Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia

Follow Us

Asia travel and leisure guides for hotels, food and drink, shopping, nightlife, and spas | Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia

Mountain Climbing in Indonesia

Following the advice of a website dedicated to climbing the peaks of Indonesia, DUNCAN FORGAN sets off on an early-morning ascent of Mount Merbabu.

Published on Feb 9, 2016


THE LIGHT AT THE END of the long, dark tunnel appears two hours into our ascent of Mount Merbabu. At first it is barely discernable, the faintest brightening under the thick forest canopy that blankets the lower slopes of the mighty volcano in Central Java.

Soon, however, the long-awaited appearance of the morning sun becomes undeniable as arrows of gold illuminate our path and occasional gaps in the foliage reveal a panoramic vista of assorted gunungs (mountains) as well as the wide turquoise expanse of the Rawa Pening Lake. The view, as you might expect, is at once amazing and a tonic after a vertiginous pre-dawn march.

Rawa Pening Lake
At Rawa Pening Lake. Franciscus Nanang Triana/Getty Images.

The buzz of an alarm clock at 3 a.m. heralding the start of a hike up a 3,000-meter peak isn't very enticing, but it took me back to my teenage years in Scotland, when for a brief period, I was a weekend Munro-bagger. Sir Hugh Munro, a Victorian baronet and mountaineer, was the first to compile a list of Scottish mountains with a height of over 900 meters. In his honor, these peaks are now known as Munros. Ticking off these crests was a short-lived hobby, and I had all but forgotten those dawn rises and ensuing full-day workouts until I found out about a website devoted to helping hikers conquer the mountains of Indonesia, started by Brits Dan Quinn and Andy Dean, both former residents of Jakarta.

Christened Gunung Bagging, the online resource lists the 200 or so peaks in Indonesia that reach the impressive 1,000-meter mark. Each entry details a mountain's elevation and location as well as a Google satellite image and practical information on how a hiker can go about "bagging" each one.

That means everything from step-by-step tips on obtaining permits and finding suitable camping spots, to route suggestions and advice on public transportation and nearby hotels. "The website aims to give hikers the information they need to be able to organize a climb alone," says Quinn. "Some people prefer to hire a guide in advance, especially if their Indonesian is not so good, but that takes away from the adventurousness of being a bit more independent. Simply turn up at the base of a mountain and you are generally good to go."

With this DIY ethos in mind, a friend and I set off from the obscure city of Semarang on our mission to scale Mount Merbabu armed with little more than some rudimentary camping gear, a screenshot from the website and a supply of dried fruit and nuts.

Translated from Indonesian as the "Ashy One" due to its once-frequent eruptions, Merbabu is—along with nearby Mount Merapi—one of the most iconic peaks in Central Java. It is a hugely popular option for hikers due to the grandstanding views its lofty heights afford of the surrounding volcanic splendor and also for its easy accessibility and clearly marked route to the top, making it a logical choice for our gunung-bagging debut.

Mount Merbabu
The peak of Mount Merbabu, as seen from Mount Merapi. Uprising/

Unfortunately, by the time we arrive in Kopeng, the little town closest to base camp, thick rainclouds have descended, making the Ashy One look decidedly soggy and ending our plan to start the ascent that day. We had intended to camp out just below the summit so we could make it to the top by sunrise the following day, but decide instead to stay put for the night and set up shop in the homely and adequately comfortable Kartika Wisata Kopeng (+62 29 831 8355). Nobody could mistake quiet Kopeng for one of Java's prime tourist hubs, but we intend to make the most of it. Hearty servings of soto ayam (chicken soup) in a local restaurant and an impromptu—and woefully extended—karaoke session at the hotel help while away the wasted hours.

Indeed, amateur-hour warbling seems like it might be the highlight of the trip as we creak into 3 a.m. action. The mood is faintly upbeat as we obtain our permits at the national park office in Tekelan village, fuelling-up with sugary cups of instant coffee before we set out. But a fug descends over our fleeting optimism as cantankerous muscles refuse to engage and the lack of natural light renders everything opaque.

Mercifully, sunrise puts a whole new perspective on the hike. Twists, turns and flaws in the path that had caused a number of unedifying stumbles become more interesting. All the while, the surrounding landscapes take on a sprawling cinematic quality as we follow the steep trail up the face of the mountain.

Wild flowers
Wild flowers add color to the climb. Fajar Prasetyo Yuwono.

That's not to say that the climb ever gets easier. The website states that the route to Merbabu's true summit from the Kopeng side is "gentle." It sure doesn't feel that way to me. A pretty plateau just below the first of Merbabu's seven summits, which is inhabited by monkeys and a wealth of luminous butterflies, provides some respite. After that, however, it is a determined leg-straining trek all the way to the radio mast that marks Merbabu's 2,900-meter second summit, known as Watu Tulis.

Neither my hiking companion nor I fall into the spring-chicken category. Neither do we fall into the well-cared-for-older-chicken category. Nevertheless, our frequent stops at least give us the opportunity to recline in the meadow-like grass and watch as wispy clouds scud across the brilliant blue sky.

One of the best things about gunung-bagging, according to Quinn, is the scope it gives hikers to avoid the crowds: something to be savored on densely populated Java. Sadly today is national holiday, so we aren't afforded this privilege. As we veer unsteadily onto the summit, we are immediately corralled into a nightmarish group photo. Freeing ourselves from the melee, we finally find a quiet spot to soak up the scenery and reflect.

Watu Tulis
Looking down from Watu Tulis, the second summit of Mount Merbabu. Nomadicimagery/Getty Images.

Our joy at scaling Watu Tulis is tempered by the fact that another four summits lie between Merbabu's loftiest point, the 3,145-meter-high Triangulasi, and us. According to Gunung Bagging, the distance can be covered in two hours, but we have flights to catch later that afternoon so we err on the side of caution and decide to make this the end-point for the hike. It is disappointing to have to descend at this early stage. In fact, we are unclear about whether our achievement even amounts to a true "bag."

Nevertheless, in just 12 hours we scaled a height equal to Ben Nevis (the UK's highest mountain), lingered over some of Java's most spectacular views and murdered an eclectic mix of popular songs… all between dinner and breakfast. I hope Munro would approve.



See All Articles...

Volcanic ash powders the trail. Fajar Prasetyo Yuwono.
Related Articles