Merapi volcano, Java
Merapi is Indonesia
's most active volcano, and that's saying something in this country that has more active volcanoes than any other! Located in Central Java, it is also dangerously close to a very densely populated part of the country. Hence its frequent eruptions often affect the people, sometimes even catastrophically so, such as in 2010 when enormous pyroclastic flows
and subsequent lahars wreaked havoc on the southern slopes of the mountain, where whole villages were buried and hundreds perished.
Amazingly, however, you can tour such areas of destruction by jeep; this is even an evidently popular local tourism activity. So don't expect to have it all to yourself.
More background info:
Gunung Merapi, to give it its full name in Indonesian, is not only the most active (and youngest), it is also one of the biggest and tallest volcanoes in Indonesia
, at nearly 3000m (10,000 feet).
The name simply translates from Javanese roughly as 'fire mountain' (an almost depressingly common unimaginative name for volcanoes; cf. e.g. Eldfell near Heimaey
). It is not the only one of this name – so do not confuse this volcano on Java with the other Mount Merapi, or sometimes Marapi, on Sumatra! To confuse matters even more, there is yet another (dormant) Merapi in Java, namely near Ijen
This one, the big Mt Merapi in Central Java is indeed an incredibly active volcano and has been for a long time. Early historic eruptions include a catastrophic event in 1006 which is said to have covered all of Central Java in ash and led to entire culture shifts (such as the fall of the kingdoms that left Borobudur and Prambanan behind – see below
Since at least the mid-16th century, Merapi has erupted every 2 to 5 years on average. Mostly these are smaller-scale events, but every so often they are disastrous. Looking only at the last few years of activity in this century, a particularly serious phase occurred in late 2000/early 2001 with numerous pyroclastic flows
(at times in hourly intervals!), some travelling up to 4 to 5 miles (7km) down the flanks of the volcano into the valleys below.
After a period of relative calm, 2006 saw another very destructive phase of Merapi, with more pyroclastic flows and rockfalls. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from the area around the volcano. Yet there were fatalities all the same. But the worst aspect was the major earthquake that accompanied the activity on 27 May, which in and around the nearby city of Yogyakarta killed some 6000 people and made hundreds of thousands homeless. This event may also have triggered the onset of the disastrous Sidoarjo mudflow
In 2010 Merapi woke up again, and even more violently still. The 2010 eruptions are said to have been the largest since 1930. Huge ash plumes were ejected (resulting in major disruption to air traffic) and massive pyroclastic flows and lahars caused large-scale destruction. Some 350,000 people were evacuated from the area, yet there were fatalities again: this time the death toll of the 2010 eruptions stood at 353 in total. Several villages were completely destroyed. On the tours offered along the southern slopes of Merapi it is the ruins from the 2010 eruptions that you mostly get to see.
Smaller-scale eruptions resumed in 2011, but were nowhere near as destructive as the previous episodes.
Mt Merapi is one of the so-called “decade volcanoes”, a set of sixteen volcanoes worldwide that have been selected (in association with the United Nations) as especially worthy of study due to their history of destructive eruptions and proximity to larger human populations. (Others in this exclusive circle include Nyiragongo
, Mauna Loa
Merapi is one of the best monitored volcanoes in the world too (my guide even quipped that this made it the “most expensive” volcano in the world). However, the high population density within dangerous vicinity of the volcano makes it difficult to prevent people from getting harmed. Residents in the area are naturally reluctant to leave their homes after warnings by the volcanologists. Erring on the side of caution is a double-edged sword. If evacuations are ordered but then no major eruption actually takes place, people get angry about the apparently needless evacuation. This can undermine the authority of the scientists monitoring the volcano. Next time their warnings might be ignored. On the other hand, if no warnings are issued but the volcano does erupt, then this obviously doesn't help the volcanologists' reputation either. But getting it just right is almost impossible with such a complex issue as predicting a volcano's exact behaviour. The local superstitions about the volcano can also get in the way … ancient beliefs about spirits and gods sending signs in the form of volcanic activity are common in such places – just think of Hawaii
and its Pele cult!
To educate locals and visitors alike, a volcano museum was set up in the village of Kaliurang near Merapi that focuses on the scientific findings about the volcano and other disasters. But old beliefs die hard – and I was told that the “spiritual keeper” of Merapi had found himself similarly scapegoated for the disasters as the volcanologists usually are.
What there is to see: Merapi's barren cone is often shrouded in clouds, so the volcano itself is actually the least likely thing to be seen here.
However, jeep tours into the lahar flows and to villages destroyed in the 2010 eruption on the southern slopes of the volcano have become a popular tourist activity. Furthermore there is a modern museum of volcanology in a nearby village.
