Bromo at Sunrise

A view of volcanic peaks rising above the mist-filled Tengger Caldera.

The Bromo sunrise hike is part of a regular tour circuit and as such we’re not super enthusiastic to do it. But others have effused to us about Bromo’s beauty at sunrise, so on our last morning we wake at 3:00 am to start the hike.

A light in the dark on our road to King Kong Hill.

With the exception of a few other tourists heading toward the King Kong Hill lookout point, we are entirely alone on Cemoro Lawang’ s roads. After half an hour, we begin ascending via switchbacks up the hill. There are more people here, tourists sporting headlamps hiking up, being driven on ojeks, or riding horses. A few locals wait along the road, asking if we want a ride. Others have set up stalls selling alluring hot tea and instant noodles. With temperatures at around 40 F, it’s hard to resist these.

A long-exposure predawn shot of Cemoro Lawang.
A long-exposure, predawn shot of the smoke rising from Bromo.

The pitch black veil of the sky begins to thin at 4:30 am, before we reach the lookout point, and for a moment we’re afraid we won’t make it in time for sunrise. We stop for a few minutes to snap some photos, then scramble up the muddy, rocky path as quickly as our cold, aching legs will take us. We can hear the noise of people just above, and we find ourselves in a rest area surrounded by a low concrete railing. People chatter excitedly and gaze through camera lenses at the tangerine sky, while locals sell keychains and postcards at a table nearby.

The first streaks of dawn in the sky, with the moon still hanging above in the darkness.

The rote tourism is entirely overshadowed by the beauty of the valley below. King Kong Hill affords a sweeping view of the Tengger Caldera and Mount Semeru (Java’s highest peak and also an active volcano). Bromo exhales a continuous plume of smoke into the air, while Semeru behind releases small puffs from its own crater. The scene is cast in soft lilacs, dusky pinks, and creamy oranges as the sun approaches the horizon. Then the sun takes her first peek over the edge, spilling her warm yellow rays onto the world.

A view south-west into the Tengger Caldera. Bromo smokes on the left, while Semeru emits a single puff of smoke in the background.
Clouds rise from the Tengger Caldera and slowly fan over Cemoro Lawang (lights in center).

We watch the sunrise with a dozen strangers. When the first scene of beauty is over, they stir and stretch their cold limbs, and begin to file out, down the mountain. We look around and notice an empty path further up the mountain. Ten minutes climb later, we emerge onto a broad, paved viewpoint with dozens of giggling, chatting tourists. This is the tour group viewpoint, accessible from the road on the other side of King Kong Hill by a few minutes hike, with no journey to Cemoro Lawang necessary.

Visitors take photos of Bromo at sunrise.
Tourists capture photographs of Bromo as clouds spill over the Tengger Caldera and engulf Cemoro Lawang.
The view of Batok (lower right), Bromo (left), and Semeru (upper right) as seen from King Kong Hill’s viewpoint.

We mingle with the tourists for a bit, enjoying their excitement and watching them take selfies. Then they, too, begin to disperse back to their tour vans and jeeps just over the ridge. We follow them up, curious what this side of the mountain looks like. It’s a cacophony of noise and trapped vehicles, piles of jeeps that have parked each other in on the narrow mountain road now trying to get out with their tourists. I’m incredibly grateful we don’t have to join them.

A tourists stands on the railing with his camera in the new sun.
Tourists mill around as locals sell knitted hats, scarves, keychains, and postcards.

As we walk back down, I notice a dirt path leading into the brush.  It first seems to lead only to a rubbish pile, but then it continues up the hill. Stoytcho and I follow it as it crests the hill above the rest area to offer yet another view of Bromo in the rising sunlight. The path then descends and rises narrowly and near-vertical up the next hill. I leave Stoytcho behind to navigate this path alone, higher still, emerging on a ridge about a hundred feet above the rest area. It’s empty, save for one man with a giant camera and his local guide. This is the hidden vista, the one known mostly to the locals and rarely visited.

The sun rises behind a shrine above the King Kong Hill lookout.
The volcanoes as seen from the highest viewpoint, above King Kong Hill.
The clouds rushing over Cemoro Lawang dissipate in the warming sunlight.
A view westward, along the Tengger Caldera’s edge.

