Golden carriage to the sea

Branching out a little from reflecting on Dutch culture and society, I thought I would post this piece about climbing Gunung Merapi, an active volcano in Java, with my son:

Golden Carriage to the Sea

Some people dream of sailing solo across titanic oceans, others of scaling impossibly lofty peaks.  Mine as a small boy was to peer into the crater of an active volcano.

Many years later, while taking an intensive language course in Yogyakarta, central Java, I found myself mesmerised by the imposing near-perfect cone of Gunung (Mount) Merapi, a particularly dangerous volcano standing at the join of two continental plates.  The name comes from two words, ‘merah’ meaning ‘red’ and ‘api’ meaning ‘fire’. Its menacing plume of smoke seemed so close, no matter what part of the city you were in.  After several weeks the ever-present Merapi was starting to feel more like a guardian than a threat and I began to wonder about the gaudy but somewhat enticing ‘volcano tour’ sign outside the tour company office in Jalan Sosrowijayan.  Sugeng, one of the tour guides, told me that people could climb to the top, ‘except when it’s erupting’.  Well, yes…

Adding to the volcano’s allure was Sugeng’s explanation of Merapi’s significance in Javanese culture.  Scratch the surface of Islam in this city, which has also experienced Hinduism and Buddhism through its history, and you will find the original, indigenous beliefs in gods of nature and ancestral spirits.  The result is a wonderfully inclusive belief system where the Sultan of Yogyakarta, a Muslim, will journey to Gunung Merapi, making offerings to placate the ancient Javanese spirits believed to dwell there.  To complete the spiritual big picture, visitors to the Sultan’s Palace can watch dance performances describing Hindu epic tales such as the Ramayana.

Time and warnings of an impending eruption dashed my hopes of a triumphant stance atop the smoking crater that year, but the next I returned with my then 13 year old son, Chris, renewed my friendship with Sugeng and made arrangements to watch the sun rise from the peak of Gunung Merapi.

The three of us arrived by mini bus to join a group of Euro backpackers at a village at the base of the volcano.  How did these invariably stick-like creatures, who competed to find the cheapest accommodation in Indonesia, morph into stocky middle age bankers and stockbrokers?  I was mildly concerned at the realisation that I had around 20 more years life experience than the next oldest climber, but was comforted by a glass of sweet tea sympathetically offered by Ibu Ris, a married woman from the village who obviously knew what lay ahead of me.

Interestingly, Ibu Ris referred to Merapi as ‘Si Mbah’, meaning ‘respected person’.  She said that it could bring bad luck to refer to the volcano by name or climb up wearing light green clothes.  Apparently this is the colour of the cone shaped rice offerings that villagers make to the guardian spirits of Merapi.  A quick clothing check and a mental note not to utter the word ‘Merapi’ until well clear of central Java.

We began the ascent at 1 AM, using torches to light the way.  The aim was to reach the summit some 4 hours later, just before dawn.  Our guides were four, fit, confidence-inspiring young men from the village.  Sadly, they forged ahead in the company of a contingent of Swiss mountain goats, leaving a small group of less agile folk to fumble along behind.  Chris was sufficiently goat-like to be up with the front runners.

Fortunately the path up the lower slope of Merapi was easy to follow, largely because it was eroded to a depth of up to two metres and littered with broken branches and jagged boulders.  Some sections had a thick floor of fine dust to negotiate.  At first it had been possible to approximate walking along the track, but as the slope became increasingly steep, this evolved into a clambering, sometimes crawling motion.  Merapi is 2968 metres high, enough to leave one short of breath after only a seemingly short period of exertion.  I began to regret my lack of preparation.  Total darkness left no sense of exactly where the top of the volcano was as the unforgiving path meandered its way heavenwards.  Excitement gave way to thoughts of self-preservation.  I imagined the Swiss mountain goats already standing splay-legged at the summit.

Sugeng and I rested at the halfway point, marked by a bamboo platform.  At this rather inopportune moment he chose to tell me about the thousands of people who had lost their lives during Gunung Merapi’s consistent eruptions over the last hundred years or so.  He said locals believe that the volcano is having a ceremonial feast if an eruption occurs and that the hot lava flow is really Merapi sending golden carriages to the Goddess of the South Sea.  A carriage ride to the sea sounded pretty appealing at that stage.

Chris had waited for me at the point where the path finally broke free from the scrub and segued into the scree slope of boulders and loose stones.  He said I looked ‘almost finished’ and he was right.  The scree meant that we were probably about 200 metres from the top, even though we could still not see further than our fading torch beams.  Which direction other than just ‘upwards’?  It was more than a little unnerving to feel that the rocks we were crawling over were very warm.  Thoughts of falling into rather than peering down at the molten crater muscled their way into my mind.  I said to Chris and Sugeng that watching the sun rise from not quite at the top would be just fine.

The pre-dawn, ghostly illumination was just beginning when a soft call came from above.  We could just make out one of the Javanese guides, whose signals indicated that we had wandered some 50 metres off the safe line to the peak.  Indeed, we had been heading towards the unsafe zone of toxic gases.

I was far too exhausted to be triumphant, but still easily able to feel exhilarated as we made our way to the surreal, moon-like landscape at the top.  The astonishing panorama which unfolded before us with the breaking dawn was truly breathtaking.  To share this with one’s son – immeasurable. Other volcanic peak emergents pierced the clouds surrounding us and far below glimpses of the twinkling lights of waking villages dusted the Javanese landscape.  Sugeng was moved to utter ‘Sangat dekat Tuhan di sini’, ‘it’s very close to God here’.  This seemed to me to be very much in sync with the Javanese belief that Merapi is a living being who can be kind to the surrounding communities as long as people behave respectfully and treat the volcano well. If Merapi is not respected, then anger and destruction replace friendliness.

And yes, I did get to peer into the crater….

6 thoughts on “Golden carriage to the sea

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