Never again! That’s the last time I ever scale one of these bloody volcanoes! Those were my pitiful sentiments after the long and grueling climb of Gunung Lawu, Java’s third-highest peak as measured by prominence. And yet here I am, little more than a month on, and facing the prospect of another climb: this time Java’s second-highest peak, Gunung Slamet.

The pre-climb notes I have at hand make it clear that this 3,428-meter high volcano is not one to be taken lightly as “many hikers have died up on its slopes.” A little bit of research confirms this to be true: back in 2001, Gunung Slamet unleashed its terrifying wrath on a group of seven Indonesian hikers: only two survived after the souls of the five others were taken one after the other, like in some sort of B grade horror movie. Blimey. What have I let myself in for?

All volcanoes are potentially dangerous but Gunung Slamet particularly so. Its weather is entirely unpredictable and on its exposed upper slopes above the vegetation line - where a bitterly cold wind often howls - the visibility can drop to just a couple of meters if a storm moves in. Finding your way back to the main path then becomes a serious problem – as the hapless group of seven Indonesian hikers found to their cost that fateful day.

Gunung Selamat is located in a fairly isolated region of Central Java, around a two-hour drive from Tegal, a pleasant enough town which is well-served by train services along the north coast of Java. In the old days, hawkers would board the trains at stations along the way to flog snacks like tahu, drinking water and, of course, cigarettes. But times have since moved on and following a total revamp of PT Kereta Api Indonesia (KAI) by the organization’s former chief Ignasius Jonan, travelling by Indonesian trains is often now a far more comfortable experience than flying. Coffee is sold in Starbucks-looking paper cups, the plush airline-style seats can be reclined and – best of all - pungent plumes of kretek cigarette smoke no longer waft down the carriage before engulfing you.

For some reason or another, though, the train station announcements are still preceded by that famous five musical note sequence from Spielberg’s classic movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind – you know the notes: Re, Mi, Do, Do, So. Incongruous to say the least. It seems unlikely that KAI ever envisaged the need to communicate with aliens. Perhaps it was the unfathomable tourists they had in mind?

The most popular trailhead up Gunung Selamat starts to the east of the volcano at a nondescript village named Bambangan. Nearby, there is a low-key tourist spot centered around some unique bat caves called Gua Lawa which were created by ancient lava flows and therefore have no stalactites or stalagmites. This tourist attraction is enjoyable in that typically kitsch way that Indonesia does so well and features multicolored railings, cow statues, inflatable dolls etc. but the extensive caves are nonetheless quite impressive and well worth a look. A local warung sells the hallowed bir bintang but it’s only after you’ve had a few bottles that they tell you the price: Rp60,000 each! Need somewhere to stay? There is some cheap and cheerful accommodation just around the corner.

The hike up the volcano begins easily enough through fertile farmland but after an hour or so the going gets tougher as the track starts to ascend through lush forest.

Mount Slamet

Fortunately, there are several posts along the way where you can take a breather and consume much-needed refreshments. A good number of hours of strenuous hiking later, and assuming you haven’t crumbled into the ground due to fatigue, you will finally arrive at what first seems like the long-awaited gates to paradise and 72 virgins (post 7 @ 3,032 meters) but upon closer inspection turns out to be a rather rudimentary and somewhat squalid campsite, which some wisecrack in our group dubbed the Jungle – whatever he meant by that.

The following morning at some ungodly-hour pre-dawn, the fun and games truly begin: the summit attack! The trek begins innocuously enough but on the volcano’s exposed upper reaches, the wind gets very strong. At post 9 (3,182 meters), the vegetation line ends - the so-called “point of no return” after which you are truly at the mercy of the elements with no prospect of finding shelter anymore if you need it.

Now for the toughest part of the hike: the long and exhausting scramble up loose scree to the summit. At this stage, great care is needed to avoid losing your footing or you can literally end up biting the proverbial Java volcano dust. And that doesn’t taste good at all. In clear weather, though, the views are fantastic and the distant peaks of Sindoro, Sumbing and Merbabu are easily visible.

View from the peak of Mount Slamet

From the crater’s ridge, it’s only a short walk to where you can gaze down into the gaseous belly of this slumbering beast. Watch the time, however, as the weather can quickly turn. And you don’t want to be up here if that happens!

Mount Slamet


We do not want merely to see beauty… We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
~CS Lewis

Philosophical arguments are usually given when mountaineers explain why they climb mountains. British mountaineer George Mallory, for example, famously quipped "because it's there" while the legendary New Zealand explorer Sir Edmund Hillary put forward the existential notion that by climbing a mountain we are actually “conquering ourselves”. However, having just climbed the world’s 76th highest peak – Central Java’s Mount Lawu – I would suggest that for many climbers the reason for wanting to scale a mountain is far simpler - and that is the visceral pleasures which come from the stunning views at the top!

As Indonesia’s very high mountains go, Mount Lawu is not particularly well-known, but at 3,265 meters it falls only 411 meters short of Indonesia’s (arguably) most famous mountain, Lombok’s 3,676-meter high Mount Rinjani.

Mount Rinjani, however, is not the most practical of mountains to climb, requiring a serious investment in both time and money. Mount Lawu, by contrast, is easily accessible from Jakarta and the trails are so well-marked that even a drunk and highly myopic climber would find it difficult to get lost (no, I’m not being autobiographical here!). Mount Lawu is also a good test for novice climbers – to see whether they have “what it takes” to climb the country’s even more challenging mountains.

