Between the outskirts of Yogyakarta and Magelang lay my last stop on the bemo. I’m dropped where cattle grazing fields and fruit tree plantations collide with the rising valley ground between the peaks Merapi and Merbabu. I’m here at the (interpreted) directions of an older Indonesian lady at Borobudur Temple, who I grabbed randomly to translate a regional map hanging in a street stall.
The great mountains are lost in a misty atmosphere as I begin walking up a steep road. Never caught any hints of another bemo ride, and I still wonder if this is the right way to Merapi. Passing along rice and tobacco farms, I notice that I may be the only traveler these folks have seen in a while. They stop amidst their work and stare curiously, perhaps wondering what the hell a backpacker is doing here. Then, I figure most tourists would normally drive up.
It’s a beautiful walk, passing lush farms that are barely holding off encroaching jungle. Small shanty town villages dot the way, contrasting the beautiful vernacular houses on the outer fields. I stop near a fan palm to take a piss. Still smells like hell. I was a dumbass and drank the tap water in Bali. Not sure what’s in that water, but I feel like shit and changed the way my piss smells. Dark orange, I know I am in danger of severe dehydration.
A small village comes into sight and I stop at a small gray-plastered store for a bottle of water. Turns out to be the living room of a house resting on the edge of a lookout. A small child takes my order, unhappy I interrupt his cartoons. Further up on the right is a sand volleyball court with a palm fiber net sprawling out next to a crumbling double story facade.
I’ve been walking for hours and the sun’s getting lower, while dark clouds sink in as well. There’s no way of telling how far the mountain is, as the steady incline is my only gauge of direction. ‘Damn, sure hope this is the right road.’ The thought crosses my mind and evokes a grimace. Then, I’m confronted by a fork. Shit. My gut sais right, so I commit and follow through. The road snakes on the side of a heavily forested pass, where I look to my right and catch a serene view of brilliant rudah jiglo houses (traditional houses resembling a small Buddhist temple) surrounded by plantations, palms and fruit trees rolling down the slopes of the ridge. They barely escape the low clouds in the distance, flaring pink in a falling sun.
I finally make the last settlement under the mountain, a beautiful town called Selo. Along the main road a little ways in stands a deep purple building, grasping my attention. Surprisingly, I discover it’s a hostel. But its empty, and the caretakers seemed just as startled to see me. A middle aged lady approaches, “ Oh! Selemat! Hai.” I ask with a modified gesture, “One night?” “ Yes yes yes, ikutilah saya.” She grabs my arm and walks me past the concrete court yard to a double bed room. “You like?” I give a smile and a thumbs up. She drags me back to the front counter and asks if I’m hungry. I agree and pay fifty thousand rupiah. Best deal in town, I reckon.
I embrace a cold beer on a wooden bench table in the courtyard waiting for whatever menu item I pointed at. “Merapi? No?” A man’s voice said from the side. It was an older man, 40s. I nod and he smiles, then takes a seat. “Very dangerous. Many rock. You need guide.” In my mind, I’m thinking ‘Shit, I was raised in the Rockies, how bad could this be?’ but still, I inquire how much. “300,000 rupiah.” Holy shit. I clearly decline in spite of his protest about me going alone. Finally he explains to me the best time to go is around 3 am to catch the sunrise. But again, he warns it’s a dangerous climb.
From curious locals and an empty hostel, to a coherent man claiming danger; I still cannot piece together the situation yet.
All I know is, this bed is heaven after an arduous day toting a heavy pack.
The alarm clock miserably rips me out of a deep slumber. Takes a minute to collect my thoughts. There’s a strange feeling in my gut about this hike, wondering if the man was sincere or just squeezing money out of another ignorant tourist. However, excitement exceeds all else, and quickly on the town winding my way to the trail head. There, I’m greeted by an old, cracked sign with a faded map. The trail begins by cutting through tobacco fields, with small off-shooting goat trails that are initially confusing. I’m armed with an army-issued Taclight I’ve had since Afghanistan, which has no trouble cutting through the darkness. The path steepens and runs into a boulder which has engraved dozens of names and hometowns. Clearly, this is a major tourist attraction, can’t be that dangerous! I continue on.
Soon, the trail becomes entangled with roots, as its cut deep into the mountain side. Reaching higher elevation, vegetation fades and the incline steepens yet again. After an hour, I look behind to check progress and notice the sky turning a pale blue, hinting at the coming sun. My pace quickens. I remember the man saying it takes around 7 hours round trip, but I know my pace- I’ll cut the time in half at least. With a quickened pace, I breathe heavily until finding that ‘groove’ to set my body in cruise mode.
