• Borobudur, Mt. Merapi and Sunrise on Setumbu Hill

    When things don’t quite go as expected.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my fair share of disappointing experiences in all kinds of sunrise visits and tours. As you know, whenever you see the word “sunrise”, you can be sure a wake-up call at an ungodly hour is on the cards. When you set out so early, while it’s still dark and cold outside, you hope it’s going to be worth it. However, quite often the weather (it’s almost always the weather) has a different idea.

I still remember my first attempt at watching sunrise at Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, about 10 years ago. Two friends and I got there feeling all sleepy and excited just before dawn, only to find that there was not going to be much of a sunrise that day (thank you, clouds).

The most recent of these disappointments still stings when I think about it. I was on the Indonesian island of Java. I had joined a two-day tour from Yogyakarta to visit Mount Bromo and Mount Ijen, the two most impressive volcanoes on east Java. After a full day on the road (traffic is absolutely exasperating in Java), and a late-evening arrival at our guesthouse, we went to bed at midnight only to get up about 4 hours later. We were going to a viewpoint from where we were expecting to see amazing views of Mount Bromo. I’d seen some photos before, and I definitely wanted to see that and take my own pictures. Just google it and you’ll see what I mean.

Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy that morning and we couldn’t even catch a glimpse of Mt. Bromo behind the thick veil of clouds (again, thank you clouds!).

I was so disappointed that I spent the next day seriously considering coming back to Mt. Bromo on my own after the tour’s end at Mt. Ijen. But that involved yet another uncomfortable 10-hour bus ride (including the return trip), and of course there was no guarantee of a clear-sky sunrise on my second attempt. That, and the lure of Bali, a short ferry trip from where I was in east Java, was enough to deter me.

Sunrise on Setumbu Hill

Only two days earlier, I’d experienced an almost similarly anticlimactic experience on Punthuk Setumbu Hill. This hill is about 3 km to the west of the valley where Borobudur Temple is located, so it seemed like a great place to watch sunrise from. At least, that’s how it was advertised by guesthouses and tour agencies in Yogyakarta. I suppose if I’d done my research properly, I’d have known what to expect in advance.

View from Setumbu Hill at dawn. Java (Indonesia)

This is what the view looked like when I arrived on top of Setumbu Hill. My first reaction was: where’s Borobudur? © 2015 All rights reserved.

That morning I was picked up at my guesthouse at about 4 am (ugh!). Less than two hours later, Setumbu Hill had narrowly escaped joining my list of sunrise visit disappointments.

The reason? It’s pretty hard to actually see nothing more than a faint, distant outline of Borobudur from Setumbu Hill. Not only the temple looks much smaller than I expected from that distance, but it is also surrounded by vegetation and shrouded in mist. From the images I’ve seen afterwards, mist is very common on the Borobudur plain at sunrise. So my guess is you’d have to be quite lucky to get a nice view of Borobudur from Setumbu Hill at dawn.

Thankfully, as I immediately noticed when I reached the viewpoint, there is something much more stunning to see from Setumbu Hill at this hour. Overlooking the plain on its east side, it’s impossible to miss the imposing presence of two 3000m volcanoes: Mt. Merbabu (literally, “mountain of ash”) and Mt. Merapi (“mountain of fire”). Of these two, Mt. Merapi is the most fearsome. With violent eruptions occurring every 1-5 years, Merapi is the most active volcano in Indonesia, and one of the most active in the world. So much so, that Javanese people believe it’s inhabited by spirits, and make offerings to appease it regularly.

Mt. Merapi seen from Setumbu Hill, Indonesia

As the sky started to turn pink, orange and mauve, the top of Mt. Merapi remained shrouded in a beautiful cloud. / © 2015 All rights reserved.

By that time, it’d started to dawn on me (yep, I just did that terrible pun) that Merapi was going to be the highlight of this visit, so I kept taking photos with my long-zoom lens as the clouds and sky around it kept changing.

Mount Merapi at sunrise, Java

Mt. Merapi at sunrise, Java. / © 2015 All rights reserved.

Although I was standing at a presumably safe distance, it was both sobering and exciting to think that Merapi’s last major eruption had taken place back in 2010, so another one was now overdue.

Mt. Merbabu and Mt. Merapi from Setumbu Hill.

It wasn’t exactly the most beautiful sky I’ve ever seen, but the combination with the two volcanoes and the misty foreground made for a compelling view. / © 2015 All rights reserved.

Mt. Merapi and Borobudur Temple, Java

In this photo (and less clearly in some of the previous ones), you can barely see the tip of Borobudur’s main stupa, sticking out of the dark patch of vegetation seen towards the middle of the image, slightly to the right. / © 2015 All rights reserved.

In the end, I was appeased by Mt. Merapi that morning, instead of me having to placate the mighty volcano. The views, while not totally stunning, were quite beautiful, and it felt good to be there in the calm atmosphere and fresh air of dawn. This short video might give you a better idea:

My subsequent visit to Borobudur also helped to make this early morning trip well worth it, but I will tell you about that soon.

How to get to Setumbu Hill

  • Most people go there on a day tour from Yogyakarta, where most guesthouses and agencies offer the visit in different packages. It takes a little over 1 hour to reach Setumbu Hill from Yogyakarta by road.
  • As always, shopping around is probably worth it, but roughly you can expect to pay 100,000 rupiah (about 7 Euros/USD) for a package including also a non-guided visit to Borobudur and breakfast.
  • Not included is the entrance fee to Setumbu Hill (30,000 rupiah). From the entrance, it is a comfortable 10-15 minute climb to the top. When I was there, there were maybe a few dozen people, but I didn’t need to run or fight to get a good spot.

What about you guys? Can you remember any occasion when you got up really early and were kind of disappointed with what you saw? Tell me about it in the comments!

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