Getting there
To get to Mount Lawu you first need to get to the Central Java city of Surakarta (or Solo, as it’s otherwise called). We took the night bus which departed from the grim and grimy area of Kampung Rambutan in East Jakarta. For what seemed like ages (it was ages!) the bus struggled through insane traffic on the toll road heading out of the city.

Eventually, though, the traffic started to ease just after the satellite town of Bekasi and we thought we were finally on our way – and then the driver decided it was time to eat and pulled over at a vast service area where we had our evening meal (rice, prawn crackers and a watery vegetable soup) in what seemed like a huge aircraft hangar. Weird. Back in our seats 30 minutes later and with the bus hurtling toward Central Java on newly-built toll roads (thanks Jokowi), most of us soon dozed off to nostalgic love songs by the likes of Ebiet G. Ade, Alda Risma and, of course, the most talented female rock star to have ever lived, Nike Ardilla – best-known for her heart-wrenching ballad Bintang Kehidupan.

All is then a blur until, at some ungodly hour before dawn, we are awoken by dangdut music playing from a radio in a streetside warung. We have stopped for coffee. Not the Starbucks nonsense mind you but proper Javanese coffee – kopi tubruk – so strong and sweet it could breathe life into a wayang golek puppet. Reenergized, we depart and within an hour or so arrive at Terminal Palur, a typically ropey looking bus station on the outskirts of Solo. From here, we have to change to a smaller bus to get to Tawangmanggu, the nearest town to Mount Lawu, in a bone-jarring ride which takes about one hour.

Tawangmanggu is a pleasant enough place with accommodation if you need it. There are two trails leading up Mount Lawu (named Cemoro Kandang and Cemoro Sewu), starting not far from each other, and easily reached from Tawangmanggu by omprengan (minibuses) in about 20 minutes. Of the two trails, I would highly recommend using the Cemoro Kandang trail to ascend the mountain as although longer at 12km to the summit – compared to Cemoro Sewu’s 8km – there are more flatter stretches, making for a more pleasant trek.

The history
One thing to appreciate about Mount Lawu is that it is a very sacred place. According to Javanese legend, the mountain is the final resting place of the last king of the Majapahit Empire, Prabu Brawijaya V – although his body has never been found. No mountain in Indonesia is considered as haunted or as mystical as Mount Lawu and despite being “alive” it can also hide its identity. For this reason, climbers are supposed to whisper to the mountain and ask its permission whenever they need something – say, to relieve themselves for example. Swearing or cursing is strictly forbidden. “Upset the mountain,” say the people living in the surrounding villages and “you may not be “accepted” to walk its sacred earth”. Casualties over the years have been numerous and as recently as last year seven hikers were burnt to death in a forest fire.

The ascent using the Cemoro Kandang trail
It’s a long trek to the summit (around 8 to 10 hours) so you’ll need to spend the night up there. We brought tents but you can also crash out in Mbok Yem’s warung not far from the summit in very simple fashion on the supplied rattan mats. On the trail up there are five posts which offer some basic shelter from the elements.

Mount Lawu

Make no mistake, however – this is no walk in the park. The trail is very steep in parts and fresh legs don’t last long. For me, by mid-afternoon the trek had turned into a battle between my mind and my body. How can I keep going on? My shirt is soaked with sweat – a typical bule weakness that – and I have a raging thirst. Legs aching like crazy. But turning back is not an option. Not now…

Mount Lawu

By the time we had reached post three most of us were completely shattered. We rested and enjoyed the spectacular views before remembering that it was already nearly dusk - and we still had to walk to post four – another hour and a half away - where we would camp for the night.

So we continue - our torch beams leading the way. This section was a complete beast to climb and so steep in places that the trail zigzagged crazily back and forth. But then: what’s that stink? The smell of human excrement! This could only mean one thing of course – we were within touching distance of post four! The literal dumping grounds of those who were too lazy to cover up their shit: by far the most unsettling aspect of the climb. Why the hell treat a sacred mountain like that?

Mount Lawu

The next day we get off to an early start. It’s a good hour’s walk to post five before a grueling 30-minute clamber up an almost impossibly steep path to the summit known as Argo Dumilah. We’ve made it! All the pain instantly forgotten. Well, not for too long of course - we’ve still got to go back down!

Mount Lawu

The descent using the Cemoro Sewu trail
Unlike on the Cemoro Kandang trail where we found that no drinks (or food) could be purchased, refreshments are readily available at most of the posts on the Cemoro Sewu trail – quite possibly saving my life I reckon!

Descending the mountain was also challenging however. The path was unbelievably steep and being mostly paved with large stones I was surprised my knee joints didn’t completely shatter at some point. Yet by late afternoon and some five hours later we had made it to post one, legs like jelly. From here it was another hour or so of walking through a pine forest back to the main road. Sacred mountain or not only one question was now on my mind. Where the **** can I get a blessed Bintang?!!!

- No guides are needed as the trails are very well defined and in many places paved with large stones.
- Be properly prepared with all the right gear as it’s very cold at night and hypothermia kills. Nighttime temperatures go as low as 0-4 degrees.
- Bring at least 2 liters of bottled water.
- Travel as light as possible.
- Don’t do the hike during the rainy season – really it’s not worth it.
- Be mentally prepared for a very tough hike.
- Take the hike seriously. If you have an accident you won’t be helicoptered out!

*A slightly different version of this article has been published in Jakarta Expat.

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