Travelogue Yogyakarta: Experiencing the Merapi Lava Jeep Tour

Mother Nature can be both a beautiful and terrible thing – as we witnessed during a recent trip to Mount Merapi, on the borders of Central Java and Yogyakarta in Indonesia. Towering at over 2,930 metres above sea level, it is the most active volcano in Indonesia, and has erupted consistently every few years since the 1500s.

Mount Merapi in 2014
Image via Wikimedia Commons by Crisco 1492
Like most mountains and volcanoes, Merapi is shrouded in legends and mystery, and plays a big part in Javanese mythology. The name is believed to be derived from Javanese Meru – after the mythical mountain of gods in Hinduism, and Api (fire). It holds special significance in the Yogyakartan royal family, with the belief being that there is a spirit world within the mountain ruled by spirit rulers, with a setup that is a direct reflection of the (mortal) royal court.

The volcano, in fact, lies along an axis that runs through Yogyakarta city via the Kraton (sultan’s palace) until it reaches the Southern Ocean. It is therefore seen as sacred, with the spirits of the mountain at Merapi, the Sultan of Yogyakarta as the ruler of the Javanese kingdom, and Nyi Roro Kidul (a sea goddess/deity) as the queen of the Southern Ocean.

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Despite the volcano’s active status, there are many villages scattered on the slopes of the mountain, with settlements as high up as 1,700 metres. Agriculture is a mainstay owing to the rich volcanic soil, but other prominent industries include tourism and the mining of volcanic rocks.

The Merapi Lava Jeep Tour offers visitors an insight into life on Merapi’s slopes. There are several routes to choose from, lasting from an hour to three or more. Tours are conducted on an open top jeep. During our visit, we were a little pressed for time so we opted for the shortest (90 minutes). Before setting off, your driver will hand out masks to protect from the dust and ash along the route. Roads are not paved so expect a bumpy ride!

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The last major eruption on Mount Merapi was in 2010, which claimed hundreds of lives. As we headed to our first stop, our guide pointed out homes that were destroyed and had been left abandoned, reclaimed by nature. It was haunting, and eerie, to say the least.

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The Sisa Hartaku Mini Museum (literally “the remains of my belongings”) has exhibits detailing the destructive power of the volcano. Formerly a home, it was destroyed during the 2010 eruption, and the owner, Riyanto (who managed to escape with his family) , decided to convert the place into a museum.

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The rather macabre exterior features skulls of livestock that were killed during the eruption.

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The ‘living room’ area with a wall clock that was said to have stopped at the moment of the eruption – a reminder of a disaster, frozen in time.

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Cutlery and other household items such as calculators, some of which are partially melted, all covered in a layer of dust and ash.

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Casettes, books, electronics.

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Remains of a melted radio.

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A section of the wall with skulls of small wildlife and photos of the volcano before, during and after the eruption.

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There’s something extremely haunting about seeing the remains in the museum, and the huge impact natural disasters can have on ordinary lives. That being said, I admire the resilient spirit of the people who live on Merapi’s slopes – they accept that this is part and parcel of life on the mountain, and carry on as best as they can. Because for better or worse, this, to them, is home.

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“Disaster is not the end of everything”  

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“Merapi has never broken its promise” – a graffiti showcasing the resilient spirit of people who live here, knowing that it’s not a matter of if, but when. 

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We next made our way to a vantage point, but it was a cloudy day and the volcano was hidden behind thick clouds. We could only see the outline of an imposing, conical shape in the distance.

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From the vantage point, a lava channel that had cut into the earth from the eruption’s flow, forming a deep ravine where no grass grows.

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The Alien Stone was another stop on our Merapi lava tour. The giant chunk of rock was hurled out of the volcano during the 2010 eruption, and the locals believe it bears the features of their late village head, who was also killed in the disaster. The other side of the rock is said to resemble the face of a lion:

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The last stop on our tour was Bunker Kaliaderm, which was built in 2005 as an emergency shelter. The beautiful and calm surroundings is in stark contrast to the terror the place has seen. During a major eruption in 2006, two rescue workers fleeing from the fast-moving pyroclastic flow of ash were trapped within, in up to six feet of boiling hot ash (reaching temperatures of up to 572 degrees Fahrenheit). They suffered horrific deaths; one trapped in a corner, the other in the bathroom was boiled alive, according to our guide.

