Gunung Lawu, a 3,265 meter mountain located about an hour east of Solo is a popular climb among many Indonesians, especially students. Inspired by the vicinity of the mountain to our home base, we decided to make the climb. I should start by saying that were vastly underprepared, packing too few clothes and ascending without sleeping pads or bags. Why? Well, the Lonely Planet advertises the climb as much easier than it turns out to be, claiming it takes four hours to reach the summit and noting sleeping accommodations available near the peak. In reality, the climb takes closer to six hours! We started in the early afternoon and did not reach the summit until 9pm, long after dark had fallen.
The climb itself was beautiful if not exhausting. We hiked steep, muddy slopes, slipping and scraping our knees, dirtying our clothes. The air was thick and humid. Mosquitos buzzed incessantly. The ground was swallowed in moss and shrubs. Webs of mossy trees laced together over our heads like bony fingers interlocking, so dense at times that barely any sky cut through. Palms trees swayed precariously above, bearing green and yellow coconuts.
Higher on the mountain, the thick brush cleared and the air cooled. We walked along a thin trail cut into the mountainside. Above us were steep rocky cliffs, trees jutting out at violent angles, below us, the clouds, giving way to utterly spectacular views of Java that stretched to the horizon.
Night fell after a breathtaking sunset, clouds turning orange then pink then violet. Then a strange, dreamlike mist encompassed the mountain, and we continued the hike in the dark. We used two headlamps and my phone light to guide us. All was eerily quiet, the only sounds being boots on gravel and heavy breathing. Strangely, I did not feel afraid – felt only excitement and an exhausted happiness. In the brief moments when the mist cleared, the city lights burned orange and blue below.
A few hours passed and we finally (limping, tired, and cold) found our way to the peak, indicated by a billowing Indonesian flag. I had hardly the a chance to enjoy the 360 degree view of the island because I was getting seriously cold. Wind blew from all directions. I hugged my knees to my chest. Where was this accommodation the guide book promised? How will I make it through the night? Jeff wasn’t doing so well either, he was deeply exhausted and hurting. Tony was feeling nauseous. Zach seemed the only one in high spirits.
Time to find a place to sleep. No tent, no pads, just the cold mountainside and the long, long dark. We made our way from the peak, started down the path that cut down the other side of the mountain, and about then about ten minutes in, we began to hear voices – faint murmurings, laughter – that could have easily been hallucinations. Then the unmistakable hum of a generator. Then lights!
Around the bend was a small hut, with wood siding and a corrugated steel roof. The proverbial warung at the top of the mountain! The place looked like it was falling apart, but in the cold, it was a miraculous find. Inside was a strange scene: to our left, about three dozen campers lying shoulder to shoulder, wrapped in sleeping bags, tossing and turning, coughing and snorting and trying to sleep. To our right, a stone hearth, heated with smoldering coals and smoking wood. A squat old woman sat in front of the fire, frying eggs in a cast iron pan. There was a TV set against the wall; the picture was fuzzy, showing an Indonesian soap opera.
The old woman said “Full!” No space for us to sleep. She did, however, offer us eggs and coffee, which we gratefully accepted. I swear those were the best eggs I have ever tasted in my life! Browned and crispy at the edges, the yoke fried through, salty, buttery, oh my god! I ate three. When the toady woman realized that the three of us were passing out, had no tent, and were freezing cold, she lay down a mat for us by the fire, and we joined the many campers lying on the floor, like soldiers in a barracks.
She kicked everyone out at 5am. We slept like hell and were in poor spirits when we left the warung. Most of the campers were headed towards the peak, but we decided to start down early (Jeff and Tony were in especially miserable states and expressed zero interest in the peak). But the sunrise was incredible, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The sky pink and orange with the new sun, rising over the violet mountain tops, the earth shrouded in fog that looked like ice on the cities below. Despite our bleary eyes and sick stomachs and possible hypothermia, this made it all worth it.
The hike down took about four hours. At at the bottom we were about ready to fall over and sleep for three days straight. We ate at a small warung at the base of the mountain and took a local bus back to Solo. The bus trip, as always, was bumpy, nauseating, and slow, but we made it back in one piece, another adventure notched into our belts.
Tips for visiting Gunung Lawu:
1) Wear warm clothes – sweater, hat, long pants, and a rain coat with a hood
2) Start early – while hiking in the dark was exhilarating, it is not for everyone. The ascent takes anywhere from five to seven hours, and finding sleeping accommodations at the peak can be difficult, so allow for enough time to ascend the mountain before sundown.
3) Know your Trails – There are two trails leading to the top of Gunung Lawu. One trail is significantly shorter but much steeper and often much more populated with other climbers. This trail has four rest points along the way and does pass the hostel/warung aforementioned prior to reaching the peak. The other trail (the one that I took) is more rugged, slippery, and treacherous, while it compensates by providing a more solitary climb, offering spectacular views that can’t be beat. This trail does not pass the hostel/warung near the peak and requires an extra 20-30 minutes of hiking to reach.
4) Pack a Lightweight Tent – Just in case the old woman running the warung yells “Full!”
5) Pack In, Pack Out – To put it bluntly, Indonesians do not enact proper environmental care for this national park, and many of the rest areas along the trail are sweltering trash heaps. Do not contribute to the pollution of the park, and make sure to pack out your trash.