Climbing Mount Ciremai

Having successfully climbed the highest volcanos of East and Central Java (Mount Semeru @ 3,676m and Mount Slamet @3,284, respectively), it seemed apt that the next “ribu” to climb would be West Java’s highest volcano – the imperious Mount Ciremai @ 3,078m.

Located to the south east of Cirebon, the volcano is now easily accessible from Jakarta thanks to the recent construction of the Cikopo-Palimanan toll road. If you miss the worst of the traffic it’s a 5-hour drive. Intrepid solo climbers might even think about using public transportation to get there. However, I wouldn’t bother. Sure it might be theoretically possible – as indeed nearly all journeys in Java are – but in practice you’re likely to waste a lot of time and end up really tired and frustrated. And that’s before you’ve even started the climb!

The volcano has three trails. The most popular (as well as the safest) is the Apuy trail via Majalengka. Although this trail starts at a relatively high altitude of around 1,200m that still means you have to gain another 1,800m of altitude – making it a pretty strenuous climb. The other two less-climbed trails – Palutungan and Linggar Jati – start at around 1,100m and 600m respectively.

Majalengka is a fairly nondescript Javanese town with its share of Alfamart and Indomaret convenience stores. These are good places to stock up on bottled water and other supplies. There are a couple of hotels in Majalengka located virtually next door to each other: a plush new one with fancy neon lighting and large glass windows and a rather shabby traditional one which looks like it hasn’t had a lick of paint in the last 20 years (probably because it hasn’t). We stayed in the latter.

The hotel has full ceramic floors meaning that sounds get amplified as if heard through a megaphone. So good luck sleeping if your room is near the reception and they are playing cards. The rooms are small with the TV placed so high up on the wall that you need to crank your neck about 90 degrees to watch it. This means it’s okay to watch the news but if you watch a feature film you’ll probably end up permanently crippled. Be warned. The beds sag as you would expect them to and most visitors claim to have unannounced guests: not the so-called night butterflies of Java (kupu kupu malam) but aggressive and bloodthirsty mosquitoes!

Across the road from the hotel, a restaurant can be found which offers classic West Java cuisine such as fried gurami fish complete with steamed rice and lalapan (vegetables served with a spicy sambal sauce). Pretty good. But again we had more uninvited guests: this time a few rats which were observing proceedings from the rafters above us!

From Majalengka, it takes around 45 minutes to reach the head of the Apuy trail. We left in the back of a pick-up and I roasted under the sun like barbequed sate. After passing through several sleepy villages the road followed an ever-ascending ridge line, surrounded on all sides, it seemed, by terraced fields of cabbages, sweet potatoes and other crops – a welcome change from Jakarta’s concrete jungle.

At the base camp it didn’t take long to sort out the permits. All the usual hiking rules applied such as no littering or setting fires in addition to one I had never come across before: don’t piss in bottles and hang them from trees. WTF! Why would anyone do that, you might ask? Why indeed? Well, apparently because Mount Ciremai is considered sacred and to piss on its soil would provoke God’s understandable wrath.

What’s strange, though, is that this is the exact opposite of the problem found at many other Indonesian volcanoes which are treated like large open toilets, resulting in some pretty gross camping sites!

The mystical status acquired by Mount Ciremai pays homage to the trip made to the volcano by Sunan Gunungjati, one of the nine revered saints of Islam in Indonesia – the so-called Walisongo. Although it’s not clear whether Sunan Gunungjati actually reached the summit or not, he is at least thought to have made it to the location of a large stone at Batu Lingga @ 2,200m, where he apparently found the right conditions he was looking for to meditate.

Regardless of its sacred and mystical credentials, Mount Ciremai should be treated with the greatest respect. According to Indonesian Search and Rescue (SAR) records, as many as 50 climbers came a cropper on the volcano in the years from 1973 to 2009 – a very high number indeed. Some lost their footing on the precarious crater rim and fell to their deaths. Others died in storms. In 2010, two climbers were even killed by falling pine trees.

The hike to the summit only took us around five hours or so – thankfully we were spared the misfortune of rain which can turn the trail into a muddy and slippery nightmare. Fortunately, there is tree cover for much of the way, although the higher reaches are much more exposed to the elements – whether blazing sun or possible downpours depending on your luck.

Although the weather had been blustery back at Majalengka, we were blessed with ideal conditions when we reached the crater rim in the early afternoon: a sky so blue it looked photo-shopped and hardly even a breeze. As a result, we could simply pitch up our tents just below the crater rim rather than seek out a more sheltered spot lower down the volcano – such as at the Gua Walet caves @ 2,950m.

The views, needless to say, were incredible with Mount Slamet, Mount Lawu, and Mount Merbabu all rising majestically in the distance. We were lucky the weather didn’t change for the worse, and early the next day, a multitude of climbers – mostly students - congregated at the summit to be treated to the sort of ethereal sunrise that really makes you realize what it means to be alive. Jakarta’s shopping malls can go screw themselves. Now which volcano is next?

Mount Ciremai cadera

At the summit of Mount Ciremai

View from Mount Ciremai


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