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.

Merapi Dawn.

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.

Street Market, Yogyakarta.

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…


We rose at 4:30 am and went down to the Asiatic Hotel at the end of the gang (street) where our pick-up for Borobadur was scheduled for 5 am. The sunrise promised to be washed out by the thick clouds wreathing the hills, but the prospect of getting to Borobudur before the hordes of package tourists was worth paying for. 

The Borobudur temple complex was built between 750 and 850 AD and is one of the greatest Buddhist relics of Southeast Asia, along with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Burma’s Pagan. The monument takes the form of a massive stupa and is wrapped around the top of a small hill. The base is 200 m² and above this, six square terraces and three circular terraces rise in descending order of size. The monument was conceived as a vision of the cosmos in stone, spiralling up to Nirvana. Over 400 serene-faced Buddhas stare out from open chambers while 72 more sit inside latticed stupas on the top three terraces.

We both reached through the lattice of a stupa and touched the face of a Buddha which is supposed to bring good luck. The monument, empty of humans and surrounded by glowering and mysterious volcanoes, was an ethereal place indeed.

On the way back to Yogyakarta, we visited two lesser-known but still very important temple sites: the temple of Candi Pawan (which houses the dust of a cremated king), and the temple of Mendut, which houses a magnificent three-meter high Buddha sitting, western style, with both feet flat on the ground and flanked by the bodhisattvas (priestly attendants) Avalokitesvara on the right and Vajrapani on the left.

Back in Yogyakarta, we packed up our gear and walked for half an hour down Jalan Malabo to try to find the Bimo station for Kariulang but we ended up being shown to another place by a local and after a 10-minute ride on a city bus, we found the right spot and caught a van up into the mountains.

At Kariulang (900 m) we moved into the fabled Vogel Homestay and settled in. After a drink, we walked up to a swimming pool at the foot of the hill and swam there in the cold, clear water. As usual, it rained heavily in the late afternoon but sitting in the restaurant at Vogels, with the windows open and Nat King Cole playing on the stereo, was a very pleasant way to pass a wet evening.

The Lonely Planet guide had described Vogels Homestead as a magical place and the writer who compiled the guide had written that: “when the Nat King Cole song Mona Lisa came on to the stereo, with the windows open and the rain tapping on the foliage of the forest outside, we briefly ascended into heaven.”

At about 7:30, Christian Awuy, the hostel’s owner, came and said “anyone want to go and see the lava?” The six backpackers present lept up as one and Christian led us down to a field on the edge of the village where the shadowy bulk of Mount Merapi¹ could be seen against the black drape of the stars. On the western flank of the mountain, the incandescent glow with the lava shone out against the darkness and every two minutes or so the awesome spectacle of the molten rock rushing down the mountainside could be seen, as magma erupted from the summit came crashing down, sending showers of glowing rock into the year. 

The mountain was only 7 km from where we stood and the lava was, according to Christian, moving at 100 km/h so it could overwhelm Kariulang Village very quickly if it came that way. As we watched, a huge spurt of glowing magma spilled over the southeast rim of the crater and flowed down the slope, clearly visible against the black bulk of the mountain.

¹Gunung Merapi is a violently active stratovolcano. Read more about it in this Wikipedia entry.
Footnote: Vogel’s Hostel is still there in Kariulang and is still owned by Christian. A review on noted that: The host is offering tours to Merapi since over 35 years. and still is highly motivated. He deeply cares about nature and has done a lot to make eco tourism more well known in Indonesia. He and his team know so much about the volcano and its legends. I can highly recommend to book a tour with them! It was raining when I arrived, but had a beautiful sunrise next day. The place is super clean, basic but all you need. Food is superb!

30 April

The Eastern sky was becoming orange1 when we arrived in Yogyakarta at 4:30 a.m. and walked from the station down to Gang 1 (in Indonesian cities, alleyways are called “gangs” from the nautical word gangway) where we found a cheap and quiet place to stay. After a mandi [an Indonesian bath/shower where you scoop water from a tank and pour it over yourself] we slept for a few hours, then spent the day quietly hanging out in the immediate area.

We booked onward bus tickets to Bali (R25,000 each) for Monday and also a sunrise trip to the Buddhist site of Borobudur2 for tomorrow.

