Mount Merapi is only one of the about 150 volcanoes in Indonesia, but out of them all it is the most active. Maybe that's why it is so desired and popular between the countless hikers that come here every year.
No wonder the literal translation of Gunung Merapi, as it is locally know, is Fire Mountain. Mount Merapi is also a legendary figure, part of many javanase myths: don't be surprised if you'll be told to ask forgiveness to the spirit of the Volcano when peeing during the climb.
Hiking mount Merapi: practicalities
At the present date, the only way to hike to the summit of Mount Merapi, is from the village of Selo on the north side of the Volcano. The other route in the south slope starting from Kaliurang, is closed to visitors because considered too dangerous.
If you don't have your own transportation, the village of Selo is accessible by bus from the cities of Solo and Yogyakarta, but you might find yourself stuck on the way as we did, if you arrive in the afternoon. Hitchhiking instead worked great and we had some adventure on the back of a pick up truck.
In the village it is possible to find food and accommodation in one of the local homestays: as a reference we paid 30.000 Rp per person for a room with shared toilet, hot water, free tea and potable water.
We couldn't find any map of the hike, but there are many GPS tracks available.
There is no water at all along the trail, so bring plenty with you: my 2.5 liters were barely enough to keep under control my thirst.
We didn't hire a guide and the path was extremely easy to follow, but we think that everybody should decide according to his own degree of confidence. After all if you are a tourist, a few dollars more spent to have extra safety are not a bad idea, and you are also supporting the local economy.
Approaching the trekking path at night and reaching New Selo
When we arrived in Selo in the afternoon there were a thick fog and a light rain, and if it was not enough when we woke up after some hours of early rest, we could see lightnings not far away.
We didn't give up and decided to try our luck and to reach at least the settlement of New Selo to see how the weather was going to evolve. Good that we did, because as soon as we stepped out of the door the sky started to clear up.
Most of the people start the trek in the middle of the night, leaving around 1 a.m. in order to be on top at the first light. That's the best moment to be there, because there is more visibility and less sulfur fumes, according to our readings.
We left our homestay in the village when it was almost 2 a.m. and after reaching the crossing to new Selo, it's about 1.5 kilometers of steep asphalted road until the real beginning of the path. Half the way of this uphill there is a registration point, where you'll be requested to pay the entrance fee of the National Park.
After seeing our Bule faces (Bule is the word used by locals to address foreigners), we were presented with a weekend ticket costing 225.000 Rp (150.000 Rp during the week); but thanks to our broken Indonesian language we were able to ask and obtain to be treated as Indonesians, being local students with stay permit, and to pay only 12.000 Rp, less than 1/10 of the sum originally asked.
After assuring your Bule or non Bule ticket and continuing walking on the paved road, you should see a big Hollywood style sign of New Selo, a viewpoint with a dusty square, and a few warungs (local street food places), momentarily sleeping, and waiting to serve you an iced drink, when you'll be exhausted on your way back. At night it's a good place to arrange your tripod and take the first pictures of Mount Merbabu (the neighboring volcano) dominating the village of Selo. Some lazy hikers might start directly from here arriving by jeep or motorbike.
Let's start hiking Mount Merapi!
The perfect word to describe the hike of Mount Merapi is "challenging". It was more difficult than we were expecting, despite in our group of 5, we were all reasonably fit and experienced with hiking. It was like an obstacle race: the trail is changing several times, passing from dust to rocks to loose rocks, and each of them has its own difficulties and dangers, different while going up or down, requiring continuous attention and energy.
The path is starting with concrete tiles embedded in volcanic ash, then turning into pure dust passing through terraced agricultural land (good places to rest and take unobstructed photos). Soon after the trail is entering inside the forest and you'll end up using roots and branches to maintain the balance on the slippery surface.
Since we hiked just one day past the full moon and the sky was clear, the path was well lit even if it was dark. Only in some passages inside the forest we felt the need to use our headlights to see where we were stepping.
