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A promo for Bromo

Gunung Bromo in far Eastern Java is one of those reasons why God invented postcards.  It is one of those rare places in the world, like Uluru or the Taj Mahal, that never fails to impress.  The kind of place that makes all travel, discomfort, and frustrations involved in getting there dissolve the moment you clap eyes on it.   

Gunung Bromo

Of course, we didn’t have to journey for days. It just felt like we did. We attempted the whole thing as a weekend trip from Jakarta, which was kind of ambitious, given that Bromo lives at the other end of Java, and we didn’t have a car. 

So we took a plane to Surabraya, the capital of East Java.  That meant a 5.00am start on Saturday morning to get to the airport, and a multitude of bus connections to the town of Probolingo.  I won’t bore you with all the details of all the bus changes, because they take up a whole page in the Lonely Planet. Suffice to say, not everything went to plan.

Suddenly we were on an air-conditioned express coach to Bali, and a little bit concerned about our final destination (not that Bali isn’t a nice place, but it is on a different map).  Then the driver hauled up in the middle of the highway and announced that this was the stop for Bromo.  When the dust cleared we found ourselves beside a concrete shell of a bus shelter, with a desk at one end and the words “public bus” crudely dribble in white paint on one of the walls. 

A man emerged from an adjoining shop, sat at the desk and pulled out a battered receipt book.  He asked us if we are going to Bromo, and then he told us that he was a ‘travel agent’ who could book us a ‘private’ minibus to Cemoro Lawang (the town on the edge of the National park where we had planned to stay overnight).  The price included a jeep trip to the crater the next day.  The bus park, he assured us, was too far to walk and full of thieves.  We suspected that the thieves didn’t confine their activities to the bus park. 

However we wanted to get to Cemoro Lawang before dark, and our options appeared to be limited, so we parted with 80,000 rup each for a flimsy red receipt.  Five minutes later a battered blue Mitsubishi colt pulled up, and we were piled in. That was the last we saw of him.  The colt drove around the corner to a massive bus park and waited outside for other passengers.

A moment for reflection: how long have I been international traveler?  Well, it was too late to complain, because we still had to reach Cemoro Lawang before dark.  Slowly the bus filled, until it reached the acceptable passenger compression rate, (about six people per row of seats), then we began our trundle up into the mountains. 

I noticed that the conductor was staring at us.  Actually, I don’t know if ‘bus conductor’ is the right job descriptor.  Every mini bus in Indonesia has a guy who collects the cash and bashes on the roof if the driver needs to slow down to let passengers on or off.  When it get crowded, he doesn’t even sit on the bus, he just hangs on the outside, to let passengers get on or off, and to haul in little old ladies who can’t run fast enough to leap onto the bus under their own steam.

So I started to get this sinking feeling that our flimsy red ticket hadn’t actually paid for this trip, at all.  I hid my head in a book to avoid his stare.  Suddenly the public bus became a school bus, with an extra fifteen young passengers seeking space in the remaining air pockets of our tiny colt.  Most of the kids chose to ride on the roof…until it started raining heavily.  Then they started slipping in through the windows, and kind of crowd surfed their way into small cracks and crevices in the passenger area.

I managed to avoid the conductor for some time, enjoying the surreal spectacle of kids sliding down the ladder, tapping on the window, handing over their coins, then silently dropping off the moving bus.  Finally the conductor caught my eye, and pointed to my book, entitled “Malay Magic”.  It seems everyone in Indonesia has a ghost story to tell…

Eastern Java feels almost Nepalese, with its steeply terraced mountains, and its stubby houses, sporting panels of little glass windows.  The East Javans favour splashes of colour on their awnings and potted plants on their verandahs.  Bright yellows dark blues and greens, light up the streetscapes, and stones shrines line the road.  Lots of locals have the thin noses and high cheek bones of other highland people, and they wear sarongs over their clothes, wrapping them across their chests like armour to keep out the cold and damp.  

