The Hike Summary:
This is a challenging two-day hike with some flexibility in where you camp and what route you take up/down. If you want to hike Selo (southside) to Kenalan (northside) be warned that the trail to/from Kenalan is steep (see below for our experience)—aim for Kopeng instead for a gentler descent. This hike is best done in good weather so you can enjoy the views, with a downloaded IndonesianEnglish dictionary if you don’t speak the language, and with expectation you’ll be paying around $20 USD in entrance fees for the hike.
It’s back to the hike circuit! We haven’t had a serious, multi-day trek since the Salkantay, we’re going to start off easy and do a two-day trek up and down the dormant volcanic cone Mt. Merbabu. While most tourists hike neighboring Mt. Merapi, they do it with a tour guide and the Merapi summit is currently closed due to recent volcanic activity. In contrast, there are no English-language tours of Merbabu and it’s basically a DIY hike with a well-marked trail. It takes us a couple of hours to even find a taxi willing to drive us there, and I even managed to negotiate a 25% discount off the standard 400,000 rupiah fare.
The road out to the village Selo, which sits in between Merbabu and Merapi, is pretty rough. We meet up with our cab driver at 9 am and in less than an hour we’re at the base of Merapi. From there, we turn down the winding road between Merapi and Merbabu. It seems fine at first, but the road rapidly gives way to potholed concrete and we’re stuck going only a few miles an hour over them. Kids from the local villages stand beside the road and help cars navigate the holes for a few rupiah. We spend two hours on this road, slowed by the potholes and then stopped because of construction. Our taxi driver has to ask for directions several times, but he’s a good sport about it. In the end, we arrive at Selo around noon, far later than we expected. I pay our driver the full price for all the trouble.
We know the hike starts somewhere around here, but directions online were vague so we ask farmers and passing villagers for “Merbabu” and they point us in the right direction. We’re also helped by spray-painted signs on walls along the way. It’s another hour of climbing concrete roads before we reach the park entrance, a tiny village with a few hostels (all named some variant of “base camp”).
The park entrance is at the top of the village, a cluster of official looking buildings where we write our names and pay a lot of money to do the hike: it’s 300,000 IDR (~$20 USD) for us foreigners, and it’s more than a little bitter to watch a group of guys pass through right after us and pay only 15,000 IDR (~$1 USD) for the hike. It’s true that we have way more money, but after spending $40 a day living in Yogyakarta, the park entrance fee is a sticker shock. There are some guides online for how to avoid paying, but I don’t know how to feel about that either. The money made here (hypothetically) goes back into maintaining the park.
The climb up the mountain continues, but we’re now on a dirt path that alternates between a gentle slope and steep inclines as it weaves through the forest at the mountain’s base. Every hour or two we find a sign denoting a campsite (Pos 1, 2…) that points us to the peak, scribbled over with layers of graffiti until they’re hardly legible. There’s a pile of trash at every campsite, and litter is scattered along the trail. It’s apparently hard to convince the hikers here to “pack it in, pack it out.”
As we continue upward, the jungle over lower Merbabu gives way to steep, grassy slopes and muddy trails that we half hike, half climb. At around 16:30 we reach what we would guess is Pos 3, a broad patch of level ground above the cloudline. We’re exhausted, but after some rest continue upward. There’s not much sun left and it’s getting colder, but the number of people setting up camp around here means there will probably be noise late into the night.
A kilometer on, we our first view of neighboring Merapi through a break in the clouds. The sun is behind Merbabu now and the wind is chilling to the point of unbearable in our sweaty clothes, but the island of Merapi’s peak suspended in the sea of clouds is too beautiful not to stop and admire. We make it up the next hill, pass through another small huddle of tents, and halfway up the next hill find a small, mostly level area behind a tree. It’s not far from the trail but it’s secluded, and that’s good enough for us.
To say we slept well would be an outright lie. First it was the cold, and when we finally shivered ourselves warm it was the continuous flow of hikers near our tent that kept us up. People walked by talking, laughing, singing as they continued toward the peak in the frigid temperatures. If you’re doing this hike and plan to overnight, bring earplugs.
We decided we weren’t getting any more sleep around 4:00 and broke camp to continue the hike. By the light of headlamps and an abundance of caution, we followed the maze of trails upward. The peak of Merbabu is not fed by a single trail, but a vast network of zig-zagged trails cut by people and erosion over time. Some are easier than others. Some take you closer to the cliff edge than others. All of them are steep and could lead to a fatal fall. All will be a huge pain to climb down later. We choose carefully.
