Gunung Merbabu

Even before I stood near the top of Merapi and watched the clouds break to reveal Merbabu staring across, I had a hankering to climb it. Merapi is the more famous of the two, of course, but Merbabu is taller and I thought it would be fun to get off the beaten track a bit. Plus, the slopes of Merbabu would be the perfect vantage point to take a great photo of Merapi.

I left Borobudur around 10am for my second visit to the small mountain town of Selo.  I’d woken up at 3am to catch sunrise at Borobudur, but still felt fresh. This time it was just me for the hike, so I would have to arrange a guide for myself when I got to town.

I rolled up to the first kiosk in town and said in my still rather robotic bahasa Indonesia, “I want to climb Merbabu”. The woman behind the counter pointed two buildings down the street. Very easy.  I walked over and met Pak Yudi, one of the shortest and scrawniest Indonesians I have met (which is saying something).  Yudi runs an extremely basic food stall/hotel (using that term very loosely). The main room of his small shop has an open front facing the street. People can walk up and sit down at a counter to eat. There is a bathroom in the back, and a couple of rooms with beds. Pak Yudi and his family sleep on a big mattress laid out on the floor in the big room facing the street, the same one where customers eat.

When I showed up, Pak Yudi was very jolly, smiling and quick with the jokes.  He was also adept at slowing down his speech and using simple words, a rare and valuable quality around here.  There were several photos on the wall of him at the top of Merapi with various foreign climbers.  When I told him I was American, he pointed to one of the photos “Oh, this old guy is  American.  He is 65 years old!  This is his Indonesian girlfriend, a masseuse.  He is a rich man!”

Ideally I was hoping to get away with paying just 100,000 or 150,000 Rupiah for guide services up Merbabu, but it was not to be. My reference for the price of guides came on information from Alfonso, our guide up Merapi. He did not charge since he was a friend of the other Americans in the group, but he mentioned that normally local guides would charge 150,000 or so to take groups to near the top of Merapi and 400,000 or 500,000 to go the rest of the way since it is more dangerous. In my mind, that put the appropriate price of Merbabu somewhere between the two. (100,000 Rupiah is about $10.50)

Pak Yudi was very dramatic with his bargaining. When I asked how much he charges, his face turned suddenly serious.  He first asked if I had come alone, and then he took a moment to sit in silence, looking sad and shaking his head. “Then,” he said, “I am afraid it will be expensive for just one person.” Another pause. “400,000. Guiding on Merapi I charge less, but that is easy. There is just one trail. On Merbabu it is easy to get lost.”

I played along and said “Ah yes, that is expensive. I was thinking 100,000 or 150,000.” I waited and contemplated. “But I did not know it was easy to get lost on Merbabu. I can pay 200,000.”

Pak Yudi thought, then shook his head again. “400,000 is the standard price. Merbabu takes much longer than Merapi. But I like you – I will charge only 350,000.”.

I sighed and said “I know that for many Americans, this price is very cheap. But not for me. The most I can pay is 250,000.”

Pak Yudi looked at me, then got up and poked his head through a door in his back, saying something too quickly for me to understand. He came back and said, “For 300,000, ok.” But I held firm and pulled out my last card. “I am a university student, not like rich Americans. I have not started working yet. I am sorry, but if 300,000 is the price then I will go back to Jogjakarta now.”

Pak Yudi got up, went to the back and stuck his head through the door again, consulting, and then said “Ahhh, a university student. Ok then, a special price for university students. 250,000.” Yudi’s smile was back in full force.  He brought out a book where I could sign in, and a photo album with pictures of his previous guiding exploits. I noticed that most were up Merapi.  Thinking I probably should have covered this before agreeing to a price, I asked “How many times have you climbed Merbabu in the last year?”. He had to think about it but then said “Merbabu not as much as Merapi. Merapi, 15 times in one year. Merbabu, 2 times in 5 years.” That worried me a little, but at least he’d been up it before. Anyway, I wasn’t too worried about accidentally walking off a cliff, nor really even about getting lost. In an emergency in a heavily populated place like this, ‘down’ is the only direction that really matters. I mostly just wanted someone to go with me so that if I got hurt I wouldn’t be stranded.

As we sat talking, a woman came out of the back room and introduced herself.  Pak Yudi had been checking with his wife during our bargaining.  Some things are universal.

