I live about an hour or so from Mt. Merapi, arguably the most active and most dangerous volcano in a country of active and dangerous volcanoes, and set out last night to see it up close for the first time. The news has been full of stories about increased volcanic activity at the mountain, and a couple friends from Magelang thought we might catch some highly photogenic lava flows at night. So we made plans, got a van, and, despite heavy rains all day, set out last night for a volcano monitoring station about four-and-a-half kilometers from the summit. Built by the Dutch in the early 1930s, the monitoring station is still manned full-time and it serves as one of the primary staging grounds for climbers and photographers visiting Merapi.
Anyway, there were five of us in the van--everyone but me a Magelang native--and the rain just kept coming. We drove south of the city and then eventually east, through increasingly water-washed roads. We stopped for directions, and then stopped again. We drove around some more and then stopped to ask for directions a third time. Do you guys know where we're going? Oh, yes. For sure, bro. So why are we asking for directions? It's hard to find. Do we have a map? No map. They never use a map.
Eventually we found a narrow blacktop road about as wide as a driveway and we followed this thing for maybe 45 minutes, a dark ribbon winding into pitch black, washed out in places, water coursing down the road and into the wheel-wells, carrying branches and mud and clumps of grass down past us. We drove up through a handful of small villages, the rain intermittent now, old men wrapped in sarongs sitting along the road, chickens and dogs running out of the dark and in front of the van. The road continued up. It got even darker. We followed the yellow headlights into the woods. My ears popped. The rain stopped.
And finally we pulled into a parking lot. The road dead-ended here. At the back of the parking lot, the monitoring post, an aging wooden building with wide windows looking out on darkness. A lone man sat inside at a desk with a CB radio, and when we met him he was looking out the windows into nothingness. He couldn't see a thing, we couldn't see a thing. All clouds. I kind of thought that might happen but my friends were confident we'd have a view on arrival. The most confident of them turned to me as we looked into black and said, We're just unlucky, bro.
The guy manning the lookout talked with us for a while and let us see the underground survival bunker built by the Dutch and more or less maintained by the Indonesian government. A heavy cement cave, the place is carved into the mountainside and features several thick steel doors. The idea is to run like hell for the bunker if Merapi gets too pyroclastic and hope for the best. The lookout guy said the bunker can hold 50 people for three days, as long as there's enough oxygen and food and water stored away. Last night, the bunker was empty; nobody's too worried about a serious episode right now. On a scale of 1 to 4, the volcano alert system at Merapi is right now on 2, our guide said. If it gets higher, they'll pack in some groceries.
We got the guy's phone number and will check back soon to ask about the view. He said we should come in the afternoon, while it's still light, and stay until dark. He also sad we shouldn't come when it's raining. We said thanks and headed back down the mountain, following the world's longest driveway back toward Magelang. Flash-flood-washed and pot-holed, it carried us home. On the way, we didn't see another car for half an hour.