Indonesia is among the most volcanically active countries on the planet, which means there are considerable dangers associated with climbing mountain peaks. Indonesian and international volcanology agencies and local village advice should be sought and respected – it really can be a matter of life and death. A volcano that is erupting violently this year will probably calm down for a lengthy period at some point in the near future, so don’t risk bagging it and potentially killing yourself in the process – save it for another day!
Although the idea of closing a mountain is an alien concept to many Westerners, it happens frequently in Indonesia and Malaysia. Sometimes it’s due to very poor weather, planned religious holidays for Park staff, trail maintenance or bureaucratic reasons that are often mystifying. Whatever the reason, the authorities take it very seriously and people found on the trails when they are official closed can be fined, deported or both. Don’t risk it. If you see a sign with ‘TUTUP’ on it then ask local people for confirmation or just make other plans. It can be frustrating but better to be frustrated than deported.
Never hike alone even if you are experienced and well-prepared.
There are several other considerations when Gunung Bagging:
GPS and Navigation Apps
There are many useful smartphone apps available to record your route and help you navigate during your trek. This is a worthwhile ‘extra layer of protection’ for if something goes wrong, and also a great way of looking back at your trek later online and even sharing the data with others. It is very worthwhile to make waypoints at all major junctions and landmarks so that you can return by the same route later if required. The big problem is mobile phone battery life, and even with a power bank you may run out of power on a multi-day hike. This is why standard AA battery-powered GPS devices (such as the commonly found Garmin Etrex 10) are vital along with spare batteries. But the downside to many standard GPS devices is the lack of memory – after a while the machine starts writing over your older tracks. This can be a real pain on longer trips when you are away from home for several weeks and hiking numerous different peaks.
The way to resolve this issue is to use a simple, cheap secondary cable to connect your GPS device’s USB cable to your smartphone so you can periodically save your tracks and waypoints as data on your phone. The cables are known as OTG (‘on the go’) and at one end have a ‘female’ USB connector (for where you would normally connect your GPS device to a laptop) and at the other end a phone connector (as if you were charging your phone). The type of phone connector you need depends on the type of phone you have – for example, for the Samsung J series it is the ‘micro USB’ and for some others it is called ‘C type’.
Not many people know about this method, but it effectively allows you the best of both worlds – easy replacement of AA batteries in your GPS device and easy storage of data in your phone’s (usually much larger) memory. Note that the Garmin Connect app only works with a limited number of devices and is therefore pretty useless – much better to simply use your phone’s standard File Manager and send yourself an email with the data attached for extra safe keeping when you get WiFi between treks.
It may be hot and sunny at sea level, but at several thousand metres conditions can be very different and can change quickly and dramatically. Mountain ranges can have their own unique micro-climates. Always take a waterproof jacket, sunblock, a whistle, maps, a compass, a spare set of clothes, extra layers, sleeping bag, tent, a lighter or means of starting a fire, plenty of food and water, and a basic First Aid kit including paracetamol. Above 3,200m the reduced levels of oxygen in the air can make each step harder – if you feel unwell, descend a couple of hundred metres until you feel well again. If possible try to boil mountain water before drinking it (or use iodine tablets) – but always take more water than you think you’ll need in the first place.
You may need to ask for help from locals and arrange a guide. Pack an Indonesian or Malay phrasebook and have a willingness to try to speak Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia. Take a mobile phone with you that has coverage in the area and be sure to conserve battery life by switching it off from time to time or – on longer expeditions – keeping it on only at certain pre-planned times of the day for emergency use. Take a power bank with you for recharging. Always let someone know where you are going and roughly when to expect you back.
