Mt. Merapi, a tall stratovolcano looming over the city of Yogyakarta, is considered the most active volcano in Indonesia. It is erupting right now, too - and I’m writing this line without fear it might grow outdated soon, since Merapi never stops erupting. Recent pyroclasms were powerful, but not exceptionally so. Are the people of Yogyakarta scared? No, because of a mystic pact between the city's ruling dynasty of sultans and the volcano's spirit. Villages at the foot of the fiery mountain prosper despite the periodic need to evacuate and the occasional fallout of volcanic ash - there's no better fertilizer than volcanic minerals. Only a few settlements got incinerated or buried, and this is treated with the typical Indonesian fatalism. Climbing Merapi is seldom allowed (and during the periods of heightened activity - simply suicidal), but observing it from a number of points at its base is easy and rewarding - where else could you see an exploding volcano from the outskirts of a thriving town?
The volcano itself
When Merapi takes a break from pyroclastic explosions, various tours to the barren lands on its slopes appear on the market. Most would take you to the base of the volcano by jeep, then possibly a short distance up on foot. The standard limit even for the most adventurous tours is the seismographic post, still a long way from the summit. If you're very lucky, lava flows may reach this far, giving you a chance to see the molten blood of Earth up close. Climbing to the crater is almost never permitted - and in fact, should only be attempted by experienced volcano hikers, since Merapi's "mood" may change without warning. A pyroclasm travels at 60-90 km/h, and has a temperature of 800-1200 Celsius. Just saying.
Mt. Merapi, Central JavaC9JF+C23 Mount Merapi National Park Jurang Jero, Dusun 4, Ngargosoko, Srumbung, Kabupaten Magelang, Jawa Tengah 56483, Indonesia
Kaliurang observation post
The most popular viewpoint for Merapi is open officially more often than not, and unofficially - always. A small semi-wild garden surrounds a viewing tower positioned strategically enough to provide a good glimpse of the lava flows. Locals often drive up here on weekends just for the fun of it. Again, officially, it closes at nightfall, but practically the guard at the gate understands that lava glow is only visible in the dark, and will turn a blind eye if you arrive after sunset with a tripod and a telephoto lens. Bring food and water - sometimes it takes hours to catch a good eruption.
Kaliurang observation post, Mt. Merapi, Central JavaCC4G+W2J Gardu Pandang Merapi, Kaliurang, Hargobinangun, Kec. Pakem, Kabupaten Sleman, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta 55582, Indonesia
Other observation spots
Depending on the direction of lava flows, it may be better to observe the eruptions from another position. Klangon Hill is a popular spot, mainly wild, and one of the areas for the so-called "lava tours" - jeep rides on solidified lahar. It may be off limits during more powerful eruptions, since it is not well protected by the terrain. Tunggul Arum observation tower is semi-abandoned, but will do in case the flows shift to the west. Becho Pendem dam is even further west, but with luck, may offer a special treat: glowing lava on the mighty cone of Merapi reflected in the still waters of the reservoir.
Museum of Mbah Maridjan
Brace yourself, this is something you may have some trouble wrapping your mind around. Imagine a memorial museum dedicated to a famous juru kunci gunung - "mountain gatekeeper", a shaman responsible for dealing with the spirit of a volcano. Mbah Maridjan, a hereditary juru kunci gunung, was glorified by the locals, both the peasants farming Merapi's lower slopes and the sultan himself, when he refused to evacuate and "held" the volcano with his magic powers during a violent eruption in 2006, giving others time to escape. When he repeated this feat in 2010, the magic did not suffice, and a superheated pyroclasic flow incinerated him inside the house. The story is legendary, and to a Westerner it may be hard to believe this happened in 21st century. As for the museum itself, it is arranged in the shaman's own destroyed house, and includes another few buildings ruined and partly buried by the 2010 eruption. Quite fascinating to look at even for the most skeptical materialists, and a perfect motivation to re-consider your plans to climb Merapi.
As Yogyakarta is only about 20 kilometres away from Merapi's base, it is easy to visit all the highlights mentioned above on day trips - well, night trips, probably, if you want to see the red glow of fresh lava. On a good motorbike it is even perfectly possible to cover all of them in a single day, if you don't engage in professional volcano photography. Climbing to the crater of Merapi would take a full day under perfect conditions, and your life otherwise. The reason to stay closer to the volcano is not convenience, but the joy of being in the nature, and the chance to watch eruptions right from your resort garden - a bit too far for clear views, but just far enough for perfect safety. There are quite a number of good value resorts between Yogyakarta and Kaliurang - from a modern, if somewhat faceless, hotel close to the main viewpoints to cute minimalist Joglo houses tucked away in the greenery.
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