Climbing in Indonesia is a great experience. Indonesia is blessed with hundreds of volcanic mountains that are perpetually active. Climbing these volcanic mountains is an experience in itself and completely different from that of the Himalayas.
What it lacks for in snow and height, Indonesian mountains compensate with their absolute raw beauty in terms of tropical wilderness, thick vegetation, wild flowers and animals and a sense of mysticism. They are steeped in religion and history. Each mountain has some special cultural or religious significance that cloaks the mountain in mystic lure.
Arjuno & Welirang
One such mountain range is Mount Arjuno and Mount Welirang. Yes. Two mountain peaks that lie on the same range and are above 3,000m. Mt. Arjuno stands at 3,339m and Mt. Welirang at 3,156m. They are part of a group of strato-volcanoes that lie in the island of East Java. The mountains were not that high, which suited me fine as i haven’t done any serious exersice in the last couple of months. I didn’t want to push my luck too much.
I had written about these two mountains in my previous article on the 14 Volcanoes in Indonesia that i wanted to climb.
Mt. Arjuno is named after the Hindu god, Arjuna, who is depicted as the Receiver of wisdom from Lord Krishna in the epic Mahabharata. Welirang, on the other hand is the Javanese term for Sulfur – which it has in abundance, thanks to its still active volcanic crater.
So, i decided to explore these two mountains over a period of 5 days starting from 16th to 20th March as i had some days off from work.
I found out more about the two mountains through Gunung Bagging. This is one of the best websites to get information on mountains in Indonesia and is run by Dann P. Quinn. He also keeps track of reputable guides and local tour operators through his other website – Gamkonora. If anyone who wants more information on climbing Indonesian mountains, these two websites are the go to places. I highly recommend them to you.
I got hold of a local outfit through Gamkonora. They were quite responsive and had a very good spoken english.
I did a check on the weather and i seemed to have picked the wettest period to climb. The weather forecast mentioned rain and showers on all the days we were to be on the mountain. But i was still determined to go.
I took a flight out of Singapore and landed in Juanda International airport, Surabaya at 9am. The airport is quite modern and well maintained and processing was quite fast. The agency operator, Istikmal and guide, Yoka were at the airport. Both spoke very good english and we hit it off quite well. Both Istikmal and Yoka had climbed the two peaks quite often. After some pleasantries, i got myself a prepaid phone card with a 2GB data plan for 130.000 IDR. In hindsight, i should have got the card outside as it was cheaper. We hopped onto a van and drove all the way to Tretes, the closest village to the mountain range. Being a massive range, there are many approaches to the mountains and Tretes seemed to be the shortest and most easily accessible of them all albeit a harder trek.
Tretes, is a laid back town with a bit of dutch influence and lies 2 hours away from Surabaya and at an altitude of about 800m above sea level. It was and still is a holiday spot for former dutch colonial rulers and modern local tourists. Being just 60km from Surabaya, the town gets quite a lot of visitors over the weekend. The roads were pretty good but with a lot of traffic. On the way, you could see Mt. Penanggungan at 1,653m.
Like all mountains in Indonesia, Mt. Penanggungan has a story behind it. According to the myth, Java was an island that was freely floating in the vast ocean. So, to make it stay in one place, Lord Brahma (The Creator) and Lord Vishnu (The Preserver) moved Mount Meru from India to Java to make it stay in one place. This is currently what is known as Semeru. However, since Meru was huge, the whole island began to tilt and as a result, the other gods went and pleaded with Brahma and Vishnu to do something about it. So, what they did was to cut off the top part of Semeru and place it at a point where the island will not tilt anymore. This small mountain is called “Mt. Penanggungan” – or the mountain that brings balance to the island of Java. There are nearly 116 Hindu and Buddhist shrines and archaeological artifacts on this mountain.
The climb up to our first camp site was about 3 hours. The pathway was mostly well laid stone road inclined at a steady 15 degree angle which allows jeeps to travel to the top to pick up sulfur deposits packed by miners.
We rested there for a minute or two before we started our climb to the first camp site, which was called Kopkopan. Again, the climb was a constant gradient of 15 degrees. The well laden roads gave way to rock filled pathways and with the rains the path became slippery from the rain. The rain stopped as fast as it had begun and it became pretty hot in that humid weather. So, we dressed down to make the climb a lot easier. So, we took our time to climb by making frequent short stops for break.
Eventually, we were at Kopkopan by 2 hours and 15 minutes from the first camp site. Since it was quite early, we just rested and drank some hot tea. I spent my time taking photos of the surroundings. There were a couple of locals who were taking a bath in the stream near by. Soon they left for Tretes as they were going back down.
Yoka setup my tent in a comfortable place overlooking the town of Tretes. Unfortunately, the place was shrouded in clouds the whole time, so i couldn’t get to see the town at all. Dinner was at 6.30pm and after some small talk we retired off to bed. The night was pretty cold so, i put on some layers of clothing and went to sleep.
We got up in the morning at around 6.00am and had breakfast comprising of bread and cheese with hot tea. After that, we wound up and headed for our second camp called Pondokan, from where both the summits will be attempted. The terrain became even more rocky with long stretches of near flat sections followed by sections of 30 to 45 degree angles.
The steepness seemed to gradually increase towards the summit push and the rocky path made it all the more difficult. But compared to Rinjani or Semeru, this mountain did not have loose gravel and so, there was no question of sliding. In addition to the steepness was the pungent smell of suflur that pervades the air. I used a muffler to protect my nose, but it did not do me any good. We had to wind our way through small sections on the ground from which hot, dry smoke was coming out. Some areas looked as if they had just erupted not too long ago with small lava domes jutting out.
