Bromo in East Java is my first volcano. I would like to say that it’s the first one I have hiked – but not really. Reaching the crater does not require hiking at all. To the Tengger Caldera, a 5-hectare desert full of volcanic sand, and to the viewpoint that is situated at 2,770 m above sea level, one can get by motorbike, or by car. Then 250 concrete steps ascend to the top of the crater (2,329 m).
Although reaching the volcano does not require much effort, it’s not that easy to find it at night – we got lost twice on the way. First, we didn’t notice a turn that we were supposed to take just after we entered the territory of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, and almost reached the highest summit of Java – Semeru. Prior to our trip I had read in the Lonely Planet guidebook that some people lose their way to Bromo and try to hike Semeru instead. “Stupid tourists,” I had been thinking at that time.
The next time we got lost was while riding through the caldera at night, trying to get to the village adjacent to the caldera called Cemoro Lawang. Google Map shows a road that looks very straightforward, but in fact at some point the road was over, and in front of us there was the Sea of Sand. We were following the tail lights of other motorbikes, but it turned out that the actual road was quite far from us, and in between there was a trench impossible to cross on motorbike. But luckily we were not alone there – as everywhere else in touristy places in Indonesia, there was a crowd of people – so together with them we got back on the right track.
A crucial part of Bromo experience is seeing it from the viewpoint at the sunrise. Pictures taken from that point, which I had found on the Internet or on postcards, left me speechless. So we were very determined to get there at night.
Before the trip, finding information on how we can reach the viewpoint was impossible. Travel blogs in English were giving tips about renting jeeps, about horses in the caldera, and about reaching the summit of the volcano (which involved just the stairs). We got to the nearest village, built a tent there, and started asking people. None of them could give us clear information. I expected a local guy who worked in a hotel to have basic knowledge about this place, given he worked in the tourism industry in an area where everyone’s livelihood was connected to the volcano. And according to this guy, the viewpoint was not possible to reach by bike, because the road was very steep and slippery, with a lot of sand coming down.
I still don’t know what is the problem with the information about that place, because in the end we got to the viewpoint without difficulty. Not only is the whole road made of asphalt, in very good condition and easily accessible, but also there are lots of tourist facilities – warungs, toilets, parking lots, and even a mosque.
What we did was wake up at 2 am and follow the Indonesian tourists. A crowd of people on motorbikes was heading for the viewpoint for sunrise. Since it was New Year’s, obviously we were not the only ones who wanted to spend the first morning of 2017 looking at the active cone of Bromo. The ride started with crossing the sandy caldera, which felt like riding through a desert; at night it was thrilling and gave me goosebumps. Then there was just asphalt for a few kilometres to the top of Mount Penanjakan – to the top, which was supposed to be the most rewarding view, worth a mostly sleepless night and a long ride in the dark. But in our case the view was not so impressive because the place was floating in a dense fog. Nothing we could see but other people’s backs – hundreds of Indonesians were waiting for the sunrise with us, no luck that morning.
We rode back to the caldera to climb the crater and for me that was the hardest point of the whole expedition. We had to face this touristy clamour. Horse rides across the caldera offered for a couple of dollars, snacks and drinks all around, and, of course, groups of people hunting for bule to take a picture together. It all looked like a big tacky picnic.
But we survived, reached the top, looked down and saw the huge hole from where a massive amount of smoke was coming out. And when I smelled the sulphur – it was as if hell had its ‘open-door day’ and everyone was invited to see and check if they would like to spend the life after death there. The Earth is alive, and I saw evidence to that. And what I saw was frighteningly powerful and beautiful.
To get out of the Tengger Caldera was much more difficult than getting into it. We were stuck in a few horrible traffic jams for a few long hours. At one moment I asked people in front of me if they knew what had happened, because I was curious whether there had been a car accident, or a tree blocking the road. The answer I got was: macet. I asked: Macet apa? They replied: Tidak bisa jalan. The conversation was short, but insightful. Macet means ‘a traffic jam’. I asked what is a traffic jam and what I heard was: ‘you cannot go’. Thanks guys for telling me this, I wouldn’t have noticed myself. Indonesians do not investigate. Macet is macet, and only patience can save us.