Palm trees are silhouetted against a dawn sky. Behind them rises the cone of Mount Merapi, its outline so clean it looks as if it’s been drawn in two swift brush strokes — there, a volcano!
Merapi is the most cantankerous of Indonesia’s one hundred-plus volcanoes, blowing its top more often than any other. But on this still, clear morning, it’s merely cursing under its breath, its intestinal vapours a horizontal purple cloud across the morning pink.
At nearly 10,000ft, Gunung Merapi (‘Fire Mountain’) dominates the area around the city of Yogyakarta on Indonesia’s main island of Java. Like dangerous geological features the world over, it is both worshipped and feared. But despite the peace offerings laid on the slopes of Merapi every year, it periodically erupts — with deadly effect.
The last time was in 2010, when hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. The ash from that eruption turned the vivid landscape of rice fields and jungle-clad ridges surrounding it to greyscale and settled an inch thick on the ancient stonework of Borobudur less than 20 miles to the south west. This colossal religious site is my first stop of the morning, the reason I’ve risen so early. It’s also one of the reasons I’ve come to Indonesia, for this is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and one of its most inspiring spiritual sites. As the vast archipelago of Indonesia opens up to British travellers — there are now five flights a week from Gatwick via Amsterdam — I want a taste of its cultural and natural diversity. Borobudur is to be followed by a wildlife adventure and, as I’m about to discover, there’s a common factor running through Indonesia’s spiritual and animal kingdoms: the clue is in that purple cloud across the morning sky.
As I set eyes on Borobudur for the first time, the parallels with Gunung Merapi are obvious. The temple, around 25 miles north west of Yogyakarta, is a structure of volcanic proportions — which is surely what its creators had in mind when they built it (from volcanic rock, in full view of Gunung Merapi) over 1,200 years ago.
My Javanese tour guide, Yanto, describes it as “the biggest single holy structure in the world” — a neat distinction, which avoids direct comparison with, say, the sprawling site of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But Borobudur is undeniably huge and overwhelming, occupying a space roughly equivalent to that contemporary temple of spiritual uplift, the Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal FC.
As we approach through tropical gardens, Yanto likens it to “a big book”. By this he means you can read the temple’s friezes and statues, providing you understand Buddhism. But you don’t have to be familiar with, say, the milestones of Buddha’s existence, the significance of his different hand positions or the symbolism of multiples of eight to be enchanted by Borobudur. To step inside is indeed like opening a book — a giant pop-up book of complexity and beauty.
The temple is a stepped pyramid, built in around AD800 from two million blocks of andesite stone, or lava rock. Abandoned 200 years later, possibly due to the frequency of local seismic activity, it was swiftly shrouded in jungle and layers of volcanic ash. Thus Borobudur fell from human knowledge, until discovered by Sir Stamford Raffles, the British governor-general of Java, in 1814. It was restored by the colonial Dutch at the start of the 20th century and again by UNESCO from 1973-1983, when steel reinforcements were added to parts of the structure. Since becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, Borobudur has become Indonesia’s Stonehenge — a mysterious agglomeration of old stones, attracting international visitors in their droves.
The first thing I see when I enter the lowermost level on the east side, is a workman jet-spraying volcanic ash from the blocks and friezes — photographed by a pink-robed Buddhist monk on his iPad. Everywhere, visitors’ headscarves bob in vivid splashes of colour against the monochromatic lava rock. This is the first of 10 levels; the bottom seven being square and the top three circular, representing different phases of spiritual enlightenment.
Part of a throng of tourists, I ascend heavenward, circling each level in a clockwise direction, past nearly 1,500 story panels, 432 Buddha figures in niches and 72 more Buddhas sitting in diamond-windowed stupas like astronauts in a field of space rockets, waiting for lift-off. From this spiritual Cape Canaveral, with the topmost shrine, Stupa Induk, rising like an ash plume above us, I gaze across misty hills and valleys to the summit of Merapi on the northeast horizon.
This is a sacred landscape — Borobudur is the biggest and most renowned of many ancient candi (temples) surrounding Yogyakarta. I spend the rest of the day exploring the area with another guide, Imung, who tells me that although she’s a Muslim — Indonesia’s dominant religion — she attended a Roman Catholic school and is conversant in other faiths. “All is the same actually,” she muses. “Just a different way.”
