Mount Papandayan is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when people plan a trip to a volcano. With more than 120 volcanoes all over the Indonesian archipelago, it’s only natural that a lot of gunung apis get completely sidelined and ignored by tourists and visitors. While every volcano may have something interesting to offer, there are definitely a few that stand out because they are well-linked to cities, have more media coverage, better tourism infrastructure and better marketing, and/or are simply more beautiful, at least in the conventional way, than others, like Bromo, Ijen, Rinjani and Merapi, to name the popular ones.
Located in a highly tectonically active region, Indonesia is the go-to place to experience the raw and potentially dangerous beauty of these lava-spewing devils. So it’s a good thing that a volcano lover like me is living a short plane ride away from these hot spots. I was planning a trip to Bandung and as usual one of the first things I started hunting down is somewhere to go absorb the great outdoors. Tangkuban Perahu came up tops in searches, but the reviews about pushy touts and heaving crowds totally put me off. No matter how gorgeous a place is, it defeats the whole idea of invigorating oneself in Mother Nature when all the crowd-fighting just sucks the life out of you.
We booked a day tour via our hostel in Bandung. The sun rises earlier here in Bandung than in Singapore, and there’s traffic to beat, so we left a little past 7am. We passed small non-descript towns that resembled one another – mobile phone stalls, roadside hawkers selling bakso and batagor, vegetable sellers, and witnessed the occasional cluster of goats tied to wooden posts awaiting their fate of being sold and slaughtered. It was the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Adha. After two and a half hours, the driver brought us to Garut, a sleepy village near the volcano, to meet our guide Danny, and then we bounced for 20 minutes on rocky, bumpy terrain up to the foothills of Mount Papandayan. Danny told us that this volcano is classified as Type A, meaning it can “blow anytime”. Not very reassuring to say this now, especially since we are just about to climb up. The last time it blew its top was in 2002, and he seemed confident that volcanic eruptions of this kind is a once-every-100-year event so it “shouldn’t” happen again. Something from my geography undergrad days tell me this theory is flawed but I tried not to dwell on it, considering my penchant for entertaining irrational fears.
Do we want the standard route or “Danny’s Special Route”? asked Danny our guide. We figured we hired him to show us something ‘interesting’ so Danny’s way it is. Little did we expect to be literally walking on sizzling hot ground!
The first part of the “Special Route” was a shortcut through a series of skin-grazing, low-lying shrubs. Around 40 minutes later, we arrived at a vantage point to admire the spectacular view. The initial ascent was steep and I had to pause a few times before reaching the ‘top’, which was one of the accessible summits (not the ultimate one). Here we enjoyed panoramic views – looking far and wide, we could see all the way down to the flat rice plains and another mountain, Gunung Cikuray, in the distance. Down below, a trail of backpack-wielding hikers was making its way up to the other side of the volcano where apparently you could camp overnight on a grassy clearing.
Time to explore sulphur-emitting geysers, colourful ribbons of water, cascades of steaming hot liquid, and bubbling mud holes!
We basically went off-trail from here onwards, scrambling on the slopes. The rocky, unearthly terrain can be most likened to a Moonscape. Pockmarks, rough scraggly lines, angular blocks, dusty boulders littered the surface as never-ending clouds of smoke billow from hidden vents. According to Danny, this volcano is extraordinary because we can observe the crystallization of sulphur near the vents and geysers due to the differential in temperatures.
Up close, we could feel the steam on our faces as we marvelled at the shiny yellow crystals around the smoky vents. We choked many times on the acrid sulphur gases. Danny’s advice in this unbreathable atmosphere: “It’s like swimming, you take a deep breath right before the gas is coming, then hold until it’s gone.” Interestingly, I learnt that some plumes smelled like rotten egg, while others had a mildly pleasant eucalyptus smell. Somehow it’s a little hard to take care not to step into a boiling puddle, watch the gases and admire the scenery all at the same time. Luckily the wind carried the sulphurous gases mostly in one direction. My nostrils were dying so I just put on my N95 mask.
The thought of getting scalded, especially when we felt hot air enveloping our exposed calves, was very real and frightening, but not until we had to traverse boiling hot waterfalls by leaping on rocky, chalkish boulders that were eroding and melting away into the bubbling liquid that we felt real terror. I consider myself fairly adventurous and agile but still there were some leaps that I thought I couldn’t make it. The guys soldiered on but there were moments when they had to really concentrate. Let’s just say this tour was quite unconventional. Danny thought highly of our athletic skills. While he couldn’t answer our rather scientific questions about the exact chemical reactions that caused the wildly different colours, he made up for it in his spirit of adventure and a daredevil streak.
We also encountered rocks of various hues – amethyst, chestnut brown, silvery slate, rust, chalk white, bright yellow – and pools of water in strange shades – blood red, milky pale blue, tomato soup orange, pure black. My favourite sight – milky blue waters falling over midnight black rocks. But we were moving fast and there wasn’t time for me to dawdle and admire it for too long. (This was when I was truly grateful for the function of a camera.)
A quick look at one of the craters – quite dry, it was filled with a deep brown liquid and ringed by graded contour lines (it must not have rained for months now). On our way down the slope, we passed the forest ravaged by the 2002 eruption. The lava scar was apparent and the stones were blackened and charred. It was dubbed the “Lion King scene”. In fact it really resembled the burnt jungle in the movie.
The whole tour lasted three hours. If you want to do this hike alone without a guide, it’s not advisable. I am saying this for your safety’s sake because we only managed to avoid stepping on many “hot spots” with Danny’s guidance. I believe that Mount Papandayan is not a traditional choice from the lack of information and reviews online, but its entertainment value is seriously underrated. It’s one of those hikes where there’s “a lot to see”.
That said, you should still come to Mount Papandayan, even if you want to go without a guide, but you may want to stick to the main path. During the whole time we were walking around, we didn’t see many tourists – only a handful of locals near the foothills chilling out, some motorcyclists practising mountain biking stunts, and groups of local students going up for camping. It was precisely because of this lack of crowds that added to the wild allure of this place, and not having to fend off touts also topped off our experience. But bear in mind this also means you will encounter lesser people should you run into trouble.
This is not your ‘typical’, conical shaped mountain topped with a nice, roundish crater lake flanked by symmetrical slopes. That aside, Mount Papandayan does hold its mighty own with its exhilarating geysers.
My verdict: Go! :-)♥
– Wear sunscreen. The air was deceptively cool and the weather was cloudy, so it didn’t occur to us to slather on sunscreen. In the end, we got terribly sunburnt.
– Wear good hiking shoes. The rocks can be very pointy and can easily destroy the soles of your sneakers. And you can use good sole traction while scrambling on some portions.
– Bring water. We were advised that the water flowing down the mountain is absolutely undrinkable.
– Bring a good warm jacket, especially if you intend to stay overnight. It can get very cold up here at over 2,200 metres.
– You can buy last-minute water and snacks at a small shop near the parking area before the hike. The locals seemed to call this parking area “Camp David”.
(For more details pertaining to the volcano itself, I did most of my homework on this informative webpage at Gunung Bagging.com.)