"Gunung Bagging" - climbing Indonesia's volcanoes
Originally Published in Trek and Mountain Magazine, June 2011
I huddle in the darkness, tucking my hands under my arms and shrinking down inside my jacket. Through the gloom I can see Maman squatting over the stove to boil water for coffee while Cokie sits shivering nearby. I flick the switch of my flashlight and scan the surrounding vegetation. It is three hours since we left the tea gardens, and somewhere along the rough, muddy, and agonisingly steep trail, we have passed beyond the tropics. There are no more broad-leafed banana plants or jungle creepers; we are now amongst gnarled, crooked trees draped with the wispy, blue-grey lichen known in Indonesia as jengot angin – “the beard of the wind”. It is an hour before dawn, and from a village mosque somewhere far, far below, the first prayer call rises, very faint, but unmistakable through the clear, cold air.
Ahead the trail continues, onwards and upwards towards the bare, 3173-metre summit of Gunung Dempo, Sumatra’s third highest peak, a mighty volcanic eminence towering over the Pamesah Highlands.
With the coffee finished we scramble to our feet, stamping and slapping our sides to get the blood moving again. I ask Maman, a local mountain fanatic who has climbed Dempo fifteen times, how much further we have to go. Two hours, he says – and the air is getting thinner with every step…
Indonesia is a land of volcanoes. A great, 4000-mile arc of shattered green land stretching across the equator, it owes its very existence to tectonic violence. It is part of “the Ring of Fire”, where the Pacific and Indian Ocean plates are forced beneath the thick crust of the Eurasian continental plate. The western and southern flank of the archipelago is one long line of fiery mountains – known as gunung in Indonesian. There are 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, more than in any other nation, and many more extinct and dormant peaks. The tallest – Kerinci in West Sumatra – stands 3805 metres above sea level.
But despite this plethora of peaks, most visitors come to Indonesia for beaches, coral reefs and culture. For those who do pack a pair of boots, however, this is probably the place where you can tick off more serious summits in a short space of time than anywhere else on earth. And with the recent categorisation of mountains with a prominence of at least 1000 metres into “Ribus” (from the Indonesian word for “thousand” – ribu), on criteria similar to those used internationally for Ultras, and in the UK for Corbetts and Grahams, there is now a target list for would-be trekkers. It runs to 222 summits – it’s time to start “gunung bagging”…
Volcanoes are not like other mountains. That might seem an obvious statement, given that nothing in the Scottish highlands has a steaming bowl of sulphurous smoke at its summit, but there’s more to it than that. Volcanoes are formed, not by a slow crumpling of the earth’s surface, but by a single upwelling of molten rock. Because of this they often stand alone, towering in a steep cone above low-lying flatlands to a height of several thousand metres. For this reason an attempt on an Indonesian volcano is usually a short, sharp shock. There is little chance for acclimatisation, and in the tropics temperatures drop dramatically as you rise. You can start the day sweating at sea level, and then finish off shivering in the sunset at close to 3000 metres. This makes the effects of altitude particularly pronounced (though the chance for swift descents means that AMS is not a major risk on even Indonesia’s highest volcanoes).
Most of Indonesia’s volcanoes are “trekking peaks”, demanding no technical skill or specialist equipment to scale. But have no doubt, it’s a tough business. Lower slopes are almost always cloaked with thick, steamy forest where mud, leeches, and dehydration are the main concerns. As you rise, however, temperatures drop to teeter on the brink of freezing point, and final ascents are often over soul-sapping scree. But the fact that an Indonesian peak high enough to be worthy of a ten-day trek elsewhere in the world can be the object of a weekend outing, or just one chapter of a multi-mountain trip, makes “gunung bagging” an addictive pastime, and the experience of standing at dawn on the brink of a gaping crater, high over a sea of pale, creamy cloud, is always something to relish.
There are well-trodden trails to the tops of Indonesia’s best-known peaks. You can summit many independently, and local guides are usually easy to find. The highest concentration of accessible mountains is in Java, the England-sized loadstone of the archipelago. Gunung Pangrango, 3019 metres tall and just 50 kilometres short of the seething capital, Jakarta, is one of the most popular for weekenders. In neighbouring Bali, meanwhile, the mighty 3142-metre Gunung Agung is easily accessible too.
All these mountains have clear trails, kept well-trodden by gangs of student hikers, and visiting trekkers from overseas. Most can be tackled in a single hit from the trailhead. True summits are usually simply the highest point of a crater rim, a gravelly patch above a great stony hollow, often holding a cobalt-blue lake or a steaming sulphur vent.
