We always like recommendations on places to go and things to do, especially by the locals. We had already sort of decided that we wanted to hike up Merapi (the most active volcano in Indonesia) and after talking to our friend Joko in Borobudur we definitely decided that that was our next stop. After two fun days in Borobudur we headed to the small village of Selo at the base of Merapi and the only place you can start the ascent.
We love travelling by bus in Indonesia!
We left early since our experience with buses has not be the greatest in Indonesia and if we wanted to sleep before taking up the challenge of climbing to the summit (which starts at 1am!!!) we needed to get on the road!
Four buses later, 2 of which travelled at a snail’s pace, 45 minutes stuck in a cramped oplet at the bus terminal whilst the driver had a chat and coffee with his friends and the Mafia of Selo refusing to take us up to the village unless we paid an extortionate price, we arrived at the base of Merapi!
Always a story involving us and buses! The most amusing (but not at the time!) was being greeted by a random guy (with an empty bus) when we got off our third bus. He said he was the bus driver to Selo. Great! That would make life so much easier! We asked how much he wanted – 150,000Rrp!! No way! We had travelled all the way from Yogyakarta past Borobudur for less than that. This was only a 13km journey. We discovered shortly after that public buses only run first thing in the morning to and from Selo. We were completely stuck!
We tried to bargain and lower the price but he was not interested. We attempted to hitchhike on the back of one of the many vegetable trucks but no luck. The 45 degree heat what starting to have an affect! Everyone passed us and ignored us (1 hour later we found out we’d be asking on completely the wrong road so those we were asking were heading to a different place and not Selo at all! Of course nobody was nice enough to tell us this even though we had been talking to them about getting to Selo for hours. The dodgy mafia guy seemed to have a presence over them though.
Ridiculously frustrated, hot and knowing that our only option was this expensive bus we were desperate. Just as we were about to give up a German couple rocked up in the same oplet we’d arrived in a few hours earlier and who were also heading to Selo. Immediately mafia guy ran across to try and offer the same service to them. Immediately we saw they were having none of it either. We chatted together for maybe 30 minutes before deciding we would split the price (2.5 euros each!) and go up so we could maybe attempt the ascent that same night/early following morning.
The bus journey was actually pretty long in the end and the road in a very bad condition. The petrol used going up in the crap old bus with an old engine probably cost the price of what we actually paid all together but still if it was the local bus it would have cost 10,000Rrp (60 cents each).
We eventually made it up to the charming village of Selo, the base camp of Mount Merapi and home to Jamari and his family who we wanted to find and ask to be our guide for the ascent. (Another Joko recommendation in Borobudur!) Bizarrely, at the bus stop at Selo we asked a guy for help. He was just sitting with friends – It was Jamari himself! He must have thought we were really weird arriving in his village with his name and telephone number and a map drawn by Joko of where his house was! He was very welcoming and agreed to be our guide and invited us to stay with him and his family. He took first took JM on the scooter with all his bags and then returned for me. It was around 13:00pm and we finally had a roof, a guide, and a goal for the next morning (well in 12 hours time!) Everything was set and we were ready to go – well that was our initial thought anyway!
Jamari showed us our bedroom for the next 12 hours – Sleeping amongst roosters and cows, so funny and cozy and finally a room without the awful noise of scooters driving up and down outside – Plus of course the breathtaking views outside of the surrounding volcanoes – Merapi and Merbabu.
Jamari our host persuaded us to extend our stay another night because apparently 1) it’s easier to take an early morning bus to the next destination and by the time our hike was over it would be a little too late. 2) We’ll be completely worn out after the 7 hour trek…. and 3) there was going to be a local festival to celebrate the Muslim New Year the next day and according Jamari it would be incredible and worth staying for – Perfect timing and allowing us some rest after the trek.
A few hours later Jamari announced he had got the day wrong for the festival and it was actually in a few hours – just before we were due to climb!
Ok it still seemed a fun thing to do and it could only be for an hour or so right?…………
Our evening went as follows;
1: Siesta time.
A quick one! We were told about the change in plan at around 3:30pm. Initially we were told to sleep from 6pm until midnight ready for a 1am start! But now with the festival starting at 7:30/8pm we were told to sleep straight away until 6pm. We tried a nap but in vain. Woken up by the roosters who like to sing 24/7 in Indonesia, plus the mooing cows, children playing and crying and the local woman chatting by the water pump just outside the house – we didn’t sleep a bit!
