sign in a cave in Laos

18 July 2011

Caving round Yogyakarta - Star

Saturday July 16, 2011
Caving round Yogyakarta By LIZ PRICE
STAR Lifestyle

If you like outdoors and especially caves, you’ll find plenty to explore in the areas surrounding Yogyakarta.

THE explosive Gunung Merapi is north of Yogyakarta, while to the southeast is the scenic area of Gunung Sewa or Thousand Mountains, with its rounded limestone hills, interesting caves, underground hydropower schemes and wild coastline, not to mention the new karst museum, the largest in Indonesia.

Many visitors flock to Yogyakarta in central Java, making it the most popular tourist destination on the island. They use it as a base to visit the nearby Borobudur and Prambanan temples, and also Gunung Merapi.

Gunung Merapi is one of the most dangerous of Indonesia’s 129 active volcanoes. Merapi had a major eruption in Oct-Nov 2010. Ash affected the city and the airport was closed for several days. Even the famous Borobudur temple was covered in ash.

Baron Beach, an impressive bay with wild waters.

I already had a flight booked at the time, and so anxiously followed the news, hoping that Merapi would quieten down. Fortunately it did, and as it went back to sleep, I visited in January.

We went to Gunung Merapi to see the devastation caused by a lahar from the eruption. The term lahar originates from the Javanese language, and means “a flow of mud or debris composed of pyroclastic material, rocky debris and water”.

The material flows down from a volcano, typically along a river valley. When mixed with heavy rain, this heavy mud flow can carry huge boulders and trees down with it. These rocks are like battering rams and destroy bridges, houses and anything in its path.

Merapi’s biggest recent eruption was on Nov 5, 2010, but over the next two months there was much damage by lahars. The night before our visit, there had been heavy rain and a lahar had buried the main road, so we had to find an alternate route.

When we arrived at the site, it looked like a landscape from a film set.

It was a scene of devastation totally covered in grey ash. An area of dead trees and damaged houses stood at the edge of a wide expanse of what looked like a river bed, and steam was billowing up. It was bizarre walking up the river bed, as the water was flowing in one direction but the steam was blowing in the other. The ground underfoot was hot, and I was cautious not to step into liquid mud.

Souvenir seller at Baron Beach.
Gunung Merapi formed a backdrop to the scene. Bulldozers were clearing the ash, sieving it before loading it onto large trucks. A few enterprising locals were selling food and drinks, and even souvenir photos of Merapi erupting. It was awesome to see the destruction wreaked by nature.

After that visit, our sightseeing was more pleasant. Heading southeast of the city of Yogyakarta, we followed a road that climbed up a steep hill and onto a plateau. Passing through Wonosari, we entered an area riddled with small rounded limestone hills separated by dry valleys. This was the Gunung Sewu karst.

(Karst is an area of soluble rock with underground drainage.)

Known as the Thousand Mountains, these small hills are generally all the same height, due to geologic processes over millions of years. They are well known amongst the international caving community and have been well explored and documented.

Our tour bus drove in through a gateway that looked like a Balinese or Javanese temple structure, and we parked in front of a strange new building, which resembled a small pyramid on a large base. This was the Indonesian Karst Museum. Only opened in June 2010, it is the largest museum in the country and is probably unique in South-East Asia.

We were given an explanation on the architecture. The main inspiration came from Indonesian temples. Although Indonesia is a Muslim country, other religions are practised in the country, and the museum was inspired by different temples, religions and cultures.

The lobby focuses on Javanese cultural style. The exterior of the building recalled famous Hindu and Buddhist temples in Indonesia. In the surrounding area, they are in the process of building a Bali temple, a Buddhist temple, a Chinese temple and a church. There is already a mosque at the museum. I must say, it’s good to see a Muslim country endorsing other religions so openly.

Caveman ala gamelan is played on the stalactites in Gua Tabuhan.

We spent some time looking at the displays on the two floors. There is a lot of information, and the exhibits are well designed, and bright and informative, and in Indonesian and English.

There are six caves on the 29 hectares of land occupied by the museum. Although we didn’t see those, we did visit some of the more important show caves in the area. Gua Tabuhan is a short cave full of stalactites, and there is a concrete path that runs through the cave. Visitors are usually given a musical performance by the locals who sing and bang the stalactites with wooden mallets. We found it was almost hypnotic to listen to this music in the cave – a caveman’s version of gamelan.

