MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia — Our early-morning visit to one of the world’s most active volcanoes could hardly have been more well-timed.
Having been imbued with a healthy sense of fear from my friend Mia’s volcano horror story, I figured hiring a local guide would be a wise way to go for a trip up Mount Merapi.
My guide, a small, friendly-faced gentleman wearing a red-and-white batik shirt, picked me up from my hotel near the Royal Palace at 6 a.m. and introduced himself.
“My name is Yunus,” he said. “Because I was born in June.”
“That must make your birthday easy to remember.”
It was early, and I hadn’t had any coffee yet. Yunus gave me a polite laugh, which earned him points in my book.
“You are Indonesian?” he asked, motioning to his face. “Because you have the look.”
I have been starting to get this reaction more often, especially if I keep my mouth shut. All I can really say at the moment is “mekasi” (“thank you”) and “toilet” (“toilet” or “hole in the ground,” depending on where you are; I think it’s a dialect thing). I won’t count “orangutan” or “amok” unless I can slip them seamlessly into conversation, but preferably not with my other two words.
We arrived less than an hour later at Mount Merapi, whose name means “fire mountain.” Sure enough, a white plume of smoke rose from the volcano’s apex, like a cloud machine against the bright blue sky.
I cursed Hollywood for having served up “Dante’s Peak,” as I now had visions of Pierce Brosnan implausibly piloting a Chevy Suburban through molten lava in one of the movie’s climatic scenes. Nevertheless, I scoped out the quickest way down to our Toyota SUV and wondered whether I could drive a lefty stick-shift.
Yunus led us up the side of the mountain, pumice and black sand beneath our feet. We hiked halfway across a 30-meter-wide ravine that ran down Mount Merapi’s southern slope, a lava-scarred welt littered with boulders as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. The chute occasionally also carried “cold lava” — mudslides — as well as the molten stuff right to the village of Kaliadem.
It was Kaliadem that in 2006 bore the brunt of Mount Merapi’s eruption. Lava, hot ash and temperatures of 2,000 degrees Celsius scorched much of the village, which had fortunately been evacuated by the Jogyakarta regional government.
Yunus said two aid workers perished when they found themselves trapped by the lava flows and sealed themselves in the in-ground bunker designed as a survival measure of last resort. It only offered protection from falling ash and toxic volcanic gasses, not the intense heat. Though I took pictures from the edge, I did not go inside.
We passed perhaps a dozen local villagers on their way to gather grasses for the village’s dairy cows. They smiled and exchanged words with Yunus as we passed, bidding us a good day while holding fearsome curved knives for harvesting the cattle feed.
It was easy to see why villagers respect and fear the fire mountain. It’s as if there were something present before us that eluded comprehension.
We began our descent just as the cool, clear morning air gave way to a heavy humidity.
Near the bottom, I turned around for one last look at Mount Merapi. It had disappeared beneath a thick cloud cover that would have you think it was little more than a mirage.
Like I said, good timing.