A Mount Kerinci Kind of High

Published in the Jakarta Globe. View as PDF here.

If anything is certain to be found in Jakarta — aside from nightmarish traffic and shopping malls — it’s a multitude of bars.

Though many people do not drink alcohol or frequent bars in Jakarta, those who do often show a level of commitment equal to a long-term, live-in relationship.

Discussions over where my impending birthday celebrations would be held therefore seemed unnecessary — in a dark room purveying alcoholic beverages, naturally. But I had begun to loathe the predictability of the whole affair. Another birthday in my 20s, more beers, bar tops, karaoke and kerosene-wielding bartenders lighting up the dance floor — literally. Yawn. It just felt so passe. 

So instead I awake on my birthday in the rural village of Kersik Tuo in West Sumatra Province, to the amplified call of the dawn prayers, which is undeterred by the thin walls of my losman, or cheap motel.

My window has a film of morning dew, and I wipe it away to see the mountain before me. Mount Kerinci stands at 3,800 meters — a height that gives it the title of the highest volcano in Indonesia. It is also one of the country’s crankiest. Ten years earlier to the day it shot off a cannon of black soot into the air, which soared 2,000 meters above the summit. Mount Kerinci last erupted four years ago, and for months has been on varying levels of alert.

Down below my second-story window, flabby-necked bulls pull carts across a dusty road. The losman is edged on either side by tiny shops. They all face the mountain, standing to attention. Across the road, fields of rice crops lie low, as if trying not to diminish the effect of Kerinci’s imposing height.

As light breaks over its peak, I become increasingly aware that climbing this monstrosity of a mountain is not going to be easy. The options for bathing in this homely losman comprise an ice-cold mandi, or bath, before dawn, or not at all. I choose the latter — I expect to be sweating before long.

My group sets out among the pine plantations and we rise through the muddy Kerinci Seblat national park. Within a couple of hours of walking my right knee is already being slightly uncooperative. Every second step feels as though someone is driving a screwdriver through my leg. Particularly when it becomes necessary to straddle a mini-gorge made of crumbling clay rock. We run into a group of middle-aged bird watchers, who even with their longer-worn knee joints do not appear to be in pain. I curse their ornithological happiness under my heaving breath.

It could be worse. My hiking pack is being carried by porters who are cruising their way up the mountain while I walk with the mostly expat volcano exploration group, Java Lava.

We are tangible evidence that spending time on mountains does not develop your fashion sense. I think of the  Beautiful Young Things in any bar in Kemang, who would most likely be horrified by my outfit:

Rp 30,000 ($2.60) shorts from my neighborhood market and a T-shirt sporting English sentences that break the laws of grammar and comprehensibility. In our company are torn tea towels for headbands, flannel striped shirts and ski poles for hiking sticks. We are not very, as the BYT might say, “keren,” or cool.

We make it to base camp and most people are in their tents by 8 p.m., with good reason. Everyone wakes the next morning at 4 a.m. for the final two-hour shuffle to the summit before sunrise. I have barely slept. As it turned out, the “light” sleeping bag I had hurriedly bought before I left Jakarta referred to its inappropriateness for mountain conditions, not to its weight. I lay shivering to the tunes of Matta and Peterpan, which the porters sing throughout the night in their tent, situated only about a meter away from mine.

We scramble through the low-lying scrub near our camp and are soon pacing up exposed rock. Steps cease to be and loose pebbles slide under our boots as we grip for nonexistent holds with reddened, freezing fingers. I look behind at the single-file row of headlamps, occasionally bobbing violently as another person slips. It is 5 a.m., I am cold, and I wish I was eating some birthday nasi goreng at a street stall in Jakarta after a night out on the town.

Altitude sickness can apparently materialize in various ways — in me it appears as a strong inclination to quit. But the shadow of the peak against the dark sky forces me to ignore my grinding, clicking knees and I am consoled by the fact that I will be able to slide down the mountain on my behind.

But reaching the top, even after all the hours of walking and whining, still comes as a surprise. It takes me a few moments to process the view. My first thought is that we could be at sea. From our rocky deck on the mountain summit, clouds roll below us like fierce waves. We stand at the edge of the volcano’s crater and from its depths comes a menacing, raspy breath, like an ocean clearing its throat.

Our guide is enthusiastic and poses with us, although he tells us he has already seen the view three times this week as he climbed up and down this mountain. My knees ache in sympathy.

We do not see the sunrise so much as watch its light pierce through the clouds below with increasing determination. In the distance to our right, a volcanic lake sitting above the cloud line enjoys special attention from the sun’s rays, like a revelation from the heavens. There is no need to point this out — the water is a vision, encased by mountain caps standing guard.

In the last few months local residents have been repeatedly warned to stay at least a kilometer away from the edge of the volcano where I now lie. My stomach presses against the rock as I strain my neck to peer into the 400-meter-deep whispering crater.

We slip and slide down the mountain to the sound of gibbons singing and I am one of the first to finish from the main pack.

I collapse, grimy and dripping with sweat, gasping in the clean air.

I am hungover from adrenaline, but feel like I know something the Jakarta barflies do not, as they wake from a liquid-induced haze in the choking city.