I had read up a bit on Surabaya prior to the Bromo trip and because it was reputed to be mainly a commercial metropolitan area without many attractions, I had decided to instead head straight for Probolinggo which lies about 45 kilometres from the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park on the North coast of East Java. To get to Probolinggo from Juanda International Airport, I had to board a Damri bus that was heading to Surabaya's Bungurasih bus terminal (also called Purabaya) and board another bus to Probolinggo from there. The Damri bus (pronounced 'bis' in Bahasa Indonesia) just lay outside the airport arrival terminal and the fee only amounted to IDR15k.
Upon reaching Bangurasih I armed myself with a look of determination and urgency and just kept on repeating "Ng gak" whilst shaking my head in order to avoid the touts that were seemingly ubiquitous. Bangurasih itself was not unlike many bus stations in South-East Asia, albeit the fact that the Surabaya buses and the intercity buses were located at different terminals did tend to reduce the chaos somewhat. I managed to find the bus that was heading to Probolinggo fairly quickly although was quoted a price of IDR23k when I inquired as to the cost. I then made a retort indicating that the cost should be about IDR15k instead in which I received a sardonic laugh and wave of the hand to indicate where the bus that I was looking for was located. I initially thought that the laugh was a nervous laugh at the tout having been caught out for trying to overcharge but little did I know that it was to turn out to be more of a "Here is another dumb tourist who has no idea what he is getting himself into"!
The bus that I had been directed to was the 'economy' variant that most of the local East Javanese took that cost a mere IDR15k. The bus (according to me anyway) was practically full when I boarded although I was fortunate enough to get the last unoccupied seat. The seats were arranged in 13 rows with 2 seats on the port side and 3 seats on the starboard side with a full row of 6 right at the back bringing the total to 66 seats. It turned out however that the bus was nowhere near full as more and more passengers boarded throughout the journey. The bus managed to cram another 5-6 passengers near the elevated platform at the gearbox next to the drivers seat as well as a further 15 or so standing along the aisle, amazingly bringing the number of passengers to close to 90!
I was surprised at how fast I got used to the cramped, uncomfortable conditions of the bus. The close proximity and the stares of the other sweaty passengers, the pungent scent of sweat, grime, and vomit mingled together that permeated the air, along with the shuddering rickety frame of the bus made for quite an unpleasant experience as one would undoubtedly expect. Although all of it inundated the senses, I somehow found myself at ease. Sellers of a wide variety of items would periodically board the bus and would somehow manage to navigate through the bus saying "permisi" (excuse me) repeatedly despite the cramped shoulder to shoulder conditions. Most of the time they would just shout out the wares that were being sold, from peanuts to keropok (crackers), and from things as strange as green bars with the label 'Klepon Wahyu Sejati' to packets of utensils such as pairs of scissors and can openers. Some of the sellers would even go to the extent of disrespectfully dropping whatever it was that they were selling onto your lap and on their way back to the front of the bus would collect the pack or the money if one chose to purchase whatever it was instead. We would also on occasion be 'entertained' by musicians and singers that would board the bus, perform and then go around asking for donations with explanations such as it would help them get married, that they would need to make a living doing honest work, or the like. There was one that had a very catchy tune but it was sung in Javanese, so I could not comprehend it despite being able to speak Bahasa Indonesia. The singer in question also seemed to end all his sentences with the suffix "gi".
After a few hours and after passing hundreds of signs saying "Tambal Ban" (tyre repair) - an indicator of the prevalence of motorcycles - the bus reached Probolinggo. Whilst 'santai-ing' at a nearby warung waiting for passengers of the so-called minibus (which was basically a van), a man suddenly ran across the road with what looked to be a shotgun. I was alarmed at first and was actually contemplating my options when I realized that it was just an air gun and that he was targeting one of the birds on a tree just outside the warung. Recordings of Joshua Bell drowned out the drone of the Honda EM1500DX generator (electricity supply to the warung was somewhat irregular) and the book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' by Richard Dawkins helped pass the time. Just as my patience was beginning to wane, the group decided to split the IDR300k amount between the 5 of us (IDR60k each) just so that we could get going.
