The Ijen Plateau

I stayed that night at Jember and next day went on my way to the Ijen Plateau. I spent some hours that day in sitting beside the dirt road that leads to Blawan, watching the cassava plants grow and a small group of harvesters move slowly across a tidy rice field. Now and again pony carts came past and stopped to ask me where I was going. `You’ll find a truck’, they assured me. A pretty mother from a roadside warung paraded her fat child before me and made him laugh. It was a landscape of plenty.

Eventually, a truck turned onto the Blawan road and stopped for me. The truck was carrying a load of furniture to Blawan on the Ijen Plateau. On top of the load were about a dozen school boys who had come for the ride.

It was a very rough road and the further we went, the rougher it became. Often, when we hit a rock, the whole load rose from the truck bed and we on top rose from the load and all would come crashing down again. `Awas Awas’ the boys yelled as we passed under a lone low telephone line that zig-zagged over the track. We climbed and the forest closed in until branches brushed the truck’s sides. When we stopped for a while, we saw monkeys.

In a small village we passed under a tree of huge green limes, and what the boys could steal from it, they divided up later. `Give some to Uncle. Give some to Uncle’, they all cried out, so I had the first pieces.

We crossed over a high range and descended steeply into an immense caldera and the boys yelled happily in fright. `Bring us a helicopter’, shouted one. Now the telephone line was on the ground and we passed over rather than under it; then it was: broken no worry at all.

We passed a police check post on the valley floor. Away to the right was Mount Ruang, higher than the rest. We travelled between coffee gardens, sheltered by acacias. Now and again workers emerged to watch us pass. When they were girls, the schoolboy’s cat called with great energy.

We came to a stretch of the wildest, most ominous country I have ever seen. Piles of jagged grey boulders, mile after mile hurled up by the unthinkable explosion which created the caldera in which the Ijen Plateau lies. `Come back with us to Kalibaru’, the, boys yelled. ‘if you stay here, Uncle, you’ll be lost forever.’

Although I hated parting with my new nephews, and although I too found the landscape frightening, I stayed. The manager of a plantation not far from Mount Ijen offered to put me up in the cottage occupied by his two young clerks and he took me there in his four wheel drive car. The two youths laughed and laughed at the thought of having a guest.

During the late afternoon, visitors came. One to rent me a horse to ride to the lake and another who scorned the idea of a horse. The latter was an old man with a furrowed face who never smiled during the short time I knew him. Later, when I was walking about the settlement, he invited me into his tiny cottage to drink coffee and listen to the radio. He had a care-worn wife and three young children. Only one of these, a small boy, emerged from the dark kitchen. While the two in the kitchen gazed at me through the door, he sat on a chair and gazed at me intently from close quarters. There was no laughter in the house and I had a feeling that life was not always kind to this worker and his family.

The coffee gardens are worked by labourers from the island of Madura. Ijen is part of Indonesia’s policy of transmigration, which settles people from overcrowded areas in more remote places. Here Madurese is spoken, women dress in the Madurese way and carry loads on their heads as is done on Madura. While I was on

the Ijen Plateau, I was referred to as a Belanda, Dutchman, and I was something of a curiosity. Girls carrying snacks on their heads, ducked, giggled and ran when they saw me.

My young hosts at the plantation treated me with a great amount of charm. We ate vegetable salad, gado gado, for dinner, drank pungent coffee afterwards and smoked clove cigarettes until late at night. The two clerks took great delight in searching their memories for English words, learned at school, and by the time we went to bed, they were on the way to speaking basic English.

That night the older of the clerks and I, both wrapped in sarongs, shared a double bed. To this day, I have a suspicion that the younger clerk was left with nowhere at all to sleep. When I woke in the early hours of the morning, he was wandering in and out of the room. I saw him sit on a chair, stand, sit again and comb his hair. He had the air of a bedless man. Another example of Javanese hospitality.

I was up at five o’clock to start for Kawah Ijen, the crater lake. I felt ill with asthma and my back was aching as though it might give way any moment and it seemed a foolish thing to climb up a mountain that I may be unable to descend. Still, I found myself, well before sun-up, climbing into a wooden saddle on a small and sturdy pony.

Matno, the pony’s owner was a young man, small and tough. He brought a friend along for the trip and they both walked beside me while I rode. This was an arrangement that made me feel slightly ashamed, but the truth was that in my state of health, I could not have made the trip on foot. Every now and again, we stopped for a rest and when we moved we did not hurry.

It was a beautiful morning. At first we travelled through coffee gardens, then through a forest of enormous trees. We crossed a rocky creek with a broken bridge, made our way over ridges and through thickets and at last came to the foot of Mount Ijen.

At the foot of the mountain is a police station, where I was obliged to apply for a letter of permission to go further, and within sight, above us, was another police station where I must deliver the letter. For a while, we climbed steeply, then Matno stopped. `From here’, he said, `it is steep. You go on alone. We shall wait for you’.

The path was very steep. In my state of health, I could make only a few yards without a rest. My asthma was becoming more severe and my back was sore. The hut seemed far away.

Men who carry sulphur down from the lake in baskets on the ends of poles passed me, strolling very slowly upwards. More and more frequently, I sat by the track, heaving for breath. Somehow, I managed to stagger into the police station and deliver my letter.

`Only two hours more’, the policeman said and he kindly gave me a cup of coffee. I went out to the back of the hut and sat down. It was obvious that I could not go further and I was bitterly disappointed. I sat at a fork in the track and thought of Kawah ljen as I had once seen it from the air. Now, within two hours of my destination, I must give up. I sat disconsolately, fighting for each wheezing breath, for perhaps half an hour, then I stood to make my way back down the mountain.

The amazing thing was that when I stood, I suddenly realised that I was feeling better. Then within minutes, I was not only feeling better, I was feeling well. My back ached no more, my breath was easy. I thought I should try to go a little way further.

Of all the walks I have enjoyed, I enjoyed that one the most. I walked quickly on a narrow rocky track that wound up the side of the mountain. Below me on the right side, the ground fell sharply to a wooded valley. I met men who were making their descent with baskets filled with sulphur blocks and we stopped for a while to talk. They were strong men, but their work was punishing.

When, at last, I came over the lip of the Ijen crater, I saw the lake from exactly the same angle as I had seen it from the air. From close quarters the water was the same opaque turquoise colour I remembered. It was a wonderful moment, standing so high and so alone, looking down at the steaming water in this living volcano.

I cannot describe exactly how I felt, but I do know that I was not the first to feel exultation while standing on this spot. When I looked down at the ground, I saw right at my feet, almost as if I had just carved it myself, one word in large letters, inspired graffiti scored deep into the soft rock: ‘TUHAN’  (‘GOD’)..

I walked briskly down the mountain. The view was beautiful and the air was cool. When I came to the place where I had left them, I found the pony tied to a tree and Matno and his friend, wrapped tightly in their sarongs, sound asleep.

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