After over an hour in the van, we finally got our first up-close glimpse of Mt. Merapi, the "fire mountain." A massive mountain with constant smoke spewing out its top was not the most inviting sight, but there was no turning back now. If things went according to plan, we'd be standing at the peak before sunrise. But it was still only midnight. We had several hours and around 1,500 meters in between us and our goal. After a brief coffee break at a lodge in Selo Village, it was time to start our ascent up Indonesia's most active volcano.
There were only three people in our little group along with a local guide. But we also climbed together with another small group, resulting in a somewhat disjointed posse of eight. During most of the ascent, we passed no more than a few other solo climbers. For much of the journey it felt like we had the entire mountain to ourselves.
A view of neighboring Mt. Merbabu during the nighttime ascent
I could tell from the very beginning that climbing Mt. Merapi was not going to be easy. The angle was steep, around 45 degrees, and it stayed that way pretty much the entire way up. We had to constantly watch out for slippery rocks which covered almost the entire trail – not an easy task in the pitch darkness. It was a good thing we were all provided small headlamps for the climb. I really don't know what we would've done without them.
Over the next few hours, we'd have to fight sleepiness and exhaustion as we struggled our way up the constantly steep and slippery slope. There were no flat parts of the trail, with the exception of the occasional rest areas we'd stop at for 10 minutes at a time to sip water and munch on snacks.
Throughout the climb, it was vital to be fully immersed in the moment. We needed to stay mindful of rocks, branches or any other thing to either be avoided or grabbed onto for leverage. Any number of times, a few people in the group slipped and fell. Thankfully, they only tumbled onto the trail and not off of it.
By roughly 4am, cold, sweaty and a little out of breath, we'd finally reached the last resting area. The smoky peak of Merapi, our supposed final destination, was now in view. But even in the dim light, no one could miss the large yellow sign with black letters that read: STOP !!
Money, Fate and Mountain Spirits
Mt. Merapi billowing smoke in the distance is a common sight all over the Yogyakarta region
Mt. Merapi has erupted twice in recent years: once in 2006 and then again in 2010. The 2006 eruption only killed two people, but a nearby earthquake at around the same time killed 5,000. The recent 2010 eruption killed 350 people, completely wiping out some of the villages at the mountain's base. It also permanently altered the shape of Merapi's peak in the process.
Many wonder why so many people would continue to live and go about their lives around the base of one of the world's most active volcanoes. Even more perplexing is the fact that many villagers deliberately ignore evacuation notices during ongoing eruptions!
The local residents' stubbornness mainly lies in two factors. First of all, their financial wellbeing is heavily dependent on the land around the mountain. Mt. Merapi's ash makes the nearby soil extremely fertile. The agricultural-based communities near the mountain simply couldn't grow as many crops by uprooting and moving elsewhere.
Merapi's frequent eruptions also bring on other economic opportunities. Building materials can be extracted from the volcanic rocks and such lucrative work attracts a large number of laborers.
The second major reason why so many choose to remain in such a volatile area has to do with their strong reverence for the spirits they believe live inside the mountain. In fact, throughout history and to this day, Merapi has had its own 'mountain guard' assigned by the local sultan himself.
The Yogyakarta Sultanate
The “Autonomous Special Region” of Yogyakarta, as the name suggests, is a unique region in Indonesia. The city and province surrounding it are actually ruled by a sultan, the tenth of which is currently in power.
Yogyakarta was granted the right to rule itself autonomously as thanks for the ninth sultan's efforts in the struggle against Dutch colonial rule. The sultan's palace, also referred to as the kraton, sits directly in between Mt. Merapi and the sea.
The Changing of The Guard
The Javanese believe Mt. Merapi to be a powerful and sacred mountain. Though Islam is now the dominant religion on the island, many animistic traditions of Javanese culture, such as spirit and ancestor worship, are still widely practiced today.
The job of Merapi's 'mountain guard,' or 'spirit keeper,' is to be the liaison between the spirits of the mountain and the citizens of Yogyakarta. The guard makes offerings to appease the mountain gods, not only for the sake of residents living at Merapi's base, but for citizens all throughout the Yogyakarta region.
One of the most significant annual ceremonies is known as Labuhan. Every year, a day after the anniversary of the sultan's coronation, Merapi's mountain guard offers items like cloths of various colors, incense and even some hair and nail clippings.