As we left this cave, gem sellers were calling out to us to come and buy their wares. We waved and walked on up the road to the nearby Gua Song Terus. This cave is an archaeological site, and the oldest known occupied cave in South-East Asia. It has a history of human habitation dating back 120,000 years. Malaysia’s oldest cave site is Gua Niah, which dates to around 40,000 years ago.

However, compared to the huge caves at Niah, Song Terus is just a short tunnel through the hill.

Having had a musical performance and seen a site occupied by ancient man, we then went on to a really pretty cave, Gua Gong. It was quite a walk up from the car park, and the path was lined with stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs. We hurried past those.

The entrance was quite small and very hot, but we soon popped out into a huge chamber. This was absolutely packed with stalactites and stalagmites and was beautiful. Many of the stal are cracked or broken, as a result of the numerous earthquakes that had taken place. Because the main chamber is very hot, there are several giant fans to help with ventilation. I was really impressed with this cave as it was so full of natural decorations.

As with all karst areas, there is a shortage of surface water, as the water flows underground through cave systems. Therefore the locals have little access to fresh water and often go down to cave entrances to get water, do their washing and take their cows for a drink.

However, there are now some cave hydropower schemes to help with this. Underground water is dammed inside the cave, and pumped up to the surface. Bribin Cave is one such cave. It is part of a major cave system, and the underground river has been dammed and is pumped up a 100m shaft to the surface. From there, it is piped to a reservoir, to provide water to 80,000 people. It is a joint German-Indonesian project.

The Gunung Sewu karst area extends down to the coast. We went to Baron Beach, which is an impressive bay with wild waters. The bay is a deep U-shape, with steep limestone headlands forming the sides. My first visit here was in 1991, and I could see it hadn’t changed too much, save a few more food stalls and toilets.

Otherwordly: Lahar Merapi, site of devastation caused by an eruption at Mt Merapi.

The biggest difference was the many fishing boats on the beach. Locals were paddling in the sea, but the “no swimming” notices deterred anyone else from entering the rough waters, which are part of the Indian Ocean. Looking south, you’d see no land mass between here and Antarctica.

The south Java coastline is rough and wild. The Google Earth satellite map clearly shows the white caps of the wild sea as it pounds the coastline. Further west of Baron Bay is Parangtritus. This is a long beach of shifting black sands backed by high jagged cliffs. It is impressive with ferocious waves coming ashore, and is a popular place for day-trippers. As with many places along the south coast, it is a place of superstition, and the Queen of the South Seas is worshipped here.

After a full day of sightseeing, we wanted dinner. We drove to Semanu, and from there followed a rough track through bush country and eventually popped out into a lush green oasis. This was Jomblang Resort, a new place still being developed. As it was getting dark, we were taken on a quick tour of the gardens and had the chance to plant some trees – although I have to admit we didn’t actually plant them. We just posed for photos, pretending, leaving the hard work to the resort staff.

We had a quick look at the chalets, then dinner was ready. We helped ourselves to the buffet and sat in the large open hall and listened to the gamelan. It was a great ending to a good tour, but sadly we couldn’t stay at the resort as we had to drive back to Yogyakarta.


Yogyakarta’s Adisucipto International Airport is about 10km east of town, and has direct flights from Malaysia with AirAsia and MAS. Fixed price official airport taxis are available, costing around Rp50,000 (RM17) to town. Yogyakarta airport is the only rail-connected airport in Indonesia.

The Indonesian Karst Museum is located at Gebangharjo village, Pracimantoro, in Wonogiri district. There is no entry charge, although there seems to be a small fee to enter the area, Rp1,000 (30 sen).

Gua Tabuhan and Gua Song Terus are next to each other, near the village of Wareng, in Punung sub-district, Pacitan area. This is about 75km from Yogyakarta.

Gua Gong is at Desa Bomo, off the Punung to Solo road, and 12km from Gua Tabuhan. Entry is Rp4,000 (RM1.30).

Jomblang Resort is near Semanu. The resort aims to attract cavers and outdoor activity enthusiasts, as well as those seeking a peaceful quiet environment. There are currently six chalets, all ensuite.


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