June 11, 2006

Indonesia’s smoldering Mount Merapi slows tourism

By Jalil Hamid

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia (Reuters) - In the shadow of Mount
Merapi, a 30-year-old woman selling snacks to tourists visiting
the rumbling Indonesian volcano says business has never been
this bad.

Tourists who once thronged the area are too frightened to
trek to Babadan, one of Merapi's observation points, just 4.5
km (3 miles) from the peak of the restive mountain.

"I used to get 100 customers during weekends, but it's too
quiet now," said Ngatini, a mother of two, sitting in her
wooden hut covered with thick volcanic ash.

Merapi, which lies in the mystical heartland of Java,
Indonesia's main island, has always been a big draw on the
tourist map. But ever since the unpredictable volcano began
spitting out dangerously hot clouds of gas about a month ago,
the five observation points for Merapi have been deserted.

Ngatini said there was a huge ash explosion on one
occasion, but that did not deter her. "I was very scared, but I
will continue to come here. This is my livelihood," she said,
with the restive volcano rumbling behind her.

The entire landscape around is covered with ash, damaging
crops and forcing people out of their homes in this forested
region near the ancient royal capital of Yogyakarta.

Merapi, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the "Pacific
Ring of Fire," had already been simmering for weeks, but became
more active after a quake struck the area on May 27.

The areas around Merapi, which means "Mountain of Fire,"
have been placed on red alert and most villages located 7 km (4
miles) from the peak are considered within the danger zone.

Some 18,000 people have been evacuated and housed in
temporary shelters, although many go back and forth every day
to tend their fields and livestock.

Some residents have held prayers and made special offering
to placate the angry mountain, but have refused to leave their
homes. They say they need to look after their homes, cows and
farms where they grow maize, red chilies and tomatoes.

Some villagers also say they will base their decision to
leave on natural signs such as lightning around the mountain's
peak or animals moving down its slopes

Most Javanese, who make up the bulk of Indonesia's 220
million people, are Muslim, but many cling to a spiritual past
and believe a supernatural kingdom exists on top of Merapi.
Vulcanologists have tracked the mountain's activities
round-the-clock at Babadan's state-run monitoring base, which
is separated from Merapi by a deep valley.

"Activities have decreased although it is still spewing out
hot gas as far as 1-2 km. There's nothing to be worried about,"
said Antonius Ratdomopurbo, head of the Center of
Vulcanological Research and Technology Development.

Despite the clouds of smoke, some 30 young men stood
outside a dimly-lit hamlet down the road from the monitoring
center, some washing an ash-covered road and others playing

An imam called for prayers from a nearby mosque.

But life near the smoking volcano is far from normal.

Villagers who depend on mining volcanic sand from a river
near Merapi say they are jobless as the area is out-of-bounds.

"We can't mine sand. Our crops are damaged by the ash. Even
the cows are suffering since the grass is also covered with
ash," said Edie Sumartin, a man in his 30s standing well inside
the danger zone where hot lava will flow if the volcano erupts.

"We have to sprint down the hill and away from the river if
that happens."