Tag Archives: Asia

Tales from Java: Middle of the night Madness on Mount Merapi

‘Why am I doing this to myself’, I almost muttered out loud as I pulled myself up another steep section on my creaking knees.

It was 3.30 AM and pitch dark with an unwanted drizzle as we continued on our mission to scale Mount Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia (literally, ‘Fire Mountain’ in Bahasa Indonesia). Eight trekkers from different parts of the world, with our three guides – all so diverse, we’d look like a Benetton ad in daylight.

We had landed in Yogyakarta that afternoon and decided to trek up Mount Merapi in the night to catch the sunrise at the top. So, after a short(ish) snooze of a a couple of hours in the evening, we were picked up by our travel agent at 9.30 pm to ferry us to the starting point of the trek (about two hours away, including a a bone-jarring last 20 minutes off road).

The first half an hour of the trek was actually a pre-trek, steep walk up to New Selo, the launching point of the trudge up the mountain. The trek itself is an even steeper climb in the dark, with 4 sections of 0.6 km to 1 km, each of which take about 45 to 60 minutes – the killer stretches being the 700 m ones that take 45 minutes to an hour to traverse.

Coming from flat and sea-level Singapore that very morning presented an additional challenge – we weren’t used to altitude and found ourselves panting much sooner than warranted; but things got better as the night progressed and we adapted. The trail soon gave way to loose gravel and rocks and every few minutes we would hear a ‘whooosh’ as someone lost their footing for a bit and slid a few steps down. ‘Are you okay?’, one of the guides would call out and once established that everyone was still in one piece, we would continue our slow ascent; ‘small steps, small steps’, I’d tell myself.

A total of 4 hours later, we found ourselves on the ‘Plateau’ –  a stretch of almost-level ground where hikers pitch up their tents to spend the night. The real summit is another 200 to 300 metres above this – an almost vertical climb with no safety ropes or supervision. Most hikers go up to the plateau and are highly discouraged by the guides from going further. Deciding that the final ascent was much too adventurous for my wobbly knees, we called our climb successful at the plateau as we braced for the strong and chilly gusts of wind that crossed it non-stop.

After what felt like an hour of shivering in the mist, the sky began to be painted with hues of pink, orange, red and the sun finally muscled through the dense clouds to the horizon.

Coming down was a lot more painful than going up, of course – especially on our already-weary legs – there were more than a handful of times that each one of us landed on our bottoms and slid down; but it was a lot quicker too. We were back at New Selo, with its ‘HOLLYWOOD’ like sign, in just 1.5 hours.

Was it worth it? There isn’t another answer to that but a ‘Yes’. Were there times that I felt like giving up – Yes; but I’m glad I made it through – anything else would’ve been a heartbreak.

If you’re planning to climb Mount Merapi:

  • It’s easy to book your tour through your hotel or the multiple agencies in Yogyakarta – rates are pretty standard at about 400 – 450k IDR (~ 35 USD) for the whole deal.
  • You leave Yogya at 9.30 – 10 PM for the sunrise trek. Takes about 4 hours to climb up, 1.5-2 hours to come down.
  • The trek is harder than your average walk-in-the woods. No technical skills needed but you need to use your hands to pull yourself up or lower yourself down in quite a few stretches, closer to the peak.
  • Shoes with a good grip make life easier – running shoes are okay, as long as they have some kind of grip. A jacket / fleece is essential – waterproof is better. A warm cap and gloves can be precious at the top as well.
  • The volcano is very active, so check activity levels online before you book your tour.
  • Carry your water and snacks along with you – it’s a long night and you will feel thirsty and hungry.

Been to Central Java or Mount Merapi yet? Planning to go? Let me know!

More connections to nature here.

 

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Flying AirAsia? Here’s What You Need to Know

Now Everyone can Fly, indeed.

Tempting sales, hundreds of routes around Asia, super-smart marketing and affordable fares almost all year long – that’s AirAsia for you. And what’s not to love?

As it turns out – the fine print. And AirAsia has plenty of that. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re thinking of  flying Asia’s favourite airline or wondering why that incredible deal doesn’t look as incredible by the time you’ve flown with them:

When booking / Before you fly:
  • Pre-book your baggage: There’s no checkin baggage on the standard booking. You have to pay to check your bags in. Pre-book this online – the cost of buying at the counter is almost double of pre-booking. If, like me, you have trouble taking only cabin baggage (7 kgs only) for a trip longer than a week, remember to do this. Check-in luggage weight purchased on the same booking can be shared between passengers. E.g. if you book 10 kg for each of you, two of you would be able to use it even as 12 kg + 8 kg in two bags.
  • Don’t count on being able to sneak in a bigger or heavier bag into the cabin: This probably doesn’t always happen, but I’ve seen people pulled out of the queue for their bags to be weighed and then asked to go back and check their overweight bags in.
  • Surcharge on credit card payments: You will have to pay a surcharge for using your foreign credit card to pay (3% I think) if you’re booking online from outside the specific flight’s ‘home country’. And these are charged per passenger. They do have a payment option without these extra charges but I’ve seen that available only for certain banks in certain SE Asian countries.
  • Insurance: Insurance for the flight is added automatically to every booking but costs very little (less than 5 USD I think) so doesn’t needed to be avoided.
  • Always web check in and print that boarding pass: There are stories around the internet of having to pay extra to have the people at the counter check you in and print your boarding pass (we did get an updated boarding pass for free in Bangkok, but that could just be a random nice person at the counter). To give the airline credit, they do open check-ins on the internet two weeks before the flight, giving you plenty of time to get things done. Alternately, you could self check in at the kiosks (if available) in the airport and print your boarding slip / voucher from the kiosk.
  • Stick with the system-allotted seat: If there are two or more of you flying on the same booking, they sometimes try and split you up when you’re doing the web check in. For example, on our Siem Reap – Bangkok flight, they allotted two seats to the two of us on the same booking that were not next to each other. If you change your seat from the system-allotted one, you pay extra. (we took the separate seats, all these extra charges were annoying me and a couple of hours of parting weren’t going to kill us :))
  • Don’t expect refunds in case of changes / cancellations: This is true for the discounted ‘low fares’, the ‘premium flex’ fares usually have more flexibility but cost the same as other non-budget airlines.
On the flight:
  • Meals are also cheaper when pre-booked but also avoidable as the variety is limited most of the flights are short-haul.
  • There is no free drinking water served in the flight and what’s offered is overpriced. Try and buy or fill up a bottle at the airport once you’re past the security check. Thankfully, you don’t have to pay to use the plane restroom. Yet.
  • Don’t ask them to move you to the extra-leg space seats even if they’re empty after the flight’s taken off. They WILL want you to pay extra for them. Why they don’t understand a ‘sunk cost’ fails me.

Crummy, old low-cost airports and surly stewardesses aside, it’s still a comfortable flight and an airline with a good safety record for the price you pay (especially if you’ve managed to book in one of their legendary sales). Just that I’m a happier flier when I know I’ve not been stung. As they say – it’s about reading the fine print and having the right expectations.

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons

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Have you flown AirAsia?

Which one was it for you – ‘Give me that Loyalty Card!’ or ‘Never again!’?