The dog on Hum Hill


On our way down Hum Hill, we ran into a dog! He was super cute and very friendly. I pet him, of course.


As we walked down, the dog came with us. Uh oh. At one point I walked him all the way back up to where we thought his car and owner would be, but no such luck. Doggo walked right back down with us.


Now we were in a bit of a quandary. Doggo had clearly decided he would be following us, but he also clearly had a collar. We didn’t want to accidentally lead someone’s dog down the hill. It was getting cold so Natalie wrapped him in her jacket while we decided what to do. We checked for a dog rescue in Mostar – there was one! But we had no real way to contact them. We settled on the next best thing – flagging down cars to ask a local for help. Most passed right by us, but a few stopped.


The general consensus seemed to be that sometimes – fairly often – people will leave their dog up on the hill when they don’t want it anymore. This seemed unbelievably cruel, so we asked about a shelter. This was admittedly naive but hey, the dog was quiet, apparently well behaved, and adorable. As we expected though, Bosnia is not at the stage of having animal shelters, and one of the people who helpfully stopped told us he calls the rescue people once in a while but they never seem to come. The thought on whether to bring him down into the city with us, or leave him on the mountain, was that in the city, he’d be competing with some very rough street dogs. Up here at least, even though it was cold, there would be less violence. Neither option seemed great to us, and it was pretty clear doggo would follow us right down the car-laden road.


We finally met someone coming down who was taking pictures with a drone and seemed fairly well off. We chatted for a bit – a surprising number of people spoke great English. He promised he would at least stop the dog from following us into the road, and also ask anyone else he saw if they knew the owner. We left with a heavy heart. With any luck someone took pity and took doggo in – our only solace is that the guy we left him with seemed like a good person and maybe in need of a pet? Despite what we’re used to in first world countries – that shelters aren’t great and adoption is hit and miss – there are at least mechanisms in place to prevent total abandonment. In many countries around the world, there isn’t even that. We want to believe everything turned out ok for doggo as we made our way down into the city.


Hiking Hum Hill in Mostar


Hum – pronounced ‘Hoom’- hill dominates the south-west portion of the city. It’s not a mountain, definitely a hill, but it’s large and extremely up close. We decided our outdoor activity for the area would be to climb it. Luckily for us, we had run in to a local who chatted with us for a bit in the marketplace. His salient warning was to not climb the city-facing side of the hill. There’s a road that runs around the back and is the only safe trail to get to the top of the mountain. The rest of it is still mined.


To get there, we crossed the bridge to the west side of the river. We then passed through some of the more typical residential areas – medium sized soviet style apartment buildings and their associated markets and restaurants. The prices here are much, much lower than in the old town.

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After the residential area, the road started heading up into the hills and the the houses started becoming a bit more decrepit. Not every house was like this, but a fair number were.


The top of the hill is marked by a giant cross. In a Muslim majority country, this was something of a big deal when it went up. Many people were quite unhappy, and it doesn’t seem to foster good relations.


The road winds up and up, here we looked back at the city. There’s not much of a space for pedestrians to walk. It’s much more common for people to drive up and then walk around after the highway ends, but the locals are used to pedestrians hiking up the mountain. It’s still very important to be aware and careful though, especially around the curves.


At some point near the top the road ends and the hill-road begins. It’s a fairly long hike all told, and the split is roughly halfway.

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Along the side of the mountain road are these stone settings – they each show Christ or another religious figure. The whole mountain was apparently decorated with religious symbols around the time the cross went up.


One of these comes around every hundred meters or so.


From the back of the hill you can look down on to the edge of the city and the green hills and mountains surrounding it.


In the other direction, the majority of Mostar. Even during the hike up there’s a fantastic view.


Along the way we spotted some amazingly vibrant blue flowers.


At the top the cross looms large. It’s a fairly minimalist, concrete structure, fairly similar to the one in Skopje, but less Eiffel-tower like.


On the other side of the cross is the part of the hill facing the city – the mined part. There are some clearly marked trails that people have been through, and the view is very nice.


We took some time to soak in the view. It seemed fairly important to not go off trail, despite the fact that there had been clear human presence in some of the ‘off-limits’ areas.


The only other people we had seen go off the road were a family picking up cans and foraging herbs. We ran into another family on the way up who talked with us for a bit, lamenting the downfall of Mostar and the rampant inequality.


The famed bridge was not quite visible from the safe areas. To get a view of it we would have had to walk out onto the face of the hill we had been warned against.