The 1 hour and a half ride up the misty hills culminated in rain although it turned out to be a short spell that was over by the time we disembarked at Cemero Lawang. The van brought us directly to a home-stay that was supposedly the cheapest place to stay offering IDR150k a night but I was not going to be easily fooled by such a blatant ploy that touts tried to pull off everywhere I went so instead decided to walk around to get my bearings and to see what else this tiny town had to offer. The famous Cafe Lava with their IDR160k rooms turned out to be full but after a short while I managed to find a homestay that asked for IDR75k a night called Tengger Permai. The accommodation was very basic (as one would expect from such a low price) with just a double bed, 2 pillows and a blanket in the room without any air-conditioning or a fan. The temperature (18 degrees) was low enough at this elevation (2109m) so as to not make a fan necessary, although (in my case) it would have been more comfortable with one present.
Path to Pananjakan
I awoke the next morning at 04:00 in order to reach the viewpoint of Mount Pananjakan (elevation : 2770m) before sunrise. The trek up the mountain was somewhat eerie in the dark with only the narrow beam of my small torch lighting the way. I didn't happen upon anyone else who was walking up the trail but did have to step aside on occasion to allow for 'speeda motor' (motorcycles) and 4WD Toyota Land Cruisers (Model J40) to pass by carrying tourists up to the viewing platforms.
The path wound its way up the mountain and passed by several viewing points along the way. I had underestimated the time I had remaining till sunrise as I hadn't taken into consideration the 1 hour time difference between Indonesia and Malaysia. By the time the sun began to rise I had only reached 'Seruni Point' (elevation : 2361m) so decided to stop there. The viewpoint consisted of two rather large concrete platforms that were already filled with large crowds so in order to get a better view, I climbed up on the rooftop of one of the viewing platforms but to my dismay, the view was somewhat obscured by fog that had rolled in.
I came upon two other men who had also climbed up, one from Colombia and the other, Thomas, from France. It turned out that Thomas also had a Gopro that he was using for timelapses so conversation was easily struck up right from the start. Thomas was travelling with a few others and were planning to head to Crater Ijen before making their way to Bali.
The fog cleared up after a while so I proceeded to capture some timelapses of my own of the bestirring views. Mount Semeru would on occasion peak out from the clouds whereas Mount Batok (elevation : 2440m) was easily identified just to the right of Mount Bromo as there was green vegetation, reputed to mainly consist of Casuarina ('Cemara' in Bahasa Indonesia, latin : Casuarina junghuhniana) trees, lining the sides of this non-active volcano. Mount Bromo (elevation : 2392m) itself stole the show as it was constantly emitting white sulphurous smoke from its blown-off top. The sheer size of the massive Tengger caldera, with a diameter of approximately 10 km, was also apparent from here along with the very obvious 'Laut Pasir' (Sea of Sand) of volcanic sand that surrounded these volcanoes.
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Only on the way down did I realize that the trail that I had previously taken in the dark was particularly scenic with small huts dotting the farmland surrounded by large swaths of land growing local produce. The small huts almost seemed to be a throwback to agricultural times with an anachronism that seem to have survived the unyielding march of modern technology.
The local Tenggerese themselves, a Hindu community believed to be descendants of Majapahit royalty, all seemed to wear what upon first glance seemed to be shawls around their necks but were in actual fact just sarungs that they used as a blankets when the temperature started to drop. I also saw these sarungs being used by mothers to support their babies on their backs as well as by older women who used them to wrap items when they were carried from one place to another. They all seemed very friendly and would wave to me as I passed and would often greet me as I passed them on the path. Once again I didn't notice any other tourists making the trek back to Cemero Lawang and had either left earlier or had taken a 4WD jeep or a speeda back.
I made my way back to the small warung that I had frequented previously for my well-overdue daily dose of caffeine. I met two local men there who struck up a conversations with me and were somewhat surprised when they found out that I was travelling alone, remarking "berani!" (brave!) as if they found it to be aberrant in some way. They also had assumed that I had a background in the military for some reason that I could not fathom. Was it perhaps the fact that I had a shaved head or maybe because I dressed almost entirely in black?
