Throughout Indonesia, the landscape is constantly being shaped and shifted by volcanic activity. Louise Molyneux recounts her trip up one of the 45 active volcanoes on the island of Java and marvels at the immense power that mother nature displays, even in quiet times.
As a geologist, albeit a petroleum one, standing on a live volcano was high on my bucket list. Apparently I am not alone – Mount Bromo, the showpiece of the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park is among the most-visited tourist attractions in East Java. Regularly classified as “restless”, this active cone inside the ancient 10km-wide Tengger caldera constantly belches white sulphurous smoke. Despite the smell, which really is only offensive when you stand on the lip of Bromo’s crater – the entire top of the volcano having been blown off – and eruption activity as recently as 2011, Mount Bromo remains a popular destination because of its accessibility.
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The most convenient access point is Surabaya, which receives multiple direct flights daily from Kuala Lumpur and all over Indonesia. From here, it is a 150-km drive to the park, about three to four hours. Depending on your sense of adventure, you can either make the trip by public bus or private vehicle. With two young children in tow, we opted for the latter. The first half of the drive, which was on the highway, alternated between mind-numbingly boring and life-in-your-hands terrifying. Javanese highways, crammed with ramshackle cars, hordes of motorbikes, and enormous lorries stirring up thick clouds of dust and discharging visible fumes from their exhausts, have a sense of wild disorder we don’t often see in Malaysia. However, the steep fertile slopes of the volcano that followed made for a beautiful, winding ascent through intensively hand-cultivated farmland. Every inch of space is tended, so much so that in some places, an area of only one square kilometre is responsible for feeding up to 2,000 people.
It is possible to overnight in any number of modest hotels along the route – Sukapura and Ngadisari villages have the most comfortable accommodation – or on the edge of the caldera in Cemara Lawang, which is what we chose. Lava View Lodge was basic and staffed with friendly villagers, their wide smiles conveying the welcome they struggled to express in English. With sunrise at about 5.30am we received a 3.30am wake-up call in order to get to a viewpoint in time to see it. The options are to hike or to hire a jeep and driver (275,000 Rp, or just under RM80, for four people).
Most people seemed to opt for the jeep, which in itself is an adventure: an hour bombing across the bumpy floor of the caldera, the headlights searching out the dusty tyre tracks from previous mornings, a succession of vehicles moving like fireflies in the wind. There are two main viewpoints; choose depending on your tolerance for other visitors. Mount Penanjakan (Viewpoint #1), 3km west and 400m above Mount Bromo is a large concrete area accessed by paved road lined with stalls selling hot drinks and temptingsmelling snacks. Viewpoint #2 is a 6-km, 90-minute walk from Cemara Lawang.
Standing in the 5°C pre-dawn cold at Viewpoint #1 the sense of the impending dawn was overwhelming. Mother Nature is in charge and she will not wait for you if you are late! Even surrounded by dozens of other tourists, cameras beeping and flashing in succession, the quiet is astounding, the enormity of the world in full view. The panoramic view, with Bromo’s crater in the foreground overshadowed by the mighty Semeru, Java’s highest peak at 3,676m, is truly breathtaking. It is no wonder that the postcard photos were taken from here.
The adventure did not end here. The jeep tour headed back down into the caldera and across the Sea of Sand that we had been unable to see as we drove across it pre-dawn, the vast expanse of dark, volcanic sand utterly devoid of vegetation. Stopping at the end of a long line of other jeeps beside Pura Luhur Poten, a Hindu temple at the foot of Mount Bromo, we chose the walk over the horse ride through what seemed a timeless moonscape to reach a flight of 250 concrete steps up to the edge of the crater. It was dry and dusty, the air temperature rising rapidly as the sun made its ascent into a cloudless sky above the barren landscape.
This area is home to one of the few Hindu communities left on Java, which seems appropriate as even the name Bromo is derived from the Javanese pronunciation of Brahma, the Hindu creator god. If you time your visit to coincide with the 14th day of the Hindu lunar month of Kasada, you can witness the indigenous Tenggerese people celebrating the festival of Yadnya Kasada by throwing offerings of food, flowers, and livestock into the caldera of the volcano. This ritual stems from a 15th-century legend in which the mountain god granted many children to a childless couple, on the condition that they threw their lastborn into the volcano as a sacrifice. As the story goes, when they were unable to keep this promise, the volcano erupted and swallowed the child. Today’s offerings are believed to appease the god.
Balancing on a narrow ledge at the top of the steps, we looked down into the smoke desperately trying to find its point of origin. Trusting that the volcanologists have it right with their careful monitoring, yet ever mindful that there would be no time to run if Bromo decided to cough out a bit more, we retreated back to the jeeps. It was humbling to realise that Mother Nature held us utterly in the palm of her hand; at that moment, we would have been defenceless against her force.
Having had a day’s worth of adventure before 9:00am and having purchased the only available souvenir – a synthetic knitted hat with BROMO emblazoned on it – it was time to leave this oasis and head back to reality. The drive down the volcano gave us time to reflect on the delicate balance between the 600,000 people who live on its slopes, making their living from the rich volcanic soil, and the reality that it will certainly erupt again, as it has many times before, showing us once more who is boss. Despite continuous monitoring by the Indonesian Volcanological Survey, who do close the area when activity increases, the damage done to vegetation, and therefore these people’s livelihood, by falling ash can never be prevented. Ultimately though, the mineral-rich ash nourishes and fertilizes the soil, a principal reason that an island of Java’s size is able sustain such a staggering human population: indeed, over 143 million people call this volatile and volcanic island home.
If you have the opportunity to visit Mount Bromo, grab it and capture the moment in your heart. When the volcano erupts again, it will change its appearance, perhaps beyond recognition.. making a trip here quite possibly a true once-in-a lifetime experience.
Source: The Expat Magazine April 2014
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