When I started planning my trip to Indonesia
in the summer of 2014, it was suggested to me to include a tour of Merapi's trail of destruction in my itinerary. Previously not even having been aware of this option I happily agreed, of course. I expected a rather off-the-beaten-track, exotic excursion into deserted, lonely areas, an expedition-type activity even. How wrong I was.
It quickly became clear that Merapi tours are big business locally when we got closer to the small towns of Kaliurang and Cangkringan. There were dozens of posters advertising jeep tours and the whole place had a bustling, rock-festival-like atmosphere. We were assigned a jeep and driver and together with several other jeeps full of tourists we took off along the dusty tracks leading into the areas affected by the 2010 eruption.
And when I say dusty, I mean volcanic-ash kind of dust! So it is advisable to wear a face mask to prevent you from inhaling too much of those ash particles – they are potentially a health hazard!
Driving through this area you not only see dozens of other tourist jeeps, but also large numbers of trucks (kicking up even more ash-dust than the jeeps). These trucks transport material mined from the volcanic lahars' deposits. In fact, there's a hell of a lot of such mining activity going on, making for a kind of gold-rush atmosphere. The reason for this is that the deposits of material that pyroclastic flows
and lahars leave behind provide top-grade base material for making cement and concrete, that is building material that is in very high demand in Indonesia
, especially in fast-growing Jakarta
. So they start digging even before the material has cooled down properly – steam still rises from where they dig into the lahar deposits!
The level of tourist activity is astonishing too. In addition to all those jeeps cruising around, there are also souvenir and food stalls at the various points of interest where the jeeps stop.
On our jeep tour we first drove past several clusters of destroyed houses – now just shells slowly being reclaimed by vegetation. Then we stopped inside one of the lahar flows, to kick about in the dust for a bit (and feel the heat from below at some rock pile deep in the ravine). Then we made a longer stop at another destroyed house which had become something like an impromptu museum.
The place apparently used to be a motorbike repair shop, so wrecks of motorbikes are a predictable type of exhibit here. Also on display are skeletons of cattle, ash-covered household items, molten glass and electronics, charred musical instruments, torn rags, warped CDs and such like. It all had an eerie atmosphere. On the other hand, the large numbers of visitors, both local and international, counterpointed this eeriness with a rather incongruous party atmosphere.
For one thing, there was lots of selfie-taking – especially with those new telescopic sticks to attach smartphones to that had just hit the market and were becoming a really annoying craze everywhere. A rather large proportion of the tourists here clearly had no interest whatsoever in the vestiges of the volcanic drama that were all around. They only seemed interested in having easy-going fun and taking pictures of themselves. They probably never even saw the lahars and the ruins or took in what they stood for. And during the jeep rides, which are naturally quite bumpy, girls were screeching as if they were on some kind of funfair ride. I found it quite distracting from what I had come to see and experience here. But never mind ...
The best longer stop was at another tourist hotspot with yet more souvenir stalls near what was labelled as a “bangker” or 'bunker'. This was indeed an underground shelter provided to local residents to take refuge in in case of a sudden eruption with pyroclastic flows coming down the volcano's flanks. I was told by my guide that a group of people had to hold out inside this bunker for six weeks before they were dug out again after the 2006 eruptions that had covered the bunker in a layer of pyroclastic flow deposits seven metres (20 feet) thick.
You can go down and enter the bunker. Few other people did (too busy taking stick-assisted group pictures outside) so once inside, a silent, eerie atmosphere suddenly descended. There isn't much to see inside the bunker (any more), only a couple of lamps dangling from the ceiling. Little side rooms were supply larders and toilets. What it must have been like to be trapped inside this small space for weeks, not knowing if anybody would ever find them, is hard to imagine.
To the north of the bunker and car park it was possible to walk away from the masses and up close to one of the deep ravines cut through the land by the lahars. This was also as close to the volcano as it was possible to get – and here there was no mining activity. Hence you could see the lahar deposits in their unadulterated form. Particularly impressive were the large boulders embedded in the deposits on the flanks of the lahar ravines. It gives you an idea of the forces at play during such events. In some places the depth of the deposit layers was 30m (100 feet) or more. Merapi sure has some muscle!
Our final stop on the tour was at yet another point where you could look down into a stretch of the lahar flow where frantic mining was going on. There was also a small pavilion with photos of the immediate post-eruption destruction of villages, as well as a particularly large boulder, presumably deposited here by the volcano too. Near the deep ravine warning signs admonished visitors not to get too close to the crumbly edge – which many people promptly did anyway.
