I have a newfound fascination with volcanoes, thanks to Mount Bromo on Java. She isn’t very beautiful by any stretch of the imagination. Her top is all blown off and disfigured from recent eruptions, but she’s a vivacious, vocal and volatile volcano (I did that on purpose). N and I had never been to an active volcano, so we figured we would visit Mount Bromo, known to be one of the most accessible volcanoes in Indonesia and didn’t require a challenging (multi-day) hike.
It was a real pain in the ass to get to there from Yogyakarta, but having read loads of blog posts about it, we were mentally prepared. A little discomfort wasn’t going to keep us from looking down into the depths of Mount Bromo’s soul. After braving a packed economy class-only train, and then an ancient minibus ride up the mountain in the dark which felt like some kind of nightmare rollercoaster experience, we arrived at the village of Cemero Lawang to find out that the overpriced hotel we had emailed to hold a double room for us hadn’t held onto that room. So we paid for an overpriced triple room, which was a dark, musty room with a hot water heater that barely worked. And we really needed that hot water. The nighttime temperature on the mountain at our elevation of 2,217 meters (7,218 feet) dropped to close to 5 degrees Celsius (about 40F), which isn’t that cold but it is for a couple of people who have acclimated to SEA nights, which are mostly sweat-inducing. The fleece jackets we rarely had any use for (except for on buses where they crank up the AC) came in handy, and carrying them all through sweltering SEA suddenly became totally worth it. Since we had an electric water heater that came with our fancy room, we added boiled water to the barely lukewarm water from the shower and bathed Indonesian-style (using a bucket and ladle) as fast as we possibly could. The next day erased all of our lingering annoyances about this town and the highway robbery of the minibus drivers and hotels in the area. While most visitors pile into jeeps at the buttcrack of dawn to drive up to a vantage point to see the sun rise before heading to the crater in droves, we opted instead to have breakfast before setting out on our hike to the volcano. This ended up being the best decision for us because we hate crowds and even in the midst of one of the most touristy attractions in Indonesia, we like to pretend like we’re the only people who discovered it.
The hike wasn’t really a hike. It was more of a walk. We passed jeeps coming back from the crater and unloading hungry tourists in front of their hotels. With the morning rush finished for the day, enterprising moped drivers and horseback guides called out to us. As in most developing countries, they seemed perplexed when we told them we wanted to walk. Why walk if you can afford a cheap ride all the way there? And because they never understand that we walk because we want to, they slowly followed us and whittled down their initial prices.
We started walking through the Sea of Sand, a flat expanse of sand leading up to the volcano. I finally called out to two approaching horse guides and asked them how much for a ride back. 100,000 rupiah (about $8) each there and back, they said. We insisted that we only wanted a ride back, and that we wanted to ride the horses ourselves. Totally unconcerned if we had any sort of riding experience, they agreed to 50,000, turned their horses around and followed us. Fine sand blew into our eyes and mouth, and we trudged on as the guides occasionally offered the horses to take us the rest of the way up “if we were tired”.
We were tired. The elevation was killing us, and this was on relatively flat land. In the not too distant distance, there was a photogenic little volcano next to a larger one that looked like it had its top blown off. The pretty one was Mount Batok, and her neighbor was Mount Bromo, one of the most active and volatile volcanoes in Java. According to volcano experts, she’s ready to erupt at any time. We walked on, huffing and puffing up the short but steep slopes leading up to the stairs to the crater. The horse guys just watched us in silence, most likely wondering why we were being so damn cheap and subjecting ourselves to this much physical discomfort.
By the time we got to the bottom of the stairs, my heart was pounding out of my chest from the thin air. We were almost there. I scrambled up wheezing because I have no patience or common sense, while N took her time and walked up while taking breaks like an old person. There was garbage everywhere from assholes who have no care for the environment; discarded plastic drink bottles and abandoned old sandals lay in the sand where their owners had carelessly tossed them. A descending French tourist told us that there was no one at the crater. Génial!
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to look down into the crater of an active volcano. It’s fascinating, exciting and terrifying all at once: it’s a pure adrenaline rush. The sloping earth was cracked and tinged a green color, suddenly ending at a sharp drop into a smoky hole. The sides of the crater were lined with bright yellow sulfur deposits, and bright white smoke slowly billowed from it. What I wasn’t expecting was the noise; a roar emanated from the depths of the volcano. It was frightening, and I was hooked.
Because of the gusty winds, we didn’t venture out too far past the barricaded area. There was evidence of people having walked around the entire rim from the narrow trodden footpaths. We stood there looking into the crater for a while, the only sound the low rumble from the volcano and the wind blowing the sulfur cloud into our faces. When we couldn’t take anymore of the sulfur, we made our way back down to the waiting horses.
In third world countries it’s like, “Here’s a horse. Knock yourself out. If you die it’s your fault.” We insisted that the guides adjust the stirrups for our short legs before they led us down the hills to the Sea of Sand. Once we got to there, the guides let us go and proceeded to click their tongues and swish their crops as they followed behind us to get the horses into an anxious trot. I remembered reading about a blogger who clung onto his horse for dear life as it “ran” across the Sea of Sand on what was his first-ever riding experience. We reined our horses in and kept them from trotting, and after a while the guides just let us slowly amble on.
N was having the time of her life, riding her pony like a champ even though it was only her second time on a horse. “This is even better than Sedona!” It was better than the $200 guided ride we took through the desert of Sedona, although that was pretty cool too. The horses snorted as we walked through the sandstorm, and we covered our mouths with our bandanas and tried to avoid the gusts of sand from landing in our eyes. The sand go everywhere anyway; in our eyes, mouths and ears. If not for the guides behind us, it felt like we were characters in a Spaghetti Western, slowly trudging towards a dusty town ruled by a corrupt sheriff and his henchmen. Mountains rose in the distance, mostly obscured by sand, and Mount Bromo and her photogenic and symmetrical friend receded behind us. For a second it really felt like there was no one else around.
My cowboy daydream was cut short when we got to the top of the hill, where the guides let us know that it was the end of the line. We got off and paid them extra because they were so nice, and hoofed it back to our hotel to eat an early lunch and check out. Mount Bromo was nice and all, but we didn’t want to have to endure another chilly night up there in the mountains, especially because only the family room was available that night at a whopping $100. As we hastily packed our bags, we told each other that wherever we ended up that night would be better – or at least cheaper — than here. By the time we checked out at noon, the town was deserted. The tourists had come, seen the volcano and left right after breakfast. A minibus driver told us that his fare was 30,000 rupiah (about $2.50) per person, but we would have to wait until his 15-seater van filled up. There was literally no tourist in sight, and we knew it could be hours before we left. We asked him how much if we left now, and he quoted us 450,000 rupiah. After much haggling on N’s part, we got him down to 350,000. We had places to be (wherever that was), and we would have to suck it up and fork over the money if we wanted to be there that day.
The ride was just as annoying as the ride up. The old van spewed fumes and the driver chain-smoked as he tore down the windy village roads. But outside the window were the beautiful mountain ranges of this area, with a volcano in the distance. I had fallen in love unexpectedly, and I knew that in the future, I would be willing to deal with crazy drivers, overpriced accommodations and other minor inconveniences if it meant that I would get another glimpse of a volcano in all of its loud, stinky glory.
Two days later, Mount Ontake in Japan suddenly erupted on a busy Saturday afternoon. The unpredictable nature of volcanoes became clear to me as the news unfolded. Rescue efforts are ongoing despite the threat of another eruption. Our prayers go out to those still missing, and we give our condolences to those who perished.