Dieng, the mystical highlands
“No,” Bart said forcefully, “Not here. The view isn’t the one I saw in my friend’s photo. We have to go further.”
On a grassy ridge at the top of Gunung Prahu, the mountain shaped like a boat’s hull, I was getting exasperated. “Close enough,” I thought. We’d pulled ourselves out of bed at one in the morning, as the rest of the village slumbered peacefully under the brightness of the full moon. Captivated by the rugged scenery around Dieng, a fertile basin in Central Java’s volcanic highlands, our group had unanimously agreed to a sunrise hike some two days earlier. By this time, on the cusp of dawn, I had grown so tired and miserable I almost didn’t care.
But Bart was not backing down. Burying my bare hands deep into my pockets, I begrudgingly started to walk eastwards along the trail. Gusts of frigid air whipped at our faces and sent the long grass into frenzied waves of motion. Five days into a three-month journey across Indonesia, I had never expected to feel this cold.
* * *
Our adventure had started far below the mountain, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) away in the port of Cirebon. The first few hours were largely uneventful, as we cruised along a highway that sliced through glimmering paddy fields, before dropping us into the din of motorcycle traffic and a string of drab, featureless towns. Turning off the busy Jalur Pantura, that crucial four-lane artery running along Java’s northern coast, we wound our way up into the hills, past the occasional house with spices drying on plastic sheets by the roadside.
It was a drive that tested the limits of Bama’s fully-loaded car — and his resolve — on stretches where the road petered out into a blanket of roughly cut stones, with blades of grass poking out from the grooves between each block. We later emerged onto a narrow ribbon of tarmac, meandering below a steep, forested ridge. On the far side of the valley, terraced fields and villages were half-hidden in the clouds, and once we ventured even higher, the mist blotted out all but the closest features beyond our windshield. Eventually the road descended to a place where a strange combination of sun and vapour bathed the scenery in an all-consuming golden glow, as though we’d entered some mystical realm. We saw ethereal silhouettes in the late afternoon light, plumes of billowing steam rising from an unknown source, and knew that we’d finally entered Dieng.
Javanese legends describe this area as Di Hyang, the “Abode of Gods”. It was, according to a traditional creation myth, the first place supreme god Bhatara Jagatprama made when Java was being formed, and the perch from which he created the rest of the island. Although historic texts refer to Dieng as a mountain, the Dieng of today is synonymous with an ancient caldera at 2,000 metres (6,560 feet) above sea level. Here, the earth itself seems to breathe, as at Sikidang Crater, a perpetually boiling pool amid a threadbare landscape streaked yellow by sulphurous fumes.
Dieng’s status as a holy site is clear even today, thanks to a trove of seventh- and eighth-century Hindu temples. Hewn out of black volcanic andesite, they predate even the Buddhist marvel of Borobudur, making them the oldest religious structures in all of Java. But Dieng was even more impressive in the early 19th century, when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles wrote of its immense collection of temple remains, reached by great flights of stone steps from four directions. He described a plain “covered with scattered ruins and large fragments of hewn stone to a considerable distance”, where “traces of the site of nearly four hundred temples were discovered, having broad and extensive streets or roads running between them at right angles.”
But the four monumental stairways and a great majority of archaeological sites have long since disappeared. Of the many temples that once dotted the plain, only eight remain standing. Each one is named after a Javanese wayang character drawn from the Hindu epic known as the Mahabharata, a fact that was not lost on Raffles.
Early one morning, we embarked on a short drive to the well-preserved Arjuna complex, five noble shrines that stood more or less in the middle of the marshy plain. Two other temples, Gatotkaca and Setyaki, were within easy walking distance, though few of our fellow visitors seemed to have the desire or patience to explore either one. We spent at least an hour perusing the collection of Javanese artefacts at the nearby Kailasa Museum, which was dug into a hillside and aptly named after the snowcapped abode of Hindu god Shiva. For Dieng’s temples represented the cosmic mountains of Hindu mythology, and its builders might well have been inspired by their surroundings.
We were too, of course, and we’d planned a hike into the mountains. For what was a visit to Dieng without seeing the sunrise from Mt. Prahu? Badai was still keen on the physical challenge, even if the only footwear he brought was a pair of sandals. At 2:00 a.m. that night, the four of us reached “Base Camp”, a darkened information booth on the village main street, where a thermometer read five degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit). Wrapped in our warmest clothing, we pressed on under a star-filled sky, the path ahead lit by the brightness of the full moon. It bathed the landscape in a soft, otherworldly glow, casting strange shadows on the fields of cabbage, tomatoes and onions, and on the scaly trees festooned with bunches of carica, a papaya-like fruit. Soon the trail was enclosed by thick stands of pine, and we picked our way over tangled roots and loose stones, through a forest now wet with morning dew.
I hadn’t expected the numbing chill — exacerbated by blasts of frigid air — on Mt. Prahu’s bald summit. At Bart’s insistence, we struck out for another perch with a clearer view of Sindoro’s shapely cone and its more rugged twin, Sumbing. We waited, shivering in the half-light of dawn, while our hands and faces turned a ruddy pink. But as the first rays of sun drenched the mountaintops in shades of ochre, as the village lights far below dimmed and the patchwork of farmland grew more and more distinct, the coldness was matched by a deep sense of awe — at witnessing such incredible beauty — and gratitude for the arrival of another new day. ◊