Then we were driven back to the starting point of the tour and that was it. So we got back into our regular car and carried on towards Yogya. En route we passed dams built to stem the flood of lahar mud in riverbeds and I wondered how well these might work, if at all …
My guide asked if we should also visit the local Merapi volcano museum, and obviously I eagerly agreed. In contrast to the museum-like displays at the ex-motorbike repair shop earlier, it turned out that this museum offered a proper, modern, very science-focused kind of exhibition.
In the foyer was a large model of the Merapi mountain and surrounding lands. In the exhibition proper there were loads of charts and tables outlining Merapi's geology and different phases of activity. These were also illustrated by numerous highly impressive photos of pyroclastic flows, ash plumes and destroyed villages.
In its own film theatre the museum also shows a 20-minute film about Merapi – once you've sat through a rather lengthy local advertising block, which I found so annoying that I nearly left prematurely. But eventually you do get to see some volcanic footage.
There weren't so many original artefacts in this museum, the few items on display included yet another wreck of a motorbike, some molten objects and a lava bomb weighing 65 kg – you don't want that falling on your head!
In a separate room there was also an extra section about the tsunami
of Boxing Day 2004 and the destruction it caused in Banda Aceh
in particular, including some photos familiar from the Banda Aceh Tsunami Museum
. The main focus, though, is on Merapi and volcanology.
All descriptive texts and labels came with English translations of OK quality, so it was possible to get more out of this museum than in other ones I encountered in Indonesia, which are often not as foreigner-friendly in their commodification. This museum was also sober, factual and calm – quite unlike the atmosphere on those jeep tours. It was a very fitting counterpoint, I found.
Despite the somewhat detracting factors of the other tourists' behaviour and their unexpectedly large numbers, I found the jeep tour quite cool as well. It certainly offered a rare chance to get close to such volcanic phenomena as pyroclastic flow
deposits and lahar ravines. You don't get to see that sort of thing very often elsewhere. And the addition of the displays at the former bike shop and especially the bunker provided elements of chilling drama to it all too. So on balance I must say that this is really a very special component in Indonesia
's dark-tourism portfolio.
some 20 miles (30 km) north of the Central Java capital city of Yogyakarta, which is also the most touristy city in all of Indonesia
, and some 25 miles (40 km) west of Surakarta (aka Solo).
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: not as remote and difficult as you might expect, prices vary but are not expensive.
Details: You will need some form of transport to get to the starting point(s) of the jeep tours in and around Kaliurang and its Merapi volcano museum, most likely from the city of Yogyakarta (Yogya). Apparently there are even day-return excursion packages to Merapi from that tourist hub city. But you can get there independently as well. When I was there it was part of a longer pre-planned trip with a car and driver and a guide; we had started from Solo (Surakarta) and did Merapi en route to Yogya, which was perfectly feasible.
For the Merapi jeep tours there are in fact several options of different durations, ranging from one hour to over five hours, depending on how many sites are included. Prices vary accordingly. Such tours are offered e.g. by Grinata Adventure or MJTC. Shop around.
To enter Kaliurang and the Merapi National Park you have to pay 3000 IDR at a booth by the roadside.
The Merapi volcano museum is located ca. 1 km to the south of the centre of Kaliurang. Its opening times are: Tuesday to Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; admission is 3000 IDR, and the film screening costs another 5000 IDR.
If you need accommodation to stay overnight in Kaliurnag (maybe because you want the longest tour and/or the sunrise option), then you can easily find something here. Being a traditional mountain retreat (the Dutch used to come here during colonial times for respite from the heat – today it's still popular with Yogya residents for weekend breaks), there are plenty of options around in all price categories. Vogels Hostel comes recommended by many; they also offer hiking and volcano climbing tours (volcanic activity levels permitting, of course).
Time required: The jeep tours on offer take between one and five hours plus, depending on how elaborate a package you choose; the museum takes between one and two hours; the film shown in its theatre lasts 20 minutes (plus adverts).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Nothing much in the more immediate vicinity, but one top dark-tourism site that is indirectly connected with Merapi (through the 2006 earthquake and eruptions episode) is the Sidoarjo mudflow
south of Surabaya, some 160 miles (250 km) to the east. Surabaya is connected to Yogya by modern speedy trains, so it's quite easy to get there.
Further south-east is one of Indonesia's most famous volcanoes and a much visited natural-wonder attraction: Bromo, a smouldering crater within a spectacular setting in the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park, which is basically a giant caldera with several volcanic cones in it. Bromo is the most active one and also the easiest to access. In fact, tourism is very big business here. Standard programmes include an early rise to witness the magical sunrise over Bromo and then a drive across the caldera followed by a dusty pony ride towards the foot of Bromo, where steps lead up to the crater rim. From there you can look down into the abyss of the crater – but often nauseatingly sharp sulphurous fumes make your eyes burn and breathing difficult.
