Monday, May 20, 2013

Trek to Gunung Merapi: One of the deadliest volcanoes in the world

Gunung Merapi! This name is pretty much unknown in the tourist world, but it is almost one of the top 10 names in the list of the deadliest volcanoes in the world. A lot of tourists who visit the central Java region of Indonesia do not even know about this active volcano. Even if they do, they give it as miss, as unlike the Gunung Bromo and its easy views, one needs to do a 3 to 4 hour trek to reach the top of Merapi.

First view of sunrise from Gunung Merapi, Central Java, Indonesia
It is only those tourists who either have local friends or are couchsurfing who end up climbing this mountain of fire. This mountain is very popular with the local Indonesian people and attracts hundreds of trekkers every weekend. In line with this Indonesian trend, I joined my Indonesia friend and his group of friends to climb Mount Merapi last weekend.

Sunrise over Gunung Lawu in Central Java, Indonesia
About 12 of us left Yogyakarta at about 2 pm on Saturday and reached the base camp (spot for parking and has some small shops) after sunset. The drive should have taken us just 2 hours, but the weekend traffic and the heavy rains ensured that we reached late. A glass of the the tawar panas (hot sweet tea) woke us up and gave us warmth at the nippy base camp.

Sunrise over the volcanoes of Central Java, Indonesia
It took a while for everyone to assemble as everyone seemed to have gotten delayed due to the rain. Once all of us were together, we started climbing in what was a steep climb. There were hardly any flat stretches as the climb was continuously a steep ascent. Some of us reached our camp site in 3 hours while the other slow ones reached in 4 hours. The ground was slippery, some people got cramps and the weather was giving everyone a chill.

Gunung Lawu as seen from Gunung Merapi during sunrise
By about 1 AM, we had pitched our tents and were brewing a much needed cup of hot tea to warm us up. I was one of the few you came very badly prepared for this trek. First, I had no warm wear with me as a backpacker travels light and doesn’t expect to be cold in tropical south east Asia. Second, I had no trekking shoes, but my sandals. The worst was no sleeping bag. Hence, I had to sleep on the floor of the tent for close to 2 hours.

Trek to Gunung Merapi, an active volcano in Indonesia
In the end, all I managed was 40 minutes of sleep. It was more or less the same that everyone else got. Some could not sleep at all. We were all terribly tired, but the excitement of seeing sunrise from the peak was beckoning all of us to start walking. In a short while from our camp site, the forest cover ended and the walk was through black stones and rocks.

Some of the small perks of climbing the steep Mount Merapi
Between the peak and the campsite, there is a place that is somewhat like a memorial to pay respects to the kids who lost their life during a trek when Merapi exploded. From the campsite to the peak was about 2 hours and as we were approaching the top, I got heady due to the sulphur gases and could not proceed any further. It was also the sunrise time so I went to quickly find a spot to perch myself and my camera. Some folks proceeded further to the peak to see the crater and the lava flowing underneath and the others made themselves comfortable in their own sweet spots.

Twin Mountains as seen from Gunung Merapi, Indonesia
The sunrise was sharp at 5:05 AM and it was beautiful to see the sun rise beyond Gunung Lawu and the city nights below were still twinkling. Slowly, you could see Mount Merapi, Mount Merbabu, which is opposite Mount Merapi and the two mountains that are situated a bit far away. The views were surreal as the weather stayed really clear. The colors of the sun, the landscapes and the views of the mountains kept all of us dumb struck for a long while.

Mount Merbabu, an extinct volcano opposite Mount Merapi
As the sun rose up from behind the mountains, the clouds also seemed to rise with it making the entire world below seem like a maze of clouds. Once the maze of clouds dispersed, you could see the greens that covered these volcanic mountains. The slopes of Mount Merapi was a contrast of sorts with the top slopes being black while the slopes below were fresh green.

From the slopes of Mount Merapi, Indonesia
In a couple of hours, the cold winds of the night died down and the sun started warming up the entire place. Soon, all the warm clothes got replaced with summer clothes. By about 8 AM, all of us were back at the campsite and looking at the pictures.

Campsite overlooking Mount Merbabu in Central Java, Indonesia
While some of us were looking at each other’s photographs, some of the others were kind enough to brew some hot kopi (Indonesian coffee) and start with the breakfast. After a hearty breakfast, we started our descent back to the base camp.

The black and green slopes of Gunung Merapi, Central Java, Indonesia
Descent was quicker, but was very slippery with slimy mud and lots of pebbles and rocks. I fell on my backside 3 times, but it was part of the fun and the overall experience. The descent is actually tougher than the ascent as it has stretches all your leg muscles completely. After reaching the base camp, all of us celebrated with iced tea, some bananas and a group photograph. Then, we sleepily drove back to Yogyakarta.

Villages on the slopes of Mount Merapi, Indonesia
If you wish to do this trek, do ensure you have a guide to help you guide as you might get in the upper stretches and especially in the night, when you have no sense of direction. Plus, it is good to have a local who is aware of the latest activities in the volcano and knows which side of the mountain is safe and which is not. There is also a permissible limit in certain parts of the peak as the sulphur gases might cause trouble if you breathe them for a long while. If you wish to visit an active volcano and/or explore Central Java like a local, Gunung Merapi has to be on top of your bucket list.

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