Having seen the landscape and the city sprawl, we headed back down the mountain. It was starting to get near sunset and the temperature was dropping.


Macro shots on Mt.Vodno


Our hike at the edge of Skopje took a while not just because of the distance, but also because we spent a lot of time taking close up shots of beautiful flowers and animals along the trail. This guy is probably an Erhard’s Wall Lizard.


A lovely Crimson Scabious. They were everywhere at the start of the hike.


This looks like it might be the same as the Crimson, but dry and ready to send out seeds.


What would have been a delicious Chicken-of-the-Woods, but had been already eaten. We found and cooked one of these once, they really do taste and feel just like chicken. (Do not eat wild mushrooms unless you are absolutely confident you can properly identify them)


This is a type of Cyclamen. They are beautiful and absolutely everywhere wherever there is shade. We found an entire tree tunnel lined with them near the end of the hike – a carpet of pink and purple.


This is the leaf of the Cyclamen. Interestingly, they’re usually a good distance from the flower clusters.

Unknown, possibly Armeria vulgaris?

After this start the insects!
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This reminds me very much of the weta. It’s actually a type of saddleback bush cricket.


Possibly a type of locust? Nope. It’s a Predatory Bush Cricket. It’s also known as the spiked magician and it eats other crickets, among many other things.


It was huge. This is a 6.5 inch phone for reference. This bug is a fairly uncommon sighting.


A lovely brown grasshopper of some sort.


And a very similar looking one in bright green. Maybe female and male of the same species?


And the latest in our unending search for jumping spiders. This little guy has a meal in his mouth.


The natural beauty of Macedonia!

The Trails of Stolby


The camp inside the park is super close to the central stairs – great for us! On the days it wasn’t pouring, we made our way up and out into the main bouldering/hiking section. Many day visitors don’t go too far along this route, being content with reaching the picnic/play area at the top.


Past the stairs, almost immediately after, is First Pillar. It’s nice, not particularly climbable in the upward direction but fun to scramble around on. There are little training boulders scattered around, including some for kids.
The path from there splits. On the first day we visited the yellow/blue trail. The markers are a vivid stripe of blue and another of yellow on trees and rocks around the park. It’s a pretty short hike and really focuses on climbable boulders and pillars.


Some of the rocks have names, some of them don’t. We found a fun one to climb on the way to Ded (grandpa) pillar. Here we got to scramble through a little stone chimney and wander around somewhat above the treeline.


There was a nice little ascension point at the base which was a good warmup for the slightly harder second half of the climb, just out of sight of the picture.


Ded pillar is a pretty popular one. We met a few families climbing around on it. There’s a low easy section that’s a lot of fun to run around on and has some hollow sections that fill up with rain to make ponds. From here you can see over the park and into the city. There was a whole family leaning over to take a selfie with Krasnoyarsk. Ded rock also has a much, much harder second portion.


You can climb on the taller segments but the path is hard and not straightforward. We only know this because we saw an old man gripping his way around the rock. He was leathery and cut, probably climbing these rocks most days.


Around the loop we hiked, skipping Perya Rock, instead reaching in about half an hour Third Pillar (3rd rock!). Lots of good climbing on this one! The paths in this part of the forest intersect rather freely, so we had to make sure we were on our trail several times. There’s at least one path that goes from this area all the way back to town.

Right nearby is Fourth Pillar, and then the trail loops back around towards first and second pillars.


Back to camp we went, let the rains pass for a day, and headed out again. This time we went on the purple trail. This trail goes way south into the explorable region of the park, does a tight loop, and returns. It’s a lot more hike-y and way less climb-y than the other trails, though there are still some good rocks to be found. It has a lot more bog and mosquitoes, so that’s not as nice. But the wildlife is wilder – we saw a pack of wolves (wolf and german shepherd mixes mostly) running not 40 feet from us. We did not get a picture, but we also didn’t get eaten, so yay!


Along that route we saw a lot of weathered rocks – large pockmarks and crevices.


And plenty of good rocks for climbing.


Some more difficult than others.


We actually got to the end of the purple trail, dire warning sign and all! It makes sense in this park – the land here is supposed to remain free of human interaction, and the only way to guarantee that is to ban most humans from entering the true nature reserve. The chipmunks living past this line in the forest do not get fed nuts and berries from tourists.


Out near the final rock someone had set up a little picnic area, a little disused. We saw some traces of previous visitors but really, if you want to be alone in nature, this is the spot.