2: The village festival.
Mmm where to start… we were eventually taken at 7:45pm onto the main road for the start of the procession, we were in fact an hour early. That could have been 1 more hour in bed!!!! It was fun though we met more locals and got an insight into their local lives….. everyone knew everyone it was a really nice vibe.
When the procession eventually started, ten groups of men dressed in traditional dress took to the road, each bearing an offering.
After the procession the whole village got on their mopeds and weaved their way through tiny roads, through people’s gardens, up stair ways and along the pavements. All 1000 or so of them each with 2/3/4/5 people on board! The noise and air pollution was pretty impressive. People quickly realised that everyone going the same route at the same time would cause a few issues with the parking. We weaved our way through in another direction avoiding the main group and parked in someones front garden! It was all a beautiful mess and actually pretty fun. Luckily for us JM was on a motorbike with Jamari and his daughter and I was on a scooter with Jamari’s wife. No stress for us!
Our second stop of the evening (the first being the procession) was a performance with live music including two women singers dressed as Aberdeen girls on a night out! Considering the majority of the locals were Muslim and covered from head to toe we didn’t really know how this fitted in with the traditional festivities where singers wear belts as skirts, their boobs out and skyscraper high heels! Not sure we would even call them singers! 120dB of shrieking would pretty much sum it up! Their voices set the tone for the traditional dancers who were wandering around to the ‘music’ on a patch of sand, cigarette in mouth, in front of a mixed audience from the old to new born babies – plus JM and I the only ‘bula’ white skinned people in the village. We had no idea what was going on. Jamari explained the dancers were possessed by evil spirits. (Maybe the singers too with that noise!) Every now and then a dancer would eat real flowers or the sand they were wandering around on and then suddenly one would shriek really loudly and collapse on the floor. They were picked up by helpers organising the performance and carried out the back. The shriek and collapse on the floor apparently represents the evil spirits leaving their bodies……. That sums it up really! Interesting would be the word to describe the whole thing.
For the third stop, we followed our guide a few hundred meters higher, a spot where all the offerings were taken after the procession. There was a small religious ceremony, with loads of decorations and bling everywhere. It was even filmed for national television and broadcasted live. We personally couldn’t see a thing! The locals were pushing and pulling trying to get a look too so we tried to stand back away from it all. At one point I even got pushed into a ditch!-By this time we were ready to go home and sleep a bit! Only 3 hours until we had to head up Merapi!
When we finally left on the mopeds we thought that was it, time for a little sleep. Um nope….fourth stop – We arrived to a public square with a roof but no sides. Musicians were settled in at the side and spectators sitting all around. 12 dancers were performing in the centre.
Their costumes were great, so colourful and embellished. The choreography was very well done and JM and I were starting to enjoy it– well until they all turned into possessed zombies again as the evil spirits entered and took over their bodies! Pffffff
Stupidly we were standing by the entrance and exit to the performance. That meant watching these zombie dancers running or doing crazy things right past us. We had to move everytime. The lead dancers barged past us both almost knocking a baby out of her mother’s arms and a few toodlers in his path. He then ran screaming down a road into the village…….. ummm….. Meanwhile the rest were either starting to fight each other or, just wander around as drunk with a cigarette in the mouth. (just like the first performance we saw!) Sooooooo strange, difficult to describe, weird, really quite scary, disturbing. It really was nightmare ish!! (Although Jamari’s 3 year old little daughter wasn’t scared at all! She was loving it!)
Most of the evening JM and I just looked at each other puzzled!
Are they for real? Is it an act? How can someone open a coconut with his own teeth unless magic was involved in some way? We’d heard stories a man possessed ate a live chicken in front of everyone. Jamari obviously saw confusion in our face so took us behind where the dancers/zombies/crazy people run backwards and forwards from. There, lying on the floor and rolling around like animals were guys possessed. Some were still being aggressive towards each other whilst another was just eating wood off the floor and the table leg!!!!!!!! After some time and drinking what looked like a lovely glass of fruit juice, each of the demon/bad spirit possessed dancers shrieked, collapsed et voila! they were back to normal! JM and I were so confused!