Dawn comes gradually, revealing a foggy morning that dims the chance of any view from the peak. We continue the hike upward for another hour, and around 5:30 we find the level ground of the Merbabu’s peak, full of groups holding up school flags, club flags, and Indonesia’s flag. Despite the lack of any view (we’re all literally in a cloud), everyone is excited that they’ve made it. We try to muster the energy for excitement as well, but it’s hard when you’re cold, wet, and exhausted. Though everyone else is breaking down camp, we pull out the muddy tent and pitch it to get a couple hours of shuteye.
It’s around 8:30 when we wake again, and we emerge from the tent warmer and happier. There only view is still of dense fog around us, but we’re ready to tackle the hike down to the town on the other side of Merbabu, toward Kopeng. We hunt around for the trail down, speaking broken English and Indonesian with nearby groups of students. Visibility stops about 10 feet out, so it takes us twenty minutes to get the right direction. As we start our descent, a guy comes running up to us with the warning “hati-hati!” and between Google Translate and his English, we figure out he’s warning us that it’s a steep and dangerous trail. We thank him and say “we know.” But it can’t be worse than the trail up.
CORRECTION: it totally CAN be worse than the trail up. While the trail up was steep and muddy, it didn’t involve climbing down nigh-vertical rock and mud walls with our 55 L packs. At some points, the paths are so narrow that we use makeshift ropes to lower our bags down a cliff face first, then climb down ourselves. The going is slow, but we’re comforted by the fact that we’re losing altitude quickly. We just don’t want to lose it too quickly all at once.
The dense cloud cover never fully lets up, but it creates a damp wonderland of life on this side of Merbabu. We take our time heading down, stopping for pictures of fungi, flowers, and dew-laced spiderwebs. We pause to admire the scenery when there’s an occasional break in the clouds. Though we can see little of the surrounding area, we often catch eggy, sulfurous whiffs in the wind—active vents offgassing. Merbabu is still a living volcano, even if it’s dormant now.
We reach the treeline and the forest re-starts, but in the thick fog it’s mostly eerie. There’s a disease afflicting the trees; they appear only as leafless skeletons standing in the mist, marked with bulbous growths that I would wager are a fungal disease. Then these trees give way to greenery, and we’re back in a live forest.
Thanks to either impeccable or terrible planning (depending on who you ask), at this point we’re almost out of food and water. We ration the remaining half-bottle as we hike on. There are already signs of human life here: PVC pipes snake beside the trail and broken ones jut from the muddy trail walls, probably carrying water down to the farming village below. Then suddenly there’s a building, and a cemetery, and one of the PVC pipes empties into a trough of water. We’ve found civilization.
It’s another few hundred meters down to town proper, which turns out to be the town of Kenalan and not Kopeng as we’d hoped. We either took the wrong trail from the top or missed a turn on the way down, taking a totally different trail than the “gentle slope” suggested by this trail description. While this town may not be Kopeng, it does have a selfie-rific spot that the locals created to draw tourists to the town, with a huge white-letter sign that reads “MERBABU PASS” and a point where it suggests you put your camera to get a photo. There are also an odd array of sculptures and buildings, some still under construction. With the heavy mist, we’re the only people here, but it seems like a shame to not take some photos.
We hike the last stretch of road into town, a path more treacherous than any we faced on the mountain because of its steepness and damp moss on the stones. At the bottom, we’re greeted by a row of houses and some very curious women. We ask after a ride to Jogja and with shy smiles they bring us down the street to a tour runner, defined mostly by a banner proclaiming “Base Camp” and a woman inside selling trail food. She’s stunned to see us and invites us in, where we purchase some hot tea while she runs to get the only semi-English speaker, her husband. He’s a lively fellow, and in a few minutes we’ve negotiated passage back to Jogja for 600,000 IDR.
There’s some commotion as we leave, since the woman running the shop insists we take some cookies with us. We ask how much they are and she shakes her head with a smile that says, “Just take them.” We’ve paid her and the whole town of Kenalan in gossip for weeks to come, the two weird muddy, foreigners who appeared from the mists of Merbabu with some broken Indonesian, who sat in her house and played with her cat and her kid, and who then disappeared, probably never to be seen again.
If you want to do this whole hike, here’s a Google Maps guide of it. You can see the main northbound hike (to Kopeng) northeast of the trail we took: