After a very satisfying climb of Gunung Merbabu, I was recovering so well in Wonosobo that I was soon itching to climb another big one – Sindoro 3136m as recommended by my guide Eko on Merbabu. But as you can imagine, I was still nursing a pair of aching legs. I decided to let the itch and the pain fight it out and see who won.
On my rest day, I headed up to Dieng to relive some memories. I noticed the tremendous changes to Dieng over the last 20 years. As it turned out, there wasn’t really much rest on my rest day. I made many interesting discoveries which eluded me on my last visit here more than 20 years ago. Entry into most of the sites here is no longer free, the most expensive (and also most insulting for foreigners being Telega Warna or coloured lake). Suffice to say that many interesting sites here are not even mentioned in the guidebooks. I’ll elaborate them in another post. Back to my failed expedition.
After staying a night in Dieng, it became quite clear to me that the itch was winning over the pain. After a most comforting soto ayam breakfast, I hailed an ojek and asked to be brought to Sigedang, a tea-growing village off the Wonosobo-Dieng highway not far beneath. It was a cold, breezy ride down the highway. My ojek rider kept discouraging me from climbing Sindoro as it was erupting. He urged me to climb Gunung Prau instead. I told him that I wanted to climb a real mountain with spectacular views. He insisted that views from Gunung Prau were just as spectacular and Sindoro has already been closed to climbers. Little did he know that I could see tweets sent from the summit of Sindoro just 4 days ago.
We soon reached the turn-off at Tambi and after passing through vast stretches of tea gardens, we arrived at the village of Sigedang, situated on the northern slope of Gunung Sindoro. It has been reported on social media that the ascent from Sigedang to the summit of Sindoro takes only 4 hours. I decided to give it a try.
But upon arrival at base camp, I found the office and the resting area for climbers completely deserted. A lady with a baby next door informed me that the one in charge of registering climbers was away. There also weren’t any keen guides or porters hanging around. And yes, the mountain was safe to climb. After assessing the situation, my ojek driver swallowed all his words about the eruption and seized the opportunity to divert the business to his home ground.
“I can find you guides from my village. They are good and don’t charge much.” he whispered.
I sniffed around the neighbourhood. It was as quiet as a forgotten cemetery. The men and most of the women must have gone out to work on the fields and tea gardens. The long silence was only punctuated by the occasional baby’s cry. There were not even dogs to play with in this Muslim neighbourhood. I could wait here the whole day without meeting any potential guys or porters. Reluctantly, I nodded to my ojek rider. He seemed to be my only hope out of this place.
So I rode back with him to his village which happened to be situated at Gunung Prau base camp. Yes, the Gunung Prau recommendation finally began to make sense. In sharp contrast with the deserted base camp at Sigedang, Gunung Prau base camp was a hive of activity. There were many stalls outside the office cum resting area. They sold a variety of items from camping gear and fuel to snacks and bottled water.
The ojek rider brought me into one of his relative’s house. It was situated on a street just above the base camp area. I sat on a low stool a few feet from the very sooty hearth. They still used firewood for cooking. Presently, a young man came into the house. He was tall, slim and his long, curly hair was pushed to the back of his head by a colourful bandana. He sat down to be interviewed. He seemed rather confident, but I doubted that he had climbed Sindoro many times. He asked for 500,000 rupiah. I argued with him that 2 days on Merbabu only cost me 600,000 rupiah. He replied that he was willing to do it in two days too. Reluctantly, I paid him the 200,000 rupiah deposit. We planned to set off at midnight.
The owner of the house was a very traditional middle-age guy wearing a songkok and sarong. There were two women in the house, one presumably his wife and the other probably his sister. There were also two girls. They were just going to school when I entered the house. The folks happily led me into their living room. It was a cosy, chairless chamber that reminded me of my grandma’s place in Malaysia when I was a kid. They had a CRT TV set sitting on top of a lacquered wooden cabinet. A pillow and a couple of heavy blankets were placed at one corner facing the TV. I rested there, had lunch, dinner prepared by the lady of the house and waited for my guide. The two girls returned home from school in the afternoon. I shared my sweets with them.
Sleep was difficult as the folks insisted on keeping the TV and the room lights on all the time. Immediately after dinner, my guide turned up and briefed me on the climb. There is a window of safety from 7.00am to 11.00am when the volcano does not emit toxic gasses. He told me that we must not summit before 7.00am and had to be down by 11.00am. Actually, I had already known this. My guide probably just found out. There was a look of uneasiness on his face when he left.
Moments later, the ojek rider came up to me with the deposit that I had paid to my young guide. He had chickened out of the climb. Actually, most if not all the active volcanoes in Indonesia are climbable. I make it point to bring a guide, not because it’s absolutely necessary, but for safety reasons. I knew well that I have more climbing experience than this young “guide”. I needed someone to call for help if something untoward happened to me. I just didn’t expect him to chicken out at the last minute. Nevertheless, the village folks, though desperate to earn some extra income from tourists, were not the conmen you might find in the cities. They may lie about their experience and abilities and when their bluff is called, it doesn’t benefit anyone to insist on getting even. I just had to write off the wasted time.
