Shaped as a perfect cone, almost 10.000 feet high, Mount Merapi towers majestically over the near-by city of Yoygakarta.
On a clear day you can see sulfur smoke escaping from the summit of the town’s landmark. It’s a popular regional tourist attraction.
But Merapi is as dangerous as a powder keg – ready to explode any second, spiting out deadly heat clouds, ashes and burning hot lava like it did so many times before – killing anybody near the gorge of Indonesia’s most active volcano.
But despite the threat hundreds of people live on the slopes, many waiting for mystic signs before they believe the danger is real.
As Peter Koppen and Sutami report Merapi is much more than a mountain to the Javanese living in its shadow.
Villagers stand on the side of the road that widens its way up the active volcano. They watch as it spits out searing hot clouds of ash and lava.
Although they are told a deadly eruption is possible any minute, life here goes on as normal.
Budarmo, now 65 has lived here all her life.
“Sometimes I’m afraid, sometimes not. What can I do? When the Bantul area was hit by the earthquake, this mountain poured out a lot of heat clouds. I ran away and stayed away for a week. Now I just leave things in the hands of God. If I die I’ll die in my own house.
Abuldrohma another long time resident says he just watches what direction the ash and clouds head in before making a decision to flee.
“I know when things get tricky at the Merapi. You know, we just have to look at the direction the lava takes. If it goes southwards, it’s save to stay here. But of course, if the siren is activated, we will run.
Merapi is watched 24-hours a day at five observation stations surrounding the Mountain of Fire. Panut is in control of the Southern post.
“We watch the sulfur smoke that comes out of the crater. We observe visually and with instruments. It’s very hard to predict when the volcano will erupt. All we can do is just watch it.
The active monitoring program began in 1924 and has been intensified in the last few years.
Research worker Setyoso Hardjowisastro says a best case scenario would be that nobody lived in an 8 kilometer radius from the craver. But it has been difficult to move people he says.
We made two attempts to relocate people in 95 and 97. We transferred the people who lived near the crater to new places, around 15 km from the top of Merapi. But when Merapi took a relatively long break without erupting, these people returned to their old houses.
Merapi is now densely populated. Thousands of people live on the flanks of the volcano, with villages as close as 4000 feet to the crater. While around 70 thousand people live in the immediate vicinity.
Panut from the observatory post believes these people are in tune with the volcano and know what to do.
“Sometimes they approach us and ask why the sirens haven’t been activated yet, since they can see a lot of heat clouds coming out from the top of Merapi. We are proud of the people, because they are getting aware of the dangerous situation. Some of them even packed their belongings and were ready to be evacuated.
But many times people can not move fast enough. Last May three people where killed when they were engulfed in a scalding gas that spewed suddenly out of the crater.
13 years ago sixty people died similar deaths. This man was the only survivor of a wedding party on that day.
“I survived but was burnt by the clouds and the building collapsed on me. I was taken to hospital where I stayed for five months, I had allot of operations and now my hands which were seriously burnt look like this.
His fingers are melted together.
Stories like this are keeping outsiders away.
75 year old Pak Sono runs a guest house. His rooms with a superb view of the mountain are just 20.000 rupiah a night – but guests have been scarce lately.
“My guest house has been empty for almost a year. Not a single guest has come since last year’s eruption. My rooms are always empty. No one comes.
He is putting his hopes in Mbah Maridjan, the old “gate-keeper” to the volcano who enjoys an intimate spiritual relationship with Merapi.
Here he performs an Islamic pray to protect the region.
Marjian believes he knows when the volcano will erupt.
“The government usually gets it wrong. This community has two warning systems, one from the government the second one is the gods. I am still here because I must keep praying to prevent the mountain from exploding. If I come down it means I am only protecting myself, if I stay it’s for the country.
For modern scientists and rescue workers like Widi Sutikno, Pak Marjani can be a headache.
“We’re not looking for a conflict with him. We just want him to discuss the dangers of Merapi with others. I don’t care if he doesn’t want to be evacuated. Maybe he can fly or disappear. But I have to think of the people who live next to him and how they can be saved.
Merapi though is much more than a mountain to the people of central Java.
It is seen as a representation of the sacred Mount Meru of Hindu mythology, or as the home of more ancient Javanese spirits.
The Sultan of Yogyakarta, although a devout Muslim like most of his subjects, pays homage to these forces in yearly rituals.
For now locals are putting their faith in the two systems to protect them from this unpredictable mountain of fire.