And so it seems. In the historic heart of Yogyakarta, next to the sultan’s 18th-century pleasure gardens, where he spied on his concubines bathing, we watch a Muslim puppet maker bent over a sheet of leather, punching out two-dimensional figures — representations, he says, of characters from the Hindu epic tale the Ramayana. Imung leads me round the corner to the subterranean mosque attached to the sultan’s love nest. It features five staircases that meet in a vaulted chamber finished in peach stucco. Here, Imung explains the five principles of the Indonesian concept of Pancasila. These include democracy, social justice, and monotheism, whatever your chosen faith. Religious tolerance and respect for history, in other words, and nowhere is this summed up better than at my next destination.
From Yogyakarta I drive 10 miles north east to Prambanan. This 10th-century Hindu complex of spire-like temples, encircled by hundreds of shrines, is next door to a mosque and, during my visit, the amplified sounds of Islamic prayers drift across the central compound and its lofty temples, dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma.
In 2006, a massive earthquake shook this triumvirate to the soles of their elegant feet, weakening the structures of Prambanan (as well as killing nearly 6,000 people). Shiva’s temple — at 154ft high the site’s biggest building — was so badly damaged it was closed for eight years. It had just reopened when Java was hit by another earthquake, in January of this year, and when I turn up, this showcase of Hindu carving and artistic expression is closed again, swaddled in protective scaffolding. Next door in the temple to Brahma, the four faces on his statue look serenely amused, as if appreciative of the irony — Shiva, the Destroyer, humbled by the destructive power of nature.
I’m given a reminder of that awesome power as I take a taxi to Yogyakarta Airport for my flight out. Gunung Merapi is visible for several minutes through the side window of the car, its ash plume billowing white. Such views are common across the approximately 17,000 islands that make up the archipelago of Indonesia. It’s a region of continual geological upheaval that produces endless chains of quakes, eruptions and tsunamis. The island of Sulawesi — my onward destination from Yogyakarta, via the Indonesian capital, Jakarta — betrays its origins by its shape.
Sulawesi is shaped like a four-limbed starfish in a blender, the result of a tectonic collision between Eurasia and Australia that also created a unique biology; for this is a ‘transition zone’ in which typically Asian animals and plants coexist with those of Australian descent and there’s a high degree of species endemism — creatures found only here. Indonesia has a disproportionately high share of the world’s plants and animals but this is often overlooked in the scramble to see just two — orangutans on Sumatra and Borneo and the Komodo dragons on Komodo Island. By going to the north of Sulawesi, I’m pursuing a lesser-known story that also deserves to be told, of a region of rich biodiversity — not to mention empty beaches, world-class dive sites and sustainable developments. My base, Pulisan Jungle Beach Resort, falls into that category.
Out on a limb
To reach it, I fly into Manado, on the tip of the Minahasa Peninsula, the northernmost limb of the starfish — a three-hour flight from Jakarta across a time zone and the Java Sea. A taxi whizzes me through a ribbon of merging villages with ostentatiously large churches (this is a predominantly Christian area) until the road runs out, and from this roadhead I follow a woman along a sandy jungle path. The woman, I admit, is carrying my suitcase on her head, and presently she leads me to a white-sand beach and dumps the case on the verandah of a wooden bungalow facing the sea. “Pulisan,” she nods, and melts away with a smile.
This modest tourist initiative of eight bungalows fringed by rainforest was started by a German, Katrin Weise, in 1996. “As an anthropologist, I wanted to make it in a way that benefits the community,” she tells me. “I had little money then. It was all step by step.” The project still treads softly, making minimal impact on the environment (50 yards offshore it’s scarcely visible) while employing 16 local people and supporting health clinics and kindergartens in nearby villages, as well as a children’s educational foundation.
Most come for the diving and snorkelling, especially around Bangka Island, 40 minutes away on Pulisan’s dive boat. Others come to explore one of Indonesia’s most biodiverse yet neglected wildlife sanctuaries, Tangkoko-Batuangas Dua Saudara Nature Reserve (its title derived from the names of the three volcanoes within its 23,000 acres), a short boat ride away. Or you can do as I do and explore both.