I told Yudi that I am a fast hiker and wanted to be at the top for sunrise at 5:00am.  He said we should leave about midnight.  He told me that he  had once done the hike in 3 hours with a German, but usually it takes more like 5-6 hours.   I was pretty sure I could do it in less than 5 hours but decided not to argue.  It was noon and I was suddenly exhausted from getting very little sleep and waking up at 3am.  I took one of his rooms in the back to rest.  In spite of my ‘bed’, plywood covered by a blanket built for someone of Pak Yudi’s stature, I slept like a baby all day.

Pak Yudi woke me up at 7pm and asked if I wanted to eat.  Still groggy, I agreed to pay 20,000 more for dinner.   A bit steep, but whatever.  Unfortunately, dinner turned out to be fairly disgusting – small chunks of very tough beef with ligaments still attached, served over rice.  I ate lots of rice and as much meat as I could handle and told him I was stuffed.   Pak Yudi went to rest after dinner – unlike me, he’d been up all day.  With nothing better to do, I followed suit and surprised myself by sleeping again.  I was woken by a knock on the window at 12:30am.  We had overslept

The night was calm and clear in Selo, and just chilly with a breeze.  Perfect hiking weather, but I could see the upper slopes of Merapi and Merbabu were covered by clouds.  We were joined by Pak Sono, a friend of Yudi’s.  I didn’t ask any questions at first since we were off to a late start, but Sono was a more impressive physical specimen than Yudi.  Sono led the way as we set off through the steep farms covering the lower half of the mountain and he wasn’t messing around.  I managed to keep up but it was sweaty business and I stripped down to my t-shirt.  Yudi and Sono kept their jackets on the whole time, even though they were sweating like crazy.

As we got higher, the wind grew stronger. I felt we were lucky, though, that the clouds seemed to be rising as we climbed higher, always just above the next slope.  After an hour or so, Yudi asked if I needed a break.  I was fine.  We continued on, but Yudi started to fall off the pace.  Sono slowed down so he could keep up.  I was starting to really like this guy.  A bit longer and Yudi was the one that asked for the first break himself.   He told me “Andy, you walk like that German!  Big strong man!” Though the tops of both Merapi and Merbabu were covered in clouds, we could see stars in the clear sky between the two.  The wind was brisk but it felt great.   A wave of exercise-induced euphoria washed over me with the thought “How amazing is this – I’m looking at the stars from halfway up a volcano in Central Java.”

During the break, I learned that Sono is a farmer who works the slopes of Merbabu, so he knows the trails really well.  He actually climbs to the peak more often than Yudi, maybe 10 times per year.  I was very glad to have him along.  A man of few words, he let Yudi do the talking but led us confidently in directions that were not intuitive to me at all, often tracking laterally through minor farm paths to find a better way upward.

We climbed higher and soon caught up with the clouds and were engulfed in fog.  Where the trail on Merapi had been consitently steep all the way up, the grade of Merbabu was varied. We would go up a very difficult section, then crest a hill and have a flat piece to catch our breath.  The trail on Merapi was very well trodden and slippery in places from hard packed dirt under a bit of loose rock and dirt.  Merbabu had also clearly seen lots of foot traffic, but not to the level of Merapi.  Where the path was slippery, it was from the fog and a slight rain making mud.

Surprisingly, to me at least, in the fog the wind grew stronger.  We would crest a ridge and get absolutely blasted with ferocious wind, even stronger than I’d felt on Merapi less than a week ago.  Our horizontal traverses were pummeled by wind.  I’ve felt strong breezes in the past, but this was on a new level.  When the gusts came, I had to go into an athletic stance and really lean in just to avoid being blown over.  I never was actually blown off the trail, but Yudi was a couple of times.   The wind was intense, but generally the exposed sections of trail didn’t last long and the steep climbs always were sheltered.

Up and up we went, the steep sections getting steeper and more slippery as we went.  Everything was damp from the fog and an occasional drizzle.  I didn’t feel cold at all, but I was glad for my new pair of long pants.  They were really necessary, especially for some places where we had to wade through dense vegetation.

At around 3:45am, we encountered a particularly heinous steep section where for the first time I had to resort to a bit of climbing, wedging a foot into a crack and propping myself between one rock and another before pulling myself up over with both hands.  That got the blood flowing, and moments later I had a major adrenaline rush when we crested a ridge and could hardly stand up to the monstrous wind.  Yudi had to come up very close to my ear to be heard over the gale. “We should wait here.”