On our way back we had the pleasure of searching for the Cain and Abel rocks. This was a fun diversion for a while and really got the sweat flowing. The trail we came in by is at ground level, while the ‘loop’ portion of it is ten or more meters above that, so we spent a lot of time climbing straight up a very steep slope looking for the loop portion of the trail. We got lost for a while, going much further east than we intended, and had to backtrack.


Finally our legwork paid off – we found the trail and the rocks we were looking for.


The view from the top was grand. The day was clear and we could see the park stretching on and on.


There were other large rocks within out sight and we could see where parts of the forest had been burned or hit by disease. A real bird’s eye view!


The rock we were on had some climbable rocks jutting out pretty far over the cliff proper. Here Natalie climbs those rocks while I sit grumpily afraid of heights for her in the background.


The nature in the park is remarkable. Trees here grow huge from the tiniest cracks in the pillars. One day they’ll help force apart the rock and cause their eventual collapse.


Here is one such fantastic tree, its roots crawling all over the rock searching for any purchase. We were not the first people to sit in it for a picture, we definitely won’t be the last. That tree is rooted in tight.


Done with Cain and Abel, we headed home. On the last stretch back we encountered Farm Rock (ferma). We’d been seeing signs for this rock the whole time we were here, and we finally found it! It’s a good short-hop bouldering site with lots of interesting low-height routes. Why it’s called a farm, I have no idea.


We had a great time hiking and climbing in Stolby. Since we were there taking pictures, we also made this map of the paths we explored!

Summer fun at Miyajima Island


A few hours by train out from Hiroshima is the city of Miyajimaguchi, which Natalie tells me means Entrance to Miyajima. It’s mostly true. The only reason most people visit this city is to get to the nearby island of Miyajima. It’s real name is actually Itsukushima but for some reason everyone calls it Miyajima.

IMG_5601 Miyajima has five things going for it, and that’s not even counting the ferry ride. Ferry rides are awesome. IMG_5612

First and foremost, the biggest attraction on (really off) the island is the absolutely massive Torii gate literally right off the coast. It’s base is submerged in water at high tide so it looks like the date is floating on the ocean. At low tide you can flock to it, along with all the other tourists. You can get a really great shot of it from the ferry, but try to do the boat at high tide, the shot is much more impressive.


As soon as you land on the island, almost first thing outside of the boat terminal, are deer. Entirely unafraid, food seeking deer. They’re pretty cute and only a little annoying, but they will eat anything and they have no problem asking for it very directly. If you give them an inch they will try to bite a mile, so watch your fingers. Ignoring them and moving your food out of their way is the best thing to do if you don’t want your snack eaten. You can pet them, they’re pretty harmless.


After the gate and the deer comes the tchachki gauntlet. A long, covered marketplace holds shop after shop of souvenirs – delightful bells, rice paddles, chopsticks and Torii gate paraphernalia. There you will find the largest rice paddle I have ever seen.


The other biggest draw for this section is the Momiji Manju – maple leaf shaped egg dough treats with sweet filling, usually red bean, custard, or chocolate. They’re made in these fantastic machines that you can see operating all day long.


We tasted a whole bunch of them and left with the impression that the chocolate ones are usually the best. It’s entirely worth it to buy an individual one at a particular shop before going for the box. Some are sweeter, others dryer, some have more filling, others have tastier dough. There’s maybe a dozen vendors to try so leave some room for dessert.


You’ve taken a picture of/with the giant gate, fed the deer, and stuffed yourself on Momiji. Next up at Miyajima, climbing Mt. Misen! It’s the highest mountain on the island and it has a fantastic trail. The trailhead is a bit hard to find, and even with the tourist map it’s a bit of a puzzle.


Here’s a link to the starting point on the map. To one side is a temple, to the other the trail.


We wound up getting lost and finding a large shrine near the trailhead where we tried the local healing tea, enjoyed the sound of a hundred or so bell chimes, and listened to a very loud monk prayer chant.


Just below the shrine were statues of childlike monks with beanies and scarves. We found out they are taken care of by parents who have lost a child, an outlet of grief and parental affection.


To the side of the temple is the actual trail. It’s wonderfully maintained and wanders through some amazing hillside nature. It goes up and up and up, a climb of at least two hours or so.


There’s a waterfall along the way, and at the very top is an observational platform and building.


On your way up you might encounter this riff on the classic rock cairn.


The views are great and in the building is a small souvenir store supporting the maintenance of the trail where a lovely old man will give you a stamp for climbing to the top!