Using a GPS and making regular waypoints at any junctions or vague sections of trail should limit the chances of you becoming lost. Always take lots of extra batteries for your device. If you do happen to become lost, stay calm and don’t make any rushed decisions until you have had time to think about your options sensibly. Stay together with any others and only consider going further away from the original trail you were on either as a last resort or because you are close enough to easy terrain such as farm fields and civilization for it not to pose significant further problems caused by being even more difficult for search parties to find you. This is the time for you to use your whistle. Should you have to spend a unplanned night out on the mountain try to start a fire in time for first light the following morning so that you can be spotted more easily.
Navigating through tropical forests and extensive farmland can be difficult; trails often fork and you really ought not to rely on luck to choose the which one leads in the right direction. It is always best to arrange local guides, even if you’ve climbed the mountain several times before. It is also very important to emphasise your aim of reaching the true summit of the mountain – if this is indeed your aim – because the concept of ‘reaching the summit’ is sometimes misunderstood by locals. It is often the case that a guide thinks he has taken you to the ‘top’ when, infact, you can quite clearly see higher peaks nearby!
It might seem indulgent to hire porters, but this is standard practice in Indonesia and some parts of Malaysia when the hike involves overnight camping. You’re also contributing to the local economy. Remember to decide on a price before you set off and be clear whether it is per day or in total for the entire hike (for example, if camping for one night). The reliability and quality of porters varies considerably and this should always be taken into consideration. Unfortunately even usually good guides can let you down by showing up late or bringing friends who have never hiked before as additional porters (this sometimes means they will be an hour or two behind you which might mean setting up tents in the dark). Local villagers from the last village are often the best because they are used to the terrain and will usually be strong folk. It may require more time to find and negotiate prices with porters on the spot than in advance although not always. We encourage you to post general comments about porters (and guides) in order to both improve the information on individual Ribus and also as part of a wider community discussion. Comments are moderated to ensure recommendations for accommodation, guides and porters are fair.
Money and Payment
Never send money to guides or porters in advance unless it is a transfer to an official National Park account. Gunung Bagging has learnt the hard way. We sent money ahead to individuals twice and regretted it both times. The first time was to clear a trail in East Java to improve access so we could get up the peak in question in a weekend rather than 3 or 4 days, but upon arrival the trail did not look like anyone had cleared it in months, let alone the previous week. The second time, we paid upfront for a two-day trip in Johor, Malaysia with an experienced and knowledgeable guide we had met before and been impressed by at a prominent National Park. But this time he never showed up or answered his phone when we arrived – he had simply pocketed the cash. We spent the weekend not hiking but making police reports and visiting a tourism office to suggest ways matters could be improved for all concerned. Rest assured, we will not be sending money ahead a third time! It is a sad state of affairs to have to take such a dim view of humanity but in Southeast Asia opportunistic theft is common and you have to be extremely cautious, however ‘friendly’ and experienced they may be. That said, most of the time you will be OK.
As for Indonesian currency, try to carry Rp50,000 notes (the blue ones) instead of Rp100,000 (the red ones) unless you want to keep paying Rp100,000 for short ojek rides that should cost Rp30,000 but nobody has any change! Indomarets are great for getting change, but in many places there are no Indomarets and getting correct change out of Rp100,000 is not always easy. Rp50,000 notes are much better.
Peninsular Malaysia Hiking Trips
Whereas in Indonesia you can usually just show up near a mountain and find a guide, parts of Peninsular Malaysia are more complicated, with permits sometimes required in advance and often higher guide costs. This has led to it being normal for large groups of hikers to go together, car-sharing from Kuala Lumpur for example, with a leader who has factored in guide costs, basic food rations and permits. Unfortunately in our experience these trips often seem to be very poorly managed with bad communication. If you join one, be sure to double-check all details beforehand at least twice in order to avoid being surprised when you find out you will be driving overnight and getting no sleep whatsoever before your 4-day trek begins. It is much better to go in a smaller group to avoid the noise and chaos associated with these larger groups, which inevitably disturbs wildlife, but it means a higher cost per person.
