“Where the fuck are we?” I found myself saying countless times in disbelief and amazement. Over and over again I had to mentally pinch myself to see if I was dreaming. If I was dreaming, I had no idea I had such a vivid imagination.
The day had started out with a trip to the market. There is a local market in Borobudur everyday where our host goes to get our breakfast. Today we found ourselves in this market on a quest for food for the trek we would be making up Mt. Merbabu. The market was crowded with people, colors, smells, scooters squeezing through impossible spaces, and a cat with a mouse still alive in its mouth that crossed underfoot. Jordan and I selected a couple bags of mystery food that looked good for hiking. (Later during the trek, I found to my great dismay that one of those foods much have been fried crispy intestine.)
We rented a scooter for 24 hours to get us to the top of the mountain. (The scooter we rented was $100k IDR, or $7 USD.) The ride to Selo base camp would take us about 2 hours. We stopped along the way to see waterfalls, collect petrol and stretch our legs. Going up a mountain with 2 people and a big backpack full of water and hiking gear is no easy feat.
The further out of town we got, the more and more agricultural and colorful the landscape became. Up in the mountains, gateways into towns arched colorfully and welcoming over streets that led into villages. Trucks painted in colors you wouldn’t even see on children’s toys graced the roads. Farmers walked on the sides of the road with bundles of sticks and grass on their backs. Children drove scooters on their way to and from school. Gorgeous and glimmering mosques stood above the roofs of the buildings in town, watching over the people and activity below.
We wound our way from colorful village to colorful village, working out way up the mountain. Only once did I have to jump off the scooter for it to be light enough to get over a particularly steep slope. The ride worked with me holding Jordan’s phone and shouting directions at him. We passed so many people, so many smiles and “Halo!” Are these people really this friendly? Are they really this happy? Java has to be the happiest, friendliest part of the world I’ve been to yet.
Eventually rice paddies turned into tobacco plants, and strung up everywhere was the big leaves drying in the equatorial sun. The leaves were browning and long, strung up on lines, clothes racks, piles of gravel, roof tops… anywhere and everywhere there was space, including covering entire backyards and front paths leading up to houses. Slowly our scooter climbed its way up to Selo Base Camp,where we would settle in for a 7 hour wait until midnight to begin our trek up the mountain for sunrise.
One thing I didn’t consider before we came to a country sitting on the equator but that I now see as pretty damn obvious, is how the days are 12 hours light and 12 hours dark. Always. There is a bit of light variation with the “seasons,” but for the most part you can expect the sun to rise at 5.30am and set at 5.30pm every day. We had to get to Base Camp before dark so we weren’t trying to navigate winding mountain roads and pot holed small towns with no light. This caused us to have a long wait to walk.
At Base Camp, Jordan and I took a bit of time figuring out what was going on. We were invited to sit down at a table at a place that looked like we could order food at (because we had skipped lunch we were pretty hungry), but then we were left alone. Didn’t we have to pay to park the moto here at the very least? How to we ask for food somewhere literally no one speaks English? Why was no one coming up to us?
As a side note, in Java there is little tourism from the rest of the world, unless you are visiting one of the UNESCO sites or in Jakarta. Javanese, however, travel their own country fervently. On Merbabu, we saw only one other traveler like us out of maybe 100 Javanese doing this hike. This means there were very few English speakers while we were in Java, although there were enough to get by just fine. This also means that more often than not I, as a white girl, was the star of many many photos. More on this later.
Across the road was another place where we saw someone speaking English. We timidly made our way across the street. We mimed “food” to a woman we saw bring dishes out of the building, hoping we had just made an order, and found a place to park our rears (and moto.)
This Base Camp house had an outside porch, little shop for souvenirs, parking, and an inside space with no furniture only green mats lie on the ground. The exception was the corner with a big wooden bench covered in plastic bags full of hikers gear, a child’s mattress and a tv, complete with cute child who could occasionally be found in that spot when not roaming the house with the tiny kitten in tow. There was a kitchen in back and a mysterious door that I could only assume led to the bedroom of the people who owned this Base Camp.