It’s past 6:00 when we start our descent from the mountain, an hour after the tourist hordes have disappeared. The going is faster downhill and the warming air is a comfort after the morning chill. Going is mostly easy. About halfway down the mountain I pause at a faint chittering noise. Glancing up, we see a troupe of monkeys gliding through the trees above us, leaping on bending branches and scrambling along the slender tree trunks. In seconds they are there and gone, off to their daily business now that this mountain home is theirs again.

Locals pack up their wares after everyone has left King Kong Hill.
Offerings of flowers and tea left by locals for the mountain gods.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of our hike from Cemoro Lawang up to King Kong Hill lookout point.

Summiting Mount Bromo

People appear as black dots against white smoke at the edge of Bromo’s crater.

After a night’s rest, it’s back on our feet to climb Bromo. We descend back into the sandsea, this time wearing masks to minimize the amount of dust we inhale. Skirting the edge of a massive dust devil forming on the valley floor, we find the line of concrete posts heading out toward the volcano.

Hiking across the sandsea to Bromo.
A group of dirtbike riders pauses to watch as dust devil form on the sandsea.

The sandsea floor is crisscrossed with vehicle and foot tracks in all directions, punctuated by the occasional tuft of grass or thread of a dry riverbed. Volcanic rocks ranging in size from baseballs to truck wheels also dot the landscape. These are volcanic projectiles, part of the tephra (“volcanic stuff”) hurled from the volcano during an eruption. Projectiles like these were responsible for two deaths when Bromo erupted suddenly back in 2004 and are an uneasy reminder that the volcano could erupt again at any time. But for now, Bromo seems content to simply issue forth a peaceful stream of smoke.

A tuft of grass grows in the sandsea.
Stoytcho poses next to a volcanic bomb in the shadow of Bromo. The face masks reduce the amount of dust and sand we inhale on the hike.

Beside Bromo sits Mt. Batok, a sharp contrast to the volcanic caldera and surrounding plain with its verdant, vegetation-covered east sides. Though Batok is the Tengger caldera’s youngest volcanic cone, it is currently inactive. Life now flourishes on the side shielded from Bromo’s volcanic fury.

Shielded from Bromo, the eastern side of Batok (right) is verdant and shows reduced erosion compared to the west side.

After an hour of hiking across the sandsea, we’re at the base of Bromo and the trail begins its ascent. Without any vegetative cover to hold sand and dirt, erosion here is extreme. The shallow streambeds that thread through the sandsea floor become ravines and canyons on Bromo’s sides that are six, ten, or twenty feet deep. They fan out on every side of Bromo, a vein-like network of valleys carrying water from the volcano’s surface during rain.

Stoytcho picks his way through hills and valleys of erosion near Bromo’s base. We’re wearing jackets because we ran out of sunblock.
Erosion on the slopes of Bromo.

Our hike up culminates in a final flight of stairs to the edge of Bromo’s crater. It’s a surprisingly mundane walk, punctuated only by our curiosity of why a smooth incline bifurcates the staircase all the way up. Maybe people drive their ojeks up here? Maybe they bring things up to the volcano on handcarts? Who knows?

The final climb to Bromo’s crater.
People climb the final stairwell to the edge of Bromo’s crater.

Then we’re at Bromo’s summit, staring into the smouldering heart of the beast we spend our whole lives walking around on with nary a thought to what goes on below. While it’s visually impressive, it’s the sound that gets us first: the hiss of the volcano’s offgassing is like the sound of a high-energy jet engine. The audiosonic spectacle is a manifestation of the power below Earth’s crust, the power that builds islands, makes mountains, and moves continents.

As we stare down into the crater, we can’t help but notice all of the items scattered along its sloping sides. At first it appears to be entirely trash, but when we squint we can make out bunches of flowers, herbs, woven charms, and food. These are offerings to the volcano god, the human attempt at appeasing this force of nature. While we’re staring down at them, a guy nearby takes notice. “They have a festival here,” he tells us in English, “where they throw things into the volcano, like food and chickens.” I nod and reply, “Looks like it.” The guy continues, “Men go down into the volcano, to there,” he points down the slope, at about the halfway point to the gaping hole in the Earth, “and people throw things and they catch. Sometimes they fall.” He gestures to the hole. I turn and stare at the guy, trying to ascertain whether he’s joking around with us. He’s not*.

