07.17.10

Merapi Miracle

Posted in Travel at 15:32 by RjZ

Flyers in the budget hotel in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, had a variety of activities on offer. Among the charming outings was a sunrise hike up Gunung Merapi, the 3,000 meter volcano hanging in the mist above the city. The description read like an easy hike. I remember wondering if I should wear my sandals, but eventually, I wore hiking boots because I’d brought them this far; seemed a shame not to use them.

In order to make sunrise, the bus collected us from the hotel at around 10 the previous evening and brought us to a cabin at the base of the mountain for a short sleep before we were awoken at 1 am to begin the hike. Our large group joined several other large groups at the base of the mountain, each with a pair of guides, and we were handed dim flashlights to begin our hike.

I was living in Holland at the time, so my acclimatization to altitude was sketchy at best. Another Hollander was in our group, but he lived with his buddy in Switzerland and both regularly climbed mountains. I don’t remember anyone else in the group because we kept dropping them on the rush up the mountain. At around halfway, the groups had trailed out and near the top, very few were even following us. How my traveling partner and I got this far this fast could only be explained by the draw of “see a live volcano at sunrise” written on that flyer back in the hotel.

The last 300 meters to the top were steep, rocky and sharp. The volcanic rocks were just like those in the gas fireplace of my old 70s style rental back in the United States. Dark red to black with little bubbles in them and sharp like glass. The path was so steep, we were forced to use our hands and, while I was suddenly glad to have the boots on, I noticed that our guides were managing with old torn shoes and a pair of flip-flops. The sky was brightening and I was straining to summit before sunrise.

I got very sweaty, racing to the top, and by the time we arrived, my shirt soaked through, I suddenly realized how cold it was. Indonesia is hot. Humid, tropical hot, but a high mountain is chilly and with a wind blowing my damp shirt next to me my core temperature began to drop rapidly. My teeth were chattering as I looked over the lip of the crater to the faint glowing of lava below. My body was shivering frantically while I tried to enjoy the sunrise over the edge of the mountain. I tried to warm my quaking body in steam vents puffing from the sides of the volcano but they only made me wetter and I was driven off by the sulfur. Nothing could warm me and finally, our new Swiss friend, more experienced and more prepared than I, noticed my uncontrollably chattering teeth and offered a dry t-shirt. I changed and was able to avoid hypothermia.

The sun had risen and lava was invisible now in the dawn. Little left to do at the top, we began our descent. This is where the miracle happened. It may not sound like much to you, but it represents the only supernatural experience I’ve really had. More important things happened during this trip, (like not dying of hypothermia in a tropical climate) but this is the only one not explainable by coincidence. Neither I nor my traveling partner can explain it. It may not sound like much to you, but its utter inexplicability is what makes it a wonder to me.

The return was a steeper slope than the way up, and the same rocky sharp fireplace rocks were scattered as obstacles for the first 3 – 500 meters. There was no trail to speak of and we gingerly tried to rock hop our way down, now, with only one guide as the other had to stay back with the rest of our group who hadn’t made it up in time for sunrise. My partner is afraid of heights and, while she could certainly manage getting down on her own, it wasn’t going fast enough for our guides taste. She had taken 10 minutes to move only about 20 or 30 meters and we had a long way to go.

He took her hand and started running down the slope. Running down. Pulling her by one arm, her legs floating over the rocks barely touching the ground once every couple of meters. Everything I saw as she flitted past us, and even her personal description confirms the miracle. She floated down the mountain, defying the laws of physics for impact and held outside of the gravity by the magic flowing through the guide’s hands and into her. She later described feeling no impact; that somehow his arm pulled her lightly and she found herself moving down the mountain, wondering how she neither tripped, nor fell. My new boots were worn and scratched by the time we made it down but she danced down the mountain like a ballerina, not a scratch anywhere.

We sped down the mountain passing by old women gathering wood for their villages (they looked old, but given their daily regimen, they might have been only thirty) and arrived back at the bus in record time, never meeting the rest of our group again. I returned the t-shirt to our kind fellow hiker and we shuttled back to the hotel.

Five days later we were on the next island of Bali riding a moped through the only rain we experienced during the so-called rainy season. At one of our stops I saw man reading a paper, the front page showed a photo of smoke, a mountain and what looked like evacuees. The headline read Gunung Merapi blah, blah blah Indonesian. We asked for a translation. Apparently the safe little hike up a live volcano also includes the small chance that the thing can explode and cause whole villages to be evacuated and at least a few injured hikers. It didn’t say mention like that on the flyer.

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