Try to use the Forestry Department of Malaysia website to register your hiking plans in West Malaysia in conjunction with your guide if you have one – ideally three weeks in advance – rather than pay an unnecessary extra fee for your guide to go in person to an obscure forestry office.
As is to be expected for such a huge region, different areas of Indonesia and Malaysia have different average monthly rainfall throughout the year. It differs from far north to far south and from far east to far west. During the usual dry season (roughly May-September), East Java and NTT are generally drier than West Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan. However, climate change means that it is becoming harder to predict – you can have dry times in the traditional rainy seasons and vice versa. Generally the best months to climb are from late April until the end of September as the rainy season in most places runs roughly from October to March; you should not attempt to bag anything significant during the rainy season and many national parks are closed for several months during this this period (typically January 1st to March 31st in Java, and October or November to January or February in Peninsular Malaysia).
However, there are still options at this time, especially north of the equator and in far eastern Indonesia. The best places during November to April include northern Malaysia (including Penang and Langkawi), Aceh, North Sumatra, the Palu region of Central Sulawesi, Ambon, and certain parts of Papua such as Raja Ampat. There are many regional variations so check average local monthly rainfall charts. It is vital that you do some research before making travel plans.
Our own plans across the course of a year usually ‘follow the seasons’, starting in Malaysia and northern Sumatra at the beginning of the year, when Java and most islands further east (with some exceptions mentioned above) are in the middle of the rainy season, and slowing drifting eastwards. By October, when Nusa Tenggara remains incredibly dry, Malaysia and northern Sumatra have usually already entered the rainy season again.
Note that the transitional periods between dry and wet and back again (musim transisi) are associated with the most unpredictable weather with some mountaintops not being free from cloud for several days and winds that are more like those you’d experience in the Scottish Highlands! In Java, this is typically early December and April and lasts around 2 or 3 weeks, though all this can vary from year to year depending on numerous factors. Naturally, it occurs in different regions at different times of the year.
Ramadan and Public Holidays
Weekends are busy enough on the mountains of Java and we tend to encourage mid-week trips to popular mountains where possible. Public Holidays (especially Idul Fitri and New Year) are also best avoided unless you have chosen somewhere relatively unfrequented. It is also well worth checking when Ramadan is. In previous years, we would recommend hikers to hike during Ramadan as most local hikers will not be out on the mountains so you might get some peace and quiet (and the best camping spots!) However, as conservatism grows, it is increasingly difficult to find reliable guides who will go with you during the holy month and – in Muslim-majority regions of Indonesia especially – you may find that the trails have been closed entirely for the whole month to all hikers regardless of their religious belief. Conduct sufficient research to avoid disappointment.
Indonesian Domestic Flights
Although there have been far fewer serious incidents in the last five or so years, as of 2017 the continuing lack of reliability of many Indonesian airlines can easily destroy what seem to be fairly simple travel plans. See here for a typically chaotic attempt to leave Jakarta on a Friday evening with Lion Air. Weekend trips out of Jakarta can leave you feeling frustrated, tired and on the verge of giving up altogether. If possible, avoid Lion Air evening flights, as 2-hour delays are common and they operate at Soekarno-Hatta’s Terminal 1 in Jakarta which is an unappealing environment full of misinformation (and entirely lacking in alcoholic beverages, for those who enjoy a beer). Better use Air Asia, Garuda or Citilink if possible, but bear in mind that Air Asia has a pretty disgusting habit of almost never giving refunds should you need one.
For those on high salaries, Garuda remains the best, but can often be late too (I recently had to wait nearly an hour extra for a Garuda flight to Singapore and it was the first flight of the day – no excuses!) and give worryingly incorrect in-flight information (on my return from Singapore to Jakarta the flight map had the destination as Denpasar which left me feeling rather anxious!) Even better advice for those in Central, South or East Jakarta is to take flights to/from Halim airport which is much more central. Certain Citilink and Batik flights use Halim but not all so do double-check! Finally, if you are flying a short distance such as Jakarta to Semarang then it may actually take the same time as getting the train from Gambir to Semarang Tawang (6 hours). Considering the stress and hassle of getting out to Soekarno-Hatta (and back) except in the middle of the night, it is usually better to take the train where possible for shorter distances.
