Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A step closer to the gods

The picture below is of Mount Merapi. One of the most active volcanoes on Earth, it towers 3000 meters above the city of Jogjakarta, the cultural capital of Java. Its last eruption was in 1994: it spewed a little bit of lava, a little bit of hot gases - enough to burn alive 43 people who were too slow to flee its wrath. 

As we're on nerdy holidays in Jogja, we decided to climb it.

The Mount Merapi climb is a staple of the travel agencies that dot the touristic city of Jogjakarta. At first, I figured that the word "climb" was just a product of the promotional spirit of the tour operators (for example, why do they feel like they have to say "visit beautiful Borodubur temple"? Is there an ugly version that is worth visiting too???). Alas! It is nothing of a nice hike, let alone a walk. That's a climb alright!

The program goes like this: a tour guide picks you up at your homestay or hotel in Jogjakarta around 10 PM. You arrive around midnight in Selo, the village that is the highest
on the slope of the volcano. You start the climb at 1 AM in order to schedule an arrival at the summit for sunrise. Sounds good doesn't it?

Well... They do say in the tourist brochures "not to underestimate the difficulty of the hike". We sure did. See where this picture has been taken? That's where you start, and you have to climb all the way up in just under 5 hours. Here, please read my words carefully: 5 hours is a LONG time. Long, very very long when you're sweating like you're in the Sahara desert without a Gatorade. Even longer when you think that afterwards you'll have to go down these slopes that are so steep that during the climb I was wary of just standing up straight for fear of falling down in the dark.

We departed on a beautifully chilly full moon night. The first part of the hike is a simple paved road, albeit quite steep. Pfff.... Easy. I am still pretty young, and if not in fantastic shape still not totally ridiculous at the gym. But after 30 minutes, huffpuff made a well noticed appearance. One hour later, and I started to pull myself along by clinging to the branches of trees along the way. At first it was discreet; I still mainly clung onto my superior bipedial status. But after an hour or so, all pride was shed: I used all seven tools at my disposal - feet, hands, knees and, yes, ass. All of them are useful when your climb mostly consists of big and small stones rolling beneath your feet, particularly treacherous when ascending at night, regardless of how bright the moon might be. Let me correct that though: I prefered the climbing at nighttime to the descent in the bright daylight, because the latter was the hardest part; the one where Ass was my most prized tool.

We eventually made it up to the summit; all 3000 meters of it, conquered just five minutes before the sun rose. It must have been 5 degrees Celsius up there, a far cry from warm enough to dry our clothes that were totally soaked with sweat. But then Nature's show started, and it was breathtaking; my crappy picture can not even begin to render 10% of its beauty.

Our magical new technologies can give you an idea of how something looks like, sometimes how it sounded like (although I did not record the faint traditional Javanese song we heard at 2 am rising up from the valley where a ceremony was taking place), maybe how it felt like (if I'm not too bad at telling the experience). But there is something though that simply cannot be shared: the smell of the volcano that sometimes hit our nostril during the climb, when the wind brought some of the white smoke that continously pours out of Merapi's crater.

But maybe it is a good thing. I quite like the fact that we had to sweat through our t-shirts, jumpers and windbreakers, even though it was so cold that we could see our breath; that afterwards we had to spend a mini fortune in "remedial massages" to get rid of the four-days long painful soreness that was the price to pay for this hike. Because as a reward, we got the privilege of knowing the primordial odour of the entrails of our planet.

I'll tell you what though: it kinda stinks.

This is a group of students from the military academy who climbed to the top the same day as we did. Here is a game: try to find who does not fit in the picture...

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