Yogyakarta: Merapi Lava Tour

I spend a few days with my son fiend and their family come from Jakarta. Titan and his friends scheduled early this morning a jeep trekking near the Merapi volcano (mountain of fire), the most active and the most dangerous of the 129 Indonesian volcanoes and culminating at nearly 3000 m.

We are following in the footsteps of the deadly eruption of October-November 2010 which left more than 300 victims including Mbah Maridjan, the juru kunci (the keeper of the keys to the volcano).

1 hour drive to the place where the driver of the jeep, a Javanese with the virile physique of an American actor, awaits us. The atmosphere is messing around, we have fun like crazy, the steel helmet on our heads to attack not a beach in Normandy during the landing of 44 but dusty and bumpy paths that will bring us in places devastated by the eruption.

My husband had taken masks, I quickly understood why. In a bend, I saw two trucks arrive, leaving behind them a cloud of dust. For more than an hour we have faced this dust that respects nothing and infiltrates everywhere. With its jumps of goats caused by the ruts and the stony surface, the jeep put our bodies to the test.

Incessant traffic: wearing a mask is recommended

Genesis 3.19. You are dust and you will return to the dust

The mood is good, at the slightest spectacular jolt we burst out laughing … without holding our ribs because we have to hold on tight to the iron arch that we use as a guardrail. An image came to me. Our jeep had become a fiery horse whose will was to unseat us!

To avoid the trucks, when possible, the driver takes quieter paths … and then the shock before what our eyes discover. There is silence, we look at each other, forbidden, amazement can be read on our face. We enter another universe.

What is a natural disaster for a viewer discovering the miseries of the world on the small skylight or a reader by unfolding a newspaper? Pictures, words. But here and now, naked reality attacks us in its power, its brutality, its incongruity.

An incredulous look at what we discover: the dramatic consequences of an explosive volcanic eruption are revealed to us.

When the lava dome exploded, the fiery clouds transformed the surrounding area into an open-air crematorium for crops, homes, livestock, and people. The ash grey that covers the floor bears the colour of horror, the smell of death, the imprint of a devastating hand. Instantly I think of Pompeii, the inhabitants frozen in an ultimate attitude during the eruption of Vesuvius.

Some kind of mini Hiroshima? A blackened moped, dwellings passed with a flame thrower, skeletons of animals scoured and cleaned by incandescent material, heaps of buffalo bones, goats are on display. Entering the ruins of a house, we rub shoulders with the soiled intimacy of what was the poor heritage of the inhabitants: charred books but some curiously relatively preserved, clothes compacted in their gangue of dust, crockery having undergone valiantly the assault on the rain of ashes, a bicycle having suffered the torment of the forge hanging on the wall like a trophy or a work of contemporary art.

The shock was severe, but this is only the beginning. Further on, in a village, an exhibition of what was found after the disaster was organized, like a museum of the inexpressible.

Previously, we had stopped in front of a stele erected in honour of the victims, killed in the first explosion on October 26. It was followed by the monster’s cold and terrible anger on the night of October 29-30, which turned out to be much more deadly. Burning clouds and pyroclastic flows have designed a deadly cocktail for humans and animals. It is estimated that 50 million m3 of eruptive materials have sprung from the mouth of the volcano, a deadly and living seed.

Stele in memory of the victims of October 26, 2010

Deadly, the ruins are there, silent witnesses frozen in their ransacked minerality, … but alive, the vegetation quickly takes up the challenge of life and is reborn.

The ruins have been lowered … but the vegetation is showing rebellious vitality

Jeep drivers carrying tourists stop at the same location. A box for donations collects donations from visitors, some stalls are installed.

Two skeletons of cow or buffalo sit on a terrace in front of which some are taking pictures. Can we talk about voyeur tourism? What meaning is given to this exhibition?

We can be divided in front of this staging

I do not settle the question of black tourism which gives rise to a lot of debate, criticism and questions. Recall that this concept covers visiting places associated with suffering, death, natural disasters. Personally, I didn’t have any morbid curiosity. I could see, but I can be mistaken, that the visitors wore a serious face by formulating questions, by trying to have clarifications, in short to understand and to sympathize.

Disasters attract a sometimes morbid curiosity but closer to home in France how many visitors – brandishing a camera, camera or smartphone – crowd the scene of an event where man admits his helplessness before an uncontrollable nature?

In reality, I think that for any event of this type the development of associated tourism is accompanied by a plurality of objectives, commemorative, informative, emotional, educational or pedagogical, commercial, economic …

Besides, this exhibition of the dramatic effects of the eruption has a role here that should not be overlooked, that of raising awareness among the populations – many Indonesian visitors – of the risks of a volcanic eruption. Javanese people have died for underestimating the phenomenon, for wanting to save their cattle but also because this violent eruption has affected areas so far spared the many angers of the Merapi.

In the house are exposed everyday objects. I am struck by the discriminatory effects of the destruction.

The plastic on a television set melted while the screen remained intact.

The glass resisted, the plastic became a lump of butter

An anonymous hand has written on a wall a resigned maxim “The Merapi never fails to his promise”, that of waking up when he sees fit.

Merapi keeps its promise on average every 4 years

The air is saturated. Our fouled lungs despite wearing the mask express a form of rejection by addressing their owner, “get me out of there quickly!” ”

Can a form of dialogue be established between man and the volcano?

It is the meaning of this stele which delivers the message of the volcano to men. The last sentence is relentless “no one can help but pass in front of you”. We readily believe it as the forces of nature reduce man to the rank of spectator or victim.

But curiously, the volcano also sends another message “excuse me if I injured, crushed, burned”!

Before the executioner lowered his sword said to the condemned man “excuse me, I am certainly the hand of punishment but I do not hate you”.

The message of the volcano to men

Here, relations with the volcano are fraught with ambiguity. it’s the fate of man, life and death are inextricably linked.

The Merapi also has a sacred function. The guardian of the volcano is appointed by the Sultan (the king of Kasultanan Ngayogyokarto Hadiningrat). He officiates at the Merapi offering ceremonies and a shaman goes into a trance to try to communicate with the spirits of the volcano.

Exposed photos illustrate the eruption. We are trying an exercise, identifying the forms that emanate from this gigantic mushroom of ashes, rocks, dust, smoke that springs from the crater of the volcano.

Human and animal forms seem to take shape. We are trying to put names on these threatening scrolls. Constantly in motion, this demonic mushroom releases volutes whose forms created the second before are erased to make room for others the second after. I tell myself that I am shaping nature with our image with this exercise, a learned word pops up in my mind, anthropomorphism. Is that the case ?

A little further on we have a general view of the volcano. We overlook the deep trench where the lava poured out and where the men are busy, constantly digging to extract the substantial marrow. Rabelais, I take you to apologize for having borrowed and diverted your expression which belongs to you!

Man digs the ground to extract its riches

The lahar phenomenon to me. When the rain invites itself into this hellish dance, the mixture of water, ashes, rocks gives birth