The Mountain of Fire

by Jennifer Roberts

During a midnight trek up a volcano in Java, Indonesia, our writer realizes that her so-called “guides” are not exactly who they claim to be.

The night sky passed overhead as I laid down alongside my friend Erin in the back of the pick-up truck that was bringing us to Mount Merapi— the Mountain of Fire.

We crossed our arms against the chilled air that pushed over the island of Java, Indonesia and pulled our hoods over our heads. Eggy, our giggly, chain-smoking guide, perched casually on the side of the truck bed and tried to find enough words in English to start a conversation. He failed and went back to talking to his friend Dian in Javanese. I took a moment to wonder if our Indonesian host had really done us a favor by introducing us to this eccentric mountain guide!

After two hours of searching for shapes in the stars above us, our backs sore from lying on the corrugated metal, Eggy pointed into the darkness, and we sat up to catch a glimpse of the shadowed outline of the volcano, one of the most active in the world. I had done difficult hikes before, but seeing the 9,551-foot tall Merapi jutting into the night pushed fear into my already tired muscles as they tensed against the midnight activity that would soon begin.

Within an hour, the volcano’s path was laid out before us, well-worn from the boots of experienced hikers and adventure seekers. But we were neither. We were volunteers at a small English school in Klaten, a city so small it isn’t featured on most maps of the country. We had come simply for the challenge and the famous sunrise views at the top.

We had barely started walking when Eggy fell into a squat on the side of the path, his head bent onto his short, lanky legs. I tried to hide my frustration as I kicked at a rock on the ground, remembering the six beers he had stuffed into an already-full pack. Six. On a hike like this, every pound would make a difference, and it was incredible that he had been willing to lug the extra weight. Now, as Eggy sat breathing heavily into his knees, I understood that he had had no idea what that extra weight would mean. He and Dian, our so-called guides, had clearly never done this hike before.

I was breathing just as quickly as Eggy as my body rejected the amount of activity that was happening at two in morning when I would have normally been breathing softly, watching dreams pass through the circuits of my brain. My lungs used the moment of rest to slow their inflations as I checked the condition of the sky, where the light of several stars fell through the trees.

We finally got Eggy back on his feet and moved higher up the mountain and deeper into its dense forest. The path was steep and rocky, compressed earth dotted with volcanic rocks thrown through thousands of years of eruptions. Our feet fumbled up and over tree roots that twined in and out of the earth like knotted ropes as the fullness of the night closed in around us.

Very little was visible, but our ears picked up the tiny legs moving through the brush and over the trail, and our nostrils were filled with the humid earth and the dew that was forming on the leaves that brushed against our pants and left dark circles painted on the grey cloth. There was beauty here, and Merapi would help us see it.

We hiked on, walking and then pausing to make sure we didn’t lose our “guides,” and my muscles relaxed into relief as we spotted a trail marker about two and half hours into the hike, but a small sign soon told us that we had only made it halfway. A blot of disappointment was added to our already weary spirits.

There were small bamboo structures where various exhausted trekkers were curled up against the cold night air, resting or sleeping for a few minutes while their guides waited nearby, and I wished I could do the same.

Our legs were tired, our mental strength was being stretched, and the intensity of the midnight workout now made me feel like vomiting. Moreover, it had started to drizzle. The structures were looking more and more hospitable as Eggy and Dian tried to convince us to put up a tent and sleep.

“No. The sunrise,” Erin said, pointing up the path. We took only a minute to eat a piece of bread to soak up the juices roiling in our nauseated stomachs before continuing.

Our feet moved swiftly over the earth as the night sky moved overhead, the clouds now completely hiding the stars and blocking the little light they had offered. A half-hour later, the path began to disappear behind white waves of thick fog, putting us in danger of losing the path completely. When the raindrops congealed into bigger globules, soon falling fast enough to saturate our coats, we stopped, and the heaviness in our eyes said it was time to surrender. We had made it to a point where it would be irresponsible to go further without a qualified guide, and Eggy, for all his good qualities, certainly wasn’t that.

It was four-thirty in the morning when we crammed our four bodies into one small tent as small rocks and twigs stabbed annoyingly into our legs and back. The only protection we had against the low temperatures was one open sleeping bag that we threw over us.

The next hour brought us no sleep.

At five-thirty, Erin stumbled out of the tent and insisted we all do the same. I tore my eyes open and left the small space, rubbing my face and arms to stimulate whatever energy was left in my body. We had now been awake for almost 24 hours.

The sun was rising through the haze. The Mountain of Fire lived up to its name as the water-laden air moved through shades of yellow and orange.

We looked up the path, wondering if it would still be worth it to finish the trek, but when word came down that the peak was unreachable because of the rain that had passed during the night, we moved our gaze to the base of the volcano and started the long walk down.

The rain had simultaneously hardened the earth and made it slick, and the steepness that had been tiresome on the way up now became grueling. Our knees and ankles were already weak, but the wet mud that covered the path demanded that they be completely engaged. If a foot was turned at a bad angle or if our weight shifted incorrectly when putting a foot down, we would inevitably slip…and we did, each time gathering more mud on our legs and back, first laughing at our mistakes and then huffing in frustration.

Our exasperation gave way to relief as the sun started slowly plucking holes into the fog like fingers in a spider web. The mountain opposite Merapi and the fields and towns at its base were revealed, creating, if not the view we were hoping for, at least one worth surrendering for.

When we finally reached the base of the trail, the Mountain of Fire loomed over us, its size even more imposing in the daylight, it’s crater still half-hidden by mist. Our spirits were low as we sat down and rubbed our sore knees and calves, but the sublimity of the volcano and the beauty of the morning that cradled it told me there was no more room for disappointment. At least we had made it halfway…

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