Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Days 31 & 32: Yoga Days - Mount Merapi and A Yogya Stroll

Mount Merapi is the most active volcano in Indonesia - it's name, literally, means "Fire Mountain" in Javanese, and as such it has featured much in local history and mythology. It has a significant roll in Borobudur's history also, with one of the reasons given for Borobudur's abandonment so soon after its construction - not to mention the decline of the Javan civilisation - being attributed to a major eruption in the 10th Century. Dramatisations of its history might focus on this, an entire civilisation wiped out by the cataclysmic power of the volcano, but the truth is likely more prosaic. Rival kingdoms were putting pressure on the central Javan civilisation to the point where it became sensible to up sticks and leave; an increase in foreign trade also meant that having a coastal palace was more desirable and practical. This was possibly in association with Mount Merapi's eruption, which if affecting Borobudur in some manner, such as a thick covering of volcanic ash, might have been seen as a bad omen by the people. Civilisations don't usually end in one dramatic finale, they change and decline. So while Merapi perhaps didn't wipe out all of Java in a Hollywood explosion, it very possibly had a role in their decline, and in Borobudur's neglect. And it's not finished yet. Just last year, in late October, it began a series of eruptions that led to the deaths of over three hundred people and displacement of hundreds of thousands.

With all this in mind, myself and Burness decided to climb it, at night.

In fact, getting to the live volcano proved more dangerous than climbing it. Our driver was half an hour late in meeting us, and swaggered off as he fetched the final person on the trek, a Swiss guy called Chris. We got into the small minibus, and I tucked myself in the back. It was half-past ten at night, and I hoped to get some sleep before the four hour night climb (plus another four hours back). So I was paying no attention to how the journey was going, just presuming the driving was as typically erratic as I'd expect in a battered minibus in a third-world country.

The next thing I was aware of was a sudden jerking motion. I opened my eyes and both Burness and Chris were yelling at the driver, "What the hell are you doing?" He had apparently meandered entirely onto the wrong side of the road, only at the last moment correcting himself and narrowly avoiding some oncoming cars. In a flurry of discussion, it was established that he had been driving all over the place since departing, and Chris suggested that he had been drinking - he thought he'd smelled drink on him earlier. Our decision was rapid: stop the bus, we're getting out.

The driver acquiesced, in a somewhat gradual, confused style. "Maybe you could drive?" he suggested, in all sincerity, to Burness. Maybe not. We all leapt out and crossed the road, now about twenty minutes out of town, but Yogya is sprawling and we were still in a built-up area. Some guys were eating and hanging about, and we conveyed to them we'd like to get a taxi back to Yogya. They tried, but none were available and we were too far out of the city for any to be passing. And so one guy, very generously, offered to fetch his car and drive us there himself.

For me, this is the sad point of the whole tale, as his offer was genuine and helpful and typifies my experiences so far with the average Indonesian. Because while he was away getting his car, our driver staggered across the road - he could barely even walk straight. With a morose, intoxicated look in his eye, he explained in haltering English that he had phoned for a replacement driver. This obviously changed things a little, for now we could go on to the mountain as intended. And so when the poor fellow who was fetching his car arrived back, we had to apologise and explain we had new transport options.

Our new driver arrived soon after, brighter, friendlier, not at all drunk - and with his wife in the front seat next to him. This, he explained while laughing, was due to him being woken from his sleep by the other driver and being requested to come out to help. Help not only involved the two hour drive to the foot of the mountain, but required him staying overnight in a hostel before driving us back. His wife, upon hearing of this dubious plan, insisted that he must be out seeing another woman and refused to believe his protestations, so he had taken her along to show her that he really was telling her the truth.

Wives in Indonesia must be a terrifying thing, for as we learnt from our travel agent a couple of days later, our drunk driver - who was (apparently) sacked after this incident - had blamed his wife for his drinking. It was the fourth time he'd drunk-driven a busful of tourists and each time his wife has been his reason.

