Mount Sumbing Was Instagrammable. The Journey Up It Was Not.
A steep, winding mountain road | 2000 words | Translated by Sarah Leys
The plan was for a family holiday – with my sister and her family, my parents, my younger brother, my grandmother, my uncle and his family, plus me and my husband – to the slopes of Mount Sumbing.
My sister’s house in Purworejo, Central Java, became our rendezvous point: my husband and I from Jakarta, the rest of the family from my hometown of Cilacap, about four hours away.
Why Mount Sumbing?
Planning had begun several months before, after my extended family on my mother’s side went on a family holiday to Dieng. On getting back home my dad declared he wanted to invite his own mother and brother on a similar vacation. My older sister, hearing this, immediately agreed and began to look into possible destinations. She stopped searching when she found an advertisement for a guesthouse high up on Mount Sumbing. Photos showed the place was ultra-Instagrammable. Mount Sumbing’s peak sits 3,340 metres above sea level, with its slopes beginning about 30 kilometres from the city of Mungkid, in Magelang – and not terribly far from Purworejo.
For whatever reason – if you ask me, maybe it was because we were still feeling the euphoria of that holiday to Dieng, which is also up in the mountains – we all agreed to visit Mount Sumbing.
The moment we gathered together in my sister’s house was pretty moving for me – remembering that my husband and I live in a different province, so we can’t meet my family every day. My grandmother’s almost 90, but I swear she still looks youthful and the very picture of health, as if she’s all but forgotten about her advanced age. I was happy she was willing to join the vacation, especially because we’d never actually done a thing like this before. All up, it promised to be a very special trip.
We couldn’t hit the road straightaway. My sister announced that, to get to the guesthouse we were booked at, we’d need to go along a road flanked by ricefields, and at this time of day the road would still be full of farmers.
Finally at around 3pm, after the Asar prayer, we divided into three groups and departed.
A first group went in my dad’s car, a 2017 Innova – my grandma, my aunt, and one little cousin, plus Dad. The second group went in my sister’s car, a 2012 Grand Livina: along with my sister, her child, still a baby, her husband, plus my mum. The third group went into the car of my 18-year-old younger brother, a 2015 Brio: along with him were my uncle, another little cousin, my husband and I.
We chose to take cars rather than another mode of transportation because of comfort – because of AC, and soft chairs whose level of incline can be adjusted. We feel safer and we feel we have more flexibility in vehicles which are our own property. Who doesn’t?
The distance between Purworejo and Magelang is normally around 2 hours. But we had to take an elevated route into the mountains which would blow out our travelling time.
The road we travelled on that afternoon was asphalt, but with lots of medium-to-large sized holes. It was relatively narrow, just enough for two cars side-by-side, though at this time it thankfully wasn’t busy. But the road was constantly winding and full of sharp turns. There were no malls or office buildings, only isolated clusters of houses, convenience stores or smaller shops selling essentials, and ricefields. If you were to just keep silent and enjoy the drive I’d wager you’d nod off easily.
While my little brother drove, my husband and I chatted with my uncle who was holding his 7-year old daughter on his lap. As a ‘new migrant’ to my extended family, my husband was steadily told stories by my uncle, including about the death of his first child a decade ago in a road accident. My uncle and aunt’s relationship was strained after that, beause it had happened when the child was with my uncle. But a year afterwards, they made peace with what had happened and with each other, until finally another child was born – this child he now held in his arms.
After that we bounced from topic to topic. Occasionally I taunted my brother who’d only just got his drivers’ license. I thought his driving was pretty good actually, not reckless at all. Thinking about his enthusiasm level whenever someone asked him to drive, it occurred to me that getting his license must have been a wonderful present for him. Unfortunately, his taste in music was terrible. Mostly he played songs that had become popular after going viral on TikTok. I mean, we already hear them often, right, on TikTok – so do we really need to hear them again in the car?
I nodded off for a while, then woke up with a start when I felt the car come to a stop.
My husband was asking me to get out of the car with him – my uncle and little cousin were getting out too. It was around 6pm, yet it was already almost dark. I saw that the road in front of us was steeply ascending. To my left were two or three homes. To the right there was only scrubby undergrowth and a trail which I guessed led – perhaps – to other houses.
It turned out, my brother’s car couldn’t deal with the incline. Several times he attempted it: the car wasn’t strong enough.
Immediately behind the Brio, sitting behind the steering wheel of his own car, Dad was supervising. He even tried to press the bonnet of his car against the boot of my brother’s so there wouldn’t be a smash-up.
At that moment, some locals appeared. Most were men aged between 30 and 60. Their dress was very casual, just T-shirts and canvas pants. Not just one or two, but several of them asked us the same thing:
‘Did you honk the horn?’
It turned out there was a belief in this area that drivers of passing vehicles should honk their horns before passing through challenging sections of roads as a way of signalling to and asking permission from ‘those who wait’ – a term for supernatural beings. We shook our heads when they asked, because indeed we hadn’t honked our horns – we hadn’t known. Believe or not believe in this sort of thing, I think it’s important to respect the beliefs and practices of local people.
My brother dutifully honked the horn. Several locals helped to push the car. Mercifully their efforts were successful. We thanked them and continued our journey, following my sister’s car which had gone on ahead without problems.
