Top of Java

A few days back, Facebook reminded me of one of the most rewarding trips I have ever taken. It’s been two years since I and my two good friends climbed the top of Java.

It was a trip that had been planned many months in advance but to a different destination. Originally, our plan was to climb Mount Rinjani, an active volcano, in Lombok, known for its beautiful view from the summit overlooking the crater and Anak Rinjani (the small Rinjani, emerged from of an eruption many years earlier). The major earthquake in Lombok in 2018 changed that. We were 2-3 weeks away from travel when earthquake occurred. There was a landslide that affected the path to the top of Rinjani so we had to change our plans.

While we did deliberate whether to ditch the plan to hike altogether, we felt that since we had done some preparations (including doing multiple sets of squat a day), we would go ahead with hiking but to a different mountain of similar character. Mount Semeru, another active volcano, came to mind. At about 3,600 metres above sea level, Semeru is the highest mountain in Java. We would get the same experience of climbing a volcano as if we would have if we had a chance to climb Rinjani especially the last non-vegetation section that I will elaborate in a bit.

We proceeded with changing our tickets. Luckily, in the end, we got all our money back, partly in flight credits. For our new destination, we stopped over at Kuala Lumpur before taking another flight to Surabaya. We paid a private tour company for the guide, porters, meals and accommodation while trekking. This basically meant everything apart from accommodation in Surabaya and flights to and from Indonesia. Having spent the first night in Surabaya, the next day we went to Malang. We met our guide who then transported us and our belongings on a jeep. We were on the jeep for about one hour. When it stopped, we were on the highlands. The weather turned chilly. It was mid afternoon and we went a small clinic for the quickest of the brief health check-up. Having obtained the so-called health certificate, we set off to the last village with mobile phone signal before the real trek began.

Upon arriving at the village, we were booked in a small guesthouse behind a shop. It reminded me of my boy scout outing and my military service. It had running water and separate beds but not what we can call comfortable. But I should not complain since our guide and porters were sleeping outside in their sleeping bags under the roof without any mattresses. Before we went to bed, the lady who worked at the shop cooked us some dinner. In retrospect, it was a restless night. It was pretty cold, probably around 8-9 degrees in the middle of the night and the blanket was very thin and almost did not help at all.

When morning arrived, we washed, had breakfast and set off at around 8 o’clock. I sent some messages home basically to say that I would not be contactable for another 2 days.

Passing this gate and all mobile phone signal would be gone. Our trek began here.

We had a nice flat terrain for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. At the first pitstop, there were people selling instant noodles, coffee and cigarettes. After that first pitstop, we would just walk and walk. Our guide was not a quick pace hiker but he rarely stopped. Our porters already went beyond us. Apparently they would need to go before us to set things up when we reached the resting points.

The picture was taken just after we passed the gate. The last moment of flat terrain.
From afar, the summit of this volcano was where we were heading.

We stopped for lunch at Ranu Kumbolo or Lake Kumbolo. It is quite a picturesque place to rest. At this point, I realised that each company that does the trekking packages had different characters. Whenever we reached the rest stops, we would always see chairs being laid out for a group of trekkers. They would have their own toilet and shower tents. We did not have those but we had a separate dining tent, basically an empty tent with a battery-powered lamp where we would eat together. We sat on the floor with a mat but our specialty was food. I learned later that our guide had his own little cafe in Malang and he liked cooking. So our food had never failed us. Ranu Kumbolo was the last place before the campsite and the volcano that had fresh water. So our porters cooked chicken here so they did not have to carry the raw meat into the trek which would risk it going bad. They filled up our water supplies. Then we set off again.

Our food at Ranu Kumbolo
Our guide
Ranu Kumbolo, the last stop with freshwater.
Ranu Kumbolo
Unfortunately, these were not for us…

After around 7 hours of continuous hike, we arrived at the campsite in good time. It was around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Our porters rushed to set up tents and cooked dinner. From here, we could see and hear volcanic eruptions of the very volcano we were about to climb. After dinner, we went to sleep at 6.30 pm. We would have to wake up at midnight to begin our climb at 1 o’clock in the morning in order to reach the summit before sunrise.

This was the path that led to our campsite. Yet from this point, it was still a good two-hour trek.
The Kalimati Base Camp – Since there was no public toilet, you may want to watch your steps at night…
Our three tents. One for dining. From here, we were able to see and hear volcanic activities of Mt.Semeru very clearly. The four green tents you see near the tree line belong to the more privileged trekkers with chairs. Also, do not get distracted by the hut. It had nothing there. It was shared by porters to prepare food.
Some trekkers had their own toilet and shower tents.

Alas, I did not get any sleep that night. I laid awake the whole time. It was the feeling of being so close to the volcano yet I did not know whether I would complete the trek. I was worried about accidents that may happen. There were stories, although quite rare, of people who died climbing. It was my first time to climb above the cloud so I did not know how the high altitude would affect me. In any case, at midnight, we got up and ate our ‘breakfast’.

The trek from the campsite up to the summit is arguably the toughest. Compared to Rinjani, the trek we did before the campsite was easier than Rinjani’s but the trek up the cone of the volcano was similar according to those who have been to both places. We began our trek at one in the morning, right on time. Thirty minute into it, our guide announced that we had reached ‘last vegetation’. In general, this meant there would be no trees and we were reaching the cone of the volcano. In terms of trekking experience, it meant hell. Every step we climb, we would fall two steps back. The climb would be almost impossible without hiking sticks. The air became thinner and I might have suffered a bit from altitude sickness. I asked to rest a few times and my rest became more frequent closer to the top. Yet we did not stop for long. We continued to climb and only when we reached the summit that we realised that we were the first group up!

The great roar of a volcanic eruption greeted us when we were up there. Apparently, the Semeru hike can only be done from one side of the volcano since the other side would be too dangerous due to fresh lava and smoke. It was really active. An eruption occurred every 15-20 minutes. Our guide also told us that it was dangerous to inhale the air after 11 o’clock in the morning because the wind would blow smoke this way. That was the reason for the climb to start before dawn. Our guide prepared us hot chocolate while we waited to see the sunrise. We were very lucky with the weather and when the dawn came, the view from the top of Java was absolutely amazing. It was impossible to capture it all in photos. Such feeling of elation and accomplishment was topped up with the view above the clouds.

First sight of lava and smoke from the summit.
First light
Above the clouds
An eruption
Top of Java
Towards Mt.Bromo
The shadow of Semeru
Coming down was easier.

We made our way down before seven. The way down was so much quicker as all we did was literally sliding down. By half past eight, our guide was handing each of us a can of coke to celebrate our climb. We had about an hour to rest and pack our belongings. We would have to make our way back to the village, then to Surabaya within a day. We walked back the way we had come. Stopped to have quick lunch also at Ranu Kumbolo. We reached the village at around 5 o’clock. The jeep then picked us up and we reached Surabaya at around 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening. Technically, this was the day when most walking was done. Since we were up at midnight, start hiking at one. Then almost non-stop, we walked till 5 o’clock.

It was really a rewarding experience. And I owe this to my two travel and trekking companions. They are among the best travel buddies that I could have hoped for.

Trekking in style.

Till we climb again!