Bromo: notes from a volcano

So when I told my friends I was going to climb a volcano, it turns out I was overstating the ‘climb’ part.

After all, Gunung (Mount) Bromo is a Javanese tourist destination and recreational exercise isn’t really a big thing here. Whether shopping or volcano hopping, the aim is generally to get the vehicle as close to the intended destination as possible. Why anyone would walk for fun is a mystery.

The driver of our jeep – the only cars fit for the mountainous, lava-scarred landscape in the Bromo Tengger Semuru National Park — explains apologetically that after he parks we’ll have to walk a few hundred metres then up 250 stairs before we get to the crater of the famous, sulphuric smoke-spewing Bromo.

There are even horses to help make the arduous journey — ‘jauh’ ‘jauh’ (‘far’ ‘far’) the horsehandlers sing out as they try to get us to take their horse — but we reckon we can handle the distance on foot.

We made the trip to Bromo early on a Sunday morning, prime time for local tourists, so most of the many hundreds of people sharing the path to Bromo with us from the surrounding Indonesian cities of Malang and Surabaya.

Fitness is not a status symbol here — a refreshing change from our own national parks — no-one is geared up and elbowing past at unnatural pace. Instead, people pant theatrically at to the rest stops thoughtfully placed every 50 steps, laughing and exclaiming ‘capai!’ — ‘tired!’ I love them.

The stairs are well worth it, with an astonishing view straight down Bromo’s crater from the top. Thick white smoke billows out, the smell of sulphur is engulfing. It is a very weird feeling to be a wrong step away from sliding into a smoking crater! While Bromo permanently smokes, it has significant eruptions sometimes too — the last in 2010 — it was closed to tourists for much of that year.

At one point there are offerings on the side of the crater — bananas, rice, flowers. If you’ve been to Bali you’d recognise the offerings. The villagers who live at the top of the mountainside around Bromo are Hindu. As you drive up the mountain it’s like there’s an altitudinal dividing line — Hindu above, Muslim below. Bromo is very significant for the local Hindus who hold regular ceremonies there (apparently a few chickens make the sacrificial journey down the crater) — but it’s revered by all Indonesians — Presidents Soekarno and Suharto were both said to come to Bromo for spiritual refreshment.

And really, it’s easy to see why. To be up close to the earth breathing fire (smoke at least) is a powerful thing.

Our day started well before the trip to the crater. The tourist routine here is to travel at an ungodly hour to a special viewing site on a neighbouring mountaintop (Pananjakan) and watch the sun rise over Bromo and the surrounding landscape.

To that end we left Surabaya at 10pm, drove til 1pm to the mountain village of Probolinggo, slept for an hour then got into a jeep that drive us for an hour to the viewing site.

At 3am we were in place and could bags a place on the wooden benches thoughtfully built forexactly this purpose — but by sunrise at 5am the place was packed with hundreds and hundreds of people. Maybe 1000. The atmosphere was terrific, like waiting for the New Years Eve fireworks in Sydney but without the drunken obnoxiousness.

I was being positive, though I did wonder how a sunrise could be ‘that’ amazing. Really. But I was astonished when the sun came up. It was the best reveal ever. Bromo sits there smoking away in the middle of this incredible ancient-looking landscape, like something from the land of the dinosaurs, surrounded by other weird volcanic structures and all in the middle of the caldera from an ancient volcano, filled with black sand and mist.

And the throng just made it more fun. Forget Bali, Bromo is perhaps the most popular tourist destination for Indonesians — family groups, students, all sorts of people hadmade the trek. Even a couple of young Indonesians with big glasses and ironic grandpa jackets — hipsters! There is really no escape.

Once the sun came up there was a frenzy of photo-taking, jostling for position to get photos from the front, comedy group photos — girls flinging their arms out movie star style, the boys favouring thumbs up and peace signs. Photos with me as token novelty whitey. And an hour or two later the procession of jeeps and motorbikes to the crater starts. And then it starts over the next day, and the next.

I’m not into the bucket list thing, it seems too much like tempting fate to me. And even if I’d had one, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to put visiting Bromo on there. But it felt like an important thing, I’m glad I saw Bromo in my time on this Earth.