And it was quite cold and damp.  The bus took us right to our hotel, with its cabins looking straight across the caldera to the crater and other mountain peaks, and we were keen to check in and get changed.  The manager gave us a flimsy red receipt.  It looked familiar.  Yes, it looked just like the one we had received earlier for the jeep!  I showed it to the manager, and watched a feint glimpse of recognition cross his face.  Phew.  He had a jeep booked after all.

For once in my life I was glad that we had over-packed.  Whoever thought we’d need  beanies and jumpers in Java?  This was very disappointing for the troupes of beanie salesmen peddling their wares outside our hotel.  Luckily for them, a busload of Germans arrived from Bali in the middle of the night.

Even without Bromo, Cemoro Lawang is been a great place to visit.  We strolled around for hours, taking in the scenery.  Like many places in Java, the land seems so rich, yet the people are so poor.  They toiled hard in muddy fields, that were groaning with plump cabbages, broad beans and other veggies.  Humble woven huts dotted million dollar views.

David Leonard climbing Bromo

Bromo itself sits in the crater of a massive extinct volcano.  Hence it is surrounded by a massive ring of mountains, whose lush green sides, sink into a flat sandy plain, filled with desert grasses and volcanic rocks.  Gunung Bromo rises up in the middle of this plain like a classical, science project ideal of a smoking volcano.  Beside it Gunung Batok, sits like a massive mould of lime jelly. 

At night we sat on the verandah of our bungalow, sipping tea, watched the fog roll in over the mountains and listened to the singing wafting in from the Hindu temple at the base of the mountain.

We had a 4.00 am start to see the sun rise over Bromo, from nearby Gunung Penanjakan, the highest peak overlooking the caldera.  Our jeep was full of groggy Germans, wearing their newly acquired Bromo beanies and their hotel sheets to keep warm.  We reached the peak in the dark, in a chaos of other jeeps, motor bikes and hikers all swarming up to the top.  At the top, a small stadium had been erected, and there were about two hundred people there, armed with cameras and video, waiting to see the sun rise.  Some groups had even brought banners.  I half expected someone to start a Mexican wave.

In a way, I wish they had, because by 6.30am, it was clear that the fog wasn’t going to lift.  This was the rainy season after all, and everyone had to be content with photos of their own glum faces as the sole souvenir of their visit.  Luckily, that wasn’t the end of our morning’s entertainment.  Once back in our jeeps it was a race to the bottom of the caldera to be the first to climb Bromo.  The jeeps were all owned by the one company, and came in a range of primary colours.  The scene resembled something out of the movie “The Italian Job”. 

Once at the base of Bromo, we met tribes of men with beautiful horses wanting to hire them for the walk to the peak.  I’m not keen on horses at the best of times, and a hard jerky trip uphill or downhill is not my idea of fun.  In fact it was only a twenty-minute walk up the hill, with the final 250 steps were up concrete staircase, where horses couldn’t go anyway.

A small metal barrier stopped the crowds from tumbling into the crater.  Our German friends started bounding around the edge of the crater.  We only walked about a third of the way before the ground started to become slippery, which was not very comforting given that we were on the lip of a volcanic crater.  I slipped twice, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  My wife noted that spa resorts in Australia, normally charge $80 a pop to slap that much volcanic mud on a backside. 

So we headed back down and spent about three hours in Surabraya before our plane left.  A flash flood hit, and the airport experienced a succession of blackouts, making us a tad nervous as we checked in with our budget airline. 

They seated us next to the emergency exit, and from a darkened cabin I watched water pool on the runway as we waited for our plane to receive permission to take off.  It seemed an endless wait, and we started chatting to the hostess sitting beside us.  She noticed my book, “Malay magic” and immediately, started launching into a ghost story.  Trust me, when your airplane is stuck on a runway during a blackout, the last thing you want to discuss is ‘things that go bump in the middle of the night’.

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