Meanwhile, a similar ceremony takes place at a beach on the southern coast. Why? As you'll learn below, the Javanese believe in a special energetic axis connecting Merapi with the sea. One of the mountain guard's main duties is to maintain harmony and balance between the two.
The smoky peak of Mt. Merapi
Just like the Yogyakarta Sultanate, the position of 'mountain guard' is hereditary. For decades, the job was held by someone named Mbah Maridjan, a man widely respected and revered by local residents and even by those in other regions of Java. Today, however, that job now belongs to his son. Sadly, one of the hundreds of casualties of the 2010 eruption was the mountain guard himself.
Maridjan was killed by the eruption after refusing to leave his village during the blast. To some, his death cast doubts on some of the region's longstanding traditions. Others, in contrast, feel that Maridjan was simply fulfilling his destiny: to die on the very mountain he'd served and called his home.
“The local authorities say that no one is allowed to climb past this point anymore, but if you really want I can take you,” said one of our guides.
The members of our group looked around at each other with expressions of confusion and slight fear. None of us had been informed of this information prior to the climb. Seeing the sunrise from the top had been our main motivation to power through what had been a grueling climb. But would it be worth the risk?
“It's dangerous. Sometimes accidents happen here. Recently somebody fell and died. But if you go slowly, maybe OK. You want to go?” he asked us.
I, along with a couple of others, hesitated for a bit before shrugging our shoulders and confirming we were still in. It had been a difficult journey already and I didn't want to go back without making it all the way up.
And so we pressed on.
The nature of the climb beyond that point was a completely different beast from the previous several hours. There was hardly even a trail anymore. We had to climb up what felt like sand at what seemed like an impossibly steep angle.
Looking up at the top from the final rest area, the climb beyond that point didn't even seem possible. But somehow, by just concentrating on each individual step, avoiding a few near falls and periodically emptying the little pebbles out of my shoes, I got closer and closer.
And then, before I knew it, about 30 minutes of climbing later, I was there. And just in time for sunrise, too. Feeling satisfied and contented, I took a much needed rest on a little concrete seating area while gazing out at a beautiful view of Mt. Merbabu in the distance.
When I first made it to the top there were no more than ten people up there in total. One of the guides and I were the first ones up from our group, while the other people were a mix of solo local climbers and a couple of other small groups.
As happy as I was, it was hard to ignore the freezing weather. My teeth chattered ferociously as I waited for the sun to make an appearance. Starving, I devoured the rest of the convenience store snacks I'd lugged all the way up.
After a short wait, the sun began to peek out over the horizon. Without too many clouds in the sky, we were rewarded with a near-perfect sunrise. In all the excitement I nearly dropped one of my camera lenses down the side of the mountain, but luckily managed to catch it just in time! Though it would've made an interesting offering for the mountain gods, getting shots of the much-awaited sunrise was more important.
The Fire Mountain & The Sea Goddess
Mt. Merapi's Mythological Origins
Mt. Merapi is said to have come from the sea. According to legend, the island of Java was wobbly and off-balance. The gods decided to even things out by anchoring down a large mountain in the center of the island. The source of the new mountain would be Mount Jamurdipa, situated off the island's southern coast.
The gods had a very precise location in mind for their new mountain, but this happened to be the home of two extraordinary human beings named Rama and Permadi. The two brothers were so strong and powerful that they were able to shape large kiris daggers with their bare hands. They also took their blacksmith work extremely seriously.
When the gods asked them several times if they would move out of the way, they refused, as they were in the middle of a project. Frustrated, the head of the gods lost patience and decided to place down the new mountain anyway, crushing and killing the brothers.
As is common in Asian folklore, humans typically turn into spirits when they die. Today, Mt. Merapi is said to be ruled by the spirits of blacksmiths Rama and Permadi, hence the name 'fire mountain.' In fact, the locals envision an entire kingdom of spirits residing inside the mountain, with its own complex system of government and even roads. Residents living around the base of the mountain believe that this inner kingdom is where they'll end up when they die.
The Queen of the South Sea
The legend of Ritu Kidul, or the Queen of the South Sea, is another local legend that's still taken very seriously in modern-day Yogyakarta. She is said to be a mermaid dressed in green who watches over the entire southern coast of Java.