So that’s what we spent our supposed sleeping hours doing before our epic trek up Merapi. Even if we hadn’t been climbing Merapi we would have slept for 15 hours after such a bizarre night!!! It truly was memorable/unforgettable/incredible!
3) Climb Merapi!
So our goal is to climb Indonesia’s most active volcano. A volcano studied by thousand of scientists due to its regularity of erupting every 5 years. The last eruption in late 2010 killed 500 people (the official figure was intentionally lowered to minimise the extent of the disaster) and evacuated 300,000.
And yes, if you calculated when she should be next erupting….. it’s now.
“Don’t panic” Jamari said, “The monkeys haven’t run down the side of the volcano and through the village yet, so everything is ok!” Phew!
Fortunately for us she kept quiet although JM had a few nightmares!
Our climb to the summit was between 1am and 5am with some very happy memories!……. Sarcasm!
We left Jamari’s house and started the first kilometer on a straight paved slope at 50 degrees! Easy peasy!…NOT! Our lungs were burning. We took a well needed break after 15 minutes! Already sweating buckets – it was a time to remove 4 of the 5 layers we were wearing for the cold night!
We continued the steep climb for another ¾ of an hour in thick volcanic dust that kicked up with every stride. Unable to see anything with the head torch, it felt like I was at work looking at the bottom of the North Sea! -Nothing but grey mist. We tried to wear our face masks given to us by medical staff on the streets of Sumatra but when you are climbing so steeply and trying to get as much oxygen as possible into your lungs and with your heart beating 170 we decided to unhealthly take the masks off and breathe in the volcanic dust like our guide.
Second break and we took on board some water to help clear the dust from the throat! We also noticed we had sweated so much that staying still for too long we got really really cold. We tried to make the stops as short as possible but knew that if you got to the summit too early and had to wait you would freeze even more!
We continued the climb with more dust mixed with rocks. By then we had found our stride a bit. Our lungs and heart had got used to both the exercise and dust and we arrived at the third stop feeling a little more comfortable. The third stop benefited us with a micro nap of 1 minute at 2000m and an opportunity to take some night photos.- Well JM anyway. I was too cold!
Then comes the penultimate section that leads to the refuge – littered with tents where Indonesians who prefer to allow two days to climb snored merrily.
Finally the last push, which since Merapi last erupted reports have said the challenge of climbing the volcano has become much more difficult. It was incredible, in some places it was necessary to cling rocks, climbing on your hands an knees, watching that the few people above you didn’t knock any rocks which then come tumbling down on top of you. Only one girl was hit that day. If we weren’t climbing on our hands and knees we were tredding through more volcanic dust. Unfortunately with the degree of steepness it was two steps up, one step back. The legs were really starting to burn. For JM it was his favourite part, especially clinging on to rocks like a monkey. He shot up the last part with me not far behind. Unfortunately for others it wasn’t so fun. A group of American girls were on the verge of having nervous breakdowns. We gave them some moral support as we past and they eventually made it.
On reaching the summit after a bloody difficult climb we were rewarded with a stunning 360 degree panoramic of Java. The photos speak for themselves. A magical sunrise on the horizon, a steaming crater which could erupt at any moment! and a breathtaking view of Merbabu, the sister volcano of Merapi. The intense 4 hour straight up hike was totally worth every step.
As for the return, I dreaded it! I hate any decent with a layer of dust or shingle on the surface. I always skid, slip, fall on my bum. I just hate it. To summarise briefly, this descent has a negative 1700m vertical drop in just 3,5kms. The knees, the hips, the back and even the lungs with even more dust in the air than on the ascent hurt. We ended up walking the last kilometer backwards because our knees hurt so much. We looked like weirdos to the locals!
We eventually saw our beds around 8:30am. We crashed and burned without almost a word to each through exhaustion but we were sooooooooooo happy to have accomplished the climb.
It was a great sleep from 9am until 1pm!
On our arrival Jamari’s house we were told they had no shower. Desperate after the climb and sleep, Jamari decided to kindly take us to an incredible waterfall nearby.
It was perfect. We had the and incredible ‘bath’ in the stream! So cold it healed our aching limbs and soothed our feet. Magic! We returned on scooter as the sunset over Merapi. An incredible day. Bed by 8pm ready for another days travel! Thanks Merapi and Jamari!