Saturday, June 20, 2009

Heidi High

Recently, I had the pleasure of ascending Gunung Gede, one of Indonesia's many still smoking volcanoes, with a group of sunny masochists called Java Lava. Gede lies up near Puncak and can be reached via the beautiful botanical gardens at Cibodas.

Around 30 of us palefaces were embarking on a three day hike, accompanied by an almost equal number of local porters. These tree trunk legged mountain warriors had the unenviable task of heaving our huge backpacks up the mountain along with their own gear, leaving us Lillywhite bules unencumbered. Our Javanese Sherpas loaded themselves up like pack mules in some kind of symbolic re-enactment of the colonial yoke and set off at a cracking pace.

Several young children from the city's various international schools were also making the ascent and inevitably proved more up to the task than the adults. These fresh limbed, light bodied youngsters were able to easily win the battle against the unremitting cruelty of gravity and quickly scaled the summit before bounding halfway back down again to regale their huffing and puffing parents.

Fuelled only by a diet of Cadbury's chocolate and vitamin packed cigarettes, I made it to our first campsite just as dusk was falling. The site was set into the stunning forest on the side of the mountain, just above some steaming hot springs. Turning my attention from the beautiful scenery to more pedestrian matters, I pitched my tent, a pathetically flimsy one-man job that I covered with a huge, waterproof plastic sheet of the kind used in roadside food stalls. I'd bought this lifesaving piece of plastic down the market the week before for a mere Rp.30,000.

After my tent had endured the derision of some of the hardier, hiking boot and moustache clad members of the group, I cooked myself a gourmet dinner of instant noodles and tinned tuna. I then turned in for a night of secret gin sculling my sleeping bag. I had the last laugh however when my trusty plastic sheet ensured that I emerged unscathed from the night's shower whilst their fancy Eiger tents leaked like barges.

After another appetizing meal of chemical saturated noodles and chocolate, we broke camp and made for the summit of Gede. Eventually the forest opened out onto the 3000 plus metre peak of the volcano. After sloping off and discreetly parking my breakfast behind a tree (and wishing I'd bought more fresh underwear with me) I joined the others on the summit in brilliant sunshine and stared down a sheer cliff face into the spectacular smoking crater.

Several hundred photos later we descended the few hundred metres to our second campsite. Now ascending and descending clearly exact different tolls on the human frame. Ascending will get you breathing heavily and sweating like a Bluebird driver with a broken AC of course. Descending has its own quite literal pitfalls however and the constant jarring on the old legs turns them to jelly in no time at all. It was only thanks to a couple more vitamin C and electrolyte filled lung rockets that I was able to make it down in one piece.

The second campsite was a wonderfully untouched and enormous grass meadow situated in the original larger crater of the volcano. The meadow was flanked on both sides by steep forest covered peaks. Alas, one of the porters, the rookie of the bunch, had failed to make it with one of the whitey's gear, proving that nurture rather than nature is the making of a sturdy sherpa. The sun set in a riot of red, plunging us into the sort of almost freezing temperatures that necessitate the building of a nice, big campfire. You can't beat a jolly good burn up and the kids, no doubt spurred on by that weird preadolescent desire to set fire to everything, were in their element.

Sunrise the following morning was magnificent. The sun burst over the peaks, half blinding us as its rays refracted off the dew soaked grass. This was the stuff of life. All of nature is surely unquestionably beautiful. Only man makes ugliness. I sat and watched feeling as close to spiritual as my grizzled old atheistic weltanschauung would permit and gave thanks that I hadn't decided to spend the weekend in a shopping mall. It felt good to be about as far away from modern life as I could get, unencumbered by the ideological rubble of the new century and freed from the blank, joyless positivity of the PR speak that now saturates our every waking moment and the crushingly depressing effect that it engenders in me.

Then came the payoff. After another stomach turning breakfast of instant noodles and tinned curried squid (I must have had some kind of blackout down at Hero) it was time for the 8 km extreme downhill trudge back to reality. Towards the end, the old legs were starting to pack in and almost gave way a couple of times. No man, or mountain, has put me down yet though and I managed to drag my wounded carcass across the finish line in time to see the still sprightly kids enjoying a game of Frisbee and asking where we had been all this time. It was only the special ire reserved for child killers in jail, plus my now near paraplegic condition, that restrained me at that point. Mind you, the whole trip had been a stroll in the park compared with the subsequent drive back to Jakarta through 37 km of gridlocked Puncak.

Java Lava? These people are evil destroyers of men, however if you are interested in joining one of the group’s many expeditions, then take a look at their website.