According to the legend, a man named Senopati, who was the prince of the Mataram dynasty, went to the beach to meditate. The Mataram Kingdom was the last of the major kingdoms on Java before Dutch colonial rule. At the time, though, Senopati was concerned about who would be the one to rule the Mataram Kingdom next.
During his meditation, a small star fell from the sky and hit him in the chest. His counselor told him that this was a sign from Ritu Kidul herself. It was meant to let him know that he would become king and that his descendants would also rule after him. But Senopati went back again to the beach, just to make sure.
He meditated once again and this time the waves turned increasingly violent. Shortly thereafter, Ritu Kidul herself appeared, informing the prince that he was indeed meant to rule. That's not where the story ends, however. The Queen of the South Sea also declared her love for the future Javanese king and asked him to marry her. In return, she promised, she would protect all of his successors.
The modern-day sultanate, considered to be the successor to the Mataram Kingdom, understandably places a strong emphasis on this local legend. The legend, they believe, is a symbol of their inherent right to rule. But that's not all. Just how seriously the sultanate and local residents alike take these local legends is evident in Yogyakarta's city planning.
The Magical Axis
Yogyakarta's iconic Tugu Monument
The people of Yogyakarta have long believed that a powerful metaphysical axis connects Mt. Merapi and Parangtritis, the beach from where the Queen of the South Sea legend originates. This idea, in fact, even predates the current sultanate, possibly going as far back as over a thousand years ago. This was a period of heightened volcanic activity at Merapi. It should also be noted that animism, Buddhism and Hinduism were all especially popular at the time.
Merapi's eruptions are often foreshadowed by nearby earthquakes. The ancient residents likely observed how many of these earthquakes occurred in very particular spots of the island, thus concluding that there must be a metaphysical line connecting the mountain and the sea. In fact, scientists can now confirm that the axis which Central Javans first observed over a millennium ago happens to overlap an active fault line.
Looking closer at a map of Yogyakarta, one can see that many of the city's significant landmarks have been deliberately placed along the 'magical axis,' with the kraton, or sultan's palace, at the very center. The Tugu Monument was constructed directly on the axis, while the city's main shopping street, Malioboro, also runs along it. In addition to important ceremonies like the Labuhan, it's believed that these landmarks help stabilize the forces of nature.
Just as careful planning along the axis can maintain the balance between the mountain and the sea, construction in the wrong areas could have the opposite effect. New buildings along the Opak River, for example, have been partly to blame for recent earthquakes and eruptions. Interestingly, the Opak River originates at Merapi before eventually flowing into the Indian Ocean.
What goes up, must come down
Looking back down at the final stretch of the mountain, I was sure that descending the same way would be impossible. Surely there was an alternate path somewhere that people used to get down, I thought. The guide confirmed, however, that there was no other way to go but the way we came.
The key was to smoothly glide down the steep side of the mountain - sometimes while standing and other times by scooting down on your butt. Now that it was daylight and we could truly comprehend how high we were, the ramifications of making a mistake and tumbling down were now strikingly clear.
Looking back up at the 'illegal' part of the climb
“I feel dangerous. I feel very dangerous,” said a Chinese climber who remained seated in the middle of the slippery path. Though he'd managed to make it about half-way down, he was having doubts about making it any further. And to be honest, so was I. With the fatigue and drowsiness starting to get to me, though, I knew I had to keep moving.
Whether I was going to fall off the mountain or make it down in one piece, I didn't want to delay the inevitable. I just hoped that if there really was a town of spirits inside the volcano, they weren't in need of any more workers. I continued to slowly skate, slide and glide down the tip of the mountain, and eventually I was back safely at the yellow warning sign.
Once our group was gathered at the same spot, we stopped to appreciate the beautiful scenery of the surrounding area and the cone-shaped Mt. Merbabu. The most dangerous part of the journey was now over, but we still had another 3 hours or so of climbing back down at the same steep angle. The view of the sunrise had been my main motivation to make it up, but all I could think of on the way down was breakfast and a nap.
After an excruciating, yet relatively uneventful descent, the journey was finally over. Though I'd been the first one of our group to make it to the top, I was among the last to make it down.The strain on my knees was tremendous. I painfully winced with each step as I limped back into town. As exhausted as I was, though, I wasn't too tired to enjoy a warm breakfast back at the base in Selo Village.
