“I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”
~ US “patron saint” of twentieth-century environmentalism, the legendary John Muir
Bringing my 2016 trilogy of Java volcano climbs to a fitting conclusion was Mount Semeru. I say fitting because this 3,676m high volcano is not only the most prominent peak in Java (and the fourth-highest in Indonesia), but also highly revered for mystical reasons and, being located in the expansive and ethereal Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, among the most spectacular as well.
Good preparation is key to successful volcano climbs and that’s especially true when you face a brutal 1,200m final slog in loose scree up a 45-degree slope to the summit. For that reason, it’s important to be in good physical shape. For me, that meant plenty of pre-climb jogging to boost my V02 max (breathing ability) and lots of squats to strengthen strange sounding muscles like your gluteus maximus (buttocks) and gastrocnemius (the larger of the two calf muscles).
To provide some sort of reassurance to the Indonesian authorities that you are fit enough to climb the volcano and won’t drop dead while attempting it (which happens surprisingly often), you will need to show a health certificate prior to the climb. I got mine in Jakarta at one of the many puskesmas (community health centres) in less than 45 minutes and for the princely sum of Rp5,000 (US37 cents). If only all Indonesian bureaucracy was this painless! This health test is not altogether too comprehensive, however, and even a blind man with no arms or legs could probably get the certificate, I reckon, as only body weight and blood pressure is measured – nothing else!
The nearest large town to the volcano is Malang, which, strangely enough, means “unlucky” or “wretched” in Bahasa Indonesia – not exactly an auspicious sign if your plane is coming into land at the town’s airport in blustery weather conditions, as ours was. Fortunately for us, though, Malang didn’t live up (or should that be down?) to its unlucky name and we landed safely albeit chewing nervously on our fingernails.
Malang’s Abdul Rachman Saleh Airport is a tidy affair: clean and modern, modelled it seems on that old architectural favorite: the humble greenhouse. Compared to the mayhem at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, this was a happy surprise. So much so that I nearly decided to spend the next three days camped at the airport rather than bother climbing the volcano until a busy security guard wondered why I had been hanging around for so long and told me to get on my way.
From Malang it is a two-hour drive to Ranu Pani, a sleepy farming village where the trek to Mount Semeru begins. Depending on your plans, you may want - or indeed need - to spend a night here. Fortunately, Ranu Pani has several homestays. Yet at an altitude of 2,100m above sea level, the cold water showers at most of the homestays are not for the faint-hearted or, for obvious reasons, the weak-hearted either. Seek out a homestay with hot showers if you can!
Once you have completed the formalities of registering with the authorities and having paid the rather steep park fees (at least for foreigners without an Indonesian residence permit), you can begin your hike. For most mortals, two nights of camping is recommended if you wish to reach the summit of the volcano - one night probably won’t give you enough downtime unless you have legs of steel.
Another reason to camp two nights in the national park rather than one is that you will get the chance to stay at Ranu Kumbolo, home to one of the most serene and beautiful lakes in Indonesia, thanks in no small part to its splendid isolation. To reach the lake from Ranu Pani takes about 3 to 4 hours of relatively easy walking, following a mostly tree-lined path (cypress, pine, jamuju etc), which occasionally gets steep but never for too long. The path also hugs the edge of ridges, with sheer drop-offs to the valley below, so caution is necessary, especially in rainy weather as the path can get pretty slippery – one misplaced step and that - as they say - would be that.
Temperatures at Ranu Kumbolo are among the lowest you are ever likely to experience in Indonesia, falling to around zero in the early hours before dawn, so prepare accordingly or suffer the consequences. A cold night’s camping is certainly worth it, however, since the natural beauty of Ranu Kumbolo takes on a metaphysical dimension at sunrise, with the glorious early morning light bringing an utterly perfect natural vista to life, leaving you to mull over life’s imponderables. Have I really been sitting at that desk for the last ten years? And why did I even surrender to the concept of soul crushing materialism in the first place?
To the Hindu Tenggerese people who live in the area, Mount Semeru is a sacred mountain and the abode of Shiva, the Supreme being who creates, protects and transforms the universe. According to legend, the volcano was transplanted from India and originally located in the western part of Java. However, the huge weight of the mountain subsequently caused Java to tilt, so that it was then dragged eastwards to restore balance, leaving fragments of itself which formed other volcanoes such as Mount Lawu, Mount Kelut and Mount Arjuno before ending up at its present and (presumably) final location.
From Ranu Kumbolo, the path to the volcano passes through sweeping and colorful savanna that evoke the flower gardens of France and Holland. But there’s a remarkable reason for this. And that is that towards the end of the colonial era, a Dutch botanist named Cornelis Gijsbert Gerrit Jan "Kees" van Steenis released as many as 25 non-native plants in the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. One of them was verbena brasiliensis, a distinctive purple-colored plant from South America, which has since spread so extensively that the park authorities believe that it may now be posing an ecological threat.
After only several hours of easy walking from the lake, the path reaches a large and open clearing at the foot of the volcano called Kalimati. This is the location where most climbers set up camp before attempting the long climb to the summit, leaving at around midnight with the aim of arriving at the summit at dawn.
But be forewarned: the summit attack is very physically demanding and the last 1,200 meters above the tree line are particularly tough going. Many climbers give up. No longer are you walking on firm ground but trudging through loose, soft scree up a 45-degree slope. It can also be pretty dangerous since loose rocks sometimes hurtle down the slope toward you, inadvertently freed by other climbers. Progress is very slow and it takes at least 3 hours, often more depending on your fitness, to reach the summit.
Once there, however, the feelings of exhaustion and tiredness quickly give way to a deep sense of relief and satisfaction. All around, the views are quite spectacular. Mount Semeru is also one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes and you are left in no doubt of its potential destructiveness as minor eruptions frequently take place, usually about every 20 minutes or so. Caution is certainly warranted as the gases are highly poisonous and many a curious soul has breathed his last breath whilst trying to get a closer look of the crater, including the well-known Indonesian political activist Soe Hok Gie, who died here in 1969.
Getting down the volcano is a whole lot easier than climbing it, and the scree which took 3-4 hours to climb can easily be negotiated in around 30 minutes. All in all, it’s a long day’s walk of about 20km to get back to Ranu Pani, the village where the hike begins. But with the satisfaction of having just climbed Java’s highest volcano, the tiredness and fatigue can be kept at bay. It’s all been worth it. You’ll get to live another day!
- Arrange transportation from Malang to Ranu Pani in advance. Otherwise you can try to charter a vehicle on the spot (not advisable) or take a minibus to Pasar Tumpang (which takes nearly 2 hours) and then use a motorcycle taxi (ojek) to get to Ranu Pani.
- Make sure you bring the right equipment: tent, warm clothes, torch, stove, trekking poles etc.
- Porters/guides can be hired in Ranu Pani.
- Besides a health certificate bring photocopies of your passport and other ID with you.
- The entrance fees for foreigners are pretty steep at Rp207,500 per day (Rp307,500 per day at the weekend)! If you can show an Indonesian residency permit you only have to pay the local rate of Rp17,500 per day (Rp22,500 per day at the weekend).
- Don’t try and climb the volcano solo (a Swiss guy who tried this in 2016, got lost, and was never found).
- Get good Insurance cover. Although there is no possibility of helicopter evacuation from the park, if you get seriously hurt you may need expensive treatment at an Indonesian hospital.