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Remains of lava that seeped into the bunker.

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Flowers that only grow on Merapi’s slopes.

The Merapi Lava Jeep Tour offers a fascinating insight into the beautiful yet terrible power of mother nature, and I highly suggest going on a more comprehensive tour if time allows.

Jeep rentals start from 350,000 IDR per jeep (RM100 or about USD24).

A guide on how to get to the area here. 

PS: There are not many rest rooms around aside from those at the jeep base camp, so better do all your business before going on the tour!

 

White Crater Volcano – Kawah Putih, Bandung

When talking about volcanoes, the mental image that comes to mind is that of a yawning crevasse; spewing ash, lava and smoke into the air. But my recent visit to Bandung proved me wrong!

Earlier, we visited Tangkuban Perahu, an active stratvolcano – which means that lava runs underneath instead of on the  surface. There, we found a huge crater with hot springs, wisps of steam and bubbling mud. The sides were a dark ash grey, like scorched earth. There are no volcanoes in Malaysia, so this was an eye-opening sight.

The next day, we drove South to visit another volcano – Kawah Putih, or ‘White Crater’. The two couldn’t have been more different.

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Kawah Putih is a two hour drive from Bandung city, so we set off early in the morning. The trip didn’t feel like it took a long time, because the scenery going up the mountains was beautiful. When we  arrived, I was surprised at how chilly it was. At 2,400m above sea level, temperatures hover around 10-15C. On some days, the place can get foggy but luck and the weather was on our side. Just remember to bring a thick jacket! 🙂

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There was a forest of trees near the entrance, leading to an observation deck. The trees were gnarly and twisted, with sparse branches and dark, rough-looking bark. Reminded me of the trees in Disney’s Snow White, or from the Japanese Suicide Forest. Beautiful, but haunting.

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Named after its milky blue waters and greyish white sand, Kawah Putih looks more like a beach than a volcano. Don’t be fooled though – the water is highly sulphurous and toxic. Unlike Tangkuban Perahu, which had nothing growing from its cliffs, Kawah Putih has more vegetation, with small shrubs and plants forming a ring around the lake.

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There was a characteristic smell of rotten eggs in the air, and wisps of steam and smoke curled on the surface of the lake.

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The sky was a vivid blue, creating a beautiful layer of color against the mountain’s earth tones, the white-blue waters and white sand.

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There’s only a simple fence separating the lake, so parents, if you’re bringing the kids along, keep an eye on them at all times. The waters looked inviting enough for an adult, let alone a small child.

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And more short, gnarly trees.

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Because the water/sand is white, the glare can get overwhelming, especially on a sunny day. Bring a pair of polarized sunglasses for extra protection 🙂

Kawah Putih is one of those must-visit places while in Bandung, and it’s definitely worth the two-hour drive.

KAWAH PUTIH 

Jl. Raya Soreang Ciwidey, Ciwidey, Bandung, Jawa Barat, Indonesia

Opening hours: 8am – 5pm

Entrance fees: 50000IDR (foreigners), 18000IDR (locals)

 

The Upturned Boat Volcano – Tangkuban Perahu, Bandung

Note: It’s the Eid/Hari Raya holidays in Malaysia.. but it seems like the Internet connection has gone on a holiday as well. Rushing to type this before it gets disconnected again for the umpteenth time in the past two days. This happened last year as well;  calls to the center went unanswered so we were left without Internet for four days. When you’re freelancing and have to rely on a good net connection at all times, this is fkin infuriating. Granted, I’m not ‘working’ today, but still… I wish Malaysian ISPs would buck up. What ‘vision 2020’ are we talking about when we have one of the slowest connections in the region (just slightly above the Philippines?)

But I digress.

