If you only read one of my stories, make it this one


I wrote this piece in a dingy Yogyakarta bar,

I was soaked in sweat, swigging a large, frosty Bintang beer, trying to exorcise some of the memories of the past few days.

It was meant as a journal piece. On a whim, I sent it to my editor.

He published it without changing a word.

It obeys none of the rules of journalism, but I think it’s one of the best news stories I’ve ever written.

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — We just wanted to see the lava.

Fired up after a day of foreign correspondence, evacuation and a few cold beers, we could see the volcano from my roof, a thick carpet of ash swirling around our feet as we pointed gleefully at the distant red glow of Java’s inflamed pyroclastic zit: Mount Merapi, the Fire Mountain.

We wanted to see the lava. Up close. Watch it shoot up in the air like some tectonic Roman candle. It was all we needed to fulfill the cliche of watching a volcano erupt — a volcano that has over the last week been continuously erupting and would, today, blow its biggest top yet, killing another 65 people and bringing the death toll to more than 100.

So we drove north. Cranked up the music. Opened the window to the sweet, damp mountain air that drops in temperature noticeably as you climb Jalan Kaliurang, up the volcano and into the evacuation zone.

Past waving policemen. Past families rushing down the mountainside on motorbikes, clutching boxes of possessions and terrified, miserable children. Past the swollen river with its cancer of ash and silica and poison from the boil of the volcano.

At eight kilometers to the crater — seven kilometers inside the official evacuation zone perimeter — we meet our first official resistance.

“No can go. No can go,” shrieks a young policeman in a dust mask. “Many danger, many danger. Evakuasi.”

But we are two “bules” — two “albinos” with a nice car and collared shirts and notebooks and the policeman soon melts into a pool of Javanese acceptance and hospitality.

“We want to see the lava. Where can we see the lava?”

“Oh yes, yes,” he says. Waves us on.

A kilometer past the “road block,” I see a soto seller — a soup-seller — pushing his turquoise blue wooden cart up the steep incline of the road. Steam is rising from the contraption.

“He’s not?”

“He bloody is!”

He’s taking his spicy soto to sell to the crowds of villagers who still cling to the mountain. The young men who squat by the roadside with their clove cigarettes and their defiant, empty stares.

But it is not just young men. Not just the arrogant young peacocks of the villages who stay, immutable, indefatigable. Possibly ignorant of the fate that waits for them. The lava dome, the pyroclastic flow — the Wedhus Gembel or matted, grey-brown wool of the poisonous, white-hot cloud of dust and gas just waiting to belch from Merapi.

We just want to see the lava.

You know — really see it. Watch it spitting up like in the movies.

Turn the music up. Open the windows wider. 2010 nightclub music blasted across the paddy fields and huts of the rural poor.

“Is that sulphur?” sniff, sniff.

We’re still climbing. The evacuation zone is just a myth now. Just a media myth, repeated and repeated, fed by wires and eager correspondents, regurgitated by coiffed anchors on the nightly news. There is no evacuation zone. There’s a baby, rocking on the front porch, see. Grandma watching over.

Six kilometers to the top.

“I still can’t see the lava.”

Disappointed. The beer turning sour on our tongues, disintegrating like the patchy road under a sudden realization of gravity and the harshness of the mountaintop.

“Maybe we should turn around?”

“Yeah, let’s go back.”

Slipping down the mountain now, back past the rows of little huts and rice paddies. Back past the batik and hard, fearful eyes of the villagers. Those with motorbikes have already left. Where are the evacuation trucks? This is the Evacuation Zone, after all.

Twenty-four hours later, the tiger is growling.

I’m sitting up in bed, suddenly wide-awake in my cool room in a gated community 21 km from the lava. The name of my complex is Merapi View. We’ve got a view all right. And a soundtrack.

My journalist friend is thumping on the door.

“We’ve got to go. Now!”

Hot ash lands on my eyelids as I load the suitcases into the car. The essentials. Face mask, goggles, hard drive, laptop, camera.

The ash is choking me.

“We’ve got to go! Now!” I scream through the open doorway, and they’re in the car in seconds.

Ash sticks to the windshield like snow.

Spray. Wipe. Spray. Wipe. Sp … The reservoir for the windshield spray is empty.


We will refill it twice before we reach the relative safety of the south of Yogyakarta. Another 10 kms from the fire mountain.

 The evacuation zone has been extended for another five kms to 20 km. Five more kms to be misunderstood or ignored by fear, resilience or stupidity.

I turn on the TV in the hotel room. No way I can sleep. 4 a.m.

There they are.

The bodies, charred black. The skin peeling in gruesome strips. The young, fat boy, unconscious and burned, drool pouring from the corner of his mouth. Medics rushing, panicked, checking mobile phones as they wheel gurneys. Face masks everywhere. Everyone’s a surgeon tonight.

The bodies, wheeled in. Loaded out of battered old Red Cross vans or off the back of pickup trucks.
The peacocks. The baby. The grandma.

I gulp.

We just wanted to see the lava.