Origins of Java Lava

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Java Lava dates back to the early 1980s when several expats, mainly in the oil industry, organised some climbs. One of the founders was Andy Wight who claims to have coined the name ‘Java Lava’. The first trip went by train to Solo to climb Gunung Merapi.

Very little information was available in those early days about routes up mountains. A book,”Gids voor bergtochten op Java“, Dr Ch. E. Stehn, Uitgegeven Door de Nederlandsch-Indische Vereeniging voor Bergsport, 1930, is a classic. Stehn had carefully recorded tracks, elevations, walking times, topographic information, etc. that is still valid in many cases. The early years of Java Lava involved collecting much information about mountains but, once a mountain had been climbed, further trips were much easier.

Climbs were spasmodic in the early 1980s. There was no email and even fax was unreliable so trips were organised mainly by phone calls. Travel by plane and minibus was usually not a problem. Accommodation at the start of a climb was often basic.

Two trips in the early 1980s illustrate our early attempts to climb a mountain then unknown to us. Gunung Tambora, Sumbawa, that erupted in 1815, the ‘biggest volcanic explosion in recorded history’, presented such a challenge. The first attempt in 1983 ended in failure as the local police demanded that we produce a surat jalan, letter of authority, issued by the police in Jakarta to travel to Sumbawa, and sent us packing back to Jakarta. The second, in 1985, failed because our so-called guides lost their way cutting a track through the forest.

Java Lava has successfully climbed Tambora several times since, including in April 2015 to commemorate 200 years since its massive eruption of April 1815. In the early 1980s, Tambora’s slopes were covered with pristine forest that had regrown since the devastating eruption of 1815. But since then, commercial companies have clear-felled the forests, which are only now regenerating. On 12 April 2015, the bicentenary of the eruption, the President of Indonesia declared Tambora a National Park.

In 1984, Rob Valkhoff took over the coordination of Java Lava and organized more regular trips. In those days, Java Lava usually did about eight trips each year. Rob would choose a destination and his secretary would call around about two weeks before to those who might wish to join. Ronnie Hotmaparna, at that time a student and leader of a self-styled Indonesian mountaineering group, was Rob’s mountain scout for many years. Ronnie would check the destination a few days before the climb, organized transport, accommodation, guides and porters. Upon arrival, Ronnie would be waiting for as we entered the buses and the rest of the trip usually proceeded like clockwork.

In those days, trips were tougher than now. Even ‘toughies’ like Gunung Raung and Slamet were climbed in one day. We remember many treks starting before dawn and returning after dark. Only in the most remote areas and on the lengthiest trips would we camp on the mountain.

Over the years, we have changed our climbing ways. For the more difficult mountains, we would start at sunrise and camp early afternoon near the summit. If we were lucky, we would see the most amazing sunsets and sunrises from the summit.

In the early days, we took safety-on-mountains seriously. We recall a situation on Gunung Semeru when the eruption cycle was about 15 minutes. During a pause in the eruptions, two Dutchmen defied warnings and went to the crater rim to take pictures of the crater bottom. Sure enough, as soon as they brought their cameras into position, the whole crater exploded. They were lucky to survive with only minor burns. One camera was smashed but the cassette was retrieved and recorded an extraordinary movie.

But over the years, we have seen a slow degradation of the forests on many of the mountains. There is hardly a mountain not affected. Besides illegal logging, the other main cause of deforestation is the pressure from local communities to open up new land for agriculture. So the pilfering and degradation of natural forests, even within National Parks, continues unabated.

In the eighties, Java Lava had some 30 people on its mailing list almost all expatriates. Few locals joined at that time but this has changed over the years. We now have Indonesians, Singaporeans and Malaysians on our climbs reflecting an increasing regional interest in nature and the mountains of Indonesia. Women are increasingly amongst the enthusiasts joining Java Lava trips.

Herbert Motz took over Java Lava when Rob Valkhoff left Indonesia in 1988. Herbert introduced a yearly program with fixed hiking dates and destinations. Jenny, his assistant, before they both retired, continues to arrange Java Lava trips.

Herbert recalls that, amongst the many trips that he and Jenny have arranged, they have met many people of different nationalities and cultures. All are different characters in their own right but rarely does somebody not fit into the group. The common experience of climbing a mountain is a strong bond fostering wonderful friendships.

In 2015, the ‘old hands’, passed the Java Lava baton to a younger generation of regular, experienced Java Lava climbers. Java Lava has now firmly established the tradition of enabling like-minded enthusiasts to enjoy nature, mountains and adventure.