Mount Bromo – East Java
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The island of Java, which lies on the fault line known as the fiery ring of the Pacific, has a number of active volcanoes with the two most prominent, in terms of organised tours, being Mount Bromo and Ijen Crater. For more in-depth info: http://wikitravel.org/en/Bromo-Tengger-Semeru_National_Park https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ijen Both of these sites are in the Eastern region of Java and are best accessed through the Northern city of Surabaya, which also happens to be the second largest city in Java. I mention this because if you’ve never been there before this heavily populated island – approx. 145 million inhabitants – comes as quite a shock to those expecting the wide expanses of an uncrowded, tropical landscape. Far from being “off the beaten track” it is an island seething with humanity and as I was soon to find out, its own brand of mass tourism.
Regardless of how one may go about seeing the sights of East java – be it as a solo traveler on a private tour, or a do it yourself budget traveler – one thing is certain here, the traffic jams on all roads, in all areas, are constant and unrelenting. It is for this reason the travel to get to the summits of Bromo and Ijen, takes place at night. Prior to arriving in Surabaya, I already had my schedule in place for seeing both attractions. I’d made a prior booking for a 3 day/2 night private tour with a company called Bromo Ijen Tours – http://www.bromoijentours.com/ – and after arriving at my hotel, only needed to chill out for two days before being picked up. The tour price of USD 450 included private transportation, a tour guide, one nights accommodation in Banyuwangi and a one way flight back to Surabaya (from Banyuwangi) at the completion of the tour. What it did not include is National Park entrance fees and special sightseeing extras such as the “Blue fire of Ijen” and the “Milky Way” at Bromo. As mentioned I had two nights to relax in the hotel – the Holiday Inn Express Surabaya – before being picked up 2130 on the third night to begin my tour.
At the time of booking it seemed like an odd hour to get underway from the hotel but as my guide Luchis quickly pointed out it was a five hour drive to get to Bromo and we needed to avoid the traffic jams to arrive at the mountain in good time for the sunrise. The itinerary Bromo Ijen Tours had mapped out for me was fairly straight forward but it involved a lot of travel and also ascending the mountains at night time. After being picked up on time we hit the road for the long drive to Bromo. On the way Luchis informed me once we arrived at the outer rim of the volcano we’d transfer into a jeep, for the drop down into the caldera and the drive across the “Sea of Sand,” before ascending to the viewpoint for the sunrise. The five hour drive to the outer rim was hardly remarkable save for the amount of traffic on the roads. With a population of approx. 145 million crammed into an island which probably not much bigger in size than Tasmania the roads, even in the dead of night, are still congested. We arrived on time – 2.30 AM – at the transfer point and I was then offered the option of viewing the “Milky Way” for 400,000 INR (Indonesian Rupiah). Unfortunately this option turned out to be a bit of a dud as there was a half-moon emitting enough light to blot out most of the night sky apart from the brightest stars. For those considering the “Milky Way” option, only do so on a new (black) moon. There is also a park entrance fee of 200,000 INR which is paid to the local jeep driver – INR to USD currently = 13000 to 1. The viewpoint for the Milky Way also happens to be the same location for viewing the sunrise over Mount Bromo and apart from the bright moon light having a negative effect on the number of visible stars above, there’s also a bloody great radio antenna blotting out the right side field of view; not great for photography.
The only upside of being on the viewpoint so early was I was able to get the best position for setting up my tripod and camera; at 3.30 AM I was the first one there. At roughly 2500 meters above sea level the Mount Pananjakan view point, at that time of the morning,is damned cold. A warm jacket and a woolen hat is a definite must if you’re heading up there.