We hunkered down out of the worst wind.  I pulled out my rain poncho and sat on it, leaning back on my bag.  I felt a little chilly for the first time.  I thought we must be close to the top, but wasn’t sure how close.  It was 4am.  Waiting at the top, wherever it was, in the wind and fog for an hour and a half until a sunrise we might not even see did not sound fun.  Shortly, Yudi crawled over close to my ear again.  “Sono and I think this is dangerous.  We think we should go back.  What do you think?”.   Fine with me.  “How far is it from here to the top?” I asked.  Yudi looked up, thought, and said “I think about 500 meters”.  I wasn’t sure if he meant 500 vertical meters or 500 trail meters, but it didn’t really matter.  “Ok, let’s go.  I’m not here for danger.”  Yudi had clearly been worried I would want to continue and thanked me profusely.

The trip down was quick.  When we dropped below the fog again, the sky was starting to get light.  We decided to stop and wait for the sunrise on an exposed slope with a great view of Merapi.  And finally, after being disappointed with no sunrise at all on Merapi and a bad sunrise at Borobudur the day before, I was rewarded with a really good one on Merbabu.

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Sunrise on Merbabu.

But nice as it is, photos of sunrise are a dime a dozen.  The photo above could have been anywhere.  It’s really nice light, combined with the right setting, that makes a spectacular landscape (or any) photo.  And finally, after being in Indonesia for nearly two months, I’ve got a volcano photo I’m proud of.  I’d hang this one on my wall.  Check out how the cloud is barely clinging to Merapi in the wind.  Looks like it was just as wild and windy over there as on Merbabu.

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Merapi in the wind at sunrise.

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The rest of the sky was nicely dramatic as well.

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Right to left: Yudi, Sono, and me.

During our break, Yudi and Sono consulted.  They decided that, in fact, we had not been 500 meters from the summit, but only 15-20 meters.  So close!  But I still haven’t reached the peak of an Indonesian volcano.  I’m not too sad about it, but it will definitely have to happen sooner or later.

We headed down and I kept my camera out.  In daylight, I’d have to give the Merbabu hike a slight edge over Merapi in terms of scenery.

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Loved this grass with the white seeds.

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Yudi was clearly having fun on the way down. Oh, and see that orange backpack? I was walking behind him a lot of the night staring at it. It's a kids backpack with pink Englonesian writing: "What a wonderful music."

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Still up high here, but starting getting into the first cultivated land where grass is grown for livestock.

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Pak Sono: a man of few words and fast walking.

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Eventually I started to notice unusual dirt piles where it looked like there had been fire.

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Yudi explained. The farmers pile up sticks...

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...the sticks are covered with dirt and lit on fire...

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...the charred wood can then be used to make coals for cooking.

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As we approached town, farmland on the lower slopes was really beautiful. Still very steep!

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I guess Sono is such a beast because he does this most days.

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He seemed pretty happy to be hiking with us instead of hauling stuff up and down the trail.

When we reached the bottom, we stopped off at Sono’s house.  I got to see the two room place where he lives with his wife and 14 year old daughter.  Not great, but not as bad as I was expecting.  It was pretty big and it had an incredible view.  Sono offered me something that looked like a delicious pastry but tasted like cigarette ashes.  Maybe it’s an acquired taste.  I took one bite and hid the rest in my pocket when he wasn’t looking to be polite.

Just up the road, the finishing touches are being applied to a new building that looks like it might be an upscale bed and breakfast.  I have a feeling that with two incredible hikes out the front door, amazing scenery, and proximity to Jogjakarta and two of the most famous temples in Indonesia, this little village of Selo will soon be a lot more popular with the tourists.  Hopefully that will mean good things for Sono and Yudi in terms of property value and business as a guide.

I’d had plenty of sleep the previous afternoon/evening, and it was only 9am.  I hit the road back to Jogjakarta.  Only one more photo to show.  Maybe you remember one of the photos from my post about Gunung Merapi.  Here it is again, a photo of one of the paths of the mud flows from the eruption in 2010.

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We think this is one of the flow paths of hot mud and ash from the 2010 eruption.

That photo was taken from high up on the slopes of Merapi and it’s hard to get a sense of scale, so I pulled over on the way back to Jogjakarta and snapped this one.  Those vehicles out there are big dump trucks.  Quite a bit of destruction, and this is just one of the flows from that eruption.

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Several guys walked right over and crowded around while I was taking the photo. I didn't notice at the time but his shirt looks like it might say something funny. Wish I'd been paying attention.

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