PURWAKARTA, West Java: For the last leg of my three-hour drive from Jakarta, the jagged Mount Parang has been my constant companion. I could see it behind the clusters of houses and tree lines along a narrow, winding and potholed road.
As my car inched closer to the placid village of Sukamulya, the black andesite mountain began to reveal its true scale, standing gallantly at 980m above sea level. Its jagged cliff face glistened under a rising sun.
On the northern side of Mount Parang, suspended 500m from the ground on a near-vertical slope is a man-made structure built of aluminum and see-through plexiglass.
Known as the Padjadjaran Anyar Skylodge, the hanging hotel is the first and only sky lodge in Asia and the second of its kind in the world. In 2013, a cluster of glass pods opened their doors in Peru’s Sacred Valley.
Its owner Mr Dhanni Daelami said that he wanted to give people a chance to experience sleeping on a cliff face, which is otherwise exclusive to seasoned rock climbers like himself. The hotel began operating in December 2016.
“Instead of sleeping on portaledge (portable ledge) and being exposed to the elements, guests can sleep in style in an enclosed, air-conditioned unit,” the 50-year-old former corporate executive said.
To get to the hotel, guests have to scale up the mountain’s rocky surface using via ferrata (Italian for iron path), constructed out of steel cables and U-shaped metal bars serving as stairs and steps affixed to the rocks.
“There is only one via ferrata route leading to the lodge, so guests can retain that exclusivity,” Mr Daelami said, adding that guests can also continue their ascent all the way to the top of Tower 3 of Mount Parang at 930m above sea level.
A LONG CLIMB
I felt some trepidation when I looked up at the route leading to the sky lodge, which appeared no more than specks on the mountain surface, but my curiosity compelled me to press on.
Keeping me from a devastating fall were my harness, some nylon slings and two carabiners attached to the steel cables beside me, running all the way to the top.
The via ferrata made the ascent felt like I was climbing up a ladder, albeit a very tall one. Occasionally the metal bars were replaced with pegs and steps carved on the rocks, adding to the difficulty of the nerve-racking experience.
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Around 100m from the ground, the wind picked up, providing a respite from the searing heat.
Barely 30 minutes into my ascent, I was already out of breath and my legs started to ache.
My pace slowed, and the distance between me and 19-year-old guide Mr Ivan - who like many Indonesians go with one name - began to widen.
Upon sensing my fatigue, Mr Ivan asked if I wanted to rest on a narrow ledge nearby. We were still 50m away from the first resting point, located 200m above the ground, but I needed to take a break right there and then.
Mr Ivan tied a sling to my backpack and clipped it to the U-shaped metal steps. He retrieved a jug of iced-tea from his backpack for us to share, while reassuring me that it is normal for guests to take a pit stop.
When we resumed the climb later, Mr Ivan stayed close, occasionally looking back to check on me.
We made three more unplanned stops in our three-hour journey up. I wondered aloud how long does a typical climber take to reach the sky lodge, to which Mr Ivan politely replied that I was an hour slower than average.
He, for one, can make the ascent in 30 minutes.
I was embarrassed, but was also elated that we finally made it to the hotel. Inside the lodge, the pantry was stocked with water, instant noodles and coffee.
This was good news for me, because after all the unplanned stops we had made, we already ran out of iced tea.
A NIGHT TO REMEMBER
The three-by-six metre lodge has all the necessities one might expect from a standard hotel room. It is equipped with a toilet and a sink, along with a television, an electric kettle and a microwave.
Although it would be a tight squeeze, five people can stay in the lodge.
While the rate of five million rupiah (US$354.75) per night for the entire lodge is pretty hefty for most, the spectacular views of the Jati Luhur dam and the surrounding hills and mountains are worth every penny.
To heighten the experience of being suspended high up in the cliff, the whole lodge - including the floor and the roof - is see-through.
One of the roof panels can be opened for visitors to climb into a viewing platform above, which is perfect for watching sunrise and sunset.
Mr Daelami said he is often asked whether the lodge is safe.
“The lodge itself weighs two-and-a-half tonnes and it is fastened to the rocks using 20 steel cables, each capable of carrying a load of one tonne. So it is very secure,” he said.
The only thing missing during my visit was a shower, which Mr Daelami said is only available during the rainy season.
“Water scarcity is a real problem in Mount Parang area. We can catch water when it rains, but during the dry season we have to deliver water up there,” he said, adding that his workers haul between 75L and 100L of water each day to keep the toilet and sink running.
“We tried to explain to our customers that in a dry season like this, a shower is just not possible.”
The sky lodge is not the only accommodation available up Mount Parang.
There is also Skywalker, which provides six tents at the summit of Tower 3 at 450,000 rupiah (US$31.90) per person per night.
Although they might not be as fancy as Badega’s sky lodge, the view from the 900m tower is even more breathtaking.
Its owner Mr Muhammad Rubini said visitors occasionally request to stay in a portaledge.
A veteran rock climber, Mr Rubini, 42, said Mount Parang has always been a magnet for thrill seekers and seasoned rock climbers since the 1980s.
The terrain is so challenging that the Indonesian Army’s Special Forces Command and the Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency train their personnel on Mount Parang.
“It can take at least two days of rock climbing to get to the summit. At night, we sleep in portable ledges,” he told CNA.
However, since Mount Parang was largely unheard of outside of the rock climbing community, it did not bring much economic benefits to the poor farming communities surrounding the mountain back then.
“The problem was that you need serious rock climbing skills to climb Mount Parang. It didn't have a hiking trail, and still doesn't. The only way up was to climb for two days,” Mr Rubini explained.
“So, despite the spectacular views it has to offer and the relatively close proximity to both Jakarta and Bandung, not many people visited Mount Parang.”
Mr Rubini decided to change the situation.
Taking inspiration from the via ferratas in Europe, built during World War I to move troops across the Alps, Mr Rubini thought of introducing a similar concept to Mount Parang.
He founded Skywalker Via Ferrata and built a via ferrata route between June 2013 and January 2014.
With the help of a few locals and several people from the rock climbing community, they painstakingly installed thousands of U-shaped metal bars and steel cables some 20cm into the rocks.
Today, hundreds of people, young and old, flock to Mount Parang every day, scaling its cliff face using the via ferratas operated by three companies.
“We chose the northern side of Mount Parang because that’s the side rock climbers don’t use. That way the serious rock climbers can continue to enjoy the thrills of climbing Mount Parang,” Mr Rubini said.
LONG WAY DOWN
The following morning, I was woken by the sound of monkeys calling out to each other as they roamed the tree lines below.
It was a welcomed relief from the isolation in a place so far away from civilisation, or as a matter of fact, any form of life.
Throughout my time on the cliff, there was no cricket chirping, bird singing or frog croaking as one might expect from being in the outdoors.
The serenity was broken only by the howling of strong winds and - not until the dawn - the monkeys.
Yearning to head back to civilisation, I strapped on my safety gear once more.
During the descent through the via ferrata, I had no choice but to look down. For several brief moments when I could not find my footing, it felt like the metal steps had vanished and I would meet my demise.
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Whatever exhilaration and excitement I had felt during my ascent was gone, replaced only by genuine fear for my life.
From time to time, my weary legs trembled uncontrollably and I had to stop to calm myself down.
The descent felt considerably longer than my ascent. In fact, it felt like eternity.
As I took my last step off the cliff, I breathed a sigh of relief, to the amusement of Mr Ivan, my guide and companion.
Will I do this all over again? Absolutely yes, but maybe after a few trips to the gym so that Mr Ivan and I still have iced tea to sip once we are inside the safe haven of the sky lodge, while admiring the astonishing landscape.