My racial ambiguity also seemed to confuse everyone that I met as they would always presuppose that I was a Caucasian but doubt would quickly overcome them when I would begin to speak to them in Bahasa Indonesia. On several occasions I was tempted to blurt out something along the lines of "I am the product of the act of miscegenation", an urge likely to be influenced by the book that I was currently reading, 'The Greatest Show on Earth', a book on Evolution by Dr. Richard Dawkins.
The Tengger Caldera
After a short post-lunch nap, I made my way down the Tengger caldera via one of the trails that was obviously frequently used by horses. Lying in between the town of Cemero Lawang and Mount Bromo lies 'Segara Wedi' (Sea of Sand in Javanese) or 'Laut Pasir' in Bahasa Indonesia which is a huge expanse of fine black volcanic sand that is barren and almost completely devoid of vegetation. Crossing this large expanse of sand left an eerie feeling that was all-encompassing, almost as if it permeated the air.
The caldera was originally a stratovolcano that had been built up by a succession of pyroclastic deposits and lava flows apparently to a height of about 4500m. The stratovolcano apparently collapsed after a massive eruption around 45,000 years ago, forming the current caldera. Mount Batok is the youngest of the six intra-caldera vents although Mount Bromo is the only one that is currently active.
As I made my way across the caldera, I came upon the austere Poten Hindu temple (Pura Luhur Poten), made more impressive with Mount Batok looming behind it, apparently only open at specific times of the year. The Tenggerese here worship Ida Sang Hyang Widi Wasa (Big Almighty Lord), along with the Trimurti gods (Siwa, Brahma and Visnu). I made my way past the temple and veered east towards Mount Bromo, passing by local Tenggerese who had either set up stalls selling food and drinks or bouquets of Edelweiss flowers. They shouted "Tradisi! Tradisi!" and hoped that you would purchase the flowers in order to throw them into the volcano. There were also horses ready for tourists who found the trek difficult. The only portion that the unfit may deem strenuous would be the yellow stairwell that lead up to the viewing platform on the rim of Mount Bromo, that consisted of about 250 steps. The horses would not have been able to go up the steps anyhow.
The roiling thunderclouds rumbled in the distance as I made my way up the stairs and upon reaching the top, I immediately noticed the pungent smell of sulphur that permeated the air. The miasmic sulphur was so potent that it ended up agitating one's throat and left some of the other tourists in coughing fits, somewhat akin to the effects of the organosulphur compounds that can be found in teargas.
As I was taking shots for 360 degree panoramas, two men approached me to strike up a conversation. I found the conversation somewhat amusing as one of the men ended up asking about the mountains in Malaysia and smiled proudly when he was told that there were no prominent volcanoes there but frowned disappointingly when he was told that Mount Kinabalu was higher than any of the mountains in Java.
Shortly after, I excused myself and began to make my way around the rim of Bromo in a clockwise direction. I risked the circumnavigation despite the obvious precarious nature of the fine volcanic sand (that just crumbled beneath your feet) as not doing so would have just left me with a sense of regret. The journey became more perilous the further I went but the obvious photo opportunities that lay in wait on the other side spurred me on.
I ended up going quite slowly at first as the slightest misstep would spell my demise but picked up pace the more comfortable I became and the further i progressed. I was pleasantly surprised upon reaching the other end of the rim as I was greeted by yet another crater that adjoined Bromo that had green vegetation lining its sides. This crater was home to the intra-caldera vent of Segarawedi Lor. There was a stone marker at the highest point that provided one of the best viewpoints so far and the fact that the place was completely devoid of other people also helped.