On the way back down you can pass by the cable car landing – the other favorite way to get to the top of the mountain and, after passing through more forest and picnic grounds, arrive back at the town market for a well deserved treat.


At this point you can enjoy the relaxing seaside and try to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Staying on the island can be a pretty expensive ordeal and the ferries do fill up during peak hours, so try to be early.


We had a great, sunny day running and hiking around the island. It was even a Sunday, right in the middle of summer, so it was as close to busy as it gets. There were plenty of people enjoying the island with us but it never felt crowded. So go, enjoy the standard island-town setting with a few unique Japanese twists, it’s well worth your time.


And let us know if you find any sandwiches!

The other Hiroshima shrine

The Torii gates of Kinkou-Inari Shrine.

Far from the Hiroshima Peace Park, on the other side of the hill from the Peace Pavilion, there sits another shrine that does not memorialize the victims of the atomic bomb but cannot escape the shadow of the war. Kinkou-Inari Shrine was built to honor Inari, god of prosperity, and the shrine sports rows of red Torii (gates) lining the path, much like in Kyoto’s famous Fushimi-Inari.

Shrines line the uphill path after Kinkou-Inari’s entrance.
A praying mantis camouflages itself on a moss-lined tree stump.

But beyond the gates, the similarity between the two shrines disappears. As you climb past the main shrine and continue up the hill, you’ll find not a well-worn path of stairs to immaculately-maintained shrines but a jumble of uneven steps, obscured in part by dirt and fallen leaves. Shrines lay beside the path in various states of upkeep; some are clearly swept and cared-for, while others are mere remnants, scattered pieces of wood with flecks of faded vermillion paint. A sign at one shrine near the hill’s top gently implores guests with “please do not cause trouble in the shrine.” Its altar is devoid of all but a single glass plate, and pieces of broken vases and ceramic plates are embedded in the dirt nearby. It seems that here the shrine to prosperity is in want for itself.

A well-maintained, small shrine beside the path.
The remnants of another shrinehouse, fallen into disrepair. Visitors have left coins and attempted to repair it with rocks.
A shrine near the hill’s top, recently vandalized. The sign to the right asks that people “please do not make trouble in the shrine.”

A plausible source of the area’s unpopularity lies at the top of the hill, where hidden between the overgrown trees and heavy leaf litter is a collection of circular structures sunken into the ground. “These are the remnants of an anti-aircraft battery from World War II” reads a nearby sign, but it looks like few souls come by to read it. The masonworks is now nothing but a remnant from when Japan had a military, a reminder that Hiroshima is part of a country that once used its military might to control much of East Asia.

The remnants of an anti-aircraft battery above Kinkou-Inari Shrine, mostly forgotten and covered in leaf litter.
A view of the forest standing within the remnants of the anti-aircraft battery. Someone might have once stashed their belongings in this hole while on shift watching for enemy aircraft flying above Hiroshima.

Maybe few come here because it doesn’t fit with Hiroshima’s narrative of being the victim of a terrible event, or maybe it’s a painful reminder to people that they lost the war. But if narrative historical accounts are to be believed, the people stationed up here on the fateful day the bomb was dropped would have seen the Enola Gay before their grisly hand was dealt. They became victims too, just like everyone else in Hiroshima, just like millions and millions of people in cities across Japan, across Asia, around the world. That’s war, isn’t it?

Alone and undisturbed, a plant grows from the masonworks in the remnants of the anti-aircraft battery.

Kyoto temples : Fushimi Inari-taisha


Fushimi Inari is probably Kyoto’s most famous temple, at least judging by the crowds on an off day and the number of pictures of the shrine’s tunnel of torii gates there are online. The major portion of the shrine, the large temples and the densest torii gate tunnels are nestled in the base of a mountain named Inari – the god of rice and business. Outside of that cluster, the shrine has over four kilometers of trails leading up into the mountains and towards hundreds of smaller shrines. It takes about two hours to walk all the way up, but there are plenty small caretaker/teashop shops which will sell you water, snacks, and religious supplies.


One of the symbols of this temple is the fox. They’re everywhere around the grounds and up into the mountain, as statues, paintings, and carvings. The shrine sells fox-luck charms, and if you want to make a wish, you get to draw one one of these :


Alongside the more traditional house-shaped board you can buy and decorate a fox head. One side gets an often funny face, and on the other side is your prayer.