1 An abiding memory of ours from that morning on the Senja Utama is that of the water-sellers moving through the carriages intoning the Indonesian word for water – “agua” – in low monotones like a collection of frogs: “agua-agua-agua-agua.”

2 Borobudur is one of the wonders of the world. Read an in-depth description about it on this Wikipedia entry.

Yogyakarta (Photo supplied.)

29 April

We spent all day hanging out in cafes while we waited for the evening Senja Utama Express to Yogyakarta [pronounced “jog-yia-karta”]. Most of the time we spent in a cafe showing Western TV programs. We watched Moonlighting, Sesame Street, Robin of Sherwood, and a hilarious episode of The Simpsons.

At 6pm we went down to the Station Gambier and boarded our train. Second Class was not very crowded and we managed to get two seats each. I slept on the floor for most of the trip.

The Senja Utama train, Java. (Photo supplied.)

28 April

The crossing from Sumatra to Java took 2 1/2 hours and we spent most of that time dozing in the air-conditioned second class lounge as the boat made its way across the mirror-calm water between the two giant islands. The coloured forms of thunder clouds over Java’s brooding, dark volcanoes made an impressive sight.

Between Sumatra and Java (Photo supplied)

We arrived in Jakarta at 8:30 p.m. after 36½  hours on the bus and, along with an English bloke that we have gotten to know on the boat, we took a tuk-tuk in to Jalan Jaksa, Jakarta’s version of Khao San Road and found a reasonably nice place to stay. 

Footnote: Jalan Jaksa, formerly one of the iconic backpacker haunts along the so-called “Banana Pancake Trail” through Southeast Asia, is no more. The scruffy backpackers have moved upmarket and the noodle joints and second-hand bookshops of Jalan Jaksa have been superseded by the internet and Snapchat stories. Check out this blog post by travel journalist James Clarke about the demise of Jalan Jaksa.

27 April

At 10 a.m. we boarded our super-duper-luxury-bus bound for Jakarta. The trip, although reasonably comfortable, was thoroughly unpleasant as the bus was crowded with chainsmoking Indonesians and contained an as yet an imagined horror of Asian travel: the non-stop karaoke video.¹

Sumatran Bus Station.

I passed most of the journey plugged into my Walkman and imagined what lay in the impenetrable blackness of the jungle.

¹Imagine this. It is night. You have just re-boarded the bus after a late dinner at some wayside joint in a jungle clearing. Every passenger, except you and your hapless companion, lights up a cigarette the moment they are seated…no notion of smoking outside while the bus was stationary. Now begins several hours of little Indonesian men screeching along to karaoke songs with the treble turned up to full. Your favourite horror is Winds of Change by the Scorpions, re-recorded by some local pop star who sings “winna-chain” instead of “winds of change.” 

But now the karaoke is replaced by some garish kung fu movie, with the colours all askew and the volume (and treble) up at full. Eventually, the movie ends. But the driver, more asleep than awake, leaves the video player running. The speakers emit a steady screech of static and white noise. No one else notices…they all fell asleep halfway through the movie.

You sit there, lost in a dark world of rage and hatred. Your girlfriend is asleep as well. Is this one of the circles of Hell? You rise, walk down the length of the bus and say to the driver, as politely as you can: TURN THAT FUCKING THING OFF!!

26 April

We got up early and set off to avoid the heat of the day. We had some breakfast at the Canyon Coffee Shop then walked over to the hill and down the steep road leading into Sianok Canyon. The canopy of trees overgrew the road and it was cool in the shade. Halfway down the road passed the lower entrances of some caves where Indonesian prisoners were held by the Japanese during World War 2. There was a brass sculpture affixed to the cliff face depicting the horrific treatment that was metered out by the Japanese to their prisoners.

Sianok Canyon.

At the bottom of the canyon, we began following the river upstream along a rough road cut along the foot of the cliffs and above the river. Patches of jungle alternated with rice paddies and clusters of houses. People were busy in the fields harvesting and threshing the ripened rice crops.

We stopped after about an hour or so and watched teams of local men and their dogs heading off for a day’s pig hunting in the jungle. On the way back down the canyon, we followed the river itself, wading along through the water past lazy, cud-chewing buffalos and small huts and farms.