There was a point where I was a little preoccupied taking photographs when I heard a siren in the distance. This caused me to hurry to the platform to start my descent as I had assumed that it was some sort of warning due to an increase in seismic activity in the area. In my haste however, the trekking pants that I had purchased in Kathmandhu began to rip due to the long strides that I was taking and the tear became larger with every stride. The tear ultimately ran from my left knee all the way up to my groin which lent fresh meaning to the phrase 'felt a breeze'! I decided to make my descent using a less conventional route across the sand dunes in order to avoid a repeat of the embarrassed giggles of the girls that I had previously passed.
Whilst walking through the erosion valleys on the North flank of Bromo (where the dunes are suddenly transmogrified into canyons), I realized that the poncho that I always carried with me but had never used may have a purpose after all. I also realized there and then that with my trekking pants completely obliterated and my SD card for the GoPro full, the Ijen Crater would have to wait for another time.
The canyons gradually made way for the vast plain expanse of sand once again where I was able to join up the the trails left by the speedas. The trail lead me up to a straight road that cut up across the ridge leading back up to Cemero Lawang. the road was lined with trees that consisted of a mixture of more Casuarina trees (Casuarina junghuhniana, 'Cemara' in Bahasa Indonesia), Acacia trees (Acacia decurrens, 'Wartel' in Bahasa Indonesia), and some dead husks.
The town of Cemero Lawang appeared at the end of the road and ravenous, I went searching for my regular warung eager for something satiating.
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Back to Probolinggo
The next morning I visited the regular warung for one last time before heading back down to Probolinggo. As I was eating my 'Nasi Campur Ayam' (Mixed rice with chicken), one of the more distinctive regulars came in. He was an elderly man with dark, weathered skin and bushy, wild, uncombed hair. He always seemed to wear the same clothes - a beaten dark brown old batik sarong with a shawl wrapped around his shoulders - and would always give me a happy grin whenever he saw me and when he did so, his eyes would disappear behind wrinkles and he would expose a mouth that would have been completely devoid of teeth had it not been for the two isolated teeth on each side of his mouth.
The minibus (which was really a van) was easy enough to board as one would only have to wait at the side of the road and the van would just drive around picking up passengers. Even locals would board the van from time to time, mostly elderly farmer women with scarves tied up like bandanas carrying huge baskets of vegetables and other produce. Redolent of my trek back down Mount Pananjakan, the trip down the mountain to Probolinggo seemed especially scenic as the ride up had been undertaken under the cover of darkness.
The little houses that dotted the side of the windy road before Wonotoro were a unique sight in itself as they were built on what looked like huge platforms or steps cut or built into the mountain slope to counteract the inclination of the road and to keep the house level. The houses were also surrounded by plantations in their small compounds and had gorgeous backdrops of the sweeping vistas of the misty hills just behind them. The Tenggerese language (which was incomprehensible to me despite being able to speak Bahasa Indonesia) filled the van as it made its way down the narrow road that wound through the misty hills.
The journey was made even more interesting with the things that the van passed on the side of the road. There were instances of old topless women with droopy breasts walking alongside the road past stalls selling ornaments made from Edelweiss flowers as well as speedas (motorbikes) whizzing by, one speeda even carrying another speeda on it's back! The van would on occasion have to stop at the side of the narrow road to let other vehicles pass and on one occasion I astonishingly glimpsed a young boy, perhaps as young as 10 years old, peering over the dashboard as he navigated the jeep that he was driving through the tight squeeze skillfully.
The fog seemed to get more dense the lower we went and was unnerving at points as hairpin turns with steep drops down the side of the mountain would suddenly emerge out of the fog along with brief glimpses of the ghostly visage of the treeline in the distance. The van kept on stopping to pick up more passengers and by the time it was well on its way, they had somehow managed to squeeze 17 passengers along with around 8 large (possibly 70cm in diameter) wicker baskets into the van! The van dropped me off at the Probolinggo bus station where a bus was about ready to depart for Surabaya where I would be catching my flight home! That's another one for my Bucket List!
*I only spent a total of IDR415k for the 2 days that I was visiting Bromo (Food & drinks IDR130k, accommodation IDR150k, transport IDR135k). The return flight cost MYR148 (IDR527k) bringing the total cost for the trip to IDR942k (MYR265).