From this point, though, the atmosphere in our party, rather than improving, started to become unnerved. We became anxious that other difficulties were going to follow.
The night was getting blacker and blacker, even though it was still early. The road was near-empty: we encountered ricefields more often than human dwellings. The lack of street lights meant we could see our surroundings only through the headlights of our car.
After several minutes, our three cars came to a stop.
Because of the difficulty of finding the guesthouse, a member of staff there was going to come down and guide us the final part of the way.
While waiting, we re-organised ourselves. The first group, in Dad’s car, added to their ranks: Dad, grandma, my aunt, both cousins, my uncle, plus my husband and I. The second group’s members were steady: my sister and her husband, their child, plus my mum. The third group was now a group of one: my brother was alone. The rationale being that his car was plainly in no condition to carry many passengers.
Finally the member of staff arrived, riding a motorbike. Initially I was doubtful watching him arrive only on two wheels. Could this road we were on really be tackled by motorbike? But I stowed this question away in my mind as engines revved and we started moving again, following after him.
We now entered a road that was mud-filled and narrow, so narrow there was only space for one car at a time. And would you believe it, at that very moment, another car appeared from the opposite direction. Oh boy.
The nub of it was, we needed to move forward with inordinate carefulness. Because now, there was a cliff on our right side and a ravine on our left. You can imagine the churning in our stomachs. It was as if our moods were being tested to see how low they could go. More and more, outright panic became the dominant emotion.
My little cousin started babbling and whimpering, asking if we were going to have a road accident like the one that had taken away her late sibling. My uncle tried to calm her.
My 90-year old grandmother, defying all expectations, appeared pretty relaxed. It seemed she wished to give encouragement to her son, my dad, as he drove the car, so that fear didn’t catch on in the car.
My aunt and my other cousin seemed reasonably calm, too, though they didn’t stop saying prayers.
My husband didn’t panic, but he was full of vigilance and concentration as he observed what was around us – which was, very largely, blackness.
Did I feel frightened? To be honest, yes. I hadn’t expected we’d need to endure all of this just to arrive at a guesthouse that looked aesthetically pleasing and hence a source of good photos for our Instagram accounts.
The guesthouse staff-member driving the motorbike ultimately had to step down from the bike and give us directions so our car didn’t topple over and roll down the ravine. Amidst all this I found myself a bit amazed that he, on his bike, appeared not to be experiencing any issues on this road. Maybe we should have all squeezed onto motorbike seats rather than cars?
I looked back to see my little brother’s car. I was anxious that he, all by himself in his car, was driving beside the cliff, but my husband reminded me he’d already proven his mettle on the road.
‘He already has his license, have you forgotten?’
My little cousin asked: ‘How long until we get there?’
‘Just a bit longer’, I replied – and just then I saw we had now entered a new road, fringed not by cliffs and ravines but ricefields.
It should have been that after getting onto that road the way was clear to the guesthouse. But then Dad’s car got bogged down in mud. Me, my husband and my uncle got out and started pushing the car from behind. But just my luck, my sandals quickly became so slippery that I started to spend most of my time trying to stop myself from losing my balance and falling into the mud. Dad’s car managed to creep forward. My uncle raced after the car and managed to hop in.
Yeah, but, your guess is right – my husband and I couldn’t race after them in the same way because my sandals were too slippery to run! I wasn’t brave enough to yell out for them to wait because I was anxious that the car not get trapped in mud again.
The guesthouse was close now anyway, so my husband and I decided to walk. That night was really very dark. The road we were on, aside from being muddy, was still ascending. Boy, I thought, were we ever in a different place from 24 hours before, when my husband and I had been relaxing at the Blok M mall in Jakarta.
It took several minutes to get to the top of the hill and to the guesthouse. There I saw Dad’s car parked safely. Meanwhile, my little brother’s car was being pushed into the parking area. Smoke was pouring out. The bonnet was hot. It was finally agreed they would leave it some distance away overnight.
Only after arriving in front of the guesthouse did I become aware of something else: my sister’s car had got a flat tire. Fortunately it had happened when we were already close to the guesthouse, so her car had simply been parked on the roadside and everyone in it had ridden motorbike taxis to the guesthouse.
I only now became aware that there were motorbike taxis here, ferrying people up the mountain. After looking at them, plus the bike owned by the guesthouse member of staff who’d accompanied us, I saw they were all of the same type. They were what Indonesians call ‘motor bebek’, scooters, their mud-splattered sides slimmer-framed and with a step-through design. I’m sure not a single one was automatic.
I remembered now being told by a friend whose parents were farmers that their family often modified motorbikes so they’d be more capable of carrying large bundles of crops along steep rough roads. I suspected that these people offering their services as motorbike taxi drivers by night worked as farmers by day.
The feeling after arriving at our guesthouse was one of immense relief. Seeing our three vehicles, each of which had been through a trial en route, I realised that what we’d gone through tonight was the complete opposite of our original aim in bringing our cars – comfort and convenience.
I heard Dad talking to the guesthouse owner about the difficulty of the roads here. For me, no less difficult was working out what was the most suitable mode of transport to take you up the slopes of a mountain without needing to worry about rolling down a ravine.
© Aprilia Kumala
English translation © Sarah Leys