Burning, vivid colors of a beautiful sunset and trepidation are what Yahyawan Triyana remembers of his first experience exploring Cerme Cave 13 years ago. "My headlamp was on and the water soaked my cotton-drill trousers. The water in the tunnel reached my waist, and finally my chest was soaked, too. After some 20 minutes walking through the subterranean river guided by a local villager, I saw a huge stalagmite, what villagers call the mustoko (a Javanese term for a mosque's dome)," the 30-year-old member of the marketing staff of a pharmacy company said.
"Thank God, I had a chance in my lifetime to see that beautiful mystery hidden underground." Recapturing that sensation has become an obsession for him even though he now lives thousands of kilometers away in Lampung, Sumatra. He returns to Cerme, a cave located some 22 kilometers south of Yogyakarta, whenever he can. "The experience made me believe that life is like a cave. You don't know where and when it will end, but just enjoy it rather than worry about it."
He is one of those in the know about what Yogyakarta has to offer for cavers. Chairman of Yogyakarta-based Acintyacunyata Speleological Club Foundation (Yayasan ASC), Didi Hadi Wisnu Hartanto, told The Jakarta Post that many people, including locals, were unaware of the numerous caves in the area. "We have recorded that there are some 300 caves in the Gunung Kidul part (of Sewu mountain)," he said, adding that state-owned forest enterprise Perum Perhutani even recorded 600 caves near Sewu.
Sewu (literally meaning "Thousand Mountains") is a limestone mountain stretching from parts of Bantul regency (some 20 kilometers south of Yogyakarta) to Malang regency, East Java, some 400 kilometers east of Yogyakarta. It is also linked with Menoreh Mountain from Kulon Progo regency, some 22 kilometers southwest of Yogyakarta, to Kebumen regency, Central Java, about 100 kilometers west of Yogyakarta. Many outdoor enthusiasts estimate there are almost 1,000 caves along the two mountains.
There are three kind of caves: volcanic caves, limestone caves and erosion caves, he said, adding that most caves in Gunung Sewu were classified as limestone caves. Didi said a limestone cave is formed when a geological process generates a hollow space underground. The water - containing limestone particles - seeps from the ground surface and forms stalactites and stalagmites in the subterranean hollow space.
He added there are two groups of caves, classified by their forms: vertical caves, called luweng in Javanese, and horizontal caves. Luweng Jomblang and Luweng Grubug, both in Gunung Kidul regency, and Luweng Jaran in Pacitan regency, are examples of vertical caves, said Didi. "We need more equipment, especially ropes, to enter luweng, because the only way to enter it is by using specific methods as in wall climbing - descending and ascending by ropes, he said.
Several caves in Yogyakarta and its surrounding areas have become favorite destinations for cavers, including Luweng Jomblang, Luweng Grubug, Gua Cerme, Luweng Jaran and Gua Gong. Both Luweng Jomblang and Luweng Grubug are located in Semanu district, Gunung Kidul regency, some 60 kilometers east of Yogyakarta. The corresponding caves, linked by a natural tunnel, are home to a fascinating subterranean river named Kali Suci (Sacred River) that flows to the nearby southern ocean.
Some parts of Luweng Jomblang's collapsed hundreds of years ago, enabling sunshine to reach parts of the cave floor, giving enough light and humidity for trees and shrubs to grow. "It's like a forest in the underground world," said Muhammad Taufik Rizal, an outdoor activities' instructor from Mitra Persada Travelindo travel agency. But he added that Luweng Jomblang and Luweng Grubug are also a reminder of two sad events in Indonesian history. The caves were reportedly a dumping ground for the bodies of people accused of being members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) after a 1965 abortive coup blamed on the party. Bodies of alleged criminals shot during the spate of Petrus (mysterious killings) are also in the caves, he added.
Luweng Jaran and Gua Gong are located in Pacitan regency, East Java, some 180 kilometers east of here. These two caves have been the regency's main tourist destinations, and the local tourism office includes both caves on its official Internet website (www.pacitan.com). Luweng Jaran's length, estimated at some 25 kilometers, makes it the longest cave in the country and nobody has been able to reach its end. Members of the Asian Caving Association who visited Pacitan in 1986 said the cave's beauty was only comparable with that of a cave they had seen in Mexico.
Every cave has its own unique attractive parts. Luweng Jaran has several stalactites that point upward, defying gravity, not downward as usual. The cave also has transparent stalactites - Rizal called them "soda straws" - where water can be seen inside. Caver Agung S. from Atmajaya University's Palawa hiking club said that Luweng Jaran was an important source for archaeological studies and cave research, with some studies pointing to Sewu's prehistoric past.
"We accompanied four French cavers on research in Luweng Jaran last April," Rizal said. "Foreign cavers prefer the vertical caves, while most domestic cavers prefer horizontal caves, like Cerme Cave." Cerme, a vertical 1,200-meter cave, has its "gateway" in Bantul regency, 22 kilometers south of Yogyakarta. It ends in Panggang district, Gunung Kidul regency, 24 kilometers southeast of Yogyakarta.
It is a favorite tourist site because it is easy to reach. "We can easily find public transport to Cerme Cave. Just go by car to Selopamioro village in Imogiri district, and people there will show you the way to the cave. If you're lucky you'll find a guide there" said Yahyawan, adding that the latter cost about Rp 10,000.
Mitra Persada Travelindo introduced a cave tour package in 1998 and since then more than 100 foreign cavers have visited Sewu's caves, said Rizal. Gunung Kidul vice regent Subechi told the Post that his office was augmenting the infrastructure for tourism (including cave tourism) in the regency.
"There are five or six caves in Gunung Kidul that will be optimized as our tourism destination," he said. "As you know, Gunung Kidul is known for its beaches, but we hope that many tourists will visit us because of the caves, too." Gunung Kidul regency's 2001 budget allotted Rp 400 million for the establishment of a rest area in the regency.
"Since many tourist destinations in the regency are relatively far from Yogyakarta, we agreed to build a rest area at the center point of the tourism routes," he said. Both Rizal and Subechi believed there were bright prospects for cave tourism due to the relative proximity of the caves to Yogyakarta, compared with beaches which are from 60 kilometers to 100 kilometers away.
"We charge Rp 450,000 per person for a trip, with a minimum of four participants, for a one-day trip to Luweng Jaran, and Rp 200,000 per person for a one-day trip to Luweng Jomblang and Luweng Grubug," Rizal said. Some cave-lovers are concerned that business activities are harming the pristine condition of the caves.
"Cerme Cave has been dirty for a long time. There are too many stakeholders there, including villagers who depend on them for their water needs and some tourists who don't know conservation principles," said Arkanul Krisnaji, 34, a former Scout leader. Subechi said his office would prioritize environmental aspects in developing caves in the regency.
"Some caves that have been proven to benefit the people will always be managed for the people's good. We will not let water-rich caves in Gunung Kidul, like Bribin Cave, become dirty just because of improper planning," he said, referring to a cave in Semanu district that was a source of water for many villagers in the arid regency.