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Richard Bangs

Richard Bangs

Posted: November 29, 2010 12:34 PM

This is the first installment in a three-part series of dispatches from Mount Merapi in Indonesia. Read Part 2 here.

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Cracking open on October 26, 2010, Indonesia's Mount Merapi began a series of eruptions that to date have claimed over 320 lives, and displaced over 100,000.

Before this latest deadly outburst I set out with my friend, Dr. George Fuller, to climb the 2511-meter-high "Fire Mountain." Climbing volcanoes is never a matter of conquest. The success of a climb, the maintenance of health and of one's very existence, is at the mountain's caprice. There is no way to humble nature's dissilient brat. You may visit its domain at your own invitation, but you leave only if it so wills.

To get to the skirt of Merapi we took the first-class Parahiyangan train to the cool highlands city of Bandung, the capital of West Java, and headquarters for the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia. At the station we could see a tangle of volcanic peaks to the north and south, a reminder that wherever one scans a horizon in Java one is likely to see a volcano.

We then boarded the "People's Train," the all-third-class Cepat, for the ten-hour trundle to the city of Yogyakarta, the site of the first great empire in mid-Java, an empire that may have been obliterated by Merapi. Along the way we witnessed from the open window all the fecundity that has made Java at once so agriculturally rich and so overcrowded. While volcanic ejecta in many parts of the world is acidic, in Java it is chemically basic, rich in soluble plant nutrients, such a calcium, magnesium, nitrogen and phosphorus. For millennia this rich ash deposit has blanketed the island and turned it into a rioting garden. At the turn of the 19th century Java was known as "the granary of the East." Paradoxically the numbers of people packing the island in recent times have led to food shortages, and now the island is one of the largest importers of rice in the world.

It wasn't really apparent as the old train clacked along that Java was a ten-man life raft carrying a load of hundred. Most of what we saw was bucolic, delectably scenic, and was added evidence to the cases made for calling the place paradise. In fact, I could forgive the lurid descriptions and sensational superlatives used to portray the island in literature and brochures. Indeed, I could second them. It was the monsoon, and the landscape seemed drunk with color, in a fertile, festive mood, as though adorned for a gala. We passed lines of tall tamarind and waringen trees, areca palms fluttering softly as ostrich plumes, and blazing Madagascar flame trees in splendid blossom. Apricot-colored boys astride smooth gray water buffaloes wallowed in the ooze of the sawah (wet rice) paddies; the slim, bent figures of working women in conical hats made them look like ambulating toadstools. Veronese greens shot through with diffused sunlight hung over topaz-colored streams. The truncated pyramids of power-blue volcanoes scratched the sky, looking like fine engravings.

Arriving in the sultanate of Yogyakarta we caught a glimpse of the cloud-diademed peak of Merapi, just 25 kilometers away. Perhaps a quarter of a million have died in volcanic eruptions and the aftermaths in Java in the last two centuries. Devastation, death, ruined crops and subsequent famine are common on the island, which has more volcanoes than any other. Merapi holds the grim record for fatal eruptions.

Every year Merapi stirs in some fashion. Sometimes it spews fiery clouds of gases into the air and overflows with streams of bubbling molten rock, driving wild pigs into the lower jungles, turning rivers miles away into cocoa-colored torrents and devastating lush tropical terrain. Other years, Merapi only shudders and settles down. Currently, the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia estimates, Merapi threatens two million people.

In 1006, Merapi delivered a paroxysm that decimated the Hindu Kingdom of Mataram and buried the grand Buddhist temple of Borobudur, an edifice carved from the lava of previous Merapi eruptions. One of the world's greatest ancient monuments, Borobudur was the largest in Southeast Asia at the time. It was built sometime between 778 and 842 A.D., during the Sailendra Dynasty -- 300 years before Cambodia's Angkor Wat, and 400 years before work had begun on the great European cathedrals.

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A major eruption in 1672 caused an estimated 3000 deaths. A convulsion in 1930 killed more than 1,000. In my lifetime, a 1954 explosion killed several hundred villagers, and in late 1973 another blast sent streams of hot water, mud and ash through villages and killed a score more. In 1979 Merapi let loose a load of magma in a spectacular show of pyroclastic fireworks and killed 149 people in the mountain village of Dieng, 2000 meters up the volcano's side. And in 1984 another eruption killed 200 people with a nuee ardente (glowing cloud), a 300-kilometer-an-hour cloud of incandescent fragments and gas that roared down the mountain. Just days later there were ominous stirrings from the Balinese volcano Gunung Agung. To appease the gods, Indonesia's president Soeharto and his ministers took part in a ceremony at Bali in which 80 animals were sacrificed. Agung did not erupt.

But Merapi didn't hear, or listen to, the entreaties. A 1994 eruption claimed another 60 people. And a blast in 2006 killed two more.

On Java, where volcanology is an ancient art, there is a lore that helps deal with the brooding power of volcanoes, and there are as many rituals as eruptions. Near the "Prince of Volcanoes," some, upon feeling the first tremors of a quickening, run and shout "We are alive!" We are alive!" in a state of great agitation. This because, according to local legend, the island of Java emerged from the ocean on the back of a turtle, which is eager to return to the water, but may not do so while it continues to be inhabited by men. From time to time the terrapin tries to find out whether his time has come by shaking himself and causing an eruption; it is then most urgent to convince him that the islanders are still very much alive; otherwise he'll take the plunge and drown them all. Other villagers believe that with the first fiery exhalations they must go toward the volcano rather than away. And they never point at a fire cloud, lest it come toward them. Many pray and offer sacrifices.

The villagers of Kaliurang, at the base of Merapi, believe that by watching how the corn grows, or the snakes slither, or the birds fly, they can predict the volcano's temperament. Such beliefs are troublesome to volcanologists, whose scientific findings they challenge. On the other hand, nobody can prove the mystical beliefs and ceremonies don't work. "I even believe some myself," said a volcanologist at the Plawangan seismological station. "I talk to the mountain and I think it hears me."

The dispatches of death and ruin notwithstanding, people continue to live on Merapi's slopes because the soil is so rich and the climate so cool. When the mountain's utterances crack foundations of houses and topple trees, the villagers simply rebuild and replant.

Most of the mountains of Java are what volcanologist call "composite volcanoes": cone-shaped peaks of explosive material, as distinct from the broader, less geometrically shaped "effusive volcanoes," such as those in Hawaii, that emit mainly lava, relatively slowly. Merapi is the most closely watched volcano in the Ring of Fire. In recent years volcanologists wearing asbestos suits would routinely lower into the crater to take temperatures of water and gases. The rest of the time they sat in tiny shacks equipped with seismographs and hotlines to headquarters in Yogyakarta, while villagers would make rice offerings and toss tonics of herbs and spices into the crater to ease the spirit's stomach.

Since remembrance, an annual feast has been held around the crater, with shadow puppetry, trance dancing and drum beating. For extra measure, the hereditary sultan to the old city of Yogyakarta -- God incarnate to his subjects -- would offer snippets of his fingernails and hair along with a ceremonial silk robe for his faithful to deposit each year on his birthday at a sacred stone near the mountain's summit.