This temple gets so many visitors each day, it’s hard to believe. We went specifically on an off day, kind of early. Nope. It’s popular with tourists, locals, school groups, selfie-takers, well wishers, people getting married, people praying for good luck and health, pretty much everyone makes their way here sooner or later.


If you were hoping for an easy clean picture of the gates, you have to come in maybe absurdly early? Or when there’s a sports match going on that day? I don’t know. We got our best shots farther away from central area of the temple and far, far away from the famous there-and-back loop of gates. It’s very, very crowded in there, almost to the point of not being able to move.


Once you get away from the crowds though, the park-within-the-temple is really a gorgeous place to be. There are shaded trails that run across and around the main torii-gate trail, and lots of little temple offshoots to either side. The trail within the shrine is well shaded and built to blend in with the surrounding nature very well, often we didn’t feel like we were in a maintained area at all. The temple’s trail actually connects with a larger trail, the Kyoto Isshu trail, which encircles the northern half of the city. It’s very important to pay attention to which way your trail is going, and to look for the signs to various waypoints, because in certain areas the trails criss-cross haphazardly and it’s easy to go somewhere you weren’t intending.

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Here are two examples of the small altars – the first has two fox guardians, and the second has a pile of miniature torii gates, a sign of devotion.


Generally these smaller altars are housed within little shrine subdivisions – I’m not sure if each of the several altars within a smaller shrine are devoted to a separate deity or family, or if the whole shrine is towards one cause.


Some of the larger, more ornate shrines have their own large red gate at the entrance. The larger the gate, the more devotion, and the redder, the newer. Some of the shrines are family shrines that receive a lot of attention as their family flourishes, others are still well maintained but significantly older and not as recently renewed.


If you’re wondering what it takes to build a torii gate in your name on the trail, here’s the price list. As with most things related to religion and money, this isn’t a bribe but a sign of devotion – the money goes to maintaining the temple and is considered an offering to the gods.


For those of us less fortunate or devoted, some of the shrines sell tiny torii gate charms for luck and protection.


If you climb all the way to the top you get a lovely, somewhat challenging hike, and a great view of the city down below. The torii gates are beautiful and vibrant, their long stretches forming mesmerizing tunnels of red timber, beckoning both creativity and meditation.


Hiking Merbabu, from Selo to Kenalan

The view of Mt. Merapi behind one of Mt. Merbabu’s lower “peaks”.

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.

A map of the hike from Selo, in case anyone finds it handy.

The Story:

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.

Riding in the taxi.

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.

The town of Selo, with Mt. Merapi in the background.
Walking up the steep, terribly paved roads to the Merbabu trailhead.

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”).

Spray-painted signs appear on the road, guiding us toward Merbabu.
Ridiculously steep fields cover the landscape leading up to Merbabu.

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 Merbabu trailhead.
Early afternoon sunlight on a leaf in the forest.

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.”

Dense forest alongside the trail.
The barely-legible sign for Pos Kota, pointing the way to the peak (‘puncak’ in Bahasa).
Trash at one of the campsites. You guuuuys….

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.

Stoytcho hikes up a near-vertical part of the trail.
A view from the grassy slope of Merbabu.
Pos 3 (or 4?) is on the lower left, a flat dirt patch where a lot of people stop to rest and camp.

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.

The first view of Merapi, Merbabu’s more volcanically active cousin.
Gases rise from the central vent of Merapi in this close-up shot.
A full view of the dusk clouds enveloping Merapi.

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.

The moon was also super bright, which was fun at first but then made it hard to sleep.

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.

A sign for the peak that we find by headlamp-light.
Dawn reveals a misty morning, looking back down the trail we’ve come from.

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.

People camped out on the peak.

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.

The Indonesian flag hangs next to what was formerly the sign declaring this Merbabu’s peak. The sign is now missing, and only an empty frame still stands.
Late morning dew still hangs off the grass when we wake from our nap.

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.

How bad can this descent be, right? Definitely not worse than the ascent we just faced in the dark.
Nope nope nope, it’s definitely steeper and worse. Here’s a 9 ft drop we had to navigate by sending down our packs, then climbing right along a 6-inch wide path to find a way down.
Stoytcho climbs down the trail.

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.

Erosion creates small islands of greenery and life in the mist.
A dew-jeweled spider web.
An orange fungus grows on a dead branch.
A rare break in the clouds reveals a campsite at a lower peak and the valley below.

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.

The start of the dead forest.
Black, bulbous projections from the branches in the dead forest. This is likely a fungus.
Back in the living forest, a bumblebee pollinates a flower.
A jumping spider perches on a leaf.

