Friday, November 6, 2009

Top of Pangrango

Pangrango! After describing Alfred Russel Wallace's 1861 exploration of the Gede-Pangrango summits in a February 1 entry on this blog ( I can now add some rather more up-to-date tips following a hike up Pangrango last weekend (October 31st 2009) by myself with Chris Starkey, Ben Walters and Scott Thompson.

Anyone reading nineteenth-century accounts will be struck by how little has changed, as the main trail from Cibodas botanical gardens, at least as far as the hot springs, has been used for nearly two hundred years now. No doubt the trail then was rough and narrow. Today this trail is not quite as well-frequented as the main Bogor-Puncak highway, but it's not far off.

Climbers of Gede have a number of route options. According to old hands, the easiest ascent is from Gunung Putri village (start of WIPA circle route D2) via the Suryakencana Alun Alun (grassy meadow) reaching the summit in 4-5 hours walking. The hardest ascent is from Selabinatana, on the south (Sukabumi) side of the mountain, again via Suryakencana. An intermediate option is the "historic" route from Cibodas Botanical Gardens, past the scenic waterfall and hot springs and up to Kandang Badak, on the shoulder between Gede and Pangrango.

If you're climbing Pangrango only, this last is the most sensible route, as the others will require you to climb over the top of Gede before you even get to Pangrango! As the Gede summit (2958m) is already quite familiar to most of our team, we focused last weekend on the Pangrango summit (3019m).

Accordingly, we turned up at National Park Headquarters in Cibodas on Saturday 31st October 2009 well before opening time. Most inconveniently, you must show up in person at the Park Office to get a climbing permit, but the office does not actually open until 9 o'clock, making it practically impossible to get a permit and make the round trip to the summit in the same day. Another bureaucratic obstacle is the recently-introduced obligation for all groups to take at least one guide, at a cost of Rp325,000 to Rp400,000 depending on the route. Apparently even the guides are now complaining about this as the compulsion has repelled many potential climbers, even those who might have hired a guide voluntarily in the past.

We managed to persuade the management that Scott was experienced enough to function as our guide but we took a porter anyway, at Rp275,000, to help transport our tents, instant noodle stores and packs of freshly-bought nasi bungkus (rice take-aways). Bea, the porter was our main expense, along with food, the only other obligatory fees being Rp42,000 per person for the climbing permit and Rp3,000 per person entry fee at the Cibodas "tourism zone" entry gate.

Cibodas Botanical Garden is a major local tourist attraction and the dozens of food stalls and souvenir stands that ring the outside car parks start to open soon after daybreak. We tucked into a tasty breakfast of nasi goreng at Warung Cantigi, in an alley opposite the park office. Scott told me that Rizal, the warung owner, led the rescue of seven climbers lost and feared dead on Gunung Ciremai earlier this year- we hoped not to give him the chance to further prove his rescue credentials on our party!

Breakfast in stomach, permits in hand, we were finally able to start climbing. As seen in WIPA map D square Z4, the route first follows an asphalt track that runs between the golf course and the iron fence of the Botanical Gardens. After about 400m we turn left to find the National Park Checkpoint, where we show the permit and then begin the ascent up to the ranger huts and along the trail to the Cibeureum Waterfall. We managed to spot some lutung (ebony leaf monkeys) playing in the trees just a few hundred metres beyong the checkpoint. Since the WIPA maps show the valleys and villages encircling Gede-Pangrango, rather than the mountains themselves, we soon leave the WIPA map to walk on the broad footpath that leads to the waterfall. On weekends this is a hugely popular jaunt, and you'll probably meet more people than a kitten heading to St.Ives, including picnickers on the somewhat dilapidated boardwalk that park authorities have built across the swampy section.

The path becomes far quieter after the first hour, after the clearly marked junction where the summit path branches left from the waterfall path. First-time visitors will want to continue on the 300 meters to see the waterfall, as it's a lovely spot, before returning to the junction for the next stage of the ascent. The path becomes noticeably steeper as you head up to the hot spring. While the Cibeureum waterfall is a comfortable stroll up a gentle slope, the hike to the hot spring demands a higher level of fitness, but is still a broad, open path with easy footings.

