Up the Great Mountain of Java through dirt and dust

Up the Great Mountain of Java through dirt and dust
The first rays of daylight reveal a breathtaking sight of three volcanoes at one go - Gunung Batok (silent in front), Gunung Bromo (smoking in the middle) and Gunung Semeru (smouldering at the back).
PHOTO: Jennifer Luy

The small Indonesian town of Tumpang was a mere 90 minutes away by 4WD. Yet it could have been a world removed, one of muggy, crowded lowlands, sclerotic traffic spewing poison from tailpipes, padi fields squeezed into unused chinks of land, and villages overgrown into a single, incoherent mess.

But where we were, the sky was blue and uncluttered, vegetable farms climbed steep slopes on terraces, the air was cool and light. In the distance, emitting puffs of smoke on a regular basis, was our target: the grey ash cone of Gunung Semeru, the highest peak of Java island at 3676m above sea level.

After our 4WD ride, the 13 of us started our hike at the village of Ranu Pane, nestled in a valley between terraced vegetable fields, lush with leek. It was a prosperous place with neat brick houses, tiled roofs and satellite dishes, lying at an altitude of 2,100m. We were led by the amiable guide Agus, who had lost count of the number of times he had ascended Gunung Semeru.

The Javanese refer to the volcano as Mahameru, or "the Great Mountain", the legendary heavenly abode of Hindu-Buddhist mythology. It was an acknowledgement of the Majapahit empire's religious culture several centuries back, pockets of which cling tenaciously in small populations in the Tengger highlands of East Java.

The trail led through cool, dense forest at an easy amble, and by lunchtime the forest yielded to grassland, the smooth curve of the valley widening into the bowl-shaped receptacle which held the lake of Ranu Kumbolo.

This place was like a revealed secret, its dark waters like the pupil of a giant eye looking up at the sky, its emerald surface unwrinkled.

There are areas of open grassland within the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru park.

With neither water inlet nor outlet, its waters were remarkably clear, its depth as mysterious as the age of a woman while small fish frolicked in the shallows. Agus told us there were often deer and ducks at the lake, but that was 10 years ago, before there were many campers and poachers.

There was no one else at the lake that day, and our porters stood on foldable stools and spread a plastic sheet by the lake shore, onto which they presented a cooked lunch of fried chicken, tempe, vegetables, fruit and hot rice. Sitting in the sunshine by the lake that afternoon, I was reminded of the simple things we take for granted, effortlessly encapsulated in the Persian saying: "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou."

After lunch, we left the lake. Cresting a small rise, we looked upon an idyllic landscape of gently undulating grassland, with shafts of golden sunlight highlighting tussocks of grass. There were long shadows from the trees of the surrounding hills as we walked across the golden fields.

Barren terror

As we drew closer to Gunung Semeru, the mountain looked terrifying, its gray upper cone barren of vegetation, steep slopes scoured into runnels and gullies, as coarse as the surface of the moon.

The porters set up yellow dome tents in the grassy field of Kalimati ("Dead River") by the copse of trees that shrouded the lower slopes of Gunung Semeru. It was beautiful and quiet here, but we had the weight of the climb on our minds.


Daylight breaks over the eastern flank of Gunung Semeru.

The temperature plunged precipitously into the single digits. We huddled together, swaddled in jackets, while a dinner of rice, soup, vegetables, fried chicken and fruit, and a wood fire, provided some relief against the cold.

A few restless hours later, Agus summoned us. I stepped outside into a night so bright from moonlight that shadows danced in sharp relief. Overhead the silent sky was alight with the cold blaze of stars. It was midnight. Overhead, the foliage rustled noisily from a wind, which was unusual for the time of year.

At 1am, we started out, our headlights forming a light trail as we followed Agus into the forest. An hour later, we stopped at a clearing near the end of the tree line. Agus pointed upwards, to the barren, steep slopes that we had to tackle. It was covered in a mist, but it wasn't mist. It was an envelope of fine dust and ash whipped up by the wind as it scoured the raw surface.

"We can climb," Agus said to the unspoken question.

I was glad for my hiking poles as I swung them ahead of me, digging into the soft layer of fine ash and loose stones. The soft surface collapsed with every footfall, sliding backward, so that every two steps meant one step back. I kicked into the soft surface with my boots, concentrating on the small pool of light from my headlight, and not looking up. Up ahead, Agus' boots were just within the periphery of my vision.
Hot coffee, a campfire, and woolen clothing ward off the morning chill at Ranu Kumbolo lake.

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