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Published: November 11th 2008
After driving for 8 hours to arrive in Cemoro Lewang late in the evening, we were not keen to take a brief drive to see the sunrise over Mount Bromo and then get back on the road to hit the next sight, as all the tours recommended. While returning from our sunrise walk we were discussing what to do with the day when we bumped into a German couple who were just returning from a four-day trek to the distant Mount Semeru.
While it can be a bit disorienting travelling without a fixed itinerary (we rarely know what day of the week it is), the best thing about it is that there is the freedom to seize a passing opportunity. Upon their enthusiastic recommendation we returned to our room, packed our bags, and headed off to hike across the 10km-diameter Tengger caldera to the small town of Ranu Pani.
The hike consisted of a steep descent into the huge crater, and then a walk across the flat base, known as the sand sea. It is a bit disconcerting to be walking surrounded by a rim of mountains on all sides, and to think that at one stage everything inside
Trekking across the Sand Sea
The flat base inside the massive caldera left over by the last super-eruption
was blasted out by some massive eruption. The smoldering peak of Mount Bromo which has since formed within the caldera is testament to the fact that there is still some vigorous subterranean activity going on in the depths below our where our footsteps crossed.
We arrived in the little village of Ranu Pani, and found Mr Pak Tasrip's house, the only place to get a bed an a hot meal in town. Mr Tasrip himself turned out to be a priceless character. The old toothless grandpa was constantly playing practical jokes on us and whenever you weren't looking he'd throw a quick jab with his bony fist into your stomach or shoulder, and then wheeze in laughter.
Having accommodated hikers for the past 23 years, he was a wealth of information on the mountain trail. He brought out sleeping bags for us to take up, checked that we had enough water, and organised with his wife packed meals for us to carry. In the evening he put two big black kettles on the log fire so that we'd have hot water to wash ourselves with.
As night began to fall, we went to the small office at
We made it
Looking down into the ancient Tengger caldera from after climbing the rim
the start of the trail to get our permits. When we tried to check the safety of the climb with the friendly official (Mount Semeru is an active volcano and the trail is closed at particularly vigorous times), we were told that the mountain was too dangerous to hike today, but that it would be okay for tomorrow. We didn't manage to find out why this thousand-year old volcano would be unsafe today, but fine tomorrow.
The next morning's breakfast was the same as our late lunch and dinner the previous day. A delicious noodle soup cooked up (in no hurry) by Mrs Tasrip. After fussing to tie our sleeping bags onto our small day-packs we were pointed off in the direction of the mountain.
The first day's hiking took wound us along the sides of jungle-draped valleys and out over open grass as we hiked towards the base of the mountain. We were in great spirits since unlike our previous hikes, the relative inaccessibility of the mountain meant that we had the trail to ourselves. Hiking through the ever-changing landscape we were accompanied by the songs of exotic birds and at times we saw small black monkeys
Up through the jungle
It was afull day's trek through the jungle just to get to the base of Mt Sumeru.
swinging in the trees above us.
As lunchtime approached, the clouds descended further. Just as a light rain was beginning to fall, we rounded a bend and saw ahead of us a a sturdy shelter overlooking wide open lake. By the time we'd finished our peanut-butter sandwiches and mangoes, the rain had stopped, and we hiked the rest of the day in the dry.
As we were approaching our rest stop on the base of the mountain we thought we felt a few drops of rain again. As we walked further, the drops became more regular, and we were shocked to realise that it was not water that was falling down on us, but a continuous rain of volcanic ash. Mount Semeru is not only the tallest peak in Java, but as I have said before, it is also an active volcano.
Unlike Mt Bromo, which is a also an active volcano, rather than simply steaming away, Mount Semeru
sits silently until the pressures build to a critical level (see also here
). The result is an explosion which projects gases, rock and dust several hundred meters into the sky. This happens on average every half our.
A beautiful lake half way to Mt Sumeru
fine layer of ash soon covered our hair and backpacks, and we noticed that all the grasses and plants around us were also covered with the same gray layer. It was a humbling realization that despite the thick cloud cover ahead of us, we were now definitely approaching a real-life volcano.
