I hadn’t been in the southern Indonesian city of Yogyakarta for more than a couple of hours, yet I was already being told to ready myself for a 3am start the next morning. It was becoming increasingly apparent that anyone who wants to get the most out of the city’s natural and architectural wonders is forced to do so at the crack of dawn.
In this particular instance, I was negotiating my ascent up Merapi, the forbidding volcano that looms over the north of Yogyakarta (aka Jogja). My lack of readiness for the 3am start – and the journey in general – was reflected by my footwear: a pair of fragile-looking flip flops. Worried that I’d haul myself out of bed only to be turned away for my inappropriate shodding, I asked if I’d still be able to make the climb. The tour operator asked if they were trekking sandals.
I told him that they were not trekking sandals, but hurriedly assured him that I’d traversed many a terrain wearing them. He told me it wasn’t so much the terrain I should be worried about, but the snakes. The snakes? A 3am start and now snakes… Did I have socks? Yes, I had socks. Then I should be okay. I’d only been in Indonesia for a few hours and I had already agreed to climb a snake-infested volcano wearing socks and sandals. Terrific.
Despite my lack of sleep (thanks to a night spent Googling Indonesia’s indigenous reptile population), it was difficult to begrudge the early start. Invigorated by the cool air, we journeyed by torchlight into the dense forest that encircles Merapi’s baron slopes. As daylight began to colour the black canvas of night, the silhouettes of tangled trees, bamboo and vines became visible, and the forest soon resonated with a chorus of birdsong and the call to prayer from nearby villages – an eerie but mesmerising duet of man and nature. Footwear and fear of snakes were soon forgotten.
Merapi, black and brooding, soon became an unmistakable presence on the skyline, imposing itself with all the authority one would expect from a landmark with a name meaning ‘mountain of fire’. The volcano has been consistently ranked as the world’s most active. It erupted as recently as 2008, though was at its most destructive in 2006, when related earthquakes caused the deaths of up to 5,000 people – many of whom refused to be evacuated despite repeated warnings from authorities. This, as our guide would later explain, was because there is still a deep-seated belief among many locals that Merapi embodies the soul of a benevolent ancient king. Rather than fear volcanic activity, they welcome it, because it ensures the surrounding land remains fertile enough to support their existence as subsidence farmers.
Our tour group only made it as far as the foot of the volcano, not so much a result of inappropriate footwear, rather that Merapi had been showing signs of volatility and had been decreed unsafe to climb. But perhaps our guide was simply too law-abiding (or lazy) to scale the summit. A number of people I later spoke to said they’d been taken all the way to the top only a few days before.
Having been spared the exertion of the climb, I still had sufficient energy to explore the city that same day. Jogja, after all, is as renowned for its cultural heritage as its natural wonders. This is exemplified by the Keraton (the Sultan’s palace), which lies at the heart of the city. Though the sprawling complex is underwhelming (it’s advisable to hire a guide to help you make some sense of the place) it does serve as a reminder of the splendour of the Jogja Sultanate.
If the Keraton embodies the pomp and ceremony of Jogja’s royal past, then the city’s humble yet equally fascinating traditions live on at nearby Pasar Burung Ngasem. The bird market is a living, breathing, squawking assault on the senses. For some, the notion of caged animals may be distasteful, but it’s difficult not to be enthralled by the sights, smells and sounds of this truly unique place. Just south of the market’s flutter and feathers is Taman Sari, which was effectively the Sultan’s personal Wild Wadi waterpark – ‘wild’ being the operative word. Natural and man-made disasters have since reduced it to ruins, but the area is still a lot of fun to explore.
The jewel of Yogyakarta’s historical attractions lies on the outskirts of the city – which meant, somewhat inevitably, I was in for another early morning. And so, for the second day running, I found myself squeezed into a rattling bus, hurtling through dark, empty streets towards what is commonly referred to as Indonesia’s Angkor Wat. Personally, I find such comparisons unhelpful – anyone travelling to Borobudur should do so with an open mind, rather than have Cambodia’s finest monument as a mental point of reference.
Despite being smaller than Angkor, Borobudur is nonetheless an impressive site to behold, especially at sunrise. Or so I’m told. Anyone who takes the same tour as I did will miss seeing the ancient monument being lit up by the glowing embers of dawn because the bus arrives after sunrise. It’s thus advisable to find a tour that leaves Jogja at 4am, rather than 5am.
Borobudur is Indonesia’s biggest tourist attraction after Bali, with about 2.5 million visitors each year, so expect this tourist-trap-pilgrimage to be plagued by hawkers and ‘guides’. While I was disappointed to miss sunrise at the monument, the timing of the tour did at least ensure that the majority of aforementioned irksome individuals had not yet descended on the site. It ensured my stroll around Borobudur and its endless, intricate reliefs was an uninterrupted pleasure – as was watching the morning mist slowly retreat from the surrounding valleys.
Returning to the bus, I was overcome with a pleasant fatigue, happy with what I’d experienced, and pleased that so much of the day still lay ahead. Yet my main satisfaction was reserved for a far more sartorial matter: I’d managed to avoid the indignity of sightseeing in socks and sandals.
Need to know
Fly from Dubai to Jakarta from Dhs1,635 return with Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com). From there, local airlines Mandala (www.mandalaair.com), Lion (www2.lionair.co.id) and Garuda (www.garuda-indonesia.com) operate daily flights to Jogja – check online for prices. The more adventurous can take a night train or, if they want to take in the scenery between Jakarta and Jogja, the early-morning train, both for about Dhs200 return. The journey lasts for about eight hours. Buy tickets at Jakarta’s Gambir Station (Jl. Medan Merdeka Timur, no. 17).
Where to stay
For high-end holidaymaking, the Hyatt Regency Yogyakarta (www.yogyakarta.regency.hyatt.com, +62 274 869 123) is a remarkable hotel, complete with nine-hole golf course, spa, swimming pool (with waterslide!), tennis courts and a scenic, often-happening bar. Rooms from Dhs350 a night. Those on a less generous budget should head to Sosrowijayan Wetan, which is lined with hotels and hostels.
The majority of tour operators are located on Sosrowijayan Wetan. Sosro Tour & Travel (sosro_ email@example.com, +62 274 512 054) is a good option, offering trips to Merapi as well as Borobudur (though buses arrive after sunrise). Otherwise, nearly all hotels and guesthouses offer trips of their own, or via a nearby tour operator.
History & Geography
• Yogyakarta was the capital of Indonesia during 1945 and 1949 (the Indonesian National Revolution).
• The city is home to more than three million people.
• It’s a hotspot for Javanese art and the second most popular place in the country after Bali for tourism.
• It’s contains the most active volcano in Indonesia, which last erupted in November 2010.
• Yogyakarta is a ‘Special Administrative Region’ and the only province headed by a monarchy.