What's really off-putting, though, is the fact that Bromo simply has become too popular for its own good. Waiting for the sunrise you have to share the viewing platform with about a thousand other tourists – and that naturally comes with all the chattering, elbowing, excessive selfie-taking and other downsides of mainstream tourist crowds. Similarly at Bromo itself: the throngs ascending the steps to the crater rim slow things down considerably and impair the overall atmosphere. It may be better at more off-season times than when I was there in August, but the mass tourism aspects are the main factor that made me decide not to include Bromo as a dark-tourism attraction with a separate chapter here. It's too mainstream these days and doesn't really have any properly dark aspects to offer. That said, though, seeing the sunset over this breathtaking scenery is one of the best visual feasts that the world has to offer. See the photos in the Indonesia gallery
An altogether different volcanic experience – and one that has to rank amongst the top dark-tourism experiences in the whole of South-East Asia – is Ijen yet further east (near the Java coast opposite Bali
). Going at night you can see a surreal and infernal spectacle that is absolutely second to none – and you only have to share it with significantly smaller numbers of other tourists than at Bromo.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Merapi is (dangerously) close to Yogyakarta
(Yogya for short), and that city is probably the most touristic of any in Indonesia
. Here you get all the cliché of Java tourism, from old palaces, temples and music and dance performances to batik shopping galore.
The main tourist highlights of the area, however, lie short distances outside the city limits. The one closer to Yoga, just 10 miles (15 km) to the north-east is the Prambanan temple complex – a relic of the times when Hinduism dominated in these parts. These ancient sights suffered quite badly during the 2006 earthquake but are being restored.
The absolutely top cultural sight not just on Java but in the whole country is certainly Borobudur
. This is Indonesia's Angkor Wat (see Cambodia
) and as such on many a world traveller's top-10 bucket list.
The site is big, yes, but having seen Angkor Wat a few years before I came to Borobudur I found it far less impressive size-wise and architecturally compared to its Cambodian world heritage cousin. However, seeing it at sunset, when all the tourist masses have left and the moonlight creates a genuinely magical fairy-tale atmosphere it is really quite wonderful and quasi-mythical (see photos in the Indonesia gallery
Borobudur is the world's largest Buddhist site and thus also a top pilgrimage destination. So you should check that the time you intend to visit the place does not coincide with any major Buddhist festivities, when the place is rammed and accommodation booked out long in advance.
The place is easily reached from Yogya, which is only 26 miles (42 km) away and has frequent bus connections. The tourism boom at the site has provided a wide range of accommodation options too, some are really good value for money (thanks to the competition I guess).
Finally, to the east of Merapi, the city of Surakarta (better known by the informal alternate name Solo) is competing with Yogyakarta as the main hotbed of Javanese culture. Here it comes in a more conservative, less touristified form. It is even still officially a separate kingdom (or princedom rather), at least on paper. You can visit the royal palace, which is part museum and part active royal residence to this day.
- Merapi 01 - restless volcano
- Merapi 02 - driving into the lahars
- Merapi 03 - house destroyed by the volcano
- Merapi 04 - destroyed house and museum
- Merapi 05 - bovine skeletons
- Merapi 06 - ex-motorbike repair shop
- Merapi 07 - shrine to the 5 November 2010 eruption
- Merapi 08 - the day the music died
- Merapi 09 - charred musical instruments
- Merapi 10 - ash-covered gamelan instruments
- Merapi 11 - molten glass
- Merapi 12 - molten radio barely identifiable
- Merapi 13 - semi-molten screen
- Merapi 14 - end of calculations
- Merapi 15 - torn clothes
- Merapi 16 - dusty forks and spoons
- Merapi 17 - bite the dust
- Merapi 18 - exploring the area by jeep
- Merapi 19 - shelter to take refuge in during an eruption
- Merapi 20 - people held out six weeks down there
- Merapi 21 - rusty steel door
- Merapi 22 - inside the bunker
- Merapi 23 - the rocks are still steamy hot in places
- Merapi 24 - deep lahar flow
- Merapi 25 - big rocks emnbedded in the mud
- Merapi 26 - danger
- Merapi 27 - gold-rush-like mining of the volcanic ash
- Merapi 28 - while it is still hot
- Merapi 29 - volcano museum
- Merapi 30 - satellite images
- Merapi 31 - very active indeed
- Merapi 32 - lava bomb
- Merapi 33 - more evidence of volcanic destructive powers
- Merapi 34 - dramatic design
- Merapi 35 - model of the mountain