Travelwrighter.com, October 2018
It is 3am and the air is roaring. The sound is coming from jeeps, hundreds of them, climbing the steep incline towards the entrance to the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, each of them with a few travelers hanging on in the back. It is a daily procession, noisy and clamorous, and it shows the enduring power of volcanoes over the popular imagination.
Mount Bromo is one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the region, and a signature sight of East Java, Indonesia. The main tourist centre serving the mountain is Cemoro Lawang, a modest village three to four hours’ drive from Surabaya, one of Indonesia’s biggest cities; compared to other renowned volcanoes in Indonesia and the Philippines, accessing it is a piece of cake.
Outside the Café Lava, chilly at an altitude well over 2,000 metres, I watch the procession go by and wonder what system is governing who goes in which jeep. Eventually one pulls up out the front and it turns out to be mine, bearing some young French tourists in the back. I hop in and we set about a well-established routine.
We drive for half an hour in total darkness, and it won’t be clear until our return what we’re driving through. First there is asphalt, then what seems to be sand, and the jeeps switch to 4WD, following one another in convoys with dust billowing and eerie in the headlights. Then we reach a road again and head up, up, up, until eventually the jeeps all park in a line heading halfway up a mountain. A short walk in the dark leads to the summit of Mount Penanjakan, which is where we will all await the sunrise.
This is not a place for serenity. In a stepped concrete amphitheater at the summit, there must be 500 people here, a mixture of tourists and people trying to rent them jackets and hats (and it is cold, a world away from the humidity at sea level). This is not even peak season – I am here in October – but it is jammed to capacity, people tripping over one another and inadvertently photobombing one another’s selfies in the dark.
The reason we are doing all this is the view when the little orange strip of half-light on the horizon illuminates the land. This is a money shot of a location. In the distance the cone of Mount Semeru, the highest point on Java though less well-known than Bromo, rises stocky and obtuse; a poot of smoke rises obligingly from the summit, a reminder that it has been considered in a state of continuous eruption since 1967, albeit in a relatively lackadaisical manner by the standards of Indonesian volcanoes.
In front of it are several other mountains and volcanoes, among them Bromo, from which smoke rises in ribald plumes. Below, the Tengger caldera is filled with cloud which will slowly dissipate in the sun.
It is a beautiful, mesmerizing sight, and considering the fact that it is several miles across, it tells you something about the crowds that you pretty much have to get into a fight to get an unobscured shot of it. There are people insisting on being photographed with a Chelsea FC scarf, people extending selfie sticks in every direction, peace signs and Usain Bolt lightning poses, tangles and knots of people everywhere. But still: it’s the sort of sight where it wouldn’t surprise you all that much to see the tail of a brontosaurus emerging from the cloud on the caldera floor.
With the sun risen, we all head back to the jeeps, grabbing some noodles on the way down, where the next problem presents itself: finding your correct jeep. We are all encouraged to memorise the number plate of our particular jeep, but it doesn’t help that since we boarded in the dark nobody really knows what colour it is, plus they’ve all turned around since dropping off and are invariably in a different bit of the mountain by now. Eventually we are reunited and head down.
In daylight now, the precipitous nature of the road we came up on is both exhilarating and a bit scary. The drops to the caldera are enormous; we stop along the way to get shots across to the lower mountains, the cloud still photogenic beneath us. Eventually we return to what felt like sand on the way over.
It was sand – but jet black and volcanic. And this is one of the weirdest sights you will ever see.
This area is known as the Sea of Sand. The jeeps all park a walk away from Mount Bromo itself, and as we get out, we are surrounded by horses, emerging from the cloud as if in some mystic scene from a Western. They are there to offer to carry tourists to Bromo, though this is optional, and most people seem to walk; the horses themselves offer a stunning photo-opportunity, particularly when those riders who haven’t found any custom take to galloping their steeds across the sand against a backdrop of rugged volcanic rocks and a drifting, sun-pierced fog.
The walk across to Bromo is a heavy trudge in the sand, and then you climb alongside the horses until you reach a set of about 200 stone steps taking you up to the crater rim. As you reach the top, the smell of sulphur is potent in the air.
Looking deep into the volcano is a sobering and faintly terrifying experience. Beyond the modest barriers, which only extend a little way along the rim, the drop is steep into blackness punctuated by an unrelenting billow of smoke. An active volcano is the most elemental sight on Earth: a route through our crust to the magma, to the unknown and the infinitely powerful and dangerous. Pluckier people head beyond the barriers to climb the higher edges of the rim; remote and insignificant on the earth, they make a great photo.
Looking back from the rim towards the sands, by now a temple is clear, incongruous amid the craggy rock and the – yes, you can see why they named it – the sea of sand. Even with the swarms of people up here, the distance from the jeeps makes this a little more serene and imposing than our earlier viewpoint.
Having taken a walk along the crater myself I see a sandy route leading down and decide to take it rather than the steps, which is just fine until it turns out to end at a small ravine, which I navigate on my arse. By the time we get back to the jeep – which I lose, again – my shoes are full of a small beach worth of sand. And then we drive back to Cemoro Lawang, and are at our guesthouses by about 8am. It’s a full morning, and the breakfast of nasi goreng goes down a treat.
Once down, there really isn’t anything much to do in the town; some walk right back up to Bromo again, finding it far more serene later in the day without the sunrise crowd. Few are here for longer than a night or two, and some do it as a day trip from Probolinggo on the coast. I have a particular challenge – I’m on a 7am train out of Surabaya the next morning – but inconvenient hours are the norm around here, and a driver is easily arranged for 3am.
The whole local economy is based on the volcano and one wonders what happens to the workers when it erupts, or threatens to do so, which is pretty frequent: as recently as 2015, increasing activity has led to a forced exclusion zone banning people not only from the mountain but the whole caldera floor, including the sand sea.
But that’s part of life when you’re living with volcanoes. The volatility is part of the appeal.