In the last hour before sunrise the view point is absolutely jam packed and my guide reliably informed me during the peak season (June – August) a crowd of 300 on the concrete platform was not unusual during weekdays, and even more so on weekends. For travelers who are inclined towards going “off the beaten track” you’ll be decidedly disappointed as the set up at Bromo leans definitely towards the mass tourism model. In this regard if you want a more challenging, less commercialised location then Ijen is the better option by far. As I stood waiting on the platform in the dead of night and looking out across the black expanse of the caldera, the number of jeeps crossing the Sea of sand was quite staggering. There was literally an uninterrupted chain of headlights from the far side of the caldera, to the ascent road to the view point, for well over an hour without let up. As daylight broke across the caldera, to light up Bromo and the surrounding peaks, the crowd jammed into viewpoint were clicking away madly with their cameras and doing their best to squeeze into a front row position. By 6.30 AM the sun came over the horizon and the crowd, having got their shots, began to disperse down to the small restaurants lining the road leading away from the summit. Most were getting an energy boost of deep fried bananas and hot tea before embarking on the second phase of their tour; the climb up Bromo volcanic cone. There were jeeps parked in every nook and cranny for 500 meters along the access road. As the horde made their way to their assigned vehicles I decided a hot tea, and a thirty minute break was in order, while the congestion of traffic mayhem sorted itself descending to the Sea of Sand. By 7.30 AM, and with the sun well and truly above the horizon, the day was beginning to warm up quickly. Our jeep cleared off the summit access road and drove out onto the Sea of Sand to reveal a blue, cloudless sky above. It’s the type of day which is the norm for this time of year at Bromo; warm, clear and dry.
The Sea of Sand is an interesting piece of landscape and aptly named. It is the base of the caldera and completely covered in a layer of black, volcanic sand. Truth be known, it is essentially one giant sand pit. Directly in front of Bromo cone and right next to the peak known as “Pudding Mountain” is the area where all the jeeps park and wait while the tourists do the hike up the flanks of Bromo. At 8 AM it was a melee of jeeps and horses as the hikers disembarked and decided if they wanted to walk across the one kilometer stretch of sand to the base of the cone, or take a horse. If you are feeling too fatigued, and leg weary, from being up all night then going on horseback is a viable option at just 130,000 INR (USD 10). The flat stretch across to the base of the volcanic cone also includes a Hindu Temple which, if you’re not pressed for time, is worth a cursory viewing. According to Luchis, my tour guide, even though Indonesia is a Muslim nation the area around Bromo is predominantly Hindu and a remnant of the island’s earlier cultures; the starkest example being the temple complex of Borobudur in Central Java.
The climb up the flanks of Bromo cone is relatively easy going for the most part with only the final upper section being steeper and more difficult. There is a stairway in place for this final, steep section but it is practically useless as the steps have a deep covering of sand. With the number of people slipping and sliding on the sand covered steps, as they struggle up and down the narrow confines of the stairway, one wonders why they even bother as the open space either side makes for easier climbing. After taking one look at the hordes struggling up the sand covered steps, I opted for the climb up on the right hand side of the stairway. The stairway, in the advertising brochures available, is stated as being “250 steps to the top.” With it being completely covered in sand, it’s hard to tell but the distance to the rim is actually further than it looks and it’s a good ten minute slog to reach the top.
Once you arrive at the top care needs to be taken as there is only a narrow track around the rim and the drop into the crater is quite precipitous. Most are usually in need of a rest before moving on, and given the hard slog to get to the top this is understandable, but unfortunately often when people are feeling exhausted common sense doesn’t prevail. Instead of moving a few meters along the track, left or right, to create a space for others coming up behind them they stand about creating a hazardous log jam on the narrow path while taking a breather. Yes, to push on immediately after arriving at the top can be difficult, but in the matters of safety a few extra meters isn’t going to kill anyway. When you do arrive at the top of the stairway it can look a little daunting when you look to the left and see the track winding around the rim to the high point in the distance. Just when you think you’ve got there, you’re not done yet as there’s another 500 meters to traverse around the rim to the top. As mentioned, the crowding on the narrow rim at the top of the stairway has the potential to be a hazardous situation and even though I was busting a gut after the hard slog up I pushed on immediately to get clear of the disorganised melee. Fifty meters further on we were clear of the crowd and after taking a breather for a couple of minutes on a wider part of the track, we were pushing on to the high point of the cone. The crater itself is quite raw and spectacular with a constant emission which roars with pressure being released from the bowels of the earth. The view from the high point is quite amazing as one can look directly down into the depths of the volcanic crater. Take some time to relax and enjoy the raw power of the natural world. It’s a bit of a slog to get all the way up to the high point and the fact is most don’t do it due to fatigue or exhaustion but if you push yourself for ten to fifteen minutes more, it’s well worth the effort. After a few minutes spent getting some good shots and a bit of video footage on my phone it was time for me and Luchis to head down as we had a long drive ahead of us to Banyuwangi and a tough hike up Ijen Crater that coming night.
Story to be continued in part two – Ijen Crater