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Summiting the Mountain of Fire: Java, Indonesia

Mount Merapi, known as the Mountain of Fire, entices climbers to central Java for its unique culture and natural beauty. Travel writer Darren Jiron gives us his account of reaching the summit.

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I set off on my adventure from where Java‘s lush Kedu Plain collides with the base of the twin peaks of Merbabu and Merapi, which as I trek up the crumbling road, slowly become more encased in a blanket of clouds. The path I’m taking is lined with smallholder farms and villages, all entangled in the encroaching jungle, while farmers in conical hats look up from their work to watch curiously as I pass by. This winding road leads me up to a ridge where I notice the distinct Joglo houses – traditional vernacular homes of the Javan people – set on the edge of the outer-highland rice fields.

As the hours pass, the sun sinks below the clouds, hovering just over the southern slope of Merapi, and before my eyes is a scene like nothing I’ve observed before, with Joglos set amongst the palms that grace the rice terraces in this fiery red twilight. After trekking further along the track, I arrive at Selo – the last village at the base of the mountains and the starting point for climbing Mount Merapi – thankful to find a guesthouse to rest for the night.

There are no other visitors but a rounded woman greets me with a smile of astonishment. “Halo! Sugeng so?nten, rawuh,” she says to welcome me in, “Stay, yes?” This warm welcome becomes grandiose when she sets down a beer with my noodle and egg soup in the courtyard, where I recollect my day as I watch rain begin to fall.

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In the early hours of the following day, I awake from a deep slumber to make my way along the village’s starlit streets, approaching the dark trail that leads climbers up the mountain, where shadows of the trees dance in the breeze under a sea of stars, and the scent of plantations mingles with the fresh mountain air.

As the moist earth turns to rocky steps and boulders, the smouldering blue horizon entices my sight to a false summit, which I cross on a slender ridge to reach the main body of the mountain. Then, in the pre-dawn light I look across the moon-like landscape of the rocky tower I’m about to climb.

Shadows of the trees dance in the breeze under a sea of stars, and the scent of plantations mingles with the fresh mountain air.

With gravel and dust underfoot, the wind whips wind around me, until I reach the crest of Pasar Bubrah. From this spot on the volcano, the jagged cone rises a thousand feet above me, spitting white smoke from the summit. The sight of another climber’s tent at the foot of the cone emboldens me as I continue on my journey to conquer Merapi.

After what seemed like scaling a crater of the moon, navigating the deep lava trenches, I am within just a few hundred feet of Mount Merapi’s summit, where white smoke escapes from holes in the rocky slopes. As I reach the top I’m rewarded with a view of the summit of Mount Merbabu, with distant volcanoes like islands in a sea of clouds.

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On the sun-soaked downward path, the trail sparkles with morning dew. In a recent eruption the forest on this mountain side was destroyed, but now you can see it returning. From grasses and shrubs rise the saplings of acacia trees, while patches of bamboo and palms remain relatively untouched.

This region is an area of immense natural and cultural beauty, where in the presence of the Mountain of Fire, the joglos and humble plantations are a pristine reflection of this Javan community’s cultural identity.

Climbing Mount Merapi

The best season for climbing Mount Merapi is late April to early October. A guide can safely lead you to the summit on a sunrise trek. As Merapi is an active volcano, check its current safety status, before embarking on your journey. Base yourself at the luxury hotel Amanjiwo, which overlooks the iconic temple of Borobudur, with Merapi and Merbabu to the east. Treks can be arrange from the hotel.

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