We found a welcoming little green-roofed shelter at the base of the mountain, and within minutes had a fire going to dry out our socks. We dragged some pine branches back to the shelter to use as firewood, and Cathy set about to stripping them of their needles. She laid these over the bare concrete floor of the shelter, and they made a fantastic mattress for the night, providing both cushioning and some insulation up at this cold altitude.
Just before the sun set the clouds opened up to give us a glimpse of the peak that we had intended to tackle in the morning. The huge mountain towered defiantly above us, it's upper two-thirds scraped bare by pyroclastic flows and it's peak belching smoke. I had never before stood in such an intimidating place. Our concrete shelter looked rather pathetic balanced below the tree line. This
Volcanic ash collecting in a flower
was no longer just another mountain to hike. It was now very obviously a volcano.
By the time the sun dipped behind the vertical horizon, we were already in our sleeping bags, with the our alarm set to wake us at midnight for the last push to the summit.
I did not sleep calmly at the base of the volcano. My dreams were filled with thunder and every time that I awoke I imagined I heard a distant rumbling outside, but each time it became only the wind echoing through the trees. I lay thinking about the the last pyroclastic flows which had blasted 2.5km down the slopes in 2001. Were we below that mark? The thick-trunked trees around us certainly seemed to have survived the years. But that lava slope was not far above us.
By the time our alarm went off I was glad to get going. We packed our gear and headed off following the light of our single headlamp. The trail was easy to follow, but became progressively steeper as we headed up through the trees. After about an hour the trees abruptly ended, revealing a cloudless sky full of stars above
Heating up supper
Cathy with a smart way for us to heat our little rice & noodle packages
us, obscured in front of us by the pitch black triangle of the volcano.
At the same time, the terrain changed from muddy forest floor to bare volcanic scree. We had been amazed that our map had marked the last 1.5km as a 3 hour climb, but the reason soon became evident. There was no defined path up this last section of the volcano, nor would it have been possible to make one. The slopes were completely featureless, covered in a thick layer of loose igneous gravel and ash.
The final signpost pointed directly up the 45degree slope towards the peak, and that's the direction we set off. It seemed that for every 3 steps you took forward, you would slide back 2. It reminded me of trying to hike the side of a steep sand dune. We had to use our hands to help our scramble, and soon they were feeling raw from being plunged against the sharp gravel and rocks.
Because of the angle, the distance to the peak never seemed to diminish, even after 2 hours of climbing. Eventually as we were feeling most despondent, the dawn light slowly trickled into the sky and
Cath making our bed
Bear Grylls would be proud
gave us the encouragement we needed. We hiked that last hour stopping every 10-15 steps to catch our breath and for a word of encouragement.
The only clear sign we had that we were getting closer was that the dust clouds thrown up were certainly looming larger over us as with each new eruption. They began as a small patch of obscured clouds in the night, but as we neared the peak and the gray dawn light illuminated the clouds, it seemed as if the entire mountain was boiling over.
With one final push we conquered the final crest, and suddenly emerged on a moonscape of bare dust with rocks strewn about. We had arrived just before the sun, which was lighting up the East, silhouetting Mt Agung, the Mythological child of Mt Semeru, on Bali. We huddled together under one of the sleeping bags as we watched the dawn break, overwhelmed by the 360 degree views from Java's highest peak.
As we sat there, the mountain began to smoke once again, and then a loud cracking sound of the shearing of rock while dust was thrown high into the air above us. The display of force
Pretty decent mattress
It kept us warm and comfortable on the mountain
continued for about a minute and the with the dust forming a mushroom-cloud shape over the mountain. After the eruption had ended the fresh breeze slowly began to carry the cloud away, and we could see a line of such clouds disappearing downwind like smoke signals.
We sat on the peak experiencing the eruptions every so often until the sun was well above the horizon. We then walked along the ridge to peer down into the caldera from where the dust and smoke was being thrown up. Although it was wide and well lit by the morning sun, it felt like looking into the centre of the earth. Smoke could be seen pouring from cracks between the rocks. As we stood there, the volcano began to erupt once again as we filmed it with our little camera (see video) and the sound of the tearing rocks made us take several steps back.
After that encounter, we turned back down the dusty slope, and half walked, half slid our way back down to the base. It was only after we had hiked back past the night shelter, and well out of the shadow of falling ash that we felt
like we could sigh a breath of relief and talk about the whole experience in excited tones rather than nervous ones.
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