Use the Traveloka app for booking flights, trains and local hotels in Indonesia. It is user-friendly when compared to other methods but note that train refunds cannot be done via the app. Before booking, use Radar Box to search a particular flight to find out if it is regularly delayed – for fun, you can even look up mid-evening Lion Air flights and wait for your jaw to drop!
Unfortunately it is not always as simple as packing your bags and heading off into the hills. Some areas (particularly National Parks) require you to have a permit or to sign a visitors’ book. Most often this can be sorted out on the day but it is always a good idea to have some photocopies of your passport photo page and other forms of identification with you. Most areas in Papua require a permit to be arranged in advance. Usually, Taman Negara, Gede-Pangrango, Halimun-Salak and Mount Rinjani National Parks do not officially allow hiking from late December to end of March inclusive. Many others are also closed during the peak of the rainy season in Java (January-March) so check before you travel.
Food and Cooking
Be aware that you cannot carry gas (butane canisters) on flights so best arrange with your guide in advance or allow time to purchase upon arrival. Please do not encourage your guide or anyone else to use forest wood as fuel except in an emergency. Sachets of Pocari Sweat (in Indonesia) or 100Plus (in Malaysia) make a great isotonic addition to water. As for food on multi-day hikes, much is down to personal preference but light, compact, nutritious things like cereal, energy bars, couscous along with noodles are good options. Noodles can even be eaten raw in an emergency! Rice makes less sense, but few locals will go even a single day without it, despite it taking longer to prepare (and therefore use more of your gas). The key thing with cooking rice is to try to make a rule that it should be done in the evening at camp when everyone is staying put rather than in the morning, wasting precious time and boring the hell out of the rest of the group who are eager to move on. You should be making the most of trekking during daylight hours rather than wasting it boiling rice and keeping everyone waiting.
Please remember to take all your rubbish home with you. Unnecessary litter is an all-too-common sight at campsites and some of the more popular hiking routes. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to leave the natural environment as you found it.
You may see some guides and porters climbing hills with nothing more that a sarong, flip-flops and cigarettes. However, it is essential to be well-equipped and prepared for any eventuality. One problem often encountered by Westerners is finding hiking boots in Indonesia that are large enough. Eiger and Consina stores are usually the best and there are many across Indonesia. Unfortunately they are often poorly-stocked so ordering online may make more sense than sitting in traffic to find that your local Eiger store does not even have one sleeping bag in stock! One well-stocked and decent independent store in South Jakarta is Outdoor Station in Kebayoran Baru. But best email or phone them first to check they have your size!
Leech socks are a worthwhile investment for anyone hiking more than a single mountain in Malaysia, Kalimantan or Sumatra. They exist in other areas too but in these regions it is quite common to meet them and sometimes in large numbers, especially during the rainy season! For a peak such as Gunung Bubu in Peninsular Malaysia a pair is even justified for a single hike! Leech socks are cheap and generally keep the blood-suckers out of your actual socks and boots. The socks are not commonly seen in Jakarta (perhaps due to the relative lack of leeches on Javanese mountains) but are pretty cheap and easy to get hold of online or in famous trekking locations in Borneo (e.g. Sabah). For those not living in this part of the world, they can also be bought in many Western countries such as the UK prior to your holiday.
It may seem ridiculous to give chafing its own heading, but the pain caused by several damp and humid days in the lower forests of Indonesia and Malaysia can be truly awful and can cause delays and cancellations to future plans as you need rest days to recover. You may be OK hiking up a cool 3,000 metre peak in Java that has a trailhead starting at well over 1,500 metres above sea level, but multi-day hikes lower down at 1,200 metres and below can cause havoc on your inner thighs if you wear cotton underwear. The solution is to simply not wear cotton underwear. Synthetic fabrics are so much better. You can even consider buying synthetic cycling shorts online (XXL size for foreigners) and using them as underwear after cutting out the arse pad! A bit fiddly but worth saving yourself severe discomfort in a delicate area!
