Mount Merapi’s True Story

Fact: Mt. Merapi erupted twice in the past decade: in 2006 and 2010.

Fact: the 2010 eruption was devastating, covering villages as far as 7 km away from the mountain with volcanic ashes, forcing thousands to evacuate and killing almost 300 people.

The two facts above have been commonly talked about in newspapers and various media outlets. Multiple human interest features of the refugees’ lives were published in those times of eruption, depicting the suffering they felt and the hope they still clung on to. But what a lot of people don’t know is what happens after the 2010 eruption – how those former refugees are doing now and what’s left of the villages they had to flee.

After recovering from the 2010 eruption, a number of those former refugees actually came back to Kaliurang – a small town 8.6 km away from Merapi – and started companies that take visitors on a 4×4 tour to villages affected by the 2010 eruption. I think whichever company you pick to show you around are okay considering they offer similar trip packages at around the same price. However, we picked the one closest to Merapi.

There were three packages offered based on how much time you’ve got for the trip with longest one taking about 2.5 to 3 hours to complete. We decided on the shortest package which took about 1.5 hours for IDR350.000/jeep, including a guide and face masks to cover your nose from the volcanic dust. The jeeps themselves were mostly old American Willis jeeps with Toyota engines fitted into them.

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Our guide was a young man who came from a village 4 km away from Merapi. When the volcano erupted in 2010, his entire village were evacuated. They survived the disaster, but not without scars. He said a lot of his neighbors were still traumatized by the 2010 eruption that a single sound of a boom could send them into anxiety.

As we drove through dust and rocks, past dry trees and abandoned houses, he continued his story. After the 2010 eruption, the government refused to fund any projects to rebuild the areas around the volcano, fearing that redevelopments would encourage the refugees to come back and live in close proximity to danger again. Nevertheless, a lot of people came back anyway and rebuilt their villages with their resourcefulness and abundance of volcanic sand. Still, the government refused to help these people rebuilding what the volcano destroyed even to the point of cutting electricity supply. The government basically made a statement that it’s up to them to come back at their own risk.

However, the villages have managed to survive to this date without the government’s help. Ironically, the volcano that took away everything from them actually became their saving grace. As the volcanic ashes got absorbed by the soil, land became fertile again for farming. What was once hot lava has cooled down and supplied volcanic sand that everyone wants to sell. Add the growing tourism market to that and they can actually sustain themselves economically.

The jeep finally came to a halt at what looked like ruins of a house with a wooden sign saying “Museum Sisa Hartaku” on it. Like its English translation says, the museum houses what’s left of what used to be people’s treasures until the eruption destroyed them.

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This is the skeleton of a cow who was burned by the lava during the eruption
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This was a motorcycle
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This was the most haunting one for me: someone’s old clothes. Thing is, we don’t know whether whoever wore this survived or not

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Aside from housing what the volcano destroyed, the museum also has pictures from the 2010 eruption hung on its walls.

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As we walked past these pictures, surrounded by metal skeletons of furniture and vehicles, our guide told the story of what happened during the eruption. As the 2006 eruption didn’t cause too much damage, a lot of people thought that the 2010 one wasn’t going to be too different. In spite of evacuations conducted by the government, a lot of people held their ground and stayed behind, thinking that the eruption too shall pass without too much damage except for a blanket of volcanic ash covering their houses. By the time the lava flowed down the volcano and sulfuric clouds with temperatures going way past 100 Centigrades, it was too late for a lot of people to be evacuated. A lot of them died tragically – most getting burned by the sulfuric clouds.

Being surrounded by all these testaments of destruction while hearing a survivor’s account with Merapi itself looming not too far away is nothing like watching survivors being interviewed on the news or reading their accounts in newspapers. It was a haunting experience and really took an emotional toll. As our guide talked about how the volcano destroyed homes and took lives, I couldn’t help but wonder if the people owning the metal skeletons and cutlery displayed at the museum survived the eruption.

After a walk around the museum and a lot of time to absorb what happened, we hopped back on the jeep and went off. As we drove past rivers, our guide talked about how a lot of rivers were flooded with lava during the eruption. Some of these rivers actually don’t have water flowing in them anymore now so as I looked towards the river, all I saw was the black and grey of frozen lava.

Our jeep stopped at a barren area covered with pebbles and a huge slab of rock planted to the ground right in front of the volcano. That gigantic rock has been dubbed by the people as Alien Rock.

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This rock actually flew off from the volcano and landed at this particular spot. What drew a lot of people’s attention to the rock is how it’s naturally shaped like an old man’s face with eyes, nose, and a frowning mouth. Some people claim that this face is the face of the mountain’s spirit or the face of God Himself. Regardless of whether we believe anyone’s opinion about whose face is it, Alien Rock is quite a magnificent and curious site itself.

The site of Alien Rock also has a spectacular view of the menacing Merapi and has turned into a lot of people’s photo spot.

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The sun was beginning to cast the golden rays that you would see before sunset as we drove closer to the towering volcano towards our final stop of the tour. Our jeep parked next to a row of food stalls with what looked like a pit with a tunnel across from it. That tunnel turned out to be a bunker.

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The bunker was built underground, 4 km away from Mt. Merapi in 2005 and was intended to be a safe hiding place when an eruption occurs. It was built with thick metal doors with a bathroom inside it and was supposedly able to withstand sulfuric heat clouds and keeping everyone in it alive should the volcano erupts. It served its function in 2006. However, in 2010, along with the sulfuric clouds also came hot, running lava. No one saw this coming, not even the engineers who built this bunker, thus the bunker was not designed to withstand the heat of lava. The bunker that was supposed to save lives actually became the place where two lives were lost tragically – through suffocation and heat.

In spite of the sunshine streaming from its small door, the inside of the bunker was eerily cold and pitch black. There was a slab of rock at the center of the bunker with offerings laid out by Hindus visiting the place. The thick metal door guarding the entrance of the bunker looked burned in some spots. As I stood at its entrance, I couldn’t imagine being stuck inside that bunker, thinking I would be safe there only to lose my breath as the door gets hotter and hotter to touch. I couldn’t imagine the despair those two trapped inside must have felt as they slowly die.

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The bunker that took lives then has become a place where people make their living. As the last spot for 1.5-hour tours of Mt. Merapi, some people have set up shops there, selling flowers, gemstones, and food. I looked around at these sellers and finally understood that this tour of the Merapi wasn’t about pitying the victims of the tragedies that have occurred thanks to this volcano. Our guide said that Merapi might erupt again someday and no volcanic scientist can accurately predict when it would do so. With that being said, this trip is about how a lot of pain and destruction can turn into something beautiful. It’s about how life can knock us down, but we can pick ourselves up and go on with our lives in spite of the scars we have – something that the people around Merapi know really well.

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(Note: if you’re interested to take this trip to Merapi, be mindful that Mt. Merapi is an active volcano and the terrain around it isn’t that smooth. Rain or volcanic activity may cause the tour company to cancel the tour altogether so check local conditions. The jeep ride itself was fantastic, though might leave you with some bruises because the roads are bumpy. However, the drivers are experienced and the tires have really good grip so you don’t have to worry about safety.)

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