Crossing the tree lines and arriving at base camp Pasar Bubrah
After about a couple of hours the first tents, pitched exactly in the middle of the path, became visible where the vegetation started to disappear. At this point we thought that we were almost to the top, but we had a surprise after crossing the tree line and seeing that it was still a long way to the top. Since we left too late, we caught the first light in here instead of to the crater. But it was still a very good place to stare at the sun rising, since the view was clear and open towards the valley and the profile of the mountain created interesting figures against the red sky.
If you are a "Bule" you will probably take your dose of photos and selfies with local hikers before being able to start again your way up. While we proceeded as a group till now, as a safety measure in the darkness, from now on we started to split up following our own pace, to later meet on top at the crater.
From this point it is not a long way to the plateau found at about 2700m, know as Pasar Bubrah, where several people pass the night in their tents, protected by big rocks and surveilled by the volcano nearby.
If you are into geocaching, there is a hidden spot here on one of the fixing cables of the weather station, but unfortunately, excited by the hike, I forgot to check it out: you might want to do it for me.
Approaching the crater of Gunung Merapi
You will probably spend some time at Pasar Bubrah as we did, enjoying the lunar landscape of Merapi summit and the view of 5 volcanoes at the same time, if you are lucky enough to catch a clear day: Gunung Merapi, Merbabu, Sumbing, Sindoro and Telomoyo.
But mostly you will stare at the hikers in front of you, trying to climb on loose Volcanic rocks and ash, going on all fours like goats, wondering if you'll be able to do it or not. It's not an easy joke, since the inclination is reaching about 60% here: sometimes your feet will penetrate deep into the dust, others you will just slip down more than you were able to climb, but eventually you will reach the top and have another revelation.
In fact while you hike to the crater, you don't really see where the path is finishing, you just keep going pushing as much as you can on your muscle and trying not to loose your balance, until you find out that if you do an extra step, you might just fall inside the crater.
The views were impressive and the crater much bigger than I was expecting, but even if I was trying to convince myself not to expect to see any lava, it was still disappointing to let go my last hope of seeing bubbling magma inside the crater. There were a lot of sulfurous fumes coming out randomly from the rocks, but they weren't as smelly as one could expect.
We were able to walk a little bit around the rim of the crater, but it's not possible to venture further because it's getting too dangerous.
Farewell to Merapi Volcano and going back to Selo
After reuniting the group and taking our extra dose of selfies, we started our way back to the village. Going down the volcanic ash this time was amazingly fun and fast, as you can judge by yourself looking at the video. What took me at least half an hour to climb, was just a couple of minutes on my way down. Each step my feet were entering 40cm below the dusty surface, sliding and filling my boots with volcanic rocks.
Reached again Pasar Bubrah, it's the long awaited moment to find a good place to empty the bladder, and ask for forgiveness to Gunung Merapi spirit.
Back to the forest, the route gets really slippery, but thanks God there are many roots and branches (the same used to climb up) to keep the balance. Nevertheless the descent is not easy at all and a lot of care needs to be put on each step, since it can get really dangerous for your bones. Going down from this point is not that exciting, and we couldn't wait to reach the village and take some food and rest.
But as already mentioned at the beginning of the article, the Merapi hike is really an obstacle race, and the worst part is actually the last one. A steep downhill on dusty ash, without any handhold or safety measure: be sure that your butt will taste the ground several times. During the whole hike we enjoyed the challenges and we were always able to overcome them safely, but we felt like if this path was in Europe, it would have probably been banned or arranged with ropes,ladders and steps.
When we eventually reached the buildings of New Selo, my feet were so sore that I couldn't walk anymore. I removed my boots to walk barefoot on the asphalt, but the surface was too hot to be bearable. My suggestion is to take sandals or slippers with you, to use when the conditions allow. We actually saw several Indonesians climbing all the way to the crater of Gunung Merapi with the slippers, and we wonder how was that possible.
On the way back I also decided to collect garbage and clean a little bit the path: while the trail was not clean, I was actually surprised to see that it was not as bad as I was expecting and there wasn't as much plastic as it is found anywhere else in the surroundings.
We are so grateful to the spirit of Mount Merapi for donating us some glimpses of its beauty during our hike to the summit, and for letting the Volcano sleep as a giant baby. Till next eruption!