Lava on Top of Java: The Ascent of Mount Semeru

After a filling breakfast of nasi goreng (fried rice complete with a drumstick at 7 am) we headed with our guide Nadi to the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park office to pay entrance fees of about $20 each, which we soon felt bitter about as we walked past copious quantities of litter throughout the park, sometimes discovering large dump sites of garbage. There was not a single outhouse to be found so human waste was as equally abundant. Between the park office and the actual entrance to the park we passed farmland on the outskirts of Ranu Pane; many of the vegetable fields were planted in perfect rows on unbelievably steep slopes of at least 30 degrees. The agricultural terracing practices so common to other hilly areas were nowhere to be seen. Our hike within the park itself began on a stone path often shaded by tunnels of vegetation we sometimes struggled to squeeze through with our large bags. Before long we stood over a pretty scene of a bright green saddle overlooking a lake, but couldn’t capture it in a picture as the usual rainy season downpour had started and we had squirreled our cameras away in our bags hoping to prevent them from becoming as soaked as we were. Beyond the saddle we walked through a large meadow and made a tiring climb through a recently burnt forest stand, arriving at the Kalimati camp by two in the afternoon. On the way we saw large clouds of brown smoke following the distant rumbles of eruptions, our only indication of Semeru’s location in the thick cloud.

Most itineraries are built around camping at Kalimati and climbing another 5 hours through the night to reach the summit of Semeru for sunrise, but the camping area was full of ascending Indonesians and to our horror a few immediately approached us for pictures. Besides not wanting to be the centre of attention all night (or ever again after Borobodur), we didn’t want to sit around for the rest of the afternoon, especially when we could shave off a couple hours of the night’s ascent by continuing to the last camp, Arcopodo. Explaining this to Nadi however was a lot easier said than done. He had already made it clear that guiding us was the last thing he wanted to be doing, and we regretted hiring him even more as the trail was so clearly marked, unlike the descriptions in the overdramatized reviews which had persuaded us to hire a guide, something we rarely do. Finally, we made an arrangement for him to stay at Kalimati where there were sleeping shelters and planned to rendezvous with him in the early morning for the hike to the summit.

We had no trouble getting to Arcopodo with plenty of afternoon to spare and were relieved to get out of our drenched clothing and into the tent we had rented from our guesthouse. After spending the evening studying Indonesian and enjoying some (real!) chocolates Sean had sneakily bought me for Christmas during our last airport layover, we did our best to try and sleep despite repeated explosions from Semeru’s peak looming only a few hundred metres above us. The blasts were exponentially stronger and more frequent than they had been in the daylight, sounding like an unseen train barreling above us and making us both excited and nervous to soon be standing at the sight of their origin. The night itself was surreal; camped alone near the top of the active volcano.

After a fitful attempt at sleep we heard Nadi arrive at our secluded campsite at 2 am. Leaving most of our stuff in the tent we hiked up through deeply eroded trails illuminated only by our headlamps. The majority of the 3 hour climb to the summit was above the treeline, on a nearly 45 degree slope in deep volcanic sand; it was so steep and unstable at times I could only advance on all fours. In the pitch black we could see only a few feet ahead of us and the dark silhouette of Semeru’s peak directly above. It seemed exhilaratingly close but we hit false summit after false summit. Part way up we were surprised to discover the shimmering lights of Malang, a city of 800,000 people not far from the base of the volcano; apparently we had felt much more remote than we actually were. The few times we stopped for a short rest it was uncomfortably cold almost immediately, a strange sensation after putting up with the extreme heat for the last few weeks. The sand was so mobile it lacked a defined trail, and when I thoughtlessly steadied myself on one of the many sporadic “volcanic bombs” (large rocks/boulders thrown out of the volcano during previous eruptions) Nadi urgently motioned for us not to touch anything due to the danger of rocks coming loose and tumbling down on the long line of bouncing headlights streaming behind us.

Finally, after an exhausting and frustrating climb the ground hardened enough to quit slipping away beneath every other step and we triumphantly stepped onto the wide plateau of Semeru’s summit. At 3676 m, we were on the highest point on the island of Java. A faint blue light on the horizon in front of us indicated where the sun would soon emerge to warm the cold, windswept peak. Between us and the slowly rising sun the crater of Semeru was silhouetted just below where we stood. Before all the stars had disappeared we witnessed our first eruption, a billow of thick smoke emitted with a thundering rumble, and we even saw bright red magma shooting up out of the crater like oil in a hot frying pan. The long hike was more than worth it and bundled against the cold in all the clothing we had brought we watched a gorgeous sunrise illuminate a sea of towering storm clouds below us; eventually even the distant coastlines of Java were revealed to our left and right. We had the surreal sight and the whole plateau to ourselves for a long time. Behind us in the distance we could see the Tengger crater encircling an ever-smoking Mt. Bromo and a virtual fireworks show of camera flashes from the viewpoint where we had witnessed the previous sunrise. Suddenly the peace was shattered as Semeru came to life once more and we scrambled to take pictures of the second eruption. Shivering against the cold we waited in vain for one final smoke show as the vibrant colours of the sunrise faded and were replaced by other trekkers, all local, arriving on the plateau. We were slightly disappointed Semeru wasn’t nearly as active as it had been during the night, and we witnessed it’s biggest eruption about a third of the way into our descent. In the daylight we could see how impossibly steep our ascent had been and I was happy we had done it in the dark. We skied down it easily, the coarse sand so deep we sank past our ankles.

Back at Arcopodo we broke camp with high spirits, thrilled from our early morning adventure. After yet another helping of ichiban noodles (I never want to see another pack) we began to retrace our steps back to Ranu Pane. It should have been a leisurely hike had we not run out of water in the unrelenting heat. Still unaccustomed to such high temperatures, my feet swelled up like sausages, pressing against the sides of my still soaked boots and blistering badly. Ever-tireless Sean was completely dehydrated, plopping down in the middle of the path exhausted. We had hiked for ten hours from the time we left our tent to the moment we gratefully laid eyes on our guesthouse and were so worn we could hardly argue when Nadi, who had been difficult for the entirety of the excursion, suddenly doubled the price we had expected to pay him. It was our own fault for agreeing on the price with the guesthouse owner but not confirming it with Nadi himself, and we bitterly handed him an extortionate sum for his extremely poor quality of service before collapsing for a much needed rest.

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