After an hour and a half or two hours you are rewarded with the sight of steam wafting across the lush hillside and the chance to bask in the warm vapors rising from the scaldingly hot streams. The path here actually passes right along a ledge where the hot water cascades down into the valley below. Solid posts and ropes have been provided for your safety as you traverse the slippery, moss-covered stones. Wear good shoes here! Chris reckons his Ace Hardware work boots were melting away as the soles dipped into the scalding waters.

The hot springs is one of several places along the trail where park managers have set up little shelters and picnic tables. We tucked into our copious lunch of rice, chicken, rendang (coconut beef), nangka (stewed jackfruit) and daun singkong (cassava leaves), while enjoying the view along the Puncak ridgeline, although haze shrouded some features and made the villages visible in the far valleys indistinct.

After the hot springs, we climbed another hour past a smaller waterfall and several spacious camping spots before reaching our intended campsite, the broad and comfortable Kandang Badak. Here you will find piped spring water, a grim-looking concrete shelter and pitches for a dozen or more tents. Ignoring Bea's advice to raise our tents inside the gloomy shelter, we set up the tents on a flat site in a glade. It was a decision we soon regretted, as one of our tents succumbed to a torrential late afternoon downpour and become unusable. Some of our neighbors had rented tents from park headquarters and found them to be similarly leaky. Luckily, we were quick enough to save most of our equipment from a drenching, and managed, with the shelter and one tent, to cook dinner and settle down (if that's the right expression) for a few hours sleep.

At 2.30 am we rose to find the weather still cool, misty and threatening more rain. Scott, nominally our guide, decided he did not need to climb Pangrango one more time in foul conditions and pulled out, while Bea, our porter. stayed at camp as agreed to guard the tents. This left Chris, Ben and I without a guide to hike up to the summit in the dark and spooky forest. Although there were thirty or more hikers at the camp, most were heading to Gede, leaving us practically alone on Pangrango. Luckily, we did manage to team up with a couple of local climbers, and the path itself, although tough, was mostly readily discernible among the trees. The feared rain and cold did not set in, even as we neared 3000m altitude; I was quite comfortable hiking with just a shirt and t-shirt, though the cold quickly made itself felt at rest stops.

Confusingly, the path often splits to offer a choice of a steep, scrambly ascent up a gulley, or a gentler switchback, but then rejoins higher up. As far as we were able, we saved our legs by choosing the less severe ascent, but even this often involves hauling oneself over fallen trees, clinging onto roots for support and ducking under overhanging branches. This last challenge proved beyond me at one point and I needed an unscheduled sit-down to get over my dizziness, in addition to our regular pauses for drink and deep breathing.

From Kandang Badak to the summit would be just over two hours for quick movers, but closer to three for Chris and me. We gratefully reached the top plateau and strolled the last few hundred metres through the subalpine forest to the summit marker.

Unlike Gede's summit, with its yawning crater and sweeping views, Pangrango's summit is cloaked in trees. There is one break in the foliage toward the east, but cloud cover shut off the potential vista toward Gunung Gede, leaving us to pose for photos beside the graffiti-scrawled summit pillar and scoff coconut biscuits, as the frigid air quickly chilled the sweat we had worked up during the climb.

Once the frisky Ben explored the path to the alun alun (grassy meadow) a few minutes walk below the summit, we began the long descent back to the campsite and a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and honey. Headlamps no longer needed, we could now appreciate the splendor of the subalpine forest, with its dwarf trees, shrubs and verdant overhanging branches.

While young scamps with shock-absorber knees may skip down the mountain in half the time it takes to come up, older walkers should allow as much time for descent as for ascent- 2 to 3 hours from the summit to Kandang Badak, 1 and a half hours from Kandang Badak to the hot springs, 2 hours from the hot springs to the Cibeureum Waterfall, and an hour from the waterfall back to the park gate.

Compared to many Indonesian volcanoes, this is a very attractive and not too challenging hike, with a pretty forest, attractive landmarks along the route and a solid and easy-to-follow trail. First-time visitors though, should climb Gede in preference to Pangrango, as the summit views are far superior, while the speedy and ambitious could attempt both over two days, perhaps hiking to the summit of Gede for sunrise on the second day, moving on to Pangrango by midday and returning to the park gate in the afternoon. You could do a round trip up either Gede or Pangrango in a single day, but, as with other Indonesian mountains, the chance of finding a clear view from the summit in the middle of the day is quite small.

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