Home > Photography, Travel > Climbing Gunung Semeru, East Java, Indonesia

Climbing Gunung Semeru, East Java, Indonesia

I don’t know why, but I have weakness for volcanoes. There are plenty of them in Indonesia (in fact about 130 active). I just had to pick one. So I did. Gunung Semeru is the one I picked as my destination. It is one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia and it is also the highest point of Java at 3645m.

All the planning happened quite swiftly. Trek was booked with local indonesian travel agency, fairly cheap flight from Singapore to Surabaya with China Airlines. I opted for travel agency rather than independent travel due to lack of time. Itinerary had to fit into 5 days sharp. And there was lot to do. My aim was to climb Semeru and on the way back pay the second visit to Gudung Bromo with its famous sunrise. I was also curious how much it had changed after eruption in 2010. This time I didn’t travel alone. My buddy Dan was about to join me on this adventure.

Semeru, or Mount Semeru (Indonesian: Gunung Semeru), is a volcano located in East Java, Indonesia. It is the highest mountain on the island of Java. The stratovolcano is also known as Mahameru, meaning ‘The Great Mountain. The name derived from Hindu-Buddhist mythical mountain of Meru or Sumeru, the abode of gods. Source: Wikipedia

Milky Way shot at Kalimati, just below Gunung Semeru

Milky Way shot at Kalimati, just below Gunung Semeru

We spent first night in Surabaya in Da Riffi hostel just 3 km from Juanda Airport. Facilities and rooms are fairly basic but it was only for one night and for SGD $10 including breakfast it is a steal. Next day we were picked up by our guide and drove about 4-5 hours to Ranupani village, the starting point of our trek. On the way we stopped for mandatory health check which consisted of measuring height, weight, blood pressure and answering question about respiratory problems. While waiting for doctor we encountered fully naked woman walking on the streets which I found quite odd in any country but even more in conservative Indonesia. I guess she must have had some mental illness, I have no other explanation for that.

Anyway, that was a small intermezzo. We checked in to a home stay in Ranupani village. Again it was very basic but home family was extremely kind to us. Soon we discovered that main problem will be heat or cold for that matter. Village itself was in about 2000m above sea level and temperature in that altitude during night is quite low. Not to mention there was no heating in the house. That’s why hot tea for dinner was very welcome. Also shower, even hot, had very weak pressure but it was better than nothing. Preparing for the sleep meant put on few layers of clothing and covering ourselves with very thin blanket. Somehow it reminded me of my mandatory military service back home and cold winter nights in the barracks. And boy night was cold. I had very little sleep and when I managed to fall asleep I was woken up by early morning prayers. Dan did much better in this department and didn’t seemed to be bothered by anything.

I couldn’t wait for the breakfast and especially for hot tea which we really learned to appreciate. After that we packed our gear and of we went for 18km trek to the base camp. First part from Ranupani to Ranu Kumbolo we walked mostly in the forrest with occasional opening with view of the scenery. We saw the Semeru almost entire way puffing steam and gas regularly every 20-30 minutes. At Ranu Kumbolo, a half way stop, we had little longer break and lunch. After that we started to cut down the next 9km of walk all the way to Kalimati, our base camp, which was located just below the volcano. Terrain was not terribly difficult at this stage but heat and weight of luggage definitely sucked out lots of juice from me. Oddly enough, even though days are extremely hot with temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius, the nights are freezing cold with temperature dropping down all the way to zero or even lower. We were about to learn that on our own skin. In Kalimati, our base camp, guides and porters set up the tents and prepared the dinner. Sun set fairly quickly and at 6pm it was already dark. Sky was absolutely clear and soon we could see the Milky Way as clear as you possibly can without telescope. We managed to make some photographs but then we decided to have an early rest since tomorrow was a summit day, though climb starting at 2am.

Early rest was a good idea but it proved pretty hard to fall asleep. I was in a tent, had several layers of clothing but no sleeping bag. In 2700m altitude with night temperatures around freezing point it is not a good idea. Somehow there was an misunderstanding in communication with travel agency, however I remember specifically asking about sleeping bags. Nevertheless, this was the current situation and we had to cope wit it. Dan curled into a mat he was supposed to sleep on. I did pushups all night long to keep myself somewhat warm and thus I didn’t get much sleep. Unexpected exercise lasted till about 1am when I decided this makes no sense and I went for a little walk. Grass chunks were crispy covered with morning frost. Some porters were still awake engaged in conversation while some tried to sleep …. bare feet. Resilient people…but I think it is still crazy. I was walking around, jumping, squating, doing whatever I could to keep warm. Finaly one of the guides waved at me to join them by the fire. I cannot really describe how good it felt. Heat from fire and cup of coffee was all I needed. Sitting there starring into flames for another half an hour I tried to mentally prepare myself for what was coming. 30 minutes passed fast and it was time to get ready. I packed my camera and tripod and left everything else in the camp. Before we moved on our guide said a little prayer and we were on our way right after that.

