Linda and I got up at 3:30 am and along with two girls from Holland, we set off in the darkness to climb up to the observatory overlooking Mount Merapi. When we got to the park at the top of the road we spent a few confused minutes scrambling around in the darkness trying to find the right path in the pitch blackness, but eventually, we found it by the light of our three torches and begin the steep climb up through the forest.
It was quite humid and we were all sweating heavily as we toiled upwards, but as climbs go it wasn’t very hard and we were atop the small forest-clad hill by 5:15 am, just as the first colours of dawn began creeping into the sky to the east of the black cone of Merapi.
Our first glimpses of the volcano were incredible! The summit was wreathed in a cloud of fumes venting from the fumaroles below the summit and the glow of the lava could clearly be seen reflecting off the roiling clouds of smoke and gas released from its passage down the mountain. As the sky lightened, the huge lumps of semi-cooled lava could be seen on the slope and everywhere on the summit of the cone a maelstrom of rising smoke and twisting clouds of gas swirled around.
The sunrise was only mediocre: but with an erupting volcano, the solid green mass of the jungle, and the orange disc of the sun muted by hazy cloud, the whole picture was primaeval and eerie. We spent an hour on the hilltop until the sun was fully into the sky and the view of the mountain was becoming hazy. Descending the hill, we paused for a rest about halfway down and as we stood amongst the trees, a massive rumble came from the mountain as a stream of molten rock and semisolid lava crashed down the southwest face, raising a cloud of smoke and continuing down almost to the tree line on the far side of the valley from where we stood.
We followed a fork leading off the main trail round to the right which took us through a series of steep, densely-forested gullies to a group of caves. We explored several of the caves, one of which contained some clusters of small bats, squeaking eerily in the darkness and flapping out of the cave entrance in fright as our torchlight disturbed them.
The caves were all approximately the same dimensions, and the two at the far end of the track, which petered out in amongst a tangle of streams and vegetation, were sealed with locked doors. That evening Christian told us that those caves were evacuated by the Japanese in 1944 and had been used for ammunition storage. These days, the same caves that the Japanese had kept their ammunition in, now house seismic equipment for monitoring the rumblings of Merapi.
We left the volcano to its machinations and headed east again, first to Jogjakarta then overnight to the green tourist island of Bali. We lingered not in the tourist hell-hole of Denpasar and chartered a Bimo to take us up to the mountain town of Ubud.
Far from being a quiet haven from the tourist rabble of Kuta, Ubud was a boomtown of hotels and restaurants, souvenirs and touts. We fled into the hills…