The view down into Bromo’s crater, with offerings in the foreground.
An altar at the crater’s edge.

The barrier between us and Bromo’s crater is only two feet high, more a warning sign that the other side is dangerous rather than an actual barrier. Rising four feet over this barrier, Stoytcho is decidedly nervous walking beside it, but he bravely accompanies me from one end to another. Further along the crater’s rim, far beyond the barrier, I can make out a hiking couple. Maybe we’ll do that one day. But not today.

People standing next to the concrete barrier illustrate how short it really is.
And in some places, the barrier has collapsed entirely.
Two people walk on the far side of Bromo’s crater.

We climb back down the stairs and start the hike back when *ahem* nature calls. I scramble down into one of the eroded ravines for privacy, and when I’m done I realize I can’t climb back out. I’m stuck navigating in the crevice for several meters, following it until there’s a twenty-foot drop, then doubling back and finding a slope gentle enough to clamber back up.

Inside one of the ravines below Bromo’s crater.
A twenty-foot drop in the ravine, probably a spectacular waterfall when it rains.
Indifferent kind: plants grow above a twenty-foot drop in a ravine at Bromo’s base.

We rejoin the stream of tourists heading back to their tour jeeps and hotels, having climbed Bromo as it simmered uneasily beneath us. Hopefully it does the same tomorrow.

A visitor shuffles his feet in the dust.
Stoytcho crosses a dry streambed in the sandsea on our way back to Cemoro Lawang.

*Sort of. The only mention I can find of this is on the Wikipedia page of Mount Bromo under the culture section, which states that locals often climb down to retrieve objects. It may have evolved since then into a game where locals try to catch things when they’re thrown into the volcano, or it might have been a miscommunication.

The Tengger Massif

The southern valley of the Tengger Massif, with volcanic cones rising on the left. The massif is the remnant of an ancient volcanic caldera more than three miles across.

The Tengger Massif is endlessly photographable, one of those surreal experiences that you’d more ascribe to a high-budget movie or video game than a real place. It’s a massive crater more than three miles across, the remnants of a volcanic explosion millions of years ago. The west side of the crater is a vast, living prairie: grasses ripple in the gentle wind under drifting sea of clouds. To the north lies the volcano Bromo, carrying the torch of Tengger’s volcanic legacy with a low, continuous roar as it sends thick billows of noxious gas skyward. And to the east lies the sandsea, a desert devoid of life except for a few patches of grass eking out an existence on a barren landscape of sand and dust.

Prairie grasses sway in the wind on the caldera floor, while new volcanic cones rise behind.


Wildflowers bloom in the prairie of the caldera floor.


A foot and vehicle track winding along the caldera floor, between newer volcanic cones (right) and the steep caldera wall (left)


Young lovers.


A shrine to the volcano gods on the caldera floor.


Offerings of food and flowers on a shrine to the volcano gods.


The near-vertical wall of the caldera crater.


A woman harvests grasses along the road, near the edge of the sandsea.


This shrine marks the end of the prairie and the beginning of the Bromo sandsea.


Stoytcho stands in the Bromo sandsea. Mist and fog often limit visibility in this part of the caldera.


An ojek (motorbike) approaches us in the distance.


Locals passing in opposite directions stop for a chat.


An instant noodles cup abandoned in the sandsea, with volcanoes Bromo and Batok in the background.


The guideposts to Cemoro Lawang, at the eastern edge of the Bromo sandsea.


Mount Bromo (left) pictured beside Mount Batok (right). Mount Batok is the only volcano in the park that is not currently active, and greenery has taken root on its sides.


A dust devil forms on the Bromo sandsea between Bromo and Batok, in front of the Pura Luhur Poten Temple.


A view of the sandsea and Pura Luhur Poten Temple as seen from Bromo.

Hiking Tumpang to Bromo: Day 2

Epiphytes hang from a tree along the road to Bromo.

