there's nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop .
And an illustrated book about birds…
~ the Meat Puppets

Part 1: The journey there

It was with some trepidation that we embarked on our journey to Dieng Plateau in Central Java. One of the site’s 10 craters (named Sileri) had just erupted and a subsequently scrambled rescue helicopter had crashed into the mountainside killing all eight people on board. However, not being Indonesian – and more specifically Javanese - I didn’t take this unfortunate serious of events as some sort of omen, warning against travel. Instead, after checking to make sure that Dieng hadn’t been closed to tourists, I purchased tickets online for the last train leaving the following day. No way would I miss this trip.

We didn’t have to get to Gambir train station until 10pm so we were mercifully spared the soul-destroying torture of Jakarta’s insane traffic which inflicts the city most hours of the day. Even Gambir gets quiet late at night and what must be one of the smallest Starbucks in Indonesia, and maybe even the world, was closed – no reason given. Luckily though, the station’s Alfamart was still open (but then again, have you ever come across one which is isn’t?).

Generally I like night trains. The combination of traveling when tired and the satisfying motion of the train as it hurtles along the tracks always sends me to sleep. On this particular train, however, I had trouble getting the so-called reclining seats to actually recline. No matter how hard I pushed they simply wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t sleep in a completely upright position. So was I in for a sleepless night? Well, not if I could help it. We checked the other (empty) seats in the carriage and were lucky to find some that still worked - and so moved there.

Getting out of Jakarta is never easy - not even by train. It’s as though the city doesn’t want you to leave in case you never come back. Our train only made it as far as Cibinong before it came to an abrupt halt. A frigging train jam would you believe! The voice on the intercom told us there was a backlog of trains heading out of Jakarta and that we would have to wait for about an hour before we could continue.

The journey to Dieng Plateau is not an easy one and the train would only take us as far as Purwokerto, which we reached at the godless hour of 4.00am or shortly prior to the early morning shubuh prayers. From the train station we then took a public mikrolet to the bus station where we could catch a bus to Wonosono – the nearest town to Dieng Plateau. Although I hadn’t been expecting a super luxury coach with TV, sumptuous seats and air con I was more than a tad concerned to discover that the buses traversing the 3-hour Purwokerto-Wonosono route were basically old, bashed up minibuses similar to the Kopaja and Metromini wrecks in Jakarta. We certainly had the prospect of a bone-jarring journey ahead of us.

Although our bus was pretty much empty when it left Purwokerto at 6.00am I had that feeling you get when you realize something isn’t quite right. After all, why would a bus in Indonesia leave the bus station when it wasn’t fall? It didn’t make sense. And sure enough, around 10 minutes after leaving Purwokerto the bus stopped to welcome aboard a gaggle of giggling female factory workers. They were crammed in like sardines and despite being seated I had various female anatomy parts shoved in my general direction. This was not entirely insufferable I must admit and certainly far preferable to being trapped on a bus full of men chain-smoking clove cigarettes!

The discomfort notwithstanding, the mood on the bus was - in typical Indonesian fashion - extremely jovial (certainly unlike the morning 8.10 commuter train to Waterloo Station I used to take many years ago). Those who laugh the most are those who don’t take life too seriously it seems. The poor happier than the rich - the opposite of what you’d expect. One of the girls on the bus told me that they all worked at a nearby Korean-owned factory making wigs of all things - for export markets. This was a bit surprising since we seemed to be far away from anywhere. Then, about ten minutes later, the bus screeched to a halt outside a huge building - the wig factory - and all the girls got off!

The rest of the journey was certainly a hair-raising experience (not so much because of the wigs!) but because of the insane speeds that the bus reached as it hurtled toward Wonosobo. Worst of all was the overtaking of slower-moving vehicles: I could barely look when we raced on the wrong side of the road, only to pull over at the very last moment to avoid a head-on collision. Although the bus driver had no choice but to slow down on the winding stretches, we were still thrown around like rag dolls. And did I mention that the bus had virtually no suspension? Enough to churn up your stomach. And make your hair fall out! Heck I may need a wig as well…

Eventually, however, we reached Wonosobo and got off the bus in the town center rather than be taken to the bus station - which is basically located in the middle of nowhere. After taking a few moments to thank the gods for sparing our lives on the bus journey from Purwokerto, we then walked the short distance to the town’s very pleasant alun alun - the village square. It was a tidy and green affair, typical of so many mid-sized Javanese towns, and a plethora of eateries had set up stall to sell favorite Indonesian dishes such as bubur ayam, nasi rendang and roti bakar.

From here it was a short walk to where we could catch a mikrolet to Dieng Plateau. We made slow progress, however, as the mikrolet meandered along the twisty, narrow road, held up by improvised roadside markets, steadily gaining altitude along the way. The air thinned and it became noticeably cooler. Misty clouds hung over terraced fields which had been planted with vegetables. Right at the top of the pass, we came to a junction where there were several buildings, mostly shops, warungs, and homestays it seemed. And opposite us there was a wall with five huge letters on it: D I E N G. We had arrived.