After some time, one person in the house came over to us and asked if we had wanted food? His aunt didn’t speak English and asked him to ask us what we wanted. His name was Radeh, and he was a godsend. Radeh clarified our order and sat down and talked with us for the rest of the night.
Radeh learned English in school and he spoke it very well. He has an uncle who has restaurants in Alaska, Seattle and Texas. Someday Radeh will go to Seattle to work for his uncle. For now, Radeh loves the small village in the clouds of Selo where his friends have become family at the Base Camp, and his job on the mountain as a ranger. We swapped stories of living and working under a volcano, as Jordan and I just finished living in Whakapapa Tongariro in New Zealand between Mt. Ngarahoe and Mt. Rhuapehu.
Radeh told us of many rescues he’s had to make. He goes up the mountain at least four times a week to rescue someone who’s been injured on this hike. Last year, there was the classic story of a kid falling off the mountain to his death because he was trying to take a selfie. Radeh said the Javanese boy fell 10 meters down the side of the mountain and when Radeh got to him he was dead with his lungs and insides outside of him. The family asked for the return of his body, so Radeh climbed down into the crater, only 3 meters from lava, to collect the body of the boy and carry him back down the mountain. Another time a French tourist broke his legs badly on the trail. Radeh carried this man down the mountain and even drove him all the way to the hospital. The man didn’t have his wallet on him while he was hiking, so Radeh paid the 2 million IDR (a LOT of money for Indonesians) for the man’s first care. This man did not ever say thank you to Radeh, but he didn’t seem bothered by this fact. The more Radeh spoke, the more I could see what a genuinely good person this was sitting with us.
Radeh welcomed us inside the house’s open space as the night drew on to stay out of the cold, and we talked while drinking the best coffee I had in Java. We easily allowed the hours to pass as the inside of the house’s open space filled and emptied with other hikers either just finishing a trek or waiting to begin one, all passing time the same as us. In the time we were waiting, Radeh was called up the mountain to save someone. When he came back he finished the coffee he left on the floor before leaving again to drive 45 minutes to his home village to grab his tent and gear for some Germans he just met that he was going to let them borrow for their hike up the mountain later that night, while he also guided them up the mountain. Of course Radeh wasn’t going to accept payment from the Germans.
While Radeh was gone this time, a massive group of Javanese carefully walked around while they crammed into the space and changed/ showered/ ate/ blew out the power with a hair dryer while Radeh was away. This group filled the open room, flooding the space with noise, chatter, laughter and smells. The kitten could be found jumping or playing in everyone’s newly reclaimed plastic bags full of gear. Not a single spot on the floor wasn’t full of something or someone. Never have I ever been in a place or situation like this, literally not being able to communicate with anyone because of the language barrier, and not understanding much of what was going on until later upon retrospection.
Jordan and I sat and watched the madness happily sipping our coffees until 10.30pm when we decided we couldn’t wait any longer and we would get start our assent. Most tourists climb the mountain with a guide. We were climbing the mountain in the middle of the night without a guide to catch the sunrise from the top. Jordan and I do not have the best track record of night hikes off trail as it is, so this was going to be interesting. Once we got on the trail, it became very apparent we were not in New Zealand anymore.
Mt. Merbabu is one of many volcanoes in central Java. I’ve heard a couple translations to its meaning, but I think “Mt. Ash” is the most accurate. (The powdery dust gets in your nose, hair, the seams of your jeans and bag…. everywhere. I blew black boogers for days after this hike.) The mountain trails are covered in a fine, powdery dust that is the same color in the dark, making the contours of the trail impossible to see in the dark. Every step was a guess at depth. There was no moon this night to help us guide our way in the dark. We only had years of experience backpacking under our belt and our faith in ourselves to guide us.
