If it’s not an early morning call to prayer, a wedding party, or a flock of roosters, it’s an early morning volcano trek. The alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. for the pre-dawn hike to Merapi. I had a horrible night’s sleep in a dingy room with overstuffed ruffled pillows, a blanket fit for a midget, and a host of biting fleas in the bed. Plus, I kept waking up every hour to check the time, even though the alarm was set.

Base camp is the Hostel Vogel in the mountain resort village of Kaluirang and the venerable manager of the hostel, Christian, is giving the pre-tour lecture, which began at 3:30 a.m. I am late because nobody told me about the lecture, and Tom is sleeping in because he’s “already heard it several times.” This part of the lecture I catch: Merapi is one of the most active volcanoes of Indonesia. It is currently at activity level 2, meaning “caution is advised.”

The hike to the Merapi viewpoint starts at precisely 4:00 a.m. and is led by Christian’s brother. The trail starts out on blocky concrete pavers through the jungle. Our guide sets a steady pace up the trail, keeping our group of five together – Tom and three Americans besides me. He soon leaves the main trail and dives into the jungle on what appears to be an animal track. Ghosts of fronds and banana leaves nod in the dark. Prayer chants are being broadcast over the loudspeakers in the village. Our group talks enthusiastically at first, then falls silent. Flashlights flicker over roots and stones. We stop once to briefly rest and then continue on a somewhat steeper trail to the viewpoint.

Merapi legends
Merapi legends

While day dawns, Christian’s brother gives a long and animated lecture on the history of the “Fire Mountain.” The name Merapi comes from mer, "to make" and api,which means "fire."

He explains that the volcano is intimately connected with the beliefs and practices of the people in the region. In Yogyakarta there are five religions – Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim, which are variously blended with the ancient Javanese religion. As a sacred tradition, the people make offerings to Merapi. The main annual ritual is in September and takes place above us on the flank of the mountain, but smaller offerings are made in various places throughout the year. Christian's brother thinks that the ritual may die out in another generation because the younger people aren’t keeping it alive.

The heritage of the long-established religions includes several prominent monuments and temples in the area, the most famous being the Buddhist temple Borobudur and the Hindu temple Prambanan. Yesterday we visited Borobudur, which lies in the shadow of Merapi and has had its history shaped by the volcano. The building blocks of the temple are lava from Merapi and have images carved on their surface depicting various Buddhist stories and rituals.

The temple is a multi-level structure that reminds me of Escher art. It morphs from rectangular to circular as one goes from lower to higher levels, representing higher levels of perfection. On ground level, the stone carvings are enveloped in an outer wall of blocks. Our guide explained that perhaps it was a type of seismic retrofitting after an earthquake, or perhaps the graphic depictions on the "base" level were too racey for the eyes of the people.

Borobudur top
Borobudur top

In 1006 or thereabouts (the accounts differ) Merapi blew and the mahabrala, “The Big Natural Disaster,” wiped out the temple. Jungle quickly moved in and the ruins were forgotten. Some speculate that maybe the people left the area due to the devastation. In 1814 the ruins was rediscovered by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, an Englishman who also is credited with discovering the world’s largest flower and founding the colony of Singapore.

The temple has been restored twice, first by the Dutch and more recently by a joint effort of UNESCO and the Indonesian government. UNESCO designated Borobudur as a “dead monument,” meaning it can be used for different purposes and by different religions. Taking a cue from Borobudur being considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the BMW Series 7 was launched here, on 7 Jul 2002.

Merapi’s destruction has continued to recent times and is a constant threat to the population. In the 1994 eruption, a pyroclastic flow destroyed the forest. Responding to the loss of livelihood for the local populace, the government replanted the area with trees, but then in 1997-8 more flows destroyed the saplings. Fortunately few lives were lost, a credit to the volcano early warning system.

Merapi is the most monitored volcano in Indonesia, with half a dozen observatories around the flank and on the summit. But the problem isn’t so much predicting the eruptions as getting the villagers to evacuate. The people have a daily routine of hiking up the mountain to cut grass for their cattle, which are an essential part of their livelihood. They don’t heed the eruption warnings. Why? Because they go by the spirit of the mountain, not by instruments, Christian’s brother explains.

Two people survived the last big pyroclastic flow, but they were burnt in a position of defense, crouched with hands and arms in front of their faces. Christian’s brother enacts the pose dramatically.

My hands go numb during the long discourse on religious rites. It’s not that cold, but just standing around has me shivering in my jacket. The sun tinges the mountain pink and chases the shadows down the flank. The jungle stirs with grass cutters coming from the village.

After the lecture we take some photographs and then walk back to the village, with a stop for breakfast along the way. It’s a vegetarian meal, yes! The vegetables with rice are not too spicy – just right for tourists.

Merapi observatory
Merapi observatory

Back in the village, Tom and I set out to visit the Merapi observatory. It should be easy to find, as it has a high observation tower, but we need directions from the villagers to find it. Not that we get a much better look at the volcano, as the afternoon haze is already obstructing the view. Displays on the wall show the wildly swinging seismograph traces from the 1994 eruption. Posters show people badly burned from the pyroclastic flow. I wonder if people would take the warnings more seriously if they were chanted over the prayer loudspeakers. Somehow I doubt it.  I remember an NPR broadcast on disaster planning and how it failed in the evacuation of the World Trade Center on September 11.  Among the excuses for not evacuating were "I have to go to a meeting"....