Treacherous winds, temples and traffic, describes my 2 days driving around the worlds most populated island. My goal, to see Indonesia’s largest Hindu and Buddhist temples and the chance to spend the night on top of its most active volcano!
Hiking Mount Merapi was at the top of my Yogyakarta list. With the nickname “The Mountain of Fire,” it is easy to see how I was enticed to hike this epic volcano. Being Indonesia’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi has small eruptions that occur ever 2-3 years and a major eruption every 10-15 years. This strata volcano, along with most of Indonesia, is located on the Ring of Fire. Mount Merapi is also designated as a Decade Volcano, one of only sixteen such volcanoes in the world! And I could not wait to camp on its crater.
Mount Merapi is believed to cause the collapse of the ancient empire of Mataram, it buried the famous Borobudur temple in ash and the abandonment of Prambanan. With its long, destructive history there is no wonder why local Javanese people regularly give offerings to appease the restless mountain spirits residing inside of Mount Merapi.
From Prambanan it is about a 2 hour drive to the town of Selo. This drive is easy, if you keep your eyes on the map, as you mostly pass through small villages and farmland before gradually increase in elevation at the end. Which is where you first glimpse Mount Merapi and neighboring Mount Merbabu.
When arriving to Selo, you stay on the same road, until you pass the Alfamart. From there you will take your first left and continue up a small road leading you to New Selo, the entry point to Mount Merapi. The Alfamart is a great place to get supplies and in Selo there are a few places to eat lunch. Selo also has a few home stays, that can only found once you get to town, for those not looking to camp on the top of the mountain.
Most people that hike Mount Merapi hike it with a tour guide at night, to make the summit for sunrise. I wanted my own adventure and I wanted to camp on Indonesia’s most active volcano! So I skipped the tour group and to hike Merapi on my own during the day.
Luckily, by showing up during the day I got in for free! Mount Merapi is in a national park, but it is also caught in the ticket mafia racket, which creates exorbitant entry fees for foreign tourists. Normally you are charged 180k Rupiah during the week and 230k on weekends and holidays to visit Mount Merapi. The only thing I paid for was to park my scooter for the night.
The start of the hiking trail is very easy to find, just follow the brick road past the New Selo sign and building. Merapi’s hike is divided into 5 sections starting at New Selo and ending at the summit. Each section has a signpost showing distance and elevation. Officially, the hike is 3.4 km long with a time of 4-5 hours. Starting elevation is 2000 meters and the summit is roughly 2900 meters.
The 1st section of trail is partly paved and turns into a dirt trail that branches out to farm fields. Sections 2 and 3 are mostly steep, slippery, dust paths and the final stretch is composed of very loose volcanic rock. For a good portion of the trail you are in tree cover protecting you from the sun. Throughout the hike you get amazing views of Mount Merbabu in the distance. Even though I started my hike at noon heat was not a factor, I was good in shorts and a t-shirt.
Even with my healing foot, backpack full of 2 person camping gear, and food, I still managed to complete the hike in under 3 hours. I stopped for photos and I had a couple of short breaks. During my day hike I only passed one other group of people hiking up to the summit, but I did meet quite a few groups going down. One descending hiker asked where I was camping at, I said Pasar Bubrah, which is the campsite at the top, and she gave me a warning not to camp there. She said that the weather on top is unpredictable and I should camp somewhere down lower.
There was a nasty cloud head building halfway into my hike, so I pushed on fast, hoping to get my camp setup before it formed into anything. As I ascended to the top my spirits soared at seeing Merapi’s crater open up before me. Indonesia is otherworldly, here I was completely alone surrounded by nothing more than rocks and sky. I excitedly scrambled down inside the crater to find my camp site for the night.
After setting up camp I had an hour of nice weather before it turned. And it turned fast. When the sun started to set the cloud cover increased and the wind picked up.
Up until sunset I had been alone on the crater, which is when I saw a small group of hikers quickly trying to descend before the storm. With the arrival of night the weather got intense.
With each passing hour, somehow the wind kept increasing. It was so vicious my tent stakes ripped out and I had to put rocks on top of each one to help hold the tent down. Inside the tent the wind blew so hard that the fine volcanic dirt was sifting through my rain cover and proceeded to cover the every inch inside the tent with a layer of ash and dirt. I tried blocking the area by my head with my tent stuff sack and hiking shorts, but that did little to help the dirt blowing into my face.
I was already a bit unnerved sleeping on Indonesia’s most active volcano, let alone with this wicked storm, I then heard a man start yelling. I listened for a while, but he kept yelling, so I grabbed my headlamp and got out of my tent. The cloud cover was so thick that even with my headlamp I couldn’t see more than 4 feet in front of me. The man was yelling in Bahasa and I yelled back in English, which got his attention, because he changed the phrase that he had been repeating. I yelled back “I don’t understand”, he yelled something different once more and then all was quiet.
There was no way that I could find the man and his campsite, let alone make it back to mine before I completely froze, so I climbed back into my tent. My mind was filled with fears of eruptions, was the volcano going to erupt? Maybe he was yelling to evacuate. I know it’s overdue for an eruption, why did I not look into its recent activity?
Upon entering Merapi’s crater I noticed a radio tower on top of the crater and dozens of seismic detectors dotted across the volcano. Mount Merapi’s last major eruption was in 2010 and it’s last minor eruption was in 2014 making it due to erupt.
Update: Mount Merapi had a massive eruption in May of 2018, I hiked it in August of 2017
Even with all my fears I stayed put and endured a very long night. Somehow the wind managed to increase even more after getting back into my tent, one massive gust ripped my rock covered stakes out of the ground sending my tent into a near collapse. This time after getting the stakes back in I covered each corner with half a dozen rocks.
The whole night I laid in the tent freezing and tying to use my sweatshirt hood to cover my ears and face from the ongoing dirt spray. The wind was so strong that any section of my sleeping mat or tent that I was not physically touching would lift up into the air. With the unrelenting wind, my mind raced between thoughts of my tent breaking and the volcano erupting. Sleep never came, I spent the night counting the time left until sunrise, when the tour groups should show up.
With the rising sun the wind slowly abated from horrible to only harsh, which after last night felt amazing. As I exited my tent I saw a group of hiker standing on the rim but they did not descend into the crater. I also spotted two other tents across the crater from me. With the sight of people my thoughts of Mount Merapi erupting were finally alleviated. But they were quickly replaced with the desire to not miss sunrise!
Merapi has a new, expanding cone, that you used to be able to hike. Officially it is closed but some people do attempt to hike it. I did not see anyone attempt it and I dared not to try it alone, the thing looked wicked, especially with the gusting winds. I talked with a teacher from Java, who was leading a group of students. He said that he hiked up the new cone two years ago, and now he wouldn’t even dare, the incline has changed that much, making it very unsafe. I also learned that the guided night hikes now stop at the old crater rim and don’t actually decent into the crater.
After taking in an epic sunrise, I packed up my battered but still standing tent and proceeded to exit the crater and descend. While descending I passed quite a few tents outside of the crater, set up around section 4, I guess that it is known to avoid sleeping in the crater! Hiking down Mount Merapi is harder than up, the bottom sections of the trail is loose dirt and slippery, its easy to fall on your ass.
Mount Merapi is one of the craziest hikes I have ever done! I recommend it for any outdoor lover who wants to get away from normal tour activities, I did not see another foreign tourist the whole time I was on Mount Merapi. Also, heed the advice and avoid camping on the crater, sleep a little further down.
What is your craziest hike ever? Let me know in the comments below and make sure to read part 3 of My Java Adventure! Also if you want to learn more about Indonesia visit the Destination Indonesia page.
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