To be continued…


Having successfully climbed the highest volcanos of East and Central Java (Mount Semeru @ 3,676m and Mount Slamet @3,284, respectively), it seemed apt that the next “ribu” to climb would be West Java’s highest volcano – the imperious Mount Ciremai @ 3,078m.

Located to the south east of Cirebon, the volcano is now easily accessible from Jakarta thanks to the recent construction of the Cikopo-Palimanan toll road. If you miss the worst of the traffic it’s a 5-hour drive. Intrepid solo climbers might even think about using public transportation to get there. However, I wouldn’t bother. Sure it might be theoretically possible – as indeed nearly all journeys in Java are – but in practice you’re likely to waste a lot of time and end up really tired and frustrated. And that’s before you’ve even started the climb!

The volcano has three trails. The most popular (as well as the safest) is the Apuy trail via Majalengka. Although this trail starts at a relatively high altitude of around 1,200m that still means you have to gain another 1,800m of altitude – making it a pretty strenuous climb. The other two less-climbed trails – Palutungan and Linggar Jati – start at around 1,100m and 600m respectively.

Majalengka is a fairly nondescript Javanese town with its share of Alfamart and Indomaret convenience stores. These are good places to stock up on bottled water and other supplies. There are a couple of hotels in Majalengka located virtually next door to each other: a plush new one with fancy neon lighting and large glass windows and a rather shabby traditional one which looks like it hasn’t had a lick of paint in the last 20 years (probably because it hasn’t). We stayed in the latter.

The hotel has full ceramic floors meaning that sounds get amplified as if heard through a megaphone. So good luck sleeping if your room is near the reception and they are playing cards. The rooms are small with the TV placed so high up on the wall that you need to crank your neck about 90 degrees to watch it. This means it’s okay to watch the news but if you watch a feature film you’ll probably end up permanently crippled. Be warned. The beds sag as you would expect them to and most visitors claim to have unannounced guests: not the so-called night butterflies of Java (kupu kupu malam) but aggressive and bloodthirsty mosquitoes!

Across the road from the hotel, a restaurant can be found which offers classic West Java cuisine such as fried gurami fish complete with steamed rice and lalapan (vegetables served with a spicy sambal sauce). Pretty good. But again we had more uninvited guests: this time a few rats which were observing proceedings from the rafters above us!

From Majalengka, it takes around 45 minutes to reach the head of the Apuy trail. We left in the back of a pick-up and I roasted under the sun like barbequed sate. After passing through several sleepy villages the road followed an ever-ascending ridge line, surrounded on all sides, it seemed, by terraced fields of cabbages, sweet potatoes and other crops – a welcome change from Jakarta’s concrete jungle.

At the base camp it didn’t take long to sort out the permits. All the usual hiking rules applied such as no littering or setting fires in addition to one I had never come across before: don’t piss in bottles and hang them from trees. WTF! Why would anyone do that, you might ask? Why indeed? Well, apparently because Mount Ciremai is considered sacred and to piss on its soil would provoke God’s understandable wrath.

What’s strange, though, is that this is the exact opposite of the problem found at many other Indonesian volcanoes which are treated like large open toilets, resulting in some pretty gross camping sites!

The mystical status acquired by Mount Ciremai pays homage to the trip made to the volcano by Sunan Gunungjati, one of the nine revered saints of Islam in Indonesia – the so-called Walisongo. Although it’s not clear whether Sunan Gunungjati actually reached the summit or not, he is at least thought to have made it to the location of a large stone at Batu Lingga @ 2,200m, where he apparently found the right conditions he was looking for to meditate.

Regardless of its sacred and mystical credentials, Mount Ciremai should be treated with the greatest respect. According to Indonesian Search and Rescue (SAR) records, as many as 50 climbers came a cropper on the volcano in the years from 1973 to 2009 – a very high number indeed. Some lost their footing on the precarious crater rim and fell to their deaths. Others died in storms. In 2010, two climbers were even killed by falling pine trees.

The hike to the summit only took us around five hours or so – thankfully we were spared the misfortune of rain which can turn the trail into a muddy and slippery nightmare. Fortunately, there is tree cover for much of the way, although the higher reaches are much more exposed to the elements – whether blazing sun or possible downpours depending on your luck.

Although the weather had been blustery back at Majalengka, we were blessed with ideal conditions when we reached the crater rim in the early afternoon: a sky so blue it looked photo-shopped and hardly even a breeze. As a result, we could simply pitch up our tents just below the crater rim rather than seek out a more sheltered spot lower down the volcano – such as at the Gua Walet caves @ 2,950m.

The views, needless to say, were incredible with Mount Slamet, Mount Lawu, and Mount Merbabu all rising majestically in the distance. We were lucky the weather didn’t change for the worse, and early the next day, a multitude of climbers – mostly students - congregated at the summit to be treated to the sort of ethereal sunrise that really makes you realize what it means to be alive. Jakarta’s shopping malls can go screw themselves. Now which volcano is next?

Mount Ciremai cadera

At the summit of Mount Ciremai

View from Mount Ciremai

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