Here’s my first trip to a volcano! 🙂

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Bandung on the Indonesian island of West Java is surrounded by mountains, and is home to quite a number of volcanoes. The one we visited, Tangkuban Perahu (translated to ‘upturned boat’) , is active – but because it is a ‘stratovolcano’, it doesn’t look like the volcanoes we see on TV (ie with a big hole spewing lava out of it). Instead, it’s sort of grey and ashy, from layers of hardened ash/lava built over hundreds of millenia. The danger with stratovolcanoes is that because the ‘signs and symptoms’ cannot be seen on the surface, it might explode with sudden eruptive force.

Er.. good to know all this after I’m safely home typing this post. O-O

As we made our way up to the place, we were greeted by tall, pine forests on either side. Because of its high elevation, the landscape in Bandung is quite similar to European countries: unlike the dense, humid tropical jungles of Malaysia.

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Parked the car and got off. Loads of stalls selling souvenirs, and a couple of ponies for riding. And then there was the crater….

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BOOM. 

Nearly floored. We were standing at the precipe of Kawah Ratu, or the Queen’s Crater – the largest crater in the area. And it looked majestic indeed.

The crater was massive, encircled by steep cliffs of black and dark grey. The earth around it looked like broken asphalt. Smoke rose slowly from multiple openings, disappearing into the chilly air.  The high altitude, coupled with a clash of temperatures, created a dense fog around the area. It was haunting and beautiful at the same time. You can almost feel like you’re suspended in time; that mortal lives did not matter. The volcano was here, perhaps even before mankind.

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Of course, with such places, there is always a local legend. Through the ages, men have often weaved stories so that they can understand and make sense of things beyond their control.

In the case of Tangkuban Perahu, it tells the legend of Dayang Sumbi, a beautiful woman who lived in West Java. She disowned her son Sangkuriang for disobedience, and the Gods, pitying her sadness, granted her the power of eternal youth. After years in exile, Sangkuriang returned home and the two, not recognizing each other, fell in love. Sangkuriang intended to marry Dayang Sumbi, but before he left for a hunting trip, she spotted his birthmark and recognised him as her long lost sun. To stop the marriage, Dayang Sumbi asked Sangkuriang to build a dam on the river Citarum and a large boat, before sunrise. When she saw that the tasks were almost completed, she called on her workers to spread red silk cloths east of the city to imitate sunrise. Fooled, the disappointed Sangkuriang kicked the dam and upturned the boat, which caused severe flooding and created Tangkuban Perahu.

No offense, but why Dayang Sumbi didn’t just tell Sangkuriang that he was her son instead of going to all that trouble, is beyond me. 

 

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There is a strong stench of rotten eggs, thanks to high sulfur content. Which is why you won’t find any trees or animals in the immediate area surrounding the crater.

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We ventured to the ‘village’ area, where there were loads of souvenir shops housed in simple attap roofed structures.

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Volcanic rocks, ground up stones and mud are used for home remedies.

I have a bottle of volcanic mud mask at home.. it’s actually really good ! I’ve just been lazy to use it too often… -_-

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Bead bracelets, bangles and charms.

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Another viewing area.

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Shops. Most were not open because it was the fasting month for Muslims.

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Be very careful when buying stuff from the shops! You can haggle, but make sure you’ve found the best price. Mum took a fancy to a mounted wall clock and got it after negotiating for a cheaper price.. but when we got to another shop, the same thing was selling for 40% cheaper. Oof.

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These pretty animal carvings are made from a single piece of wood. The patterns on the tigers naturally occur that way. Amazing.

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In case all that walking and admiring made you hungry, there are some snack stalls selling local favourites like fried tofu (above).

Tangkuban Perahu is an hour and a half from Bandung City. The entrance fee is quite hefty, but it’s worth the price.

Entrance Fee: 200,000 rupiah  on weekdays and 300,000 (RM90 wut .___. or about USD22+)on weekends.

Getting There:  Public transport stops at the gate, so you’ll have to hike 2km (!!) up steep and windy roads. For that reason alone, it is advisable to hire a private driver. You can also hire a cab but make sure the driver waits for you or you won’t be able to find taxis back to town.

Opening hours: 8am – 6pm