I once read a book by the famed journalist Jon Krakaeur, Into the Wild. The book described the life of Chris McCandles, a young American traveler who was determined to leave his life of relative comfort behind, and travel into the Alaskan Wilderness to find his life purpose. Much like McCandles, I have a certain fondness of the wild and am keen to understand myself better. However, I lacked his desire and will to go to such extent. Instead, I opted for an easier option than to dive into the Alaskan wilderness, by heading to Java, Indonesia, and hike Mt Semeru.

Chris McCandles on his solo adventure that ultimately led to his death

Mt Semeru is an active volcano in the East of Java, Indonesia. At 3,676m tall, it is the 45th highest mountain in the world by prominence. It is also known as Mahameru, or the Great Mountain, for its spiritual significance to the locals. My decision to hike the active volcano was not an impulsive one. I had been to Java just a year ago and stood atop Mt Bromo. Looking out into the distance, there was one peak that was more distinct than any other. Not only was it the highest around, there was also smoke billowing from its center. Perfectly symmetrical, it was truly a sight to see. Reading my Lonely Island guidebook, I learnt that it was Mt Semeru, and made a mental note to return to Java, to conquer that peak one day.

Mt Semeru, an active volcano, in the background with smoke billowing out of the crater

That day, as it turns out, was only roughly 8 months later. In May 2019, my 2 friends and I packed our bags and headed for Surabaya, where we would be greeted by our driver, and transported to Ranu Pane Village, the entrance of the hike. I have always enjoyed my trips to Indonesia. It was a land of good vibes. The people were warm and friendly, and the food was delicious and cheap. We stopped for some Nasi Goreng (Fried Rice) during lunch, which cost only about SGD 5 for the three of us.

We started the climb at about 9am the next day. To hike Mt Semeru, a permit is required. The locals had upmost respect for this holy mountain. Gula, our guide for the hike, emphasized “respect”. We had to respect Mahameru, which meant no littering of rubbish, no picking of wild berries and no wandering about unnecessarily. If we respected Mahameru, it will respect us back by blessing us with good hike.

Our guide, Gula, explaining the route we will be taking as well as the rules we have to obey on the mountain

The hike, in total, took us 3 days and 2 nights. Throughout this whole duration, we could not receive any mobile signal. That meant we had no internet access at all, and all we had for entertainment was each other. Somehow, I did not mind that at all, because I was with two of my best friends. Till this day, I still find it quite funny how the three of us are friends. We met in Primary Three, spent two years being best friends in the same class, before losing all contact whatsoever when we moved on to different classes. We only reconnected a year ago through Instagram, and we immediately picked up where we left off, as if the ten years of not speaking did not happen at all. Five months after reconnecting, we decided to go on a hiking trip to Indonesia together.

Yes, hiking is tiring, but less tiring when you have good friends with you

The hike was tough but enjoyable. We talked about any random thing that popped into our heads. One moment we discussed who the best striker in the Premier League was, the next moment we talked about what were our goals in life, then the moment after that we discussed who the prettiest K-pop idol was. Through the mindless and deep conversations, it was not long before we reached our camp ground for the night. I noticed a lack of hikers around, and asked Gula why. He told me it was because it was currently Ramadan, and most locals (who were Muslim) preferred not to hike because they had to fast. I nodded, but asked Gula what religion he was. With a cheeky grin on his face, and a cigarette in his hand, he put a finger on his lips and I understood right away.

That night, we slept in a tent at the base of the summit, so near yet so far.

We set up camp with a perfect view of the peak

At about 12.30am, we were woken up by Gula. I use the term “woken up” loosely because we barely slept. Three grown men sleeping in one tent was not a good idea. Our bodies stiff and sore, we got out of the tent and into the freezing cold. After a quick meal with some hot tea, we gathered what we needed, and headed for the summit attack.

The 4 hours we took to climb to the summit were arguably the hardest 4 hours in my life. The loose volcanic rocks made it nearly impossible to get a good grip, and with every 2 steps taken forward, we were falling 1 step back. The shadows of the summit also caused us to misjudge the progress that we were making. Whenever it seemed like we were about to reach the top, Gula would calmly say, “That is shadow, still long way”. Exhausted to our limits, we even resorted to climb on all fours. At one point, I swear I caught one of my friends on the verge of tears. Despite all that difficulty, we persevered. We pushed ourselves and each other for 4 long hours because Gula told us to, but not quite knowing what we were pushing ourselves for. The summit was going to be there even if we did not push ourselves, right?

It was still dark when we made the summit attack

Then it all became clear. We got to the summit just in the nick of time. We were the first group to reach. Piercing through the sky was the most beautiful shade of gold I have ever seen. It was the most unbelievable feeling ever. Alone, on top of the world, with nothing higher than you, not even the clouds. We gathered in a circle and just sat and watched the sun rise. For the first time, we had nothing random to talk about. We just sat in silence and watched the world come alive.

After 4 long hours, we were finally at the peak

We were alone for a good 30 minutes, and by that time the sun was close to being fully risen. We walked around the summit and took some pictures. With all the right conditions, we managed to see a perfect outline of the volcano’s shadow. Gula told us this was an extremely rare sight. We thanked our lucky stars for the unbelievable views, and started heading back down.

Unbelievable views on the summit, we could see as far as Bali

Toward the end of his journey, Chris McCandles noted in his journal, “Happiness is only real when shared”. The irony in that was that he never got to share his happiness with anyone again, because that solo expedition was ultimately the cause of his death.

Great friends make a good trip, great!

The lesson that I have taken away from McCandles is that life is short, and we should take the chance to spend quality time with others. I love travelling, especially with others, and I am sure there are many like me. Silver Horizons is a co-operative formed by seniors for fellow seniors, with the social mission to promote active living and learning through customized travel programs for seniors and to use travel as a platform to build friendship and bonding before, during and after the tour. The activities are intended to make life more active and meaningful for seniors. Take this chance to organize a tour for yourself or your loved ones today!

This article was written by Tok Yin Jie, who is a second-year Accountancy and Business Undergraduate from Nanyang Technological University currently interning in SNCF, Campus and Youth team. He is passionate about travelling and learning about new cultures. He hopes to be able to make a change in society in the future.