This is day 2 of our hike from Tumpang to Bromo, an ambitious (and overly optimistic) expedition that’s wilted in the relentless tropical heat under the weight 50 kg of gear. Our path is here:

While this hike is do-able, it’s way harder than Google lets on, especially given the near-continuous uphill ascent, the tropical heat, and heavy packs with all of our stuff. Here’s the short summary of the hike verdict:

We sleep through sunrise and wake up around 9 to the sound of people walking around our tent. Then we see a hand slip underneath the rainfly and try to lift it and Stoytcho shouts “HEY!” The hand retreats. We dress for the hot day ahead and emerge from the tent to find a group of guys hanging around our tent, waiting for a ride out to the fields to start work. They’re curious, and stare at us with sheepish smiles on their faces. Our tent, with its slick orange-and-grey rain cover hiding everything, is a UFO – unidentified field object – for them.

The poor guys hang around after we decamp, waiting for their ride to the fields.

We decamp and continue our hike in the increasing thickness of the day’s heat. Though we’re now continuously climbing in elevation, it’s not fast enough to shake the drag of tropical weather that wearies us at every step. When we stop for a break to check our progress and refill our water, we’ve only covered 2 km in an hour. We’re not going to make it today at this rate, so it’s time to change tactics.

The morning moon and bird hanging over a tree along our hike.

Back on the main road, we stick out our thumbs in hopes of catching a ride. It fails spectacularly. At first it’s because the trucks are full of farmers catching rides to their fields, so there’s no room for us. Then comes a string of ojeks, some of which are so low-powered that they already have a former passenger running up a steep hill behind them, only to get back on at the top. But empty trucks also bafflingly pass us, sometimes honking with driver grinning. Are they making fun of us? Finally, a passing ojek driver honks and with a laugh, throws us a thumbs up. Holy crap, they don’t know we’re looking for a ride—they just think we’re giving them a universal sign for “good job”!

Two cheerful guys along our hike, who return our thumbs up and we’re like WAIT WHAT no one knows we’re hitchhiking.

When the next empty truck approaches, we change tack and wave our hands frantically. The driver stops and looks out the window, and we point toward the truck and ask “Bromo?” He nods, and we ask “Harganya berapa?” (how much does it cost?) With a shake of his head, the driver motions for us to get into the truck bed. We scramble up and drop into a pile of wood planks and cardboard boxes as the truck lurches forward. In minutes, we we’re flying up hills that would have taken us hours to walk, gazing down sheer cliff drops alongside the narrow road over the two-foot walls of the truck bed.

The view from our new ride.

The truck drops us at the entrance to the national park, where we get a nasty surprise: entrance to the park for foreigners costs 220,000 IDR ($16 USD) per person, which is most of the money we’re carrying. We try to explain that we haven’t got much and it has to take us all the way to Cemoro Lawang, but the park guard isn’t interested. He isn’t paid enough to care. We dig around and find enough to pay the fee for admission to an apologetic girl at the admission booth. She speaks enough English to kind of understand the situation, but can’t do anything beyond offer us our admission tickets and a “sorry.”

The ticket booth at the Tengger Park entrance.

We continue the ascent up the hill by foot, trying to flag down another ride for free since we now only have only 200,000 IDR to take us through Cemoro Lawang and down to Surabaya. Most of the trucks that pass us are tour jeeps, so they’re either full of tourists already or they’re not going to be giving out any free rides. We finally flag down a huge construction vehicle the size of a semi, but there’s nowhere for them to pull off to let us on so we’re forced to jump on while it moves slowly beside us. We find ourselves in a mess of bent rebar and cement buckets beside construction workers—these guys are going up to Bromo to build something. They take us a few minutes to a turnoff, then the drivers tops and scrambles up to tell us it’ll be 100,000 rupiah for a ride. We tell him we haven’t got any money and get off. It looks like we’ll be hiking the rest of the way when another black pickup pulls over at our shouting and waving and motion for us to get into the back.

The view from our first truck looking up at the sky, under a pile of rebar (and my pack).
Two guys stare at us as we sit in the back of a pickup truck, headed up to Bromo.

It couldn’t get any luckier. These guys drop us off in Jemplang, the highest point in our hike, and point us in the direction of Bromo in the wide valley below. They’ve been so kind to us that we ask “Harganya berapa?” but the guys in the truck smile and shake their heads. “Terimah Kasi” is all we can offer them.