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.

The cemetary at the end of the trail, one of the first signs of 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.

Kenalan’s “Merbabu Pass” sign.
The lookout, where they suggest you put your camera to get both yourself and the whole “Merbabu Pass” sign into one picture. I climbed out there and verified it was stable, but would not recommend jumping up and down much.
The marks of a hoe in the carved mud walls that lead down to the village.

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.

I ask for passage back to Jogja at “Base Camp”
We play with the family kitten while transport is readied.

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.

We pose with the guy who drove us back to Jogja, whose wife so kindly gave us cookies.

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:

The Last Waterfall, and a Black Sand Beach


We headed out of the Goblin Forest and drove down the the nearby Dawson Falls. This was our last waterfall for this section of the trip. A nice up and down stair-hike leads to the falls and the pools beneath them. Notice the orange mud layer to the right of the falls? People have left tons of orange handprints around the area, and we joined in the fun.


The pools are big enough to skip stones in, coincidentally one of my favorite travel-hobbies. Finding the right stone is an art unto itself, and in this otherwise beautiful picture, there I am hunting.


The throw takes place.


We wrapped up and went on our last great drive, north and east. On the way we stopped at a seemingly regular beach.


Except that something was very strange about the sand.


Here in Mokao the sand is a wonderful coal black. I did a quick search for black sand beaches in New Zealand and this one isn’t listed. This was my first black sand beach, and I was amazed. If you’ve never seen one in person it’s the strangest thing. Alongside the color, the texture of the sand was of fine, wet silt, making it behave like very thick pudding. A strange and wonderful combination.


Great natural beauty and, unfortunately, pollution. It looks like trash from the nearby town washes down and out towards the ocean. Luckily it’s limited in its spread.


Walking away from the beach entrance leads to cliffs with small caves in them.


In a break in the cliffs is a river feeding the ocean and cutting a tar-black line in the sand.


We collected shells and continued our occasional tradition of post-beach combing art.


Next up : return to civilization.

The Goblin Forest of Taranaki


At the west end of the Forgotten World Highway is a rainforest like no other. Around the volcano of Taranaki nestles Egmont National Park, the nicknamed “Goblin Forest” famous for its waterfalls and gnarled, moss coated trees.


First, this trail, or set of trails, is fun. Just plain fun to hike up and down with plenty of variety in surface types, elevation changes, and scenery. The trail takes you from dense low forests to open rocky pools, across bridges and muddy stairs and stepping-stone paths.


The famous trees of the Goblin Forest are these thick-branched moss covered creatures which probably would look very spooky at night. During the day they’re vivid sun-dappled green, often covered in dew or rainfall.


The Kamahi tree is the dominant tree in this forest, unique in New Zealand. They sometimes start out growing on top of other trees, twisting their branches and creating the gnarled shape of the forest.


The high year-round humidity is a great environment for moss and lichen and they spread prodigiously here. Nearly every available surface is covered. In some areas the combination of twined branches and leafy outgrowths blocks a great deal of light, creating darkness in the daytime.


Along the way we saw rock-slides.


Then crossed a bridge, safe but bouncy.


To get to the Wilke pools.


There’s a tiny cove/cavern at the bottom. The water is instantly numbing. Great for a hot day or for icing a bruise. We did go “swimming” but only for a moment.


We climbed the rocks around the pools only to find more pools up higher – also extremely cold. Past this is technical rock climbing territory so we turned back.


And climbed some very muddy stairs.


To get great views of the forested mountainside.


And of the volcano itself.


Along the way we took some closeups of the flora..


The moss and ferns covering the trees, dense and superbly healthy.


And some very pretty white and pink flowers.


Capturing this was tough – the wind kept swaying the ring of flowers, but it was worth it. Natalie also took a couple of really nice insect shots, following below. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea so feel free to end the post here. For anyone who’s curious, scroll on.


A vivid orange mosquito-hawk (I think). You can see the little ball-ended stubs it uses to balance while it flies.


I don’t like flies, but this one has an amazing abdomen. That blue is unreal. It may be a bluebottle fly but I’m not sure.


The famous weta of New Zealand. We never saw one alive, nor did we see the amazingly huge ones they show in National Geographic, but it was cool to see these up close.


Natalie’s favorite creature, the jumping spider, poses for the camera. They have good enough eyesight to tell you apart from the background and often interact with the camera while you’re shooting.


This beautifully colored orbweaver is the Colaranea Viriditas.