Sun, 23 Jan 2000

Taking in the stunning panorama of Mount Merapi

By Ahmad Solikan

BOYOLALI, Central Java (JP): Thin layers of fog carried on the wind penetrated the darkness slowly enveloping the villages clinging to the slopes of Mount Merapi in Central Java. In the yard of an old house built in the traditional Javanese style with plaited bamboo walls, a number of foreign tourists stepped off a white minibus and were warmly welcomed by four guides who had been on standby since the afternoon.

The guests were served hot coffee and boiled cassava, and led into a room to rest on a bamboo plaited sofa covered with a pandanus mat. The room was illuminated by a petromax (kerosene pressure lantern) and was only equipped with wooden chairs and a sofa. But the tourists paid little heed, their loud laughs breaking the silence of the night.

Supomo, 29, one of the guides, looked at this watch. It was 11:30 p.m. He told the tourists to prepare their equipment for their trek to the top of Mount Merapi. He told them to wear their jackets and shoes, to take snacks and a bit of alcohol to cope with the cold air. He also told them to bring flashlights.

The group of eight tourists from the United States, Switzerland, France and Australia, plus the guides, left the house exactly at midnight. Two guides led them along the eight- kilometer footpath to the top of the mountain. The higher they climbed the thicker the fog and the further the temperature fell, settling at a bone-chilling zero degrees centigrade.

It took the group four and a half hours to get to the top of Mount Merapi, which is covered in fine sand containing sulfur. The magma in the Merapi crater smoldered and exuded a thick white smoke. Meanwhile, the first rays of sunlight began to hit the eastern side of the mountain, enhancing the perfection of nature's beauty in the eyes of everyone on the mountain.

But the fiercely blowing wind, stirring up the fine sand, caused the group to retreat from the top of the mountain and begin their descent. Blossoming accasia trees grew amid nature's beauty and gray-coated monkeys, a pest to local farmers, were seen hanging from the trees being serenaded by a chorus of birds.

At the foot of the mountain herders were taking their cows out to graze. Farmers were occupied harvesting carrots, potatoes, celery, mustard greens and cabbage. On the way down the mountain, many farmers were carrying their vegetables to the nearest market. The trekkers returned to the house at about 9 a.m., where they were greeted with a breakfast of sugared tea, fried rice and fruit.

The kind and impressive reception extended by the guides and their hosts will not easily be forgotten by the tourists.

Michael Freeland, 24, an American, said he was satisfied with his visit to Mount Merapi and the beautiful surrounding nature. The residents were friendly, ready to smile, matching the warm reception of the guides. But he was disappointed by the sight of garbage strewn about the forest. Nobody seemed to care enough to pick up the garbage, and plastic waste materials can destroy the fertility of soil and turn the area into barren land.

Michael obtained information on the Mount Merapi tour from a travel agency in the Sosrowijayan area of Yogyakarta. The cost of the tour was Rp 50,000 for accommodations and guide. He said this kind of tour was very cheap, but was aware there was no insurance against accidents.

"I have not had enough of the beautiful sunrise on Mount Merapi. I may return another time," he said.

Pasri alias Bugel, 29, one of the guides, earns Rp 300,000 a month. In the holiday season from July to September his income increases to Rp 600,000 a month. This father of one started guiding tourists up Mount Merapi nine years ago. While not serving as a guide, he is a vegetables farmer. "I get Rp 5,000 from each tourist in the tour," said Bugel, a high school graduate.

A veteran guide, Parto Dinemo, 66, said he discovered the footpath to the top of the mountain around 1955 when he was looking for firewood. Ten years later foreign tourists started arriving to the area, but their numbers were limited. Those who trek to the top of Mount Merapi are generally nature lovers, although on the eve of Indonesia's Aug. 17 Independence Day a different sort of group is attracted to the mountain. This group treks to the top of the mountain, where they hold a ceremony and raise the Indonesian flag.

Foreign tourists became aware of tours to the top of Mount Merapi in the 1970s, but the number of people coming to the area remained small and infrequent. Only in the early 1980s did the number of trekkers increase. As Dinemo found he was no longer able to cope with the increasing number of tourists, he invited locals to join him in guiding these visitors to the top of the mountain.

After taking a crash course in English, these guides were able to lead foreign tourists independently. Dinemo now coordinates 22 guides, who can work up to twice a week. The guides pay a compulsory contribution of Rp 500 into a fund as protection against sickness and accidents. "I am aware they do not have life insurance," Dinemo said.

Dinemo cooperates with a number of hotels and travel agencies in Yogyakarta to inform tourists about the Mount Merapi tour. Tourists resting in Dinemo's house are charged Rp 5,000 for food and drinks. An average of 150 tourists hike to the top of Mount Merapi each month. During the peak period between July and September this number doubles. "I can gross about Rp 650,000 a month," Dinemo said.

Mount Merapi is an active volcano and often creates somewhat of a controversy among volcanologists. The explosion of lava from the Mount Merapi is hard to detect and the frequency cannot be predicted. Nearly every month Mount Merapi demands attention and often claims victims among the villages huddled at its foot.

However, if Mount Merapi is not active a climbing tour from Selo hill, Boyolali, to enjoy the beautiful panorama of nature is an exceedingly enjoyable pastime. It is not too taxing to cover eight kilometers in four and a half hours to see the hot lava in Merapi's crater. The slopes on the east side of Mount Merapi are less steep than those on the Kaliurang side. The vertical slopes of the mountain on this side make hiking an exhausting exercise.

Coordinating the tours to the top of Mount Merapi demand as much special attention as all forms of nature tourism. There is a need for coordination among hotels, travel agencies, guides, nature lovers and the local government. All related parties must also work together to maintain the environment so discarded plastic and cans can be cleaned up and the destruction of rare flora and fauna can be prevented. All this must be done for the preservation of the environment.