Arriving at just before 1am in the small town of Selo at the foot of Mount Merapi, we were already about 1500 metres above sea level, or the height of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain. For the first time since I've been in Indonesia, it was actually a little chilly, and as we set off I was glad I had brought my thin jumper. It was pretty much the only preparation I had done - I had entirely overlooked the "night" part of the trip, inanely presuming my eyes would see in the dark, and it was only after the first half hour of scrambling around, using the lights from others' torches, that I remembered with relief that my cheap phone, bought in Singapore for travel purposes, had a surprisingly effective flashlight on it.

Because it was needed. Not only was it dark, but it was very, very steep. Having climbed a few straightforward mountains in Scotland, I expected some flatter parts, but Mount Merapi was unrelentingly steep. Worse, underfoot was gravel and dust which made climbing much more awkward. We had a guide, a local from Selo who had climbed Merapi twice a week for the last seventeen years, so we followed in his steady footsteps.

We made good time and were near the top of the plateau, before the crater itself, when our guide told us it was too windy - it was indeed very windy by this stage - and we needed to shelter. So we took us along a small series of paths, and into a small cave in the side of the mountain. It was 3.30am, we would shelter here for an hour, getting some rest, until daylight.

I don't think I'll try and explain sunrise in much depth, because there's no way I could do it justice. I didn't take a photo for the same reason - the above is by Burness. Perhaps a professional photo, blown up to some colossal size, might convey some of the magnificence of the best sunrise I have ever seen, but I doubt it. For over half an hour, a massive section of sky turned deep orange, with the hill that overlooks Borobudur - the hill that is supposed to be the profile of Borobudur's mystical architect, Gunadhara - obscuring the rising sun. All around was flat land punctuated by volcanoes - classic steep-sided volcanoes with crater tops. It was more than worth the lack of sleep, the cold, and the hours of steep climbing.

Ideally, after this, we would have been able to climb up to the crater of Merapi, but whether it was due to the wind or due to the impossibly steep and dusty sides, our guide was having none of it. But we stood atop the plateau and admired the volcano and the debris all around from the eruption of less than a year ago, and walked up a nearby ridge, more sheltered from the wind, and admired the incredible view across some of Central Java.

And then we descended, down the steep and dusty slope, falling over repeatedly as our guide sauntered nonchalantly. We reached the bottom filthy and clogged with dust.

After our cycle to Prambanan and our all-night mountain climb, we took it easy for the rest of the day, but the following day we decided to explore a little of Yogya. Perhaps we were simply in the wrong mood, but it did not impress at all. The sights were disappointing, and a number of locals tried to coerce us into visiting the exclusive Batik Art Gallery, a well-known scam in which foreigners are persuaded to buy cheap local paintings for vastly inflated prices. It was nowhere near as full-on as it is walking around Istanbul or Cairo, but it was still wearing. Yogya is a tourist town, I realised, and the wall of my cynicism had to be rebuilt to deal with it.

The highlight of the wander was actually entirely by chance, as we approached an area near the Sultan's Palace that had crowds amassed. It was a military parade and display, featuring dancing, pretend fighting, swooping helicopters, whooshing aeroplanes, and later a bunch of parachutists landing. It was much better than any of the dire museums or the disappointing Sultan's Palace - the highlight of Yogya? - were to be.

Despite my gripes with Yogya, if time wasn't pressing I could have stayed here a lot longer, or at least used it as a base to explore the fantastic area around it. But time is pressing and Burness, disappointed not to get up close to Mount Merapi, has arranged for this tour, en route to Bali, to visit more volcanoes. First on the list is Bromo, which has a smoking crater, and involves a 3.45am start tomorrow following the 10-hour bus journey I'm currently on. Moral of the story? Start questioning all these non-Wonder suggestions Burness is making. And don't trust Indonesian drivers - the driver right now, who's not drunk, has already been pulled over by police for running a red light and almost crashing into another car.

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