44 - Grumpy And Slappy Tackle Mt. Merapi (Java, Indonesia)
“V” is for volcano and that’s good enough for me… and good enough for Fabio. Can’t fight the moonlight, the weather, or the power of denim. Let petulance be thy savior. Asshole in the mist, my panties in a twist.
by The Nostomaniac
JOHNNY FUCKING VOLCANO… was my middle name. I couldn’t get enough. Agung, Batur, Rinjani, Inielika, Kelimutu, Bromo, Ijen. Next contestant, come on down! Number eight. Volcanoes are like snowflakes. No two are the same. Merapi is one of the most active in the world, harboring a well-deserved reputation for mayhem. I was hoping for a little excitement. Belches, smoke trails, maybe a little lava sparkle. A side of adrenaline with my volcano? Not on that day.
The approach from Kaliurang was closed to tourists though I can’t recall the reason. Either a volcano is too dangerous or it isn’t. Partial trail collapse? Closed for research? Dunno. If I wanted a peek, I’d have to start in Selo on the north side. Rather than relocate, I signed up for a tour disembarking from Yogyakarta. Cost? A mere twenty dollars (US). I was particularly fond of my bungalow rental and saw no need to vacate. It would be a welcome retreat after a long hike.
The downside was the hour and a half drive from the city. Seeing the sunrise is mandatory whether or not you wish it, weather forecasts be damned. This meant leaving at 10 p.m. for a hiking start time of 1 a.m. An hour for pregame (tea, crumpets, etc.), four hours for the climb, two for dawdling at the summit, and three for the descent followed by a return to Yogya. Perfect.
I was part of a trio that included a guide and a climber named Dominico from Italy. From henceforth, I will refer to Dominico as “Fabio.” Why? Well, far as I can tell, I’m an asshole. Also, given what transpired, it feels right. My sense of foreboding at the thought of substituting a night’s sleep for a seven-hour hike intensified when I met Fabio. Call it woman’s intuition.
I can’t say I disliked the man, but I immediately questioned his hiking forte. No rain jacket. No flashlight. Dress shoes. Jeans. Jean jacket. Um, Fabio, WTF? An extra in a Broadway production of Grease? Sure. A member of the Merapi summit party? Negative. Fabio didn’t share my reservations. He was ready to crush that shit. He as much told me so in broken English on the ride to Selo. Though the language barrier was substantial, I heard a story about hiking the jungles of Sumatra and how this prepared him for Merapi. Easy. That’s what he said. Easy. Faaaaaabio…
In Selo, the rain fell and fell hard. Dogs and cats. Goats and chickens. Lions and tigers. Have I mentioned Fabio’s lack of rain gear? His killer jean jacket? The tour company brought us to a hostel where we were served pre-launch tea. Luckily, they let Fabio borrow a flashlight and offered him a rain poncho for five thousand rupiahs, the equivalent of fifty cents (US) at the time. And yet…
Fabio had questions. Did he really need a flashlight? Why would he? If you can’t navigate a volcano at night in a rainstorm, then what the fuck good are you? Did he really need a rain jacket? Have I mentioned it was fucking pouring? Well, it was… at that precise moment… as he spoke. Could he return the poncho for a refund if he didn’t need it? Five thousand rupiahs is fifty cents.
Shoestring travel budget? I get it. We can’t all sell our diseased soul in Baghdad for over two years as a contractor to accumulate enough wealth to collect high-priced ponchos without compunction. Throw away fifty cents on an overpriced poncho and the next thing you know you’ll be hiring porters to carry you on an Egyptian litter throne. Still, if you can’t absorb half a dollar, I’m thinking you might want to squirrel away some extra coin before setting sail. Then again, who the hell am I?
Abort, abort! Danger, Bill Robinson, the voice in my head screamed. The rain continued unabated and I really didn’t think Fabio was up to the challenge. How the hell could he be? His snail pace underscored my concerns. Also, I wasn’t confident my rain gear would hold-up under a sustained downpour. Besides, what was there to see? The guide thought it would clear up, but I’m not sure from where he gleaned his meteorological prediction.
I had time and patience. Rain, rain go away, I’ll come back another day. Why bother in such inauspicious conditions? I’m guessing Fabio was on a tight schedule and would probably have had a conniption fit if he thought he’d have to shell out another twenty bucks. I couldn’t decide what required more energy: Moving up or convincing them to bag the enterprise. We pressed on.
