Monday, 18 August 2014

Fire over Bromo: Part 1

After a few days of sightseeing in Yogyakarta, Angela and I had to figure out how we'd get to our next destination, the mighty volcano of Mount Bromo. You can go there independently by taking a train from Yogyakarta to Surabaya, then another train to Probolinggo, then a bus to Cemoro Lawang, a village on the slopes of the volcano. We figured that since this was such a long-winded itinerary, it should be much cheaper than taking a tour. When we went to the train station in Yogyakarta, however, it turned out a ticket to Surabaya would cost us 45 dollars, and that was only half the journey! So much for Indonesia being a cheaper place to travel (this has been one of our peeves with this country so far: way too expensive, for way too much hassle!).

So, in the end, we chose to do a tour instead, which would cost around 60 dollars but would include all transportation, two night's accommodation and breakfast. A much better deal than going independently, even if it meant spending up to twelve hours at a time with these obnoxious Dutch lads who felt that a cramped minivan was an appropriate place to party to house music all day long. It's a pity 'cause they were the first Dutch people I've met that I genuinely didn't like. You've really let your country down there, boys.

In the end, we did the whole Bromo-at-sunrise thing, which was initially a disappointment since it was too foggy to see anything, but as we got closer to the volcano, the clouds parted, revealing some of the most breathtaking scenery we've seen on this trip. The ashy plains surrounding the volcano looked like an alien planet, their dunes crawling with local horsemen who kicked up clouds of dust like cowboys on the moon, all backdropped by these rugged, smokey mountains that seemed ready to explode at any moment. It was easily the highlight of our time in Java, and made the long journey across this long, long island absolutely worth it.

Our route by minivan from Yogyakarta to Probolinggo took about 12 hours. Man, Java is long. Did I mention how long Java is?
When we travelled Java by train, we were surrounded on either side by gorgeous paddy fields and dormant, green volcanoes for most of the journey. By road, on the other hand, we mostly witnessed an abundance of traffic jams and crowded townships.
Having said that, there were still intermittent spells of green.
It was a long bus ride, one that would bust our butts from morning 'til nightfall. Upon arrival in Probolinggo, like secret agents we were briefed on our mission for the following morning: wake up bright and early at 3am, ride jeep to summit of Mount Penanjakan for sunrise view of Mount Bromo. Take - many - photos. Then proceed down into ashy belly of crater that envelops Mount Bromo. Take - more - photos. Climb nearby caldera to see Bromo's smoke cast forth into sky. Take - as - many - photos - as - humanly - possible.
We stayed in a small guesthouse halfway up the mountains. Angela slept for maybe an hour. I opted to stay up through the night. This approach will always appeal to me much more than dragging myself out of bed at 3 in the goddamn morning. In our hotel corridor was this painting of Mount Bromo, like an illustration of our day to come.
We took a jeep up into the mountains, through pitch-black villages that would burst with colour in hours to come, and across an ashy plain that seemed as dimensionless and infinite as space.
From the ash-plain we zigzagged up the slopes of Mount Penanjakan, then stopped halfway up and climbed the remainder on foot. It was chilly. Almost freezing. On this trip, a cool climate has generally been a welcome relief, but this was an Arctic winter to our suntanned, acclimatised bodies, and even wrapped in our jackets we were shivering. The air was also thick with ash, as you can see in the photo. It meant that every breath felt like smoking a really bad cigarette.
A bunch of us gathered on the summit, trembling beneath the moon while we waited for the sun to rise. It could not come fast enough.

After half an hour or so, the sky opened its sleepy grey eyes.
Alas, it brought with it a boundless murk that obscured the landscape and denied us our coveted sunrise snapshots.
Volcanic smog: the scourge of every travelling photographer.
We waited. And waited. Hoping it might clear...
...but the smog had beaten us. They say Bromo's name derives from the Javanese pronunciation of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. Well he had created our misery. He had created our disappointment...
...but then, as we descended Penanjakan, golden sunbeams burst forth from the sky, enflaming the landscape, until at last...
...Bromo was born.
At the feet of this mighty phoenix that had risen from its own ashes lay a sea of sand and cinders. That same moonscape we had driven across by jeep was now orange and algae-coated, and we could see more jeeps crossing its surface, dashing ant-like towards the volcano.
We couldn't stop admiring those golden hues that looked straight out of a Turner painting.

Does autumn exist this close the equator? I guess it does.

After much frenzied photo-snapping, we had to move on. Our driver took us down to ground level, or rather, ash level, where we dusted our way to the feet of the volcano god.

Soon the landscape began to turn into a Cormac McCarthy novel, a neo-Western of crests and deserts and rough trails in the dirt, not to mention...
...horses. A land ruled by horses. Horses tamed by horsemen masters.

We had fallen asleep in tropical Java, and awoken deep in the Himalayas. Tibet, Nepal, Kashmir? We couldn't tell.

Before us lay a caldera, spouting sulphur into the blue beyond.
To our right, Bromo's craggy peak stood guarded by ancient horsemen.
We chose to head for the caldera, thinking we might gain a better vantage point over these gravelly mountains.
The further we walked from the encampment, the more it looked like an outpost for post-apocalyptic refugees.
An old man and his wife, wayfarers in a nuclear fallout.
A grey-shaded settlement built from the scavenged scraps of pre-war civilisation.
Even wastelanders have time for romantic snapshots.

Getting closer to the mouth of the caldera.

Click here to continue the adventure in Part 2!

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