The waters around Bangka, where I snorkel above billowing coral and boldly beautiful fish, lie in the heart of the so-called Coral Triangle, the most unspoilt, biodiverse marine environment on the planet. But the euphoria of flippering across the roof of this dazzling submarine world is cut short by the dive boat captain. He wants to show me something: a digger working in the undergrowth on Bangka Island, a mechanical yellow insect gouging wounds of orange earth in the rainforest. Although the island theoretically enjoys legal protection from development, the local government has granted permission for a Chinese mining company to start work on an iron ore mine, with a jetty and an industrial harbour. The project is being vigorously contested but if it goes ahead the effects on coral, fish and tourism are likely to be devastating. Meanwhile the digger carries on, regardless of edicts in faraway courtrooms.
Above water, the rare mammals and birds of North Sulawesi — such as the anoa mountain buffalo, the crested black macaque monkey, the bear cuscus, the spectral tarsier, the pig-like babirusa, the maleo bird, the red-knobbed hornbill and the equally memorably named satanic nightjar — are also under threat, from habitat loss, illegal logging and hunting for bushmeat. Tangkoko Batuangus Nature Reserve, across the bay from Pulisan Jungle Beach Resort, is a sanctuary for all these species and more.
This tropical evergreen forest of huge, fin-rooted fig trees slopes down to the beach. Several groups of crested black macaques are frolicking on the shoreline as the dive boat drops me off, the heart-shaped pink sitting pads on their backsides looking as if someone has pinned them there for a joke. I spot a pair of small maleo birds and a green-backed kingfisher. Then the boom of the ocean is drowned by the rumble of thunder. The rainforest turns to twilight, the rain falls in torrents. Following the macaques’ example, I take shelter and wait.
The two species that encapsulate the unique richness of North Sulawesi’s biodiversity are the bear cuscus and the spectral tarsier. No more than four or five inches long, the tarsier is a thoroughly African/Madagascan creature, a lemur-like prosimian, while the long-tailed bear cuscus is a marsupial, as Aussie as they come. When the rain clears, and dusk is advancing, a villager leads me to the base of a towering tree and I have to practically lie on the ground to watch five bear cuscus dangling and lolling in its topmost branches far above. Then the villager seeks out the scaffolding of a strangler fig and invites me to peer inside.
There’s just enough light to see a fist of fur topped by eyes like a boffin’s outsized spectacles. Rudely awoken and wondering, perhaps, if he’s still dreaming, the tarsier stares at me and I stare back — fellow primates caught in a moment of mutual amazement, in a land of miraculous flux.
There are internal flights with Garuda to Yogyakarta and Manado. In Yogyakarta, a local travel agent, Pacto, offers guided tours of Yogyakarta, plus Borobudur, Prambanan and other temples for about £40 per person. T: 00 62 274 484674.
When to go
May to September is the dry season in Java with temperatures reaching 35C; it extends to November in North Sulawesi. Bear in mind it still rains in these periods.
Need to know
Visas: EU citizens can buy visas on arrival from $35 (£22).
Currency: Rupiah (Rp). £1 = Rp20,000.
Health: Jabs for diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, tetanus and typhoid should be up to date. Anti-malaria medication is advisable. Check with your GP prior to your trip.
International dial code: 00 6.
Time: Java: GMT +7. Sulawesi: GMT +8.
Borobudur: Open 6am-5pm, entry $20 (£13); a local guide from Rp75,000 (£3.75). Get there early to beat the crowds, or buy tickets to see the temple at sunrise: Rp380,000 (£20), through Hotel Manohara Borobudur.
Prambanan: Open 6am-5pm; entry $17 (£11), local guide, Rp75,000 (£3.80).
Where to stay
Near Borobudur: Plataran Borobudur Resort & Spa. From $230 (£144) a night B&B.
On Sulawesi: Pulisan Jungle Beach Resort. From $25 per person per night, full board. Full day diving, $56; full day snorkelling, $45; full day guided tour of Tangkoko Batuangus Nature Reserve, $70; airport pick-up, $13.
Lonely Planet Indonesia. RRP: £20.99.
Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation, by Elizabeth Pisani. RRP: £18.99. (Granta)
How to do it
Reef & Rainforest Tours has an eight-night tailor-made tour combining Borobudur and North Sulawesi. From £945 per person, including three nights’ B&B at Plataran Borobudur Resort & Spa, five nights’ full board at Pulisan Jungle Beach Resort, domestic flights and most activities.
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)