Staring down into the Tengger crater.

The Tengger Caldera:

We make our way downhill for the first time in hours, descending to the floor of a miles-wide valley. Steep hills flank us one side, erosion lines snaking down their sides. A towering cliffedge rises to our other side, a near-vertical wall that seems too perfect for mountain erosion. And it’s not. This sheer cliff beside us is the rim of the ancient Tengger caldera, the wall of a hollow more than three miles across made by an explosive volcanic event millions of years ago. We’re merely ants, crawling on its surface.

The road through Tengger caldera’s prairie, with hills on the left and the steep rim of the caldera on the right.
Wildflowers in the Tennger caldera prairie.

The west side of the crater is lush green prairie, cut only by the dirt tracks used by humans for travel. It’s beautiful and isolated, silent except for the cooling wind coming off the surrounding mountains and an occasional vehicle engine. Clouds drift over us so slowly, we can see and feel the shift between sunlight and cloud shadow. We hike by families picnicking, couples resting by bikes, and newlyweds doing photoshoots, all lost in an endless sea of waving grass.

Young lovers.

We proceed eastward as the sun dips in the sky, signaling the disappearing daylight hours in the moments we can see it. The clouds have become thicker, forming a wall before us. The landscape is also changing: the endless prairie has faded to a few sparse patches of grass huddling together on an increasingly barren landscape. This is the start of the sandsea, the barren desert of brown-black dust and sand between the prairie and Cemoro Lawang.  We hike on, breathing in the chilling air, using the wheel tracks of ojeks and trucks to guide us in an otherwise featureless landscape. Occasionally a vehicle materializes from the mist wall before us and passes by, dissolving back into the mist from whence it came.

An altar at the edge of the sandsea.
An ojek (white dot to the left) approaches us in the distance in the sandsea.

But the sandsea is not silent. There’s this dull rumble at all times, like a simmering of malcontent just beyond the wall of mist. Finally, there’s a break in the mist wall that reveals the source of both sound and overcast sky: the volcano Bromo, exhaling a continuous miasma into the sky above us.

Our first view of Bromo, spewing gas into the atmosphere.

The last few kilometers of the hike are messy, as the poor visibility ahead and crisscross of tracks left by tourist vehicles and dirtbikes make it hard to find the trail to Cemoro Lawang. We finally find a row of concrete posts leading in the town’s direction and follow it. Though there’s no change in the landscape, each step draws us closer to the town, to putting down our packs, to a room with a bed in a place that hopefully takes credit cards.

Nearly there: the concrete posts that lead out of the sandsea to Cemoro Lawang.

Suddenly a form materializes from the mist before us, an oasis of a lone tree surrounded by a wall. Scattered remains of flower and food offerings lay on the altar before it, and we stop for a few minutes to rest. The temperature continues to drop and we can feel the cold through our jackets. A few meters on, we find the east lip of the crater, a steep road zig-zagging up to Cemoro Lawang. It’s our final ascent in the creeping dusk; it can’t have taken more than half an hour, but it feels like an eternity.

The sacred tree at the base of Cemoro Lawang.

Cemoro Lawang, perched on the crater’s edge, is utterly silent. By some miracle we have phone reception (many thanks, T-Mobile) and manage to find a hotel on that we can pay via credit card. After checking in, we walk the streets looking for an ATM, and our fears are confirmed: there are no ATMs in Cemoro Lawang (as of April 2017). Luckily, the hotel restaurant and a handful of others take credit cards. Freed from our packs, we sit down to a hot meal of stir-fried vegetables, rice, soup, and tea.

Cemoro Lawang is in a cloud today and the streets are devoid of people. Still, buildings mean beds and warmth and food.

In the end, I can’t say that hiking from Tumpang to Cemoro Lawang is something I’d recommend to everyone. But given the chance, I’d do it again. We saw parts of Indonesian life that are otherwise unseen, the streets of villages and families living beyond the bustling cities that make up Java’s economic heart. We were the recipients of endless kindness and curiosity and warmth. And we like to think we gave the folks at Google some good corrective data about their walking estimates—the elevation feature that’s now standard in walking routes was added shortly after.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of our hike from Tumpang to Bromo.

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: