco fields; but after that the fields ended and the path turned into a bed of currently dry stream signified by boulders and tree roots sticking out of the ground where the soil was washed away (often making for convenient handles). As we proceeded uphill, our flashlights cutting through the darkness and dense vegetation, realization that we were actually doing it – ascending a volcano on the ring of fire in Indonesia – was at once a humbling and empowering.

View of the volcano in the dark

View of the volcano in the dark

Stopping for a rest, we turned off the lights and quieted down, letting darkness and nocturnal jungle noises flow around us. However, after our eyes quickly adjusted, it turned out that darkness was full of detail. An entire valley of lights, like dark velvet with jewels spread around it could be seen for tens of kilometers and far below us we could see its edge: the rubies of New Selo transmitter antenna. The sky was similarly sprinkled with stars, though veiled by thin milky clouds and, so, much more subdued than lights in the valley, except for one very brilliant point. Contemplating the discrepancy, we decided it was a planet – probably Mercury.

After a few minutes of enjoying the rest and the view we continued the climb. The winding path, which was rather a dry bed from water run-off was separating into various directions, merging, separating again. This was somewhat impeding navigation and we even had to split up a few times to follow two potential routes then come back and agree on the way to go.

The view

The view

By 5:00, though the sunrise was still 40 minutes away, it was already dawn. We turned off our flashlights as they were no longer necessary. The view around us made the continued climb a surreal experience. We could see a huge column of dirty white smoke rising from the top of the volcano. The sky was of purple gradient, from dark towards the west to almost glowing towards the east. The entire valley was visible with not one or two, but seven (!) perfectly symmetrical volcano cones. One rising directly adjacent to Merapi and others getting smaller and smaller towards the horizon. Armies of small puffy white clouds were attacking all of them from the east, as the wind blowing from hence cooled rising on their slopes and the moisture condensed.

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The image was similar to what one would see on a cover of a cheap sci-fi novel. We were no longer ascending a volcano, but exploring a different planet, at least for as long as the purple sky at dawn could allow suspension of disbelief.

Half an hour later we reached the treeline. The sunrise was imminent, betrayed by the glowing lining underneath the clouds, and we were still a long distance away from the top. There was no way we could reach it by sunrise, but neither did we need to. It was impossible to top the view we saw at the time, as I have described previously. We agreed to ascend a little bit more to a large rocky balcony of sorts and set up there for breakfast.

After having breakfast,we started up again. Moving further the landscape changed dramatically. Shrubs and grasses, still ubiquitous even above the treeline, gave way to barren ground made up of volcanic rock. It was extremely light, but had very coarse surface with some sharp edges. It was probably formed when lava flows (most recent of which took place in 2006) cooled and later broke apart into smaller and smaller pieces because of day-night temperature differential.

The incline also changed significantly, reaching in places 50 degrees. The climb from here was slow and arduous as each step had to be taken deliberately to avoid slipping on the rocks or cutting hands on their sharp edges.

Steep ascent on the rocks

Steep ascent on the rocks

Towards the top the fresh mountain air started to smell of sulfur, indicating continuing seismic activity at the volcano; or, alternatively, according to Hugo Chavez, a recent visit by George W. Bush. Some of the rocks actually had yellow sulfur stains. Touching one of them, I almost burned my hand – the rock was directly above a vent and so was searing hot.

Surfur smoke coming out of the caldera

Surfur smoke coming out of the caldera

After taking some pictures on the rocks, we went up to reach the rim of the caldera. Looking down into it we didn’t see anything interesting.

Caldera

Caldera

It was flat and sandy with steep cliffs around it. However, the sand betrayed a curious thing: it sometimes contained a lake, likely during rainy season, so swimming was definitely an interesting possibility, but unfortunately not for us – it was currently dry. Huge column of smoke rising next to us, we went further up to the summit.

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It was largely a symbolic achievement, as the view wasn’t any more beautiful or profound then previously. Wanting to get a cool photo I went up to stack of rocks somewhat below the summit, once I got up on them, the sheer height struck me – there was over 100 meter vertical drop one step (or loss of balance) away. It was further amplified by volcano being 2.5km above the rest of the landscape. This was a scarier experience than jumping out of a plane and I even got jitters – Borya’s fumbling’s with the camera seemed to take forever.

After getting our fill of pictures we went downhill. The clouds that were attacking other volcanoes at the dawn by now have reached towards the top of Merapi as well. It was interesting to walk in their haze on the barren rocks, being able to see only a few meters in front, and further down they provided excellent cover from the unforgiving (as we will learn later) South Asian sun. The way down was relatively easy, a few slips and falls notwithstanding. In a couple of hours we were approaching the village of Selo, where another surprise was awaiting us…

TO BE CONTINUED…

Another beautiful view from the top

Another beautiful view from the top


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