I guess “waterproof” is a fluid term. After thirty minutes, the word no longer applied to my jacket and pants. I wasn’t expecting to swim in them, just get me through a steady rain relatively unscathed. Nope. I was soaked. This did wonders for my mood. My enthusiasm cratered yet again. Why the fuck are we doing this? I thought. We’re all miserable. We won’t see dick even if we reach the top and Fabio will perish, perish I say! I honestly believed he’d see it my way, but to his credit he resisted. I brought up hypothermia, an almost guaranteed zero chance of seeing shit, and then I threatened to bail.
Neither Fabio nor the guide wanted anything to do with my defeatist bullshit. After all, Fabio did have a jean jacket, ‘kay? I really thought I was playing the voice of reason, attempting to save Fabio from himself. Had I been solo maybe I would have pressed on for shits in giggles, but I saw debilitation in Fabio’s near future and thought I’d be saving us both a shitload of unnecessary grief. Or I was being a big fat pussy? Close call.
I capitulated, but now I was pissed. Happy thoughts no more. Okay, assholes, you wanna hike? Let’s fucking hike, ya ignorant mutha fuckers! Fuck it, let’s do this shit! Peeved and petulant, I mentioned something about having to move to stay warm and stormed off up the mountain like an asshole. No, certainly not one of my finer moments, but there was an upside. Childish rage is a superb motivator. I practically ran up that fucker. Felt good. Real good. My redemption hike. (On the last one, Mt. Rinjani, I struggled with the altitude and anemia.) Warmth was not an issue. Between the exertion and juvenile anger, I was toasty warm. Fabio and the guide were falling further and further behind. I couldn’t give two shits, but the guide wasn’t feeling the vibe, uncomfortable with my comfortable lead.
And then the universe shifted. My anger and frustration melted into the volcanic ether. The rain stopped and all was, well, right as rain. There was an eerie calm to the scene without the sound of constant rainfall. Just enough moonlight shone through the clouds to trace the outline of Merapi smoking silently in the darkness. In my temporary solitude, I became the unlikely hero of a Lord of the Rings type fantasy adventure. Up there lies my destiny, a maniacal, blood-thirsty dragon itching for the chance to blow lava up my colon. Frodo? Frodo was a pansy. The sudden, violent flapping of a flag attached to a small monument commemorating past eruptions brought me back. Startled, I may have pooped a smidge.
My expectations were low at the outset. Anything short of an ad hoc eruption forcing me to outrun a pyroclastic flow or skip through fields of glowing lava would’ve been a disappointment. Ludicrous. Fucking ludicrous. Leaving aside the fact it sounds like a death wish, having such high hopes diminishes the real beauty and magnificence of such a “boring” experience. Talk about striving. Open your eyes, dingus, and see what’s right in front of you. Alone in the dark on a disgruntled, unpredictable volcano with visions of Middle Earth dancing in your head? What the fuck do you want, ya ungrateful prick?
*Drone footage courtesy of PILOT AMATIR.
The summit was as expected. Between the overcast sky and wafting sulfur clouds leaking from the cracks, I could see two things for sure: Jack and Shit. I didn’t take many pictures, and the ones I have are less than exhilarating. They do the place little justice. Sadly, Smaug wasn’t in attendance, but I did meet a group of teenage Indonesian boys who’d camped atop Merapi. Camping on top of Indonesia’s most active volcano? Nice. Crazy bastards. What the hell did they say to mom and dad? I assume they pulled the ole “I’m staying at a friend’s house” con. Back home we’d do that and then drive around all night like vagrants, drinking and doing nothing in particular. I like their plan better. I should’ve asked to see their permission slips, but it didn’t occur to me. Still, we had a nice conversation as we sat beside a steaming vent for warmth.
My guide finally joined me. Fabio did not. He was somewhere below combating his personal dragon. When we found him on the way down he looked bedraggled, his jeans dirtied and bloodied. I told him to take as much time as he needed as I was more than content to sip tea in Selo until his return. Not sure he ever made it. I never asked. I was glad he rebuked my defeatism, but I’m not certain he was. On top of scuffing up his jean jacket, he was out fifty cents for the poncho. Merapi’s a real bitch.
Not the trip I envisioned, but one I will definitely remember. And maybe that’s the whole goddamn point.