An erupting volcano and a local saviour
I want to share my experiences photographing Mount Merapi’s volcanic eruptions in Indonesia but I will say upfront that this won’t be a blog about suffering. There won’t be stories of those who have lost their homes, of painful deaths, of burns, of the death of valuable cattle or the destruction the volcano has caused.
Instead, this will be a blog about the logistics of getting great pictures in a dangerous situation.
Taking snaps of Merapi’s lava-flow at night is a great assignment for a news photographer but first, I needed to find an ideal spot to take pictures.
After scouting around, I come across Sidorejo village about four to five kilometers from Merapi’s angry peak.
After the last house on the outskirts of Sidorejo, there are no lamp lights, electricity poles or telephone cables that may ruin my photos. And the pictures would be protected from the light pollution of houses and vehicles. Plus, the open street lay-out positions the peak of Merapi and its crater at the middle of the frame. It’s perfect.
I used Google maps to see the location clearly and prepare an escape route. The contour of the mountain’s ridge has a gap, and Sidorejo village has two small hills that would provide extra delay times for the hot lava to slither down. I asked around to choose the best escape route from the informative villagers.
To be honest, photographing the volcano just four kilometers from the crater is scary stuff. The government had recommended a safety zone radius of 10 kilometers from the peak, before pushing it back to 15 kilometers and then 20 kilometers as Merapi unleashed fresh bursts of searing volcanic clouds with growing intensity.
In the late afternoon, my driver and I set out for Sidorejo. Three kilometers from Sidorejo, we were stopped at a military checkpoint and the soldiers forbade me from getting through: neither cars, nor humans could pass.
I tried to talk my way out — first gently, then loudly — but it was no use. The soldiers were unmoved.
But then, a young soldier told me there was a way around the checkpoint.
“If you want to go uphill, you must go on foot,” he said.
Going uphill without a car was not safe, because I would not be able to escape without a car in the dark, I told them.
It was a risky choice. But I looked up and saw the lava starting to dance and shimmer, glowing menacingly in the darkness from afar. Darn, it’s too beautiful, I think.
Either I take photographs from the security post, which will produce mediocre shots, or I walk ahead and try to get pictures from a closer spot. I had five minutes to think.
I decided to walk on.
I had brought two camera bodies and three lenses, a tripod, a head-lamp, some back-up batteries, cash and cell phones. I monitored Twitter updates for minute-by-minute news on the volcano’s behavior.
As I walked up the volcano, I thought about how I would run if the volcano erupted.
I walked about 15 minutes in the disorienting silence – although it felt more like an hour — when suddenly, I heard a motorbike approaching. I waved my hands in an effort to stop the driver but he ignored me.
“I am a journalist!” I shouted. It worked. The motorcyclist stopped and directed his light on me. After judging me to be harmless, he offered his hand and shook mine. His name is Giono, he is from a nearby village. Giono asked to see my ID, just in case.
“I thought you were a ghost because just this side of the road is a graveyard,” he said.
After a long explanation, Giono agreed to take me up and wait until I finished taking pictures to bring me back down. Brilliant! I was happy beyond words.
Around 10 pm, I reached the monitoring tower near Merapi’s peak and started snapping pictures as Giono parked his bike.
But there was no moon, and the stars were hiding behind the clouds – I needed them to light up my photographs. I waited for celestial objects to appear with Merapi thundering away in the background, along with a squirt or substantially more lava spraying out.
After three hours, the clouds dissipated and the stars re-appeared. No moon but still, there was just enough light.
I got up on my feet again and started to take some photographs as Giono dozed off beside me.
At 2am, a thick cloud blanketed the area, shrouding the volcano from sight. That gave me a chill — I realized I could not see what the volcano was doing, so I decided to go back.
It’s a wrap. I had my pictures – and, thank God, my local savior, Giono.