Climbing Mount Bromo

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May 30th 2018
Published: May 31st 2018
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After a pleasant overnight stay in a lovely hotel in Malang that was once a Dutch colonial building, we say goodbye to comfort and head off to visit Mount Bromo, one of the many hundreds of volcanoes in Indonesia. Our new driver Tommy offers us a quick visit to the Malang bird market, a street with hundreds of small and mostly colourful birds for sale. Owning caged birds are a symbol of prestige in Indonesia, and seeing them is OK, but we don’t like the sight of half a dozen rabbits squashed up in a small cage and are downright appalled at the sight of two tiny monkeys dressed in sweaters trying to escape their cage.

Tommy takes the back routes to Tumpang, which finally afford us a sight of the real countryside. The villages are all relatively prosperous with new building going on, and everywhere is cultivated with rice, corn and sugar cane. In Tumpang we have to transfer to an open jeep to go the rest of the way to Bromo while Tommy takes the long way round to the hotel with our luggage as he is not allowed on these roads. This appears to be because the local people, the Tenggers, apparently have a monopoly on access to and activities within certain parts of the national park surrounding Bromo and Mount Semeru. We are somewhat apprehensive about this leg of the trip, having read the guidance in our itinerary which warns we should take sweaters as it will be freezing cold, that the jeep takes you on perilous, narrow unmade roads clinging to steep slopes, and that we will be covered in dust in the sea of sand, whatever that is. It is also very unclear how far we have to walk to reach the volcano, and how easy or difficult the ascent is.

Our fears are rapidly allayed. We have no need of the sweaters and jackets we have prudently kept in our hand luggage, and although the road is indeed steep, narrow and winding, and we have to sit facing each other on benches in the back, neither of us gets sick. The views are spectacular, even before we can see the volcano. Slopes that look to be 45 degrees steep are covered with rice paddies and other cultivation, and the vegetation gradually becomes more wooded as we ascend. Eventually we can see down into the massive caldera of the long blown Tenggera volcano that is now home to three smaller volcanos – Mount Bromo, Mount Batok and an unnamed one. The caldera walls look almost vertical, and the floor of the caldera is totally flat apart from the volcanoes rising up from it. We turn off onto a dirt track that drops precipitously down to the caldera floor, and start to drive through an area of grassland. We suddenly understand the warnings about dust, and this is before we reach the sea of sand. We drive over a fine grey dust which settles on and in everything. We’re very glad we took the precaution of packing everything into plastic bags, even though they are inside rucksacks, as the dust easily penetrates through the rucksack walls. We’re even more pleased that David took the precaution of buying a cover for the cameras, which is designed to keep out dust or water. We decide to wrap his up in the cover, and leave Sara’s in its protective plastic bag, just in case the cover does not work. We wrap our scarves over our mouths and noses in a futile effort to keep out the worst of the dust. The grass stops and is replaced by a vast of expanse of grey dust- the sea of sand. It looks like a lunar landscape. Eventually, we pull up in a deserted area laid out for parking. The driver – who does not speak English – points to Mount Bromo and indicates the direction we need to walk in. We get out our walking poles and set off. It’s slow, heavy going wading through the grey sand, much like walking through deep soft sand on a beach. After 5 minutes we pass by an incongruously sited Hindu temple, and after another 5 we start to climb upwards. The sides of the volcano look as if the lava only hardened quite recently, and indeed the last eruption was in 2016 so it is still very recent. There are flows of lava running down the sides, separated by gullies. 20 minutes of walking, with ever more stentorian breathing, gets us to a flight of 260 steps which lead up to the edge of the crater. We proceed cautiously and take a short rest half way up. At the top, we sit down for a much needed rest and are immediately mobbed by half a dozen local teenagers who all want to take a selfie with us. As there’s nowhere to go and we’re too tired to move anyway, we accede with good grace.

At first sight, our climb has been in vain as we can see just about nothing in the crater. The mist had come down as we drove up, and it looks like it has covered everything, Then we realise that some of what we thought was cloud is in fact huge plumes of steam rising from the volcano, which makes a constant loud kettle rumbling sound. Little by little the cloud lifts and we can start to see the crater walls. Then we realise that the steam is not emitting at a constant pace but expands to a massive cloud and then contracts to a small column rather like a Indian smoke signal. As the steam decreases, we can see deeper and deeper into the cater, which has a smaller, very deep crater within it. This deep crater has walls covered in yellow where sulphur has precipated out of the steam, which does indeed smell sulphurous. We can see tiny jets of steam puffing out of small yellow fumeroles. Eventually we can see the whole of the crater rim, and the volcanic ridge beyond.

Meanwhile, the teenagers have cleared off and we’ve been able to watch the volcano entirely on our own, save for an elderly man whose job is,sadly, to pick up the rubbish that visitors drop. We’re alarmed to see him climb over the fence and start to descend into the crater, and even more alarmed when 10 minutes later we realise we can no longer see him and don’t remember him walking past us.

Finally, we pick our way carefully back down the steps and back to the jeep. The descent is much easier than the ascent, though still quite hard through the deep sand. We clamber gratefully back into the jeep, itself not the simplest task as you have to grab a piece of rope and then climb up via the half open tailgate, trying not to bang our heads on the crossbar. It’s only a 15 minute drive to our hotel, the appropriately named Lava View Hotel which does indeed have a great view of the volcanoes. We want nothing more than to shower off the dust, but Tommy will not arrive with our luggage for another hour, so we shake the dust off our bags and all their contents, and have a very late picnic lunch. The hotel is basic, but clean and very welcome. We watch the sun set then, reunited with our luggage and hence clean clothes, enjoy the luxiry of a shower.

The other visitors all seem to be booked for the sunrise tour, which demands a 3am start. The guidebook warns this is cold (which we can well believe as the temperature plummets as soon as the sun sets) and crowded. We are very happy to skip that, but might get up to watch the sunset from our viewpoint by the hotel. The restaurant doesn’t open till 6.30, so we sit and read till then, hoping they have some cold beer.

Next morning we get up at 5am to watch the sun rise, then retreat back to bed for another hour before breakfast. After that the day is all downhill – a 5 hour drive to Surabaya airport, then 3 ½ hours to wait for our flight to Makassar, next stop on our Indonesia tour.

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