Immediately we were in a cloud on the trail. Selo is that high up in altitude. Once we passed through the layer of cloud, the stars brightened and the sky lit up like it had in New Zealand. I even argue that the stars were more in number and brighter here above the clouds than they were in New Zealand. I saw more shooting stars than I could count and the Milky Way, glimmering in mystery above us. We stopped many times to eat and rest. A the night wore on, more hikers caught up to us as they also began their assent to sunrise. There was a French couple with a guide who found us snacking basically in the middle of the trail. It caught him off guard and he asked us if we were lost. Naw, just hungry, we said. The guide told us we were about five minutes from Pos 3, one of the campsites, and a better place to rest. We passed this group resting there when we continued up and the French decided to scare us as we scared them, while the guide stood silently aside smoking a cigarette.
The higher we got up the volcano that night, we could see dark shapes of the other surrounding volcanoes emerge out of the blanket of clouds around us. The lights from the villages hugged at the base of the volcanoes and climbed up their sides like veins, twinkling alive and moving. We tip toed through each Pos campsite, joyful and smug in our success at navigating the almost impossible at times trail in the dark without a guide. At the top of the mountain we found a nest of tussock to snuggle into for sunrise that overlooked a group enjoying a bonfire in the middle of the trail just a little ways below us.
My first view of Merbabu was breath taking. It’s hard to say who I like more now, him or Ngarahoe. I may have become a bit of a volcanophile. The sun rose at 6.40am, but the first hints of sunrise began around 5am. Once in Joshua Tree, Jordan and I sat on one of those gorgeous piles of rocks and watched the night envelop the sky completely. It actually takes a really long time for night to fully begin. Slowly the stars began to appear one by one until there is nothing but stars. One side of the sky is still a rainbow of color and contains a light reminiscent of day, while the other side of the sky is just dark. It is where night has begun and the stars are out like they’ve been there the whole time, haven’t you noticed? I remember sitting there in fear, dreading the end of day, almost anxious for what was to come, until night fell and I was absorbed in it’s beauty, calm and wondering what I was so scared of before. Watching the day being was similar to this. I found myself missing the stars and the mystery that the blanket of dark carries. The sky showed hints of color and light and the same band of orange red glowed over the layer of clouds beneath us.
After golden hour, we began our hike down the mountain. It was a completely different experience with the luxury of light and sight. We were able to see the trail and where we had stopped to eat or rest each time the night before. We were stopped at least 9 times on the hike down to take photos with Javanese. My favorite was with a guy wearing a gaucho hat and the Indonesian flag around his collar like a cape.
At one point Jordan and I noticed we hadn’t seen the place where we ran into the two French people and their smoking guide. We were reassured of our direction when we had to duck under a particularly low branch on the trail that we remembered….until we got to Pos 2, that wasn’t our Pos 2. It was the other Pos 2 we had seen on Google maps. Realizing our drastic mistake, our hearts sank in frustration. I checked Strava and sure enough, we were way off course. (Travel tip: always use Strava on back country hikes.) We had been going downhill along the wrong trail for a half hour. We turned around to face the mountain behind us and realized it would be either at least 45 minutes climb back uphill to meet our correct trail, or we could try to cut across untraveled land with monkeys at our back. It amazed us that we succeeded in navigating this great mountain in the dark, but by the light of day we messed up. We should have checked Strava when we first said “isn’t it weird we haven’t seen that spot we stopped yet?” To make matters even more desperate, Jordan ran out of water at this point too. We would have been at least two thirds down the mountain if we hadn’t messed up. Now it was back up the mountain in 90 degree hear with jeans over leggings and long sleeves (dressed not only for cold night time mountain weather but also Java Muslim coverage for me, the female.)
We did make it back to the correct trail, finished our snacks and my water, and fed the monkeys some of our bruised snakefruits. We got on the scooter and rode the 2 hours back to our home in Borododur, ready to shower and crash, exhausted from a night of no sleep and a big climb. Our host met us right when we got back, however, and instead served us the amazing breakfast we missed that morning. We didn’t even notice until then just how hungry we were until he fed us the amazing Javanese breakfast we missed.
Majestic Merbabu impressed me more than words can say. This experience one I will treasure forever and the reason I continue my travels. “Where the fuck are we?” I had asked. In paradise on Never Never Land was the answer, with all the lost boys to save us along the way.