Usually the climb from base camp consist from two stages. Reach the tree line, overnight there and then next day summit attack. We were about to do it in one go. That is altitude difference of nearly 1000m. It was very early morning with bright moonlight however we needed headlamps or torches to proceed. Soon after we started our ascent the cold just disappeared. Path lead almost straight up, only bending when avoiding trees. With quite steep slope it was soon clear this is not going to be that easy. After about two hours we reached the tree line. Sky was still very clear with thousands of stars, however Milky Way was not as visible as previous night. After little rest we caught up with breath and started our summit attack. This is where it got really though. For some reason I thought it is going to be rocky surface we will be climbing on but the mountain side was covered with thick layer of volcanic ash, dust and small loose rocks. This was the very definition of dusty environment. From this point the progress was very slow. Three steps ahead and then slide back two. Feet just had no grip on surface. There was occasional small rock or hardened ash that we could hold on to but that was it. It was to be like this all the way to the summit. We climbed in straight line on about 45 degrees slope. At first I was making so little progress that I thought I will never make it to the top. But after a while, using certain techniques I was able to move slowly up. I guess my weight didn’t help it too much either and I was still sliding downhill considerably. Essentially I had to kick my feet into the dust, find more less harder ground and then put my weight on it. Keep repeating this and you make a progress but it was not always easy to follow this technique. Air was full of dust and I had it everywhere. Air was also considerably thinner in this altitude. Dan did much better than me and he reached the summit about 10-20 minutes ahead of me. Eventually I made my last push too and reached the summit shortly after sunrise. We stood on the highest point of Java.

Gunung Semeru volcano

Semeru, the highest point on Java and one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia.

View was fascinating however it was very windy and also pretty cold there. After observing regular gas/steam eruption from a crater just bellow the summit and few photos, we were ready to get down. 45 minutes to an hour on the summit is good enough. We began our descent and this time  we really appreciated the dusty-ashy surface. Going down up to the tree line was kind of fun. It felt similar to skiing in fresh snow. It took more than two hours to climb up this section as opposed to coming down in less than 30 minutes. The forest section with dusty but hard surface  was a tougher cookie and this was typical descent with lots of strain on tights and knees. About mid way down I felt strong pain in my right knee and was unable to bend it fully and hold my weight on it. Dan didn’t do too well either. He got a stomach problem of some sort and his face was turning greenish. Also sun was showing it’s strength and it was getting really hot. It took quite lot of effort to get down to the base camp. I was dead tired and crawled straight to my tent. Somehow managed to get half of my body in, while feet were still sticking out and I just lied there for about 20 minutes completely motionless.

This was not the end of the hardship. We were about to get back to Ranupani village, our original starting point, which was about 18 km walk away. Not fun. Temperatures were well above 30 degrees Celsius and this time I had to carry my big backpack as well as camera bag.  Soon after breakfast we were on our way back. Usually the return trip feels much shorter and faster, but not this one. Our first milestone was Ranu Kumbolo  with it’s lake but it felt like somebody pushed it further away over the night. I felt we never going to reach the end of this leg. Eventually we made it and we had short 30 minute break before tackling the remaining section. I have to thank Dan, who took over my camera bag at this point. Big backpack alone was bloody heavy and my knee pain just got worse. I couldn’t keep the leg straight on uneven surface and bending it meant sharp pain every time I stepped on it or accidentally kicked something on the path. At first I felt it only when I was going downhill but now the pain was almost constant, no matter the terrain profile. This was the point when it was more matter of mental strength rather than physical. Progress was slow but eventually we reached the village, both completely exhausted, dusty, dirty, sweaty with feet in pieces. Nice shower, first in 2 days in dust, felt great 🙂 We stayed with the same lovely host family as before. They are very nice people. All of them Muslims but I noticed a Christian cross above one of the doors. There was also a Hindi temple in the village. Our guide was of Christian faith himself. This village was great example of religious tolerance and that is what this world needs. They all live here in harmony and peace and they are proof it is possible.

[tb_google_map address=”Semeru, indonesia” width=”100%” height=”300px” zoom=”12″ maptype=”satellite”]


This was the end of first part of the trip. Tomorrow we are off to Tengerr Caldera to visit the Gudung Bromo. It will be  my second time there and I am looking forward to revisit this magical place. As a conclusion to Semeru trek, it was one of the toughest things I ever done but I am glad I did it. It was a good test of resilience, physical and mental strength. Only downside was that I didn’t take as many photographs as I would like to mainly because of physical exhaustion.

Categories: Photography, Travel Tags: ,
  1. Brian
    August 23, 2012 at 2:38 am

    “While waiting for doctor we encountered fully naked woman walking on the streets which I found quite odd in any country but even more in conservative Indonesia. I guess she must have had some mental illness, I have no other explanation for that.”
    I’ll bet that you did not take picture of her 😉

    • Richard
      August 23, 2012 at 4:04 am

      There are some situations when you really don’t take the photo. This was one of those.

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