The light at the end of the long, dark tunnel manifests around two hours into our ascent of Mount Merbabu. First it is barely discernible — the faintest brightening under the thick forest canopy that blankets the lower slopes of the mighty volcano in Central Java.
Soon, however, the morning sun, long anticipated, becomes palpable as arrows of gold illuminate the path in front of us and occasional gaps in the foliage reveal a panoramic vista of assorted gunungs (mountains) as well as the wide turquoise expanse of the Rawa Pening lake.
The outlook, as you might expect, is breathtaking. It is also quite the tonic after a vertiginous march in the pre-dawn hours.
There is a multitude of alluring sounds in Indonesia: the steady beating of waves on the nation’s paradisiacal beaches, or the splash of an icy-cold bottle of Bintang beer as it is decanted into a glass. Less enticing by far is the buzzing of an alarm clock at 3am heralding the start of a full-on hike up a 3,000- metre peak. In fact, the incessant, admonishing noise of the iPhone chirruping in the dead of night transports me from Southeast Asia to my teenage years in Scotland.
For a brief period, before the twin evils of inertia and Saturday-night sociability got in the way, I was a weekend Munro-bagger. Named after a Victorian baronet called Sir Hugh Munro, who produced the first list of such hills, a Munro is a Scottish mountain with a height of over 3,000 feet. Ticking off the 282 peaks that meet this criterion is compulsive for many. Every Sunday a group of us would clamber blearily into a car in the early hours and make for the Highlands to whittle down the list.
It was a short-lived hobby (my tally barely got into double figures). And I had all but forgotten those dawn rises and ensuing full-day workouts until I found out about an online resource devoted to helping hikers conquer the mountains of Indonesia, started by Brits Dan Quinn and Andy Dean, both former residents of Jakarta.
Christened ‘Gunung Bagging’ in homage to the Munro obsession, the website lists the 130 or so peaks in Indonesia that pass 1,000m. Each entry details a mountain’s elevation and location, as well as a satellite image and practical information on how to ‘bag’ each one. The latter might include everything from tips on obtaining permits and finding suitable camping spots to route suggestions and advice on public transportation and nearby hotels. Since launching in 2009, the site has become an invaluable resource for outdoor enthusiasts, Indonesian and foreign alike.
“The focus of the website is to give hikers the information they need to be able to organise a climb alone, without the need for overpriced tour operators and such like,” says Quinn. “Some people prefer to hire a guide in advance, especially if their Indonesian is not so good, but that takes away from the adventurousness of being a bit more independent. Simply turn up at the base of a mountain and you are generally good to go.”
With this DIY ethos in mind, we set off from the obscure (to tourists anyway) city of Semarang on our mission to scale Mount Merbabu armed with little more than some rudimentary camping gear, a screenshot of the relevant page from the Gunung Bagging website and an ample supply of dried fruit and nuts.
Unfortunately, by the time we arrive in Kopeng — the little town closest to base camp — thick rainclouds have descended, making the Ashy One look decidedly soggy and scuppering our plan to complete the ascent that day and camp out just below the summit.
Nobody could mistake Kopeng for one of Java’s prime tourist hubs. However, hearty servings of soto ayam (chicken soup) in a local warung (restaurant) and an impromptu (and fatally extended) karaoke session at the homely and adequately comfortable Wisata Kopeng Hotel helped while away the wasted hours.
Indeed, amateur-hour warbling seemed like it might be the highlight of the trip as we creaked into action. The mood was faintly upbeat as we obtained our permits at the national park office in Tekelan village, fuelling up with sugary cups of instant coffee before we set out. But a fug descended over our fleeting optimism as cantankerous muscles refused to engage and the lack of natural light rendered everything opaque.
Mercifully, sunrise puts a whole new perspective on the hike. Twists, turns and flaws in the path that had previously caused a number of unedifying stumbles become more interesting. All the while, the surrounding landscapes take on an increasingly epic quality as we follow the steep trail up the mountain.
The Gunung Bagging website says that the route to Merbabu’s true summit from the Kopeng side is ‘gentle’. It doesn’t feel that way. A pretty plateau just below the first of Merbabu’s seven summits, which is inhabited by monkeys and a profusion of luminous butterflies, provides some respite.
After that, however, it is leg-straining toil all the way to the radio mast that marks Merbabu’s 2,900m second summit, known as Watu Tulis. Neither my hiking companion nor I fall into the spring-chicken category. Nor do we fall into the perfectly cared-for older chicken category. Nevertheless, our frequent stops at least give us the opportunity to recline in the meadow-like grass and watch as wispy clouds scud across the brilliant blue sky.
One of the best things about gunung- bagging, according to Quinn, is the scope it gives hikers to avoid the crowds — something to be savoured, especially on densely populated Java. With this being a national holiday, we aren’t afforded this privilege. The last hundred metres or so to the top are marked by increasingly resentful high-fives with fresh-faced young Indonesians, all of whom don’t appear to have taken part in any pre-climb karaoke high-jinks.
As we veer unsteadily on to the summit, we are corralled into a group photo opportunity, the evidence of which I am confident will act as a cautionary tale of excess to those who view it. Freeing ourselves from the mêlée, we have some time and peace to soak up the scenery and reflect on the experience.
We may not have made it to Merbabu’s true summit, but in the space of twelve hours we scaled a height equal to Ben Nevis (the UK’s highest mountain), savoured some of Java’s most spectacular views and murdered an eclectic range of popular classics… all before breakfast. Plain sailing it is not, but there’s a lot to like about this gunung-bagging business.