Gunung Argopuro: The longest walk

Please send me evenings and weekends
~Gang of Four

I’m writing up my thoughts on this trek a good while after actually doing it. Memory is always subject to bias as we tend to spin a positive narrative on our travelling experiences even if they are challenging, but I still remember this trek as one hell of a tough walk. Nothing extreme like the soul-crushing scree at the top of Semeru, but a damn long slog nonetheless, during which we covered around 55km in three days according to the GPS readings. To think you can walk that far through uninhabited areas including savannah and dense tropical rainforest in an island as densely populated as Java is quite incredible, and that’s especially true if, like me, you have become used to living in Indonesia’s madcap capital Jakarta, a city so congested that even the president has given up all hope and wishes to start afresh by building a new capital in the jungles of Borneo.

Our journey began with a pricey flight from Jakarta to the salubrious sounding city of Surabaya in East Java which, in reality, is actually an extremely hot and dusty industrial city, yet despite this still close to my heart as it’s where I spent 3 years when I first came to Indonesia. We didn’t actually visit downtown Surabaya itself so I wasn’t able to see for myself how much it has changed over the years although I’m sure I would have been shocked. For the city’s main shopping center, Tunjungan Plaza, for example, I’ve heard that this mecca to the gods of consumerism has already been extended up to a ridiculous six malls - and there are probably even more to come!

From the airport we made good time on the long drive to our hotel thanks to the newly constructed toll roads. It was an unremarkable journey in many ways, with the highlight being, quite literally, the huge PAITON power station which was lit up like the Nou Camp during a midweek evening fixture. Commissioned in an era before global warming became a concern, the power station is designed to burn coal - and it does, lots of it. Don’t come here Greta Thunberg. You won’t be impressed!

We stayed at the Hotel Utama Raya (Grand Hotel), which - unlike its name might suggest - wasn’t very plush at all yet still comfortable enough for an overnight stay. We would begin our hike early the next day from the base camp in Baderan and not be able to leave any stuff behind as this was going to be a classic traverse (a first for me) as opposed to a straight climb up and down the mountain (using the same path). All very well but it also means that once you’ve started the trek there is no going back – whatever the reason may be! Unfortunately for one of the guys, he had to pull out at the last minute because he had been feeling unwell. A tough decision to make but undoubtably the right one. No one wants to be fucked up and sick in the middle of nowhere – least of all in the Indonesian jungle.

At the base camp we were asked to pay the incredibly inflated “tourist price” of Rp375,000 for our admission tickets even though we all live in Indonesia and pay our taxes here as Indonesians do. Not only that but we would need to purchase three tickets – one for each day of the hike! Nothing like the sweet taste of being ripped off. Just have to take it on the chin, I guess – after all, what else can you do?

From Baderan we commenced our trek on a paved path of moderate inclination and soon came across a viewing point which is incongruously named Plaza Rengganis (GPS: -7.891592, 113.671911) as it looks nothing like a plaza but a lot more like your typical garden shed! Presumably established to cater to local tourists looking for that ubiquitous Instagram selfie, none were here however, dissuaded no doubt by the location’s extreme isolation and difficult access.

It was a long day and after 22.5km of trekking we arrived at Cikasur, one of the most beautiful meadows I have ever encountered on a hike in Indonesia and the perfect place to camp. Back in the colonial era the Dutch had built an airstrip in this incredibly remote spot - ostensibly to open up access to hunt the local wildlife which is said to include wild boars, peacocks and deer (none of which we got to see, mind you, even though the peacocks were clearly around given their incessant shrieking).

The second day’s hiking was thankfully far less taxing, not only as the distance covered was considerably shorter, but also because we didn’t need to gain too much altitude either. A lot of the trekking was through dimly lit casuarina forest which, in places, gave way to wide open savannah. We eventually arrived at a plain between the Argopuro peak (3,088 m) and our camping spot on the ruins of an ancient Hindu complex – the gods really would look over us as we slept, well for this night at least! In such a setting it seemed so incredulous to me that Hinduism was able to rule sway across all of Java as recently as only a thousand years ago, especially given the utter dominance and pervasive influence of Islam today. Well, things do change I guess - even if you think they never will. Nothing lasts forever. But what theology will people on Java be following in another thousand years? One can only wonder…

Early the next morning we followed the familiar predawn ritual of getting up in the dark in the hope of witnessing a spectacular sunrise. But while East Java’s magnificent Gunung Raung and the more distant Gunung Agung in Bali were clearly visible in the earie twilight, the low-lying sun was unfortunately obscured by clouds. Oh well, that’s the way it goes. But anyway, it didn’t really matter: just being in this mystical spot was an experience itself.

Having reached the summit there was only one thing to do of course, and that was to go back down! While this sounds like an easier proposition than having to haul yourself up a mountain, many hikers actually find it tougher going because even though it is naturally far less strenuous, going down can be very painful on the knees, and if like me you have ill-fitting boots you can also get stubbed toes – an excruciatingly painful condition which is later followed by the ignominy of having your dead and blackened toenails fall off a number of days after the hike.

Well it had been a gruelingly long walk, cost me a small fortune, and my feet were killing me.

Brilliant.

Which volcano is next?

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