If smoke and sulphur add a certain frisson to the summit experience, they add a similar tension to daily life in Indonesian too. Volcano slopes – with their rich soils and wet microclimates – are the most fertile places in the archipelago, and red-roofed villages huddle high on the slopes. The risk of eruption is the pay-off for the fertile fields (Java’s Gunung Merapi erupted violently in 2010, killing several hundred people). The dominating character of the peaks has given them a place in Indonesia’s belief systems too. Local traditions often see the craters as the receptacles of the souls of village ancestors, and many peaks have taboos and traditions of animal sacrifice to appease the spirits.
As well as the wealth of one-day wonders there are mountains that demand a more sustained assault. Gunung Rinjani, towering over Bali’s eastern neighbour, Lombok, is Indonesia’s second highest volcanic mountain – at 3726 metres – and one of its very finest trekking peaks. Most people tackle the mountain over three or four days, summiting in the early hours of the morning on the second day before traversing the huge caldera and descending into the jungle. Another headline star in the ranks of Indonesia’s fire mountains is Semeru, Java’s highest peak, accessed by a three-day route across the wild Bromo-Tengger Massif.
But all of these mountains are just for starters. There are hundreds more – Inerie, Ile Boleng, and Tambora out amongst the islands of Nusa Tenggara, forgotten Javanese giants like Argopuro, and little-known peaks in Sulawesi and Maluku. And then there’s the 1200-mile, volcano-studded stretch of Sumatra, home to Kerinci, Marapi, Leuser and the mighty Gunung Dempo…
Two days have passed since I arrived in the little upland town of Pagaralam with my eye on Gunung Dempo. The mountain, rising sheer from the forests and plantations, swimming in and out of cloud, and casting a long shadow across the rice fields, is a tantalising prospect. But despite its huge height this is not one of Indonesia’s well known peaks, for it stands far from any of the major tourist trails, and seven hours by road from the regional capital, Palembang.
I had struggled to find information about routes to the summit before I arrived, but then, in a typically Indonesian piece of good luck, I ran into Maman. A serious 27-year-old trekker with an enviable string of Ribus under his belt, he grew up in the shadow of Gunung Dempo, and cut his teeth on its high slopes. He told me the he was planning to make yet another ascent the following day with a friend from Palembang, Cokie, and invited me to tag along. We made our way by motorbike to a ramshackle climbers’ hut, 1000 metres above sea level on the fringes of the huge state-owned tea estate that skirts Dempo, spent the evening drinking endless cups of coffee, and then two hours after midnight – following traditional Indonesian practice of aiming to summit at dawn – we set out along one of the toughest forest trails I’d ever seen.
And so now here I am, struggling up through the thinning trees, lungs burning and thighs throbbing, reaching for withered branches to support myself, as thin, pearly daylight begins to leach out over a vast, inverted cloudscape. The last of the forest gives way to stunted scrub, and knuckles of grainy rock replace the tangled roots of the lower trail. We’re just short of Dempo’s false summit, Maman says, so we stop to watch a steely sun slip into a pale sky cut with skeins of charcoal cloud. Dempo stands just three degrees south of the equator, but at 3000 metres in a sharp breeze it is shockingly cold, and with sunrise over we press on, crossing the false summit – an unprepossessing hillock cloaked in tangled bushes – then dropping to a small plateau before making the final slog up a stony slope to the crater rim.
The altitude is sapping all of our strength now, and we move silently, finding our own pace, searching out meandering paths over the rocks with short footfalls. And then, with a few final, staggering steps, I’m on the crater rim. A deep bowl of broken rock the colour of builders’ rubble opens below me with a blue-grey pool in its belly. The bitter wind is driving in from the northwest; shreds of cloud rush across the crater, and, with the rising sun at my back, for a moment a “glory” – my own swollen shadow ringed with a rainbow halo – shows on the far ridge.
Leaving Maman and Cokie huddling on the edge of the overhang I pick my way to the highest point of the rim, and look out on the surrounding panorama. Away to the west I can see the distant blue line of the Indian Ocean coast, backed by descending green ridges. In the east Pagaralam and the tea gardens are hidden beneath a sheet of cloud.
Another Ribu bagged, I think happily to myself. But beyond this crater I can see a long rank of other unnamed summits, and in the opposite direction the dark bulk of Gunung Patah – a wildly remote jungle peak that Maman pioneered just last year – shows above the cloud. There are plenty more still waiting to be climbed…
© Tim Hannigan 2011