The recent revelation that Gunung Padang, a megalithic site south of Cianjur in West Java, almost certainly conceals a step pyramid dating back to beyond the Ice Age, is attracting a substantial amount of interest in the form of articles, books, videos and visits.
These columns are actually millions to tens of millions of years old, having been formed naturally from cooling lava by a process known as columnar jointing. The site itself is well worth a visit for its hauntingly remote beauty, its green surface strewn with hundreds of basaltic columns, as if a giant had opened and scattered a box of dark grey matches. Fortunately the road to the site is now well signposted, and it has also been entered on GPS.
I visited Gunung Padang with my daughter Rianti, her husband Cas, and our driver Pak Setu, driving an SUV. We planned a round trip, outward via Cianjur, inbound via Sukabumi. Our morning start was delayed, so, leaving at 9am, we arrived for lunch at the Puncak Pass Hotel at about 1pm. This is a convenient stopping point for the trip, with its memorable south-east view over the Cipanas area, and Gunung Gede looming above to the west.
We continued through Cipanas-Sindanglaya down to Cianjur. Here it is time to activate your GPS – if you have one. In Cianjur, you need to turn right (west) and get on the road to Sukabumi. Once you get on the Cianjur-Sukabumi road (a busy one as it connects Bandung and Sukabumi) keep going for about 7km, using the GPS, until you come to the village of Warungkondang (be careful to avoid a prior left turn to Cibeber). Just after the village you will see a road junction, with a left (south) turn and a green sign saying ‘Gunung Padang’. Now you are on a narrow but well-surfaced road heading up into the hills, with the local minibuses coated in an intriguing silver and puce. The road is typical West Java rural, through bamboo and teak plantations, still well surfaced but with many curves. Signs for Gunung Padang are visible at road junctions. Then you come across something unexpected, a remote railway station, Lampegan.
From Lampegan, the road winds up into the midst of glorious tea plantations. This kind of landscape with its sweeping green tea carpets will be familiar to those who know, for example, the Malabar tea plantation area south of Bandung. In fine weather it produces a stimulating feeling, as you are climbing up to the watershed which separates north- and south-flowing rivers in Java. Just beyond the horizon are those long deep valleys, which lead down to the still relatively remote South Coast.
We sensed our destination was not too far away (7km from Lampegan), as we dropped down into a small pocket of a valley and then up through a village. We swept up into a carpark, with, of all things, a large electronic digital clock informing us in red digits that it was 15:06:47, and four locked portable toilets in bright blue colours. Fortunately, a more conventional toilet with plenty of clean water was available. There were two smiling guides and a handful of village people outside a row of about ten warung.
We were assigned a youngish guide, Pak Yusuf, immaculately dressed in black traditional Sundanese clothes with a blue turban. He first introduced us to a small spring of water, where bathing your face is supposed to guarantee long life. And then the bottom entrances to two flights of stairs. We could choose between the older more direct one, 400 rugged andesite steps on a very steep gradient, or an easier but longer and more circuitous one.
The choice seemed to been have made for me, and, at 72, no longer a Welsh mountain goat, I found myself being cajoled, pushed and pulled by my four companions up the most cardio-vascular of the two. It didn’t help to have Pak Yusuf regale us with stories of students who had collapsed, vomiting, tourists who had been rushed to hospital, and army officers who had flunked the course. Well, obviously I made it, but, seriously, if you have a heart condition or similar, take the longer way round.
It was well worth the ascent though, to be resting up among the green grass and grey columns. The light was clear, the mountains gracious, and the breezes playful. The summit of Gunung Padang is a kind of wind catchment, and a scrap of poetry floated through my head, “an old man among windy spaces”, although my feeling couldn’t have been more opposite to the pessimism of TS Eliot’s Gerontion.
The scale of the site was smaller than we expected, and less crowded. True, it was lateish and the site closes at 4.30pm. There were a few village people, some workers, probably from Pak Danny Hilman’s geological team, up on the highest (fifth) level, and a character in full traditional Sundanese threads and bling who introduced himself as “Eric”.
But all I wanted to do was enjoy the brightness, clarity and spirituality of the place. Never mind any chthonic forces and relics way down under my feet.
Pak Yusuf indicated some specific arrangements of the columns intended for devotions in the form of samadhi and prayer, which have taken place continually since the West Javanese hero, Prabu Siliwangi, dedicated this site in the early 16th century.
The musician in Cas was intrigued by a hollow column, which emits musical notes. It was also fascinating to see how the alignment of Gunung Padang points directly at Gunung Gede, the highest mountain in the region.
We descended by the easier steps, Rianti had some selfies taken with the villagers, and we hit the road home. The Sukabumi route at night was long and unpleasant, with traffic jams, road repairs and convoys of trucks bringing mineral water down from the mountains. We were able to speed up after hitting the Jagorawi toll road south of Ciawi, arriving home at 9pm.
- Go on a weekday, avoiding the hideous Friday-Sunday Puncak traffic. If on weekends, via Sukabumi is probably a better option.
- When travelling from Sukabumi, take the Cianjur road, and turn right (it’s signposted) just before Warungkondang.
- From Bandung, head for Cianjur, then take the Sukabumi road.
- If driving, 4WD is best, SUV is OK, and a sedan is inadvisable.
- Several visitors hired minibuses from Sukabumi or Cianjur.
- By train, it may be preferable to get an early bus as far as Bogor to catch the 7.55am train from there, avoiding the crowded Jakarta commuter train, or stay the previous night in Bogor.