I took a nap in the backseat of the van back into Yogyakarta, and finally arrived at my hotel past one in the afternoon.
Climbing Mt. Merapi remains one of the least touristy volcanic hikes in Indonesia, especially when compared to Mt. Bromo in East Java or Bali's Mt. Batur. And it's easy to see why. This is a grueling, long journey that may not be for everyone. But I'm certainly glad I did it.
Throughout the rest of my time in Yogyakarta, I'd occasionally catch views of Mt. Merapi and its plumes of smoke in the distance. Whether you're standing on top of it or looking at it from afar, Merapi is an awe-inspiring mountain that is certainly worthy of respect.
You should be able to arrange a climb of Mt. Merapi fairly easily by asking at your hotel or guest house. My accommodation happened to have a brochure called "Jogjakarta Heritage Journey" at the front desk. I told them I wanted to climb that same night and they made a call and arranged everything for me. It may take awhile to receive confirmation though, as they'll need a few additional people confirmed before they approve.
I paid Rp. 450,000 total, which included round trip transport, breakfast, the guide and any other fees required by the national park around the mountain.
You'll be picked up around 22:00 and dropped off back at your hotel the next afternoon.
Some people choose to hike Mt. Merapi entirely on their own, arranging their own transport and climbing without a guide. To do this you'd need to rent a car or motorbike and head to Selo Village at the base of the mountain. As is common in Indonesia, there will likely be men at the bottom demanding you either pay for a guide or some other kind of fee for the park.
Personally, I'd recommend just hiring a guide and driver. Having a guide with us didn't diminish the sense of accomplishment from reaching the top at all. Our guide was mainly there to tell us which direction to go when the path occasionally forked in two.
Though we didn't need it, all guides carry walkie -talkies to call for help should anyone get hurt.
It should also be noted that climbing Mt. Merapi is possible during the daytime, too. Some people camp out and then watch the sunrise the next morning.
There’s not a whole lot you need to bring for your climb, but here’s a list of things you’ll want to take with you:
- Be sure to pack enough snacks, as you’ll likely get very hungry on both the way up and the way down.
- Wear comfortable shoes, but they don’t need to be anything special. I just climbed with regular tennis shoes. They should be old shoes you don’t care much for, though, as they will definitely go through a lot of wear and tear during the hike.
- Bring a small flashlight, even though a headlamp will also be provided by the guide. During some of the more difficult parts of the climb, I found it handy to use both the headlamp and the flashlight (torch).
- Bring some kind of light jacket for when you get closer to the top. I only brought a very thin one, and while it was very cold up there, the discomfort only lasted for a short time before the sun came out. It’s cold during the climb up, but the hike is so strenuous you’ll probably be fine in a T-shirt for most of the journey.
- Bring water, but not too much. I made the mistake of bringing a large 2 liter bottle but I felt more hungry than thirsty for most of the climb. I didn’t drink very much of it and it weighed my bag down. It’s better to bring a few smaller bottles than one large one.
- Some people who climb independently bring a tent and sleeping bag and decide to camp out on the mountain. Having made it through the hike with a heavy bag full of water, food and camera gear, I don’t think I’d want to do the climb with an even heavier bag full of camping equipment. That’s up to you, though.
- You may be surprised to learn that there’s actually 4G reception at the top of the mountain. Therefore, you can take some pictures up there with your cell phone and send them to your friends before even climbing back down. Be careful, though. Supposedly, the most recent death on the mountain was due to a failed selfie attempt!
Most English information online will mention Malioboro Street as the place to be. It’s true that there are many hotels there and it’s a convenient location that will suit you fine. I’d recommend staying further south, however.
If you’re at all interested in checking out Yogyakarta’s amazing contemporary art scene, I’d recommend staying somewhere near Jl. Tirtodipuran or Jl. Prawirotaman streets. There are plenty of accommodation options here in addition to restaurants, nightlife and fantastic art galleries.
Yogyakarta is easily reachable by plane. You can fly to Adisucipto International Airport from Jakarta, Denpasar (Bali) and other large Indonesian cities. You can also fly directly to and from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
The city is also accessible by either train or bus, with trips from Jakarta lasting about 12 hours. Many people head further east after their time in Jogja, and it should be fairly easy to find a bus route to wherever it is you're going.