The ojek driver who introduced the guide was visibly embarrassed. Without getting harsh, I asked him to try contacting the guy at Sigedang and see if he could find me a guide at this hour. We managed to get through, but there was no one available at such short notice. My dream of climbing Sindoro was dashed.
“You must feel disappointed.” said the ojek rider. “Let me make it up to you. I’ll bring you up Gunung Prau.”
Gunung Prau again. How convenient.
“No way.” I said.
“OK, I’ll get the owner of the house to go up with you. He’ll accept 250,000 rupiah.”
Sarong Man? I looked doubtfully at him.
There was nothing I could do, stranded in this village below Dieng at almost 10.00pm. I figured that since Gunung Prau was just at my doorstep, I might as well climb it. Both the ojek rider and Sarong Man assured me that the views were awesome.
“How long will it take?” I asked Sarong Man.
“Eh …. 5 hours, maybe.” he replied.
I decided to climb ultralight (with only cameras, water and snacks), reach the summit just in time to see the sunrise, then get down for breakfast.
“In that case we should set off at 12 midnight?”
“Yes…” Sarong Man replied.
I didn’t quite like the diffident way he replied, but my bigger concern at that moment was Sarong Man climbing Gunung Prau in his sarong. I was relieved when Sarong Man greeted me in his pants and without his songkok at midnight. We walked down to base camp square, still brightly illuminated at this hour. Many of the stalls were still open and there was even music in the background. We entered the brightly lit base camp office and I registered for my climb.
Together, we walked out of the village and ascended a steep footpath. The first part of the path was concrete steps ascending to the highest house in the village. Then it turned rocky and passed through some vegetable plots. Further up, were closed warungs with seats and shelter. Some folks had decided to camp next to the warungs. As I ascended in the dark, I ran into many youngsters. Some were young courting couples, armed with tents and looking like they were eloping. I was the only one climbing with a guide. The path was very steep and slippery at several parts, but it was so obvious and well-trodden that it’s hard to get lost even if you climb in the dark.
As you can see from the map, there are 3 “pos”. There is no shelter at these checkpoints – just a signboard to indicate your progress. When we reached the second “pos” barely 1 hour into the climb, I realised that something must be very wrong with Sarong Man’s calculations. I kept asking him if we were climbing too fast. He was silent and didn’t seem to understand my concerns.
Things only dawned on him when we arrived at the summit at 2.00am. Yes, I later found out that the climb only takes 3 hours for the young couples. I did it in 2 hours and had to wait 3 hours for the sun to rise before I could take any pictures! I was flummoxed. Why on earth did Sarong Man set off at midnight? All around us, were tents brought up by the couples. If Sarong Man had wanted to climb at midnight anyway, why didn’t he ask me to bring my tent along so that I could sleep and wait for the sunrise (albeit a lot less romantically)? Could he not predict that we would end up waiting for hours in the cold and darkness if we set off at midnight? Could he not have planned to start at 3.00am, for instance? It seemed like Sarong Man was incapable of planning and organising things. Or perhaps, in spite of being a native of the village that hosts Gunung Prau base camp, he has never climbed the mountain before!
I stood there in the cold and darkness, stranded on Lover’s Hill. The prospect of any of the couples unzipping their tents and welcoming us inside was pure fantasy. If we had waited here for 3 hours, both of us would have almost certainly suffered from hypothermia. I spoke to Sarong Man and insisted on descending. He was hesitant, still wondering why I had decided to do that. I nearly lost my cool. Did he think that I was keen to descend? This was the first mountain that I had climbed without taking any pictures.
We descended in total darkness. My mood was equally dark. Unfortunately, there were no shelters like the closed warungs near the top. I was probably even more reluctant to descend than Sarong Man, but I had to do it. Gunung Prau was such an easy mountain, I thought I could leave everything in the hands of this moron. About 15 mins into the descent, a combination of sleepiness and frustration made me lose my focus. I slipped and fell. It wasn’t a heavy fall, but it so happened that my right knee was tucked inwards and when I landed, my right thigh muscles became overstretched. It was a familiar feeling that I had experienced during TKD training in the army when our legs were forced apart by the sadistic instructors. The pain was intense but not debilitating. To control the pain, I had to descend very slowly with a bamboo stick in hand. All this while, Sarong Man was very caring and apologetic, massaging my leg every time I sat down to rest. He even offered to carry my cameras. I refused to let him do it. Yes, Gunung Prau was a big mistake. It was a total disaster, but I didn’t feel like scolding him anymore.
With my injury, the descent took longer than the ascent. When the vegetable plots came into view, it was sunrise. I was able to walk faster on the paved footpath. I soon reached base camp, paid Sarong Man the agreed amount, packed up and returned to Wonosobo to catch a bus to Semarang.