Once again our first encounter with a volcano is a mountain shrouded in clouds. We drive to the Semeru volcano observatory up a steep road that switchbacks through a village. A sign outside reads “Lahar Advance Warning Station.”

The observatory is cleaner and better run than the others we’ve seen. The log book has detailed entries and is up-to-date. Two seismographs labeled Semeru and one labeled Bromo squiggle quietly on their drums. Doni previously said that he wants to get a seismograph to monitor Semeru. Why, I wonder? It looks well covered. Maybe there’s some volcano rivalry going on.

There’s nothing to be seen from the observatory due to the clouds. But good photos of Semeru eruptions and geologic maps of Bromo and Semeru make up for it.

Lava dam
Lava dam

We drive back down the hill and then through mountain villages to an earthen dam, which is built across the river valley to stop or at least delay lava and lahars from Semeru. We drive around the dam to the uphill side. Yes, this is the wrong side of the dam to be on, but it’s where the good campsites are. We pitch the tents as the sun sets.

If Bromo is a visual kaleidoscope, Semeru is a cacophony of sound. The wails of dissonant voices float over the lava dam. It’s like a human orchestra tuning up. Doni explains that it’s a wedding party. It goes late into the night.

Closer to camp, crickets creak in unison. In the not-very-far-distance, the mountain periodically booms. The clouds begin to lift, so possibly we’ll see something glowing on Semeru during the night.

Semeru fire activity
Semeru fire activity

To complete the camping experience, dinner will be cooked over the campfire and for that we need wood. But the area around the campsite has been picked clean. Doni has arranged with friends in the village to bring wood to the campsite. While we wait, I attempt to be useful by chopping vegetables for the soup – garlic (lots), onions, green beans, carrots, and cabbage. The villagers eventually arrive on motorcycle, carrying a bundle of wood and a canister of steamed rice. Tom mentions that when they had a group here last year, they barbequed a goat.

The campfire is very smoky. A first attempt at cooking soup is lost to the fire. Don’t these guys know about grates?, I wonder. We rearrange rocks to make a sort of grill, but heat-resistant volcano gloves are still required to keep the pot over the flame and not in it.

It’s such a pleasant evening that we debate whether we to put up the rainflies for the tents. I do, but Tom decides not to. With his persistent cold and bad cough, Doni sleeps under quarantine in the vehicle.

There’s one mosquito in my tent. Just one. And I can’t swat it. The options are to swelter in the sleeping bag or offer limbs for the feast. Music, chanting, and droning continue through the night. Semeru booms like thunder and sends rumbling rockfalls down the flanks. But when I look out, the mountain is still shrouded in clouds.

I doze off, but soon awaken to the sound of spattering on the tent. At first it’s just sprinkles, then a steady rain, and periodically it works up to a real drumming. I drift in and out of sleep and dream about lahars coming down the mountain. So do Tom and Doni, it turns out, when we compare notes in the morning. Tom couldn’t bring himself to get up and put up the rainfly, and his sleeping bag and gear got a bit damp.

The wedding songs start again at 4:00 a.m., as much in discordance as they were last night. The birds awaken at 4:30 a.m. with a cawwwwk! Pigeons begin cooing at daybreak. I lie in the tent trying to not think about having to go outside to pee. There’s a patter of feet running on top of the lava dam. A truck motor labors up the road. The people of the village are already out cutting grass.

Semeru in action
Semeru in action

Daybreak brings some clearing to the mountain. I finally get up and go out for an early morning walk while the others sleep. I climb up on the lava dam and walk its length, getting an above average view of Semeru. My camera soon has a fine whitish coating and I realize that it’s ash raining from the volcano, though the plume is headed away from our campsite. When I return to the campsite the tent has a good coating, like cake flour. This can’t be good for the lungs.

Mimosa pudica, sensitive plant,is abundant on the disturbed ground around the campsite. While water boils for tea, I amuse myself by poking it and watching it close up. I wonder how much ash it takes to close a Mimosa.

Semeru’s plume changes direction and drifts our way, so it’s time to break camp. We throw the flour-coated gear in the car and head back down the mountain. Back in civilization, we pass a school house in Lumajang, where Doni stops the car.

“Are you ready for this?” he asks.

Lumajang school
Lumajang school

We check our cameras and our notebooks, step out of the vehicle, and are immediately mobbed by excited school children, all neatly dressed in their school uniforms. The principal comes out and Tom introduces me as an English teacher. The principal asks if I speak Javanese. No, but I’m learning. He seems disappointed and says something about needing an English teacher at the school. A second teacher is taking pictures of us with his cell phone.

“How do you do?” one girl ventures, giggling.

“Fine, thank-you. How do you do?” I reply.

“What is your name?”

“My name is Jeanie.” They repeat the name, and cheers go up from the crowd.

“Where you from?”

“I am from America.” More cheers.

We take pictures of each other taking pictures and then have the kids pose for a final group shot before attempting an escape. Bye-bye! We swap addresses to send pictures to.

As we drive away, I think about the lava dam and the lahars and how they would ever evacuate all the villages, even with advance warning. “Women and children first…” It wouldn’t be an easy job.