Sound of silence in an ash-covered city

I suppose I should have wondered about the unfamiliar silence that lay over the city of Yogjakarta in central Java when I was woken at 4am by the call of the muezzin to dawn prayers at the mosque.

The call itself seemed less impassioned, less urgent than it had the previous morning. It seemed farther away.

Then, too, as I tried to return to sleep, there were no aircraft passing low overhead every fifteen or twenty minutes. So, I got back to sleep easily — but only to be woken by a girl bringing breakfast at 6.20am.

This struck my wife and me as strange; room service was not a feature of our decent but by no means luxury hotel.

I rose and pulled the curtains. The tiled roofs of the ramshackle city all around me were blanked out — covered in what might have been a layer of grey snow.

From the normally busy street, there was no traffic noise whatsoever. In the alley below our window, a few masked figures shuffled past with cardboard boxes, umbrellas or hoods over their heads.

They left deep tracks in what I now saw clearly was brown-grey ash, two inches deep. It blanketed all I could see, a view foreshortened by the grainy air.

Ash was still falling. This explained why, in the temperature of 29°C, the few souls abroad were covered up.

Overnight, a volcano, Mount Kelud, in East Java, had erupted, and Yogja (as it is called for short), 240km to the west, lay directly in the path of the 150 million cubic tons of volcanic debris spewed 17km into the sky.

Kelud is on the world’s deadliest volcano list. Some 90,000 people had been evacuated from the local area. In 1586, it killed 10,000 and another 5,000 in 1919.

As we left Yogjakarta on a minibus at 8.30am, destined (somewhat ironically), to take us on an 11-hour journey to a hill village from near which, next morning, we could watch the sun rise over Java’s highest peaks and climb to the crater rim of Bromo, a massive still-smoking volcanic cone, the normally frenetic city was a ghost of itself. It was peopled by ghosts on the scooters, mopeds and motorbikes, all masked and cowled in plastic-plastered ash, a city, it seemed, of the mobile dead.

At junctions, ranks of bike riders, cars and trucks waited for the lights to change in a strange, grey gloom, headlights dimmed by the ash-laden air, grey armies in a grey dawn — although dawn was four hours past —hooded women on motos with a cowled child, sometimes two, riding the pillions, a masked woman with a pillion box full of brown eggs, masked bike-riders in plastic sheeting, luxury 4x4s greyed out against the grey streets and grey houses.

We cleared the city. Traffic was remarkably light and no wonder.

Also, it was a Friday, the Muslim Sabbath (and the 14th, Valentine’s Day). The ash fall had kept all those with non-essential business indoors. We, travellers on the road, counted our blessings.

We weren’t under the volcano where nine people died. We were leaving Yogja as the ash, where it was hosed, turned to slippery mud, and continued falling for three days.

Happily, we hadn’t been scheduled to fly anywhere, because all flights were cancelled. And most especially because on the previous morning we had visited the magnificent Sultan’s Palace and, in the afternoon, Borobudur, the 9th-century Buddhist Temple, once lost but re-discovered in ruins by Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles, then British ruler of Java, and restored. Following the ash-fall, both edifices had been swathed in protective coverings and closed to the public. The monuments at Borobudur include the largest Buddhist temple on earth, staggering in its beauty and proportion but not, for me, as deeply affecting as Angkor Wat in Cambodia which I wrote about in this column in 2012.

There, the roots of great trees strangling the massive stone works and uplifting walls five metres thick, epitomise Shelley’s immortal lines in Ozymandias.

The eleven-hour minibus ride to Bromo was excruciating but there was no other way to get there. The ash deserts and the volcano were unforgettable.


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