Climbing Mount Bromo in Java, Indonesia
Birthdays. When you are a child they mean candy, cake and toys. In your teens and twenties they mean parties champagne, nightclubs and vampire weekends. Once you start staring down the barrel of 40, they begin to stink of mortality and the inevitability of the passage of time. Some, when this barrier is reached, choose to ignore the annual ritual for a while, others go on benders to prove they still can and everyone revels in the Facebook wishes from people they barely know. This year for the first time, I hit that age which is no longer early thirties and more like pushing forty. It was a bit of a shock, it just sneaks up on you. Am I right?
Surely, it was only yesterday, groups of us were piling into mini buses for what seemed like milestone 30th birthday bashes. Well, as peoples fortieth birthdays start to roll around so does the thunderous realisation that time really is the master of us all. We are all going to die, time is limited and we better get on with it. So, I have devised a means of dealing with birthdays other than ignoring them, which I tried for a while, its a simple formula:
A: Take the day off work
B. Do something to create a 'Life Memory'
This year I opted for a long weekend in Indonesia hiking up a live volcano, somthing I have always wanted to do. Indonesia is a fascinating place, it is comprised of multiple Islands and regions each with their own unique cultures, traditions and geographies. Much of Java sits eith on or near the ring of fire meaning lots of volcanic activity. There are plenty of volcanoes to choose from, some more challenging to climb than others. Bromo is the most accessible, (relatively) yet the most spectacular sight.
It is one of three sister volcanoes situated on a vast flat barren volcanic plain known as the sea of sand, and is a eerie and otherworldly kind of place. I flew into Juaranda airport and hopped a taxi for a good four hour drive high up into the mountains. its a fascinating journey. Indonesia like much of south east Asia does not do Urban very well. Squalor and filth seem to be the general theme, although vibrant life and culture clearly thrives none the less. For me though it is not until you get out into the country that you get a real feel for Java. Small villages with tin pot shops, road side street food stalls and surprising scenes appear as you drive along. As we progressed ever higher up the mountain road I was agog to see a man cycling along carrying the full frame of a dinner table strapped to his bike. it looked as if he was actually cycling a dinner table. It was a Monty Pythonesque scene, and I never thought I would see anything like it again. One hour later in another village, a man pedalled serenely past us in the exact same fashion. After a four hour meander through towns, villages and eventually farmland we landed high in the mountains at Java Banana Lodge. The lodge is the fanciest place to stay near Bromo, it has its own art gallery, hot showers and great coffee and food, Its really close to Bromo and accessible in 10 minutes by motor bike or jeep.
We arrived close to 4pm and the entire place was shrouded in cloud. This I learned was a daily occurrence. I was there in January, a great time to go, IF you are willing to wake up super early to visit the volcano.
The sunrise over Bromo and its sister volcanoes is spectacular. I can assure you of this due to the photos I have seen. I chose not to rise at 3 AM to join the hundreds of other tourists on day trips to see the best sunrise on the planet. I get it that certain things are wondeful and “the best on the planet” However all the great sights are easily ruined if you have to share them with hundreds of other people jostling for position to snap photos on their camera phones, I elected to sleep in until 5.30AM, hop in a jeep and hit for the viewpoint after sunrise. The cloud had lifted and the incredible location of Java Banana was revealed. It is high in the mountains surrounded by the most beautifully symmetrically tilled farmland and nestled in a neat as a pin Tenneger village. I grabbed a stupendous coffee from the kitchen staff and I boarded a jeep with a local Tennegerese guide and hit for the Bromo viewing point. I had it ALL to myself, other than a rather forlorn softs drinks vendor and my lovely driver. I had a good half hour of silence ovelooking the spectacular view, no pushing or shoving….Just The View. To the forefront, a bereft volcano devoid of life, to its side, Bromo, which blew its own top off and frequently terrorises the locals and to the back, the youngest of them all, alive and angry waiting to explode at any time.
After a serene while at the main viewing point, my driver pointed out that the clouds were coming in. Through sign language and gestures, we established that we needed to high-tail it to the base of Bromo in order to climb it before we were shrouded in cloud again. We drove with no regard for life, limb or other people down the mountainside, and he deposited me on the sea of sands. The sea of sands is a vast flat moonscape like plain which was comprised of volcanic ash as a result of multiple eruptions. The sulphur in the ash does not allow anything to grow so its a barren landscape bereft of vegetation. the driver waved me off to walk the 2kilometres or so to the base of Bromo and ascend the 300 odd steps to the brim of the sulphurous, steaming, gaping caldera. I was fully clad for this trek, hiking boots, safari pants, SPF 50 and water. Around me, Indonesians in flip flops, mini skirts, what appeard to be club wear and sandals also toiled up the side of the mountain. This is not a challenging trek, however NOR is it one to do with flip flops. I did feel a bit silly with all the gear on. in the end though, it was I who had the last laugh. As I made it to the top of the caldera, I caught the view of the gaping maw of the crater. Locals still throw animal sacrifices in the crater once a year to appease the gods, and it does not surprise me. Living in the shadow of something as mighty as Bromo that could erupt at any time and rain down fiery death upon your house would prompt me to do the same.
This is Mother Nature at its very best. As you watch the crater spewing forth sulpherous gas from the very bowels of the earth itself S£it gets real, real fast. As this is Indonesia, safety is not exactly top of mind, so you can tootle along the edge of the caldera which has no barriers at all. Honestly, one slip and you would slide into the mouth of the thing and never be heard from again. I kept picking up stones and throwing them down the slope just to see if they would stumble to a halt at any time, they didn't, they all just slid over the edge increasing in speed as they rolled down the slope.
All the day-trippers in flip flops congregate at the top of the steps so there is a bit of a bottleneck, Top Tip: take a left and hike along the edge, you can go all the way around the caldera. Most people don't venture that way I was the only person doing so, and if you have the right kit like I did I ha Ha Ha! The cold and terrain won't bother you. It is chilly and windy up at the top. The view from there is an unforgettable one, the landscape is primeval and raw, like nothing you will ever see anywhere else. However, your time is limited, those clouds do roll in at about 10 AM each day, the valley creates a microclimate and visibility drops to 5 feet this makes picking your way along the knife edge of the caldera even more life affirming..
I loved it so much I went back again for another hike the next day. This time rather than rent a death defying jeep, I hopped on the back of a motor bike with a speed freak death wish driver. I managed to ascend in time enough to hike all the way around the Caldera before the clouds rolled in, it was life affirming. On the way back as we sped the sea of sand through the eerie mists and as I clung to the driver for dear life, all thoughts of Birthdays, the passage of time were whipped away into the mists. At least until next year……
The Verdict: Bucket List, do it
The Damage: You can high or low ball it, I went for Java Banana, but you can rough it in more basic accomodation