Sianok Canyon.

In the afternoon we spent an hour exploring the labyrinth of caves beneath Panorama Peak but being Sunday, the place was crowded with masses of noisy locals.

Bukkitinggi Market.

Saturday, 25th April

We managed to sleep in until 9:30 a.m. as the night was cool and we weren’t awakened by heat at first light.

Saturday is market day in Bukkitinggi and the town was busy. Our first job was to arrange tickets on the “aircon toilet bus” to Jakarta for Monday: a 30-hour trip costing 51,000 Rupiah each. We then spent an hour or so in the colourful market where chillies, coconuts and fruits, were arranged row after row along with meat, fish and household goods. After that, we spent most of the day just hanging out.


We caught the “7:30” bus bound for Bukittinggi, 160km away in the Southern Hemisphere. The road passed through the jungle on the flats around Pekanbaru and then, after crossing several swift brown rivers, climbed over ranges of steep, densely-forested hills.

We stopped for a lunch break about 75 km from Bukittinggi then, at 1:05PM, we crossed the equator for the last time and we were once again and our home hemisphere, albeit a long way from home yet. The equator was marked by a peeling, white-painted stone globe amid the jungle.

Bukittinggi’s climate was immediately more pleasant than that of Pekanbaru’s. Built around and over a 900 m high hill (Bukit = mound; Tinggi = high) cloven by a deep gorge, and flanked on three sides by brooding volcanoes, the town was quiet and laid-back; its many winding streets linked by steep stairways.

We took a 5,000 Rupiah room in the hotel Tiga Balai on Jalan Ahmad Yani, and spent what remained of the day wandering around trying to keep out of the way of trekking guides!¹

¹Bikittinggi is the starting point for multi-day treks into the Sumatran Highlands.

Above and below: The Hotel Tigo Balai as it appears today. (Photo: Google StreetView)


We left the Why Not crashpad at 7:30 a.m. and walked down to Finger Pier. Barry stayed behind at the crash pad as he was planning to head up North for a few days. At Finger Pier, we bought speedboat tickets to Batam Island where we cleared Singapore customs. The trip to Batam, which is in Indonesia (see map) took about 40 minutes and we were aboard a brand new, high-speed ferry complete with aircraft type seats and videos, so we passed the time watching Beverly Hills Cop 2.

At the port on Batam, we passed through Indonesian customs without a question and then changed our remaining Singapore dollars into Indonesian Rupiah¹. Outside the terminal, we shrugged off the taxi drivers offering to take us into Nagoya (the island’s main town) for 10 Singapore dollars and walked down a road a bit until a taxi stopped and offered to take us for 1000 Rupiah each: local price. 

Nagoya was a half-built, dismal place and we stopped there only long after changing money and negotiating a local price fare in a taxi over to Kabil on the southern coast of the Island.

In Kabil, we bought tickets for Bintam Island on a local boat. Speedboats ferry wealthy Chinese businessmen and their harlots across in 10 minutes for 10,000 Rupiah each, but the slow boat was almost as fast and would take us there for R3,000. We threw our gear onto a ramshackle canoe which ferried us out to the old wooden boat, then we sat on the bow deck as we crossed the straight to Bintam. The sun was brilliant upon the turquoise water and stacks of pure white thunderclouds towered in the sky. The port on Bintam consisted of a wooden jetty jutting out from a row of pole houses built above the water’s edge and, behind the houses, the bus station was simply a large tree.

We bought tickets for Tanjung Pinang and waited for half an hour for the bus to lurch out of town and into the jungle. It poured with rain during the 2-hour trip but was fine again by the time we reached Tanjung Pinang. We walked down to Bong’s Homestay which had been recommended to us.

We found a money changer and changed our last remaining Sterling cash (£40.00) and a £100.00 traveller’s cheque which gave us the large sum of 410,000 Rupiah. At the boat dock, we were told that the next ferry over to Pekanbaru in Sumatra wouldn’t leave for 3 days so we elected to fly with Merpati Airlines. The man in the office said they were closed so I would have to wait until 8 a.m. the next morning to get our tickets. That evening we dined alfresco at the local night market.

¹The Indonesian currency is called the Rupiah (pronounced ‘roo-pia”) from a Sanskrit word meaning “silver.”