This pack grows heavy on my shoulders, I’ve toted that thing for countless kilometers already, and now I’m carrying it damn-near vertically. Reaching straight out with my hand I can touch land. In the smoldering blue light I see a climax not so far ahead. ‘Am I there already?’ Cold and tired, I naively hope it’s the top, but it’s much too soon. Landscape glides past me, focusing purely on moving. Then, my eyes reach over the crest and I behold the true vastness of the lofty peak. Ahead, I see the trail traverses an incredibly narrow ridge, dangerously dropping on either side. On the other side of the ridge, the earth turns into a moonscape while progressing light and clear sky reveal smoke rising from the peak. Suddenly, it all makes sense. This is a fuckin’ volcano.
‘Well shit’, my stubborn mind protrudes,’ apparently people come here all the time, can’t be that dangerous.’ But fear still creeps below the surface, pondering about lava flows and poisonous gas vents as seen in the film Dante’s Peak, the only volcano experience I really have. Doesn’t matter, can’t turn back now. I continue to climb. Solid earth gives way to fine dust. Every couple steps up, I slide down one. Seeing the sun just on the brink of emerging, I exert further effort. Drenched in sweat, heavy winds, and falling temperature snatch the heat from my body. But I keep moving, taking only one break which proves too cold to stop. Finally, I emerge onto a flat plateau and witness the final leg of the volcano.
A small, dark brick building stands in front of me, with antennae protruding from strange gadgetry. Probably a volcanic monitoring station. Then, in a glint of relief, I see a tent just at the base. I feel a little more at ease but the toughest part is yet to come. Looking straight up at the beckoning cone, smoking before me, I wonder; ‘do tourists actually go to the top?’ Suppose I’ll have to risk that answer than face a cowering defeat.
Attempting to climb straight up the side, I quickly realize it’s almost impossible. The fine dust is too loose to step from, but I spot a deep trench near. I conclude it was probably cut by lava, so I approach cautiously. There are a few pieces of litter; snack wrappers and bottles. It’s been used recently. Though, shortly after ascending, I find deep holes in the rock staring straight at me. Magma vents? Probably. They looked clean, perhaps spewing out lava recently. Growing alarm excites my pace. ‘Gotta’ get the fuck out of here before I get cooked.’ Interestingly, my desire to reach the top only intensifies, realizing how close to summiting a volcano I am.
The white smoke stack is close, I’m almost there. I look back only for my eyes to be stolen by the most stunning view I have ever witnessed. The sun breaks the horizon over a dense fog blanketing the valley- granting sheer majesty to Mount Merbabu rising out of the clouds. I snap out of it, and climb over s loose, jagged wall of the lava trench onto solid white rock and begin climbing again. Close to the summit, I find a strange orange capped pipe drilled into the rock. I inspect and wonder. Suddenly, I hear echoes of someone yelling.
Looking down I see a man, probably from the tent, waiving me down. Can’t understand what he’s trying to say- even if its English. Staring down for a solid minute, a faint bubbling-like sound emerges. Glancing to my right, I see an orange glow under white smoke emanating from around the bend. “Oh fuck..” I whisper aloud, before darting straight down. Almost carelessly leaping down meters of rock, I quickly land on the fine dust and begin a massive slide. Then, on my left, is white smoke rising from the trench I just came out of. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck.” My ass is on fire from friction, sliding so fast. I make a final leap onto the solid plateau.
Dusting myself off, I turn around and look up- still processing what just happened. When it all clicks, I feel like a god damned superhero and, nonchalantly, walk towards the man who yelled. He simply stares in silence, either at my stupidity or at my luck. I draw out my camera, and ask him to take my picture. He’s happy to oblige. My sight then fixes on the edge, and walk over to fully soak in the glistening sunrise beside Merbabu.
A few minutes of silence pass, and I decide to head down. Voices emerge from over the crest. A group of locals in heavy gear pop over. Scientists it seems. There’s a mountain guide with them and he speaks a little English, managing to ask my name and where I come from. I nod when the man gestures me and the summit. Looking among each other, they seem quite thrilled and ask to take a photo with me.
And it’s only 6am. Hell of a way to start a day.
-I’d later find that Merapi is one of the most active volcanoes on earth, erupting every few years. Just eight months prior, it had a devastating eruption that almost crippled the villages below and remained at a heightened level of alert when I arrived. Also discovered that the activity I witnessed up close, during August 2011, was reported as well, but Merapi would not erupt for another couple of years. I didn’t even know the name of that mountain until the day I climbed it.