Indonesia’s National Coordinating Agency for Surveys and Mapping, Bakosurtanal, has published 1:25,000 scale maps for some parts of the archipelago, but many are not yet covered – notably much of Papua and West Papua. As of 2019, these maps for Java, Bali, and Nusa Tenggara can be downloaded for free here. There are also lots of worthwhile 1:50,000 scale downloadable maps for some parts of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Maluku. Have a search here but be aware that some are incredibly accurate and others are way, way out with elevations of mountain tops or lacking in sufficient detail to be of much use.
Bakosurtanal paper maps are not readily available in bookstores or tourist shops so you have to either visit the office at Cibinong, between Jakarta and Bogor, or place an order by email. The impressive office is open Monday to Friday 8am until 3pm and the 1:25,000 sheets cost a very reasonable Rp50,000 each. There are also outlets in major cities and provincial capitals across Indonesia though you will probably need to order the map you want in advance.
Of course, most guides and porters do not use any maps whatsoever, but if you are considering going hiking without local knowledge a map is essential. Given the difficulty getting good maps, we have created a directory for GPS tracks. You are also advised to use the Google Maps app on your smartphone. If you load up the relevant terrain prior to setting out then even if you have little or no signal during the hike you can often at least get the ‘blue dot’ telling you roughly where you are in terms of height and heading in which direction.
In Indonesia the names and spelling of places often vary; for example, the Central Java city of Yogyakarta is often spelled Jogjakarta or Jogyakarta. It should be no surprise that many mountains have several spellings and even totally different local names. We have tried to use the most common name for the main listing, but welcome information on additional names on the individual Ribu pages. This is a huge area and a collaborative research effort needs to be made.
We at Gunung Bagging go on frequent informal hiking trips from Jakarta during the dry season – if you are fit and wish to come along you are welcome to get in touch with us for more information on what we have planned. Happy hiking and “Hati Hati” – be careful!
Useful Indonesian hiking phrases
Mendaki gunung – Mountain hiking
Saya mau ke puncak – I want to go to the peak
Saya cari pemandu untuk naik Gunung X – I am looking for a guide to climb Mount X.
Puncak paling tinggi – The highest peak
Berapa harganya untuk… ? – What is the price for….?
Jam berapa? – What time?
Berapa jam ke puncak? – How many hours to the peak?
Saya mau naik/turun – I want to climb/go down
Tektok – Up and down (in one day) (informal)
Ada air minum? – Is there drinking water?
Ada kawah? – Is there a crater?
Ada tempat untuk berkemah dekat puncak (tertinggi)? – Is there a place for camping near the (highest) summit?
Anda tahu orang yang tahu perjalanan ke puncak (tertinggi/sejati)? – Do you know someone who knows the route to the (highest/true) summit?
Saya sakit – I’m sick/unwell
Dekat – Close
Jauh – Far
Please note that the letter ‘c’ is almost always pronounced ‘ch’, and ‘k’ at the end of a word is usually very light indeed or nearly silent, e.g. ‘puncak’ is pronounced ‘punchahh’.
Professional Assistance and Consultations
With an incredible depth and breadth of experience across the Indonesian archipelago, we also offer our services in a professional consultation context, including travel itinerary planning, sourcing local contacts, and providing specific advice on remote regions for individuals and businesses. Get in touch with us if you would like some specific help.
You may also find the following two files useful in planning your hiking trips across the Indonesian archipelago:
An Excel spreadsheet with all the Ribus and Spesials listed, along with elevation, prominence, province, plus latitutde and longitude data.
A KML file with all the Ribus and Spesials listed, for use with Google Earth.