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Climbing Gunung Gede in a Day: West Java

Last week, I celebrated Independence Day by coming to a fuller appreciation of the virtue that lay in patience, resilience and managing one’s limitations. Waking up at 3:30 a.m. to drive up to Cibodas where we would start our three-day hike, I was advised by a cell phone text message from the advance team to go back to sleep.

The mountain was closed to trekkers by a blanket security order to ensure exclusive access for a group from the Ministry of Health and Youth Affairs.

The two extra hours in bed meant two extra hours on the road. Battling through the mass exodus out of Jakarta, I was told to pray to Raden Surya Kencana for permission to visit his domain.

The Cartesian thinker would have not worried. Mt Gede and Mt Pangrango National Park requires a mandatory booking at least 30 days prior to the trek and reconfirmation three days prior for Indonesians. It has a 600 persons-per-day quota. We had booked. We would go up that mountain.

I prayed to the encouragement of Ayu, who was driving. Our navigator Erik pledged an offering of the best stick of goat satay he would make that night.

Perhaps it was appropriate that the hillbilly from Bali was to pray to the mountain deity on behalf of a Javanese beauty and Padang tough, but all was to no avail. Arriving before noon, we were advised that our permit had been revoked.

We accepted the news in humility and walked to the Cibereum waterfalls to join the advance team in commiseration.

That walk alone was worth the trip: The blue lake en route was calming and the expansive view of dense rainforest covering the two mountains soothing.

I picked watercress by the falls to add color and spice to our kingly, camp-side, four-course meal.

That evening, my mouth was half full with the first bite of satay when I remembered Erik’s pledge. We may get to the mountain-top yet. We selected the best satay stick and made our offering.

Here’s the plan: the eight of us would get up to hike at 4 a.m. to give potential rangers the slip. We’d pack provisions for the day and just walk for the pleasure of it. No rush. We would get up as far as we could and return midday.

*****
In hindsight I thank the officials for closing the mountain off and deflecting the hordes that would have gone up to party that Independence Day weekend. The ban became another test for those worthy of the climb.

Two in our group didn’t feel well enough to start that morning. They stayed back and served us dinner by a crackling campfire upon our return at nightfall.

Halfway to the top, we came across an obstacle course created by a 20-meter-wide cascade of near-boiling water.

Gingerly walking along the cliff’s edge trying not to slip into the hot water or the emptiness to our right, we emerged into a clearing with an open view of the hot waterfall tumbling onto ferns, rising steam a transparent veil to the landscape beyond.

Behind the falls was a mass of my favorite Sundanese salad pohpohan, a tree whose leaves tasted somewhere between crunchy fresh lettuce and spicy betel leaves that hinted of basil and mint.

It was another feast, having more greens than we could possibly eat with our rice and reheated tongseng kambing (sweet goat curry).

After the heavy lunch, another from our group fell back. He chose to hang out by the pristine warm river where he could splash about, and we would join him on the way back down.

The five survivors, including 9-year-old Fidel, made it up to the top after scaling a steep slope to be rewarded with the view.
It was literally breathtaking: At over 2,900 meters altitude, the air over the crater was thin and occasionally laced with sulfur.
Standing on the crater rim, there was a rare moment of complete stillness.

Silence. No crunching of twigs or gravel underfoot, no voices, no more birdcall, no traffic — the wind’s caress the only reminder of motion.

*****
My monkey brain keeps going back to its chatter.

“Relax, let it be,” says Ayu. “They’re not quite human yet so you must excuse them.”

The notion is absurd, tickling me to simmer down, stretch my lips towards my ears and shake my head.

She is referring to a gaggle of louts in sandals who are making signs of moving away from the hot waterfalls and pools, leaving emptied shampoo sachets and puddles of spittle in their wake.
Their campsite was a carnage of wrappers. We’re not the only group defying the ban to climb.

Later, a fit Australian striding up the mountain paused from treating it as an obstacle course to comment that the littered campsites were “Just like Jakarta.”

I like to think that eco-conscious trekkers are beginning to catch up in numbers with the non-sapient hominids. This mountain is a lot cleaner than Jakarta — or any other mountain I’ve climbed in Indonesia, for that matter.

We came across the louts again, curled like exhausted puppies under the shade of trees on the summit, sandals intact.

Someone from our group reminds them in a motherly voice to take home all their rubbish.

Sleepy heads nod sheepish smiles.

Kadek Krishna Adidharma is a Bali-based environmental engineer who works as a cultural liaison officer and is an interpreter. He can be reached at kadek@adidharma.net