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Indonesia’s Hottest Volcano Turns up the Heat

October 28, 2013

Hiking one of Indonesia’s most volatile volcanoes may not require outdoor survival skills, but it will make you think about the fragility of life and the force of nature. Story and photographed by David Lloyd Buglar

Published on Oct 28, 2013

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My feet sink into the volcanic sand with every step. On the steep slopes of Mount Merapi, as I pass red-hot rocks, I think about the flow of molten lava and scalding hot ash clouds that consumed an entire village on the southern face of Mount Merapi in October and November, 2010. That blast claimed the lives of more than 350 villagers, including Merapi’s official spirit guardian, known affectionately as Mbah Marjidan. Only four years earlier he was convinced that he had quelled the anger of Merapi’s spirits after surviving another eruption. In 2010 however, he perished in his own home, reportedly found in the prayer position, covered in volcanic ash.

Two-and-a-half-years later, in the middle of the night, I’m hiking Mount Merapi, still the most volatile of Central Java’s volcanoes and one of the world’s 16 Decade Volcanoes—those under special focus due to their combination of ferocious power and large nearby populations. It is the climax of a multi-day, upmarket trek with boutique tour company Jiwa Quest—think of climbs rewarded with wine and homemade desserts, and descents to a base camp followed by rejuvenating massages. This kind of high-end adventure in an unstable environment means travelers don’t have to worry about setting up their own tents, leaving them free to consider questions of life, destruction and nature’s capriciousness.

Our journey is anchored at Selo, which, thankfully, was evacuated before the last eruption. “For most of us on the north side, the rolling lava led to widespread panic,” says Sony Much, head of the local Mountain Guide Association, who coordinated the search and rescue team. “Only me and two of my friends stayed put.” One of those who contributed to the village’s recovery and rebuilding efforts was Frenchman Francois Bouvery, who was then setting up Jiwa Quest.

I first meet up with one of Jiwa Quest’s managers, Amandine Moro, and the other trekkers, a Dutch family of five, in Yogyakarta. Famed as a center of arts and culture, Yogyakarta is an infectious, slow burner of a town, full of brightly painted houses, exceptionally warm people and excellent street food, including the area’s trademark gudeg, a wonderfully sweet jackfruit curry best found on the street every morning until around nine. Together, we set off for Selo, stopping en route at Prambanan, one of the world’s foremost Hindu temples. Majestically ornate, its main tower soars 47 meters high surrounded by the remains of smaller structures still bearing the scars of earthquakes, the most recent of which struck in 2006. A short walk away, the less renowned and more tranquil eighth-century Buddhist temple of Sewu was ours alone and all the more special for it.

Selo lies between Merbabu Volcano and Merapi at around 1,500 meters. The road to it ascends quickly, snaking around constant switchbacks, passing farmers working improbably steep hills that make the terraced fields of the Philippines and northern Vietnam look positively leisurely.

Arriving at our mountain lodge base, everything is ready: coats, bags, fleeces, hats, scarves, gloves, energy drinks, snacks and head torches. All this gear is a sharp wake-up call for any of us who thought we were in for a basic trek. After packing, we’re ready for the first stage—a night hike to the Merbabu base camp at 2,300 meters.

Initially the going is easy enough, but as the path enters dense jungle and our guide hacks away with his machete to clear the way, our group is soon strung out in three packs, with a hardy five-year-old soldiering on at the rear. Before we know it, darkness envelops us as we gingerly pick the rest of the way up by head torch.

We arrive at the base camp after almost three hours to find a table topped with cold beers, wines and snacks all set next to a roaring campfire. Over a bowl of fragrant Indonesian noodle soup, we warm our wet feet in front of the fire and contemplate the silhouette of Merbabu looming large behind us. Next, trek manager Stan Girault grills massive quantities of herbed meat over the flames, before Amandine’s fantastic apple tart and a glass of red make certain we are ready for a deep slumber. Our tents, complete with soft mattresses and pillows, have been set up, positioned for a stunning morning view. We wake at 5 a.m. to a perfectly crisp dawn. In the pale blue half-light, wisps of cloud streak the horizon, while a faint mist shrouds Merapi’s lower reaches, hiding the communities that cling to her slopes. Slowly, the sun appears over the horizon, smoke billows from the crater and a mist thickens as the sky morphs from purple to orange to red. I’m so transfixed that my pancakes, omelet and freshly brewed coffee are all allowed to go cold.

It turns out just two of us are up for climbing the final 700 meters to Merbabu’s summit, and we set out at 7 a.m., following in the light footsteps of our 60-year-old guide, who goes by Mr. Popeye. We’re told to expect a two-hour climb, but taking only the shortest of breaks along the way, we make it to the top in half that. Celebrating, Mr. Popeye pulls on an industrial-strength cigarette—of course, we were all expecting a pipe—and sits to enjoy the view. A series of verdant peaks is spread out before us, the tops poking through the whitest of clouds, and I look down on it all, marveling at the views beneath me. I feel like I’m floating on top of the world. And accomplishing this climb makes me all the more excited in anticipation of tackling Merapi—in a mere 18 hours.

Back in Selo, we find the rest of our party, soaking their feet in herb-infused baths, wolfing down pan-roasted cashews and sipping warm tea. All very wholesome and it’s not yet 10 a.m., but for me, joining manager Stan for a cold beer proves too refreshing a reward to resist.

After a huge meal of succulent, Indonesian BBQ chicken cooked to perfection in a sweet marinade and served with a chilled white wine, the heavens open. Claps of thunder ricochet off Merbabu and Merapi. We are due to start our Merapi climb at 1 a.m. I meet with chief guide, Sony, who is unperturbed by the weather. “No problem,” he says calmly, as the rain hammers down around us, “it will stop by 11 p.m.” I know I should have faith—Sony has lived in the area his entire life and has a sterling track record of predictions, having guessed the scale and date of the 2010 eruption to the month.

There are almost as many myths about Merapi as there are villages surrounding it, and Selo has its own. Here, the villagers believe that many years ago a holy man ran away from the village and was never found. His spirit is now said to rest in the volcano. A buffalo is sacrificed every year, carried up Merapi and thrown in to the crater as an offering. Sony reckons half of the villagers still place their faith in this ritual.

After chatting with Sony and carb-loading with creamy salmon pasta, I bed down in my room at the lodge, the sound of the rain beating at the windows making it difficult to drift off. But Sony was right: by midnight, the rain has stopped and the sky bursts with stars. Despite this, there is no sign of the family—with heavy legs, they had opted to delay Merapi for a night, so guide Trioro and I head to the starting point.

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