We quickly made a decision to climb down fast before the clouds closed in and it started raining. We started down and made our way back to Pondokan. On the way, i took a few photos of the surrounding mountains before it got dark.
When we reached there, it was around 7pm and was pitch black. I had fallen a few times during our decent and although, didn’t hurt myself, my knees were quite raw and knocking. So, i told Yoka that we skip the plan to start early for Arjuno the next day and take it easy. I don’t mind not seeing the sun rise. So, we decided to start later at around 9.30am.
I was in no mood to eat, so i just forced myself to eat some noodles and have some hot tea before i retired to my tent. I did not get much sleep with the rain making a constant noise on the tent.
I got up at around 7am and came out of my tent. The weather seemed perfect with clear blue skies. Yoka and the porter were up and had started a campfire. Since it was very cold, i went over and sat next to the fire and warmed myself. I felt much better now and was ready to start the trek up to Arjuno.
Arjuno, is a sacred mountain for the Hindus in Indonesia. Myth has it that, Arjuna, who had supernatural powers was greedy for more power. So, he climbed up the mountain and started meditating. As he did so, the mountain grew in size and height, nearly touching the heavens. Fearing the complete destruction of the heavens, the gods asked the care taker of Arjuna on earth to stop him as several attempts to stop his meditation failed. The care takers soon meditated themselves and became bigger than the mountain. So, they cut the mountain into two and threw one portion away. The thud that the portion made woke Arjuna from his destructive meditation. Having realized his mistake and the danger of destroying heaven, he soon decided not to meditate more and was happy with the powers he already had. Arjuno was the mountain on top of which, Arjuna had meditated and is thus named after him.
We left Pondokan at around 8.30am after a quick breakfast of hot tea and bread and cheese. We made our way slowly up to the summit. We crossed over the Lalijiwo forest. Lalijiwo, in Javanese meant, the forest of lost souls. Yoka told me that many people have died in the forest because they could not find their way through. Many bodies were not recovered at all. I found the forest to be quite scenic with areas that are exposed to the clear blue sky and some areas which had a very thick undergrowth of plants and trees. On several occasions, i stepped on a thick layer of leaves or placed my trekking pole on what seemed to be solid ground only to see my feet or pole sink right in. At other sections, the pathway is so narrow that you have to walk through keeping one feet in front of the other.
Once we were out of the Lalijiwo forest, the pathway became more steep. Soon enough, the clouds started moving in and we were constantly covered in mist. Although not that high in altitude or steep like Rinjani, the pathway took a toll on my knees and on several ocasions, i was wondering if i really wanted the summit so badly to put up with this torture.
We could see the summit of Arjuno on the way. It was mostly shrouded in clouds. After about 3 hours of climbing, we reached the summit. There seemed to be several false summits that looked higher than the actual one and we had to pass through them to reach the main summit.
It was quite annoying to have the summit within view, but to get there, you need to climb up and down a few smaller peaks. Eventually, after much grunting and grumbling we reached the main summit at around 11.30am.
Arjuno is not an active volcano and there were no craters to be found. The summit was a pile of rocks and the peak was again marked with a metal pole on which the Indonesian flag was hoisted. There was a lot of static and occasionally i could feel an electrical surge going through my hair. The hair on my arms were standing on their ends. I did not get a good feeling about this and so, after some photo taking and videos, i decided to climb down.
On the way down, it suddenly started raining and we found a small cave where we hustled together and stayed till it finished raining. Soon enough, the rain stopped and we made our way quickly down the mountain. We took a wrong turn at the start which lead us down a different path. Luckily, the porter corrected us and we had to retrace our steps to join the correct path. Thanks to the GPS, we were able to find our way in the thick fog. Once the fog cleared on the way down, we could see the beautiful terrain and Mt. Welirang from afar. It looked eerie with smoke bellowing from the crater and its sides. I was quite amazed at myself in thinking that i was just there yesterday.
By the time we reached the Pondokan, it was around 4pm and i was really done spent. My knees were aching even more than my trek to Welirang.
Our original plan was to come down from Arjuno and make a beeline directly to Tretes. But given that it was raining and the risk of falling in the dark, we decided to spend the night over at Pondokan and come down the next day.
I never got out of the tent that evening and i just slept the whole period. I skipped dinner and continued to sleep through the night.
I was up by 6am and after some hot tea, we packed up and left for basecamp. I was in decent shape to make the trip all the way to Tretes. We walked down pretty quickly as the day was clear and the path was not that slippery. We made it to Kopkopan in about 2 hours. We rested there for a while watching a group of about 30 people congregated together to perform worship. There was a priest who was giving a sermon.
From there we started down again and in a span of about 3 hours, we were back in Tretes. Istikmal, our agency operator was welcomed us with some hot tea and some snacks to eat. Although i was in pain, i was glad to be back in civilization.
Unfortunately, throughout the trip, there was absolutely no signal so, my purchase of a 2GB data plan was more or less useless. The only place where you could have got a decent signal was in our first resting place – Kopkopan. But due to bad weather, it didn’t work out.
After hanging around Tretes for some time, Istikmal drove me back to Surabaya and dropped me off at my hotel. I reached the hotel, IBIS BUDGET HOTEL that was inside the Airport compound. We said our good byes and i went to my room. The first thing that i did was have a bath after 4 days. Then i made a trip to a nearby shopping mall to gorge myself on a large pan cheese pizza and a chocolate milk shake. Once that was done, i came back to the room and watched TV till i slept. I was to wake up the next day and catch a flight back to Singapore. Quite an uneventful evening that left me wondering when i will be back again to visit another of these wonderful mountains.
I have provided the links to the GPX files for the entire trip. Please feel free to download them.