Sunrise seen from Sendang Drajat. (JP/Godeliva D. Sari)
Lawu, which straddles the southern border of East and Central Java, is the volcano for beginners.
At 3,265 meters above sea level, temperatures at the summit can drop to freezing, so bring warm clothes to change into and lighter clothes, which will end up being drenched in sweat, for the climbing. Enough water and energy boosting food is essential, as well as decent boots. With common sense to keep you to the path, you do not need a guide.
A well-maintained track, laid with roughly hewn stones that are reasonably secure, leads right up to the summit. Do not stray off the track as there are many gorges and ravines, covered with vegetation and almost invisible. A crater sometimes spews out toxic gases, so it is wise to check the condition of the mountain with the ranger or the locals at the last village before the trek.
In ancient Javanese mythology, Lawu is called Mahendra and legend has it that the gods who created the first kingdom in Java descended from heaven here. In later history, Lawu was the retreat of the last king of Majapahit, Brawijaya V. On the eve of the Javanese New Year, thousands of adherents of the indigenous Javanese belief - kebatinan - climb to the summit to meditate.
As in other sacred places in Java, names that dot the landscape often echo the ancient Indian epic, Mahabharata. The crater, for instance, is called Candradimuka, believed to be the place where the gods boiled Bhima's son Gatotkaca in molten metal to make him invincible. Bhima is the second of the five Pandawa brothers, who are the main protagonists in the Mahabharata.
A cave called Sigolo-golo recalls the name of the cave that the Pandawa brothers, led by the brave Bhima, escaped through when their palace apartment was burned down by their evil cousins the Kurawa.
Brawijaya V had a fascination with honest Bhima, for in the Karanganyar regency (in Central Java), on the Surakarta side of Lawu, he built two fascinating temples dedicated to him; Candi Sukuh which looks almost Mayan and Candi Cetho.
Candi Cetho was "developed" on the orders of the late president Suharto without any archaeological considerations. Irresponsible and inappropriate development is still irreversibly changing the spiritual sites of Lawu. The current building of a Javanese pendapa pavilion with marble flooring, over a sacred stone in the area near the summit called the keputren - the princesses' quarters- by a wealthy businessman, is but one example.
The shortest route to the summit of Lawu begins in the Cemara Sewu village, between the resorts of Tawangmangu and Sarangan. You can also begin from Cemara Kandang, but the trek is longer and the path is not paved. The distance between Cemara Sewu and the summit called Hargo Dumilah is 7 kilometers. The average time needed to climb to the summit is 7 to 9 hours, but if you are fit, you can do it in 4 to 5 hours. Super fit mountaineers fly up in 3 hours.
For the first two kilometers or so you walk through agricultural land, where the locals plant vegetables amongst charred skeletons of trees that stand as a reminder that this area is prone to forest fires. As you go higher the vegetation changes and if you are climbing in daylight, you will begin to notice that inquisitive, orange beaked, brown birds are following you. These are Jalak Gading (Acridotheres javanicus) and are endemic to Lawu. Unlike other wild birds in Java, these guardians of Lawu are protected by the belief that whoever attempts to harm them will get lost and perish. The birds do not have the fear of humans that animals in Java have (except for city rats).
To reach the summit for sunrise, begin climbing in evening. The advantage of hiking in the night is that the sight of the dauntingly steep hills will not deflate your spirits. It is best to chose a time close to full moon in the dry season. You will enjoy the millions of stars in the sky, twinkling, falling, and shooting. There are five resting places on the way to the summit where you can light a campfire if you need to keep warm while you rest but be sure to extinguish the fire properly before you leave and remember that the best way to stay warm is to keep moving. It is dangerous to wander off the track looking for firewood.
At the fifth resting post, you will find a shack by a shallow well that has a tiny spring at the bottom of it. This is the sacred Sendang Drajat and the freezing cold water from this spring is believed to have the power to make the person who bathes in it attain high achievements in life.
Weary climbers enjoying the morning sun at Mbah Parto's shack. (JP/Godeliva D. Sari)
Mr. and Mrs. Parto live in the shack and they sell food and hot drinks at very reasonable prices considering that they have to carry everything up the path that you have just climbed. Next door to their shack is a cave where you can take a nap if you do not have a tent.
Alternatively, you can walk a little further to the site called Hargo Dalem, where Brawijaya V used to meditate. Mbok Yem and her son Muis also have a warung here, and space to rest.
These two places are good places to rest because the worst is over and the summit, Hargo Dumilah is a mere 0.8 kilometers away.
Down the other way from the summit, there is a flat plain called Selo Pundutan with many Edelweiss blooms. The followers of Brawijaya V used to practice martial arts here.
If you arrive at the summit early, take time to explore the sites around it but conserve enough energy for the hike down.
Bring your litter down because the whole track is filthy with energy drink bottles and various items of plastic waste. It is in everyone's interest to make Lawu clean once more.