Saturday, June 18, 2011

East Java Volcanoes

Standing on the rim  of Mt. Bromo

I am currently in Kota Bharu, Malaysia (and so am already a week behind in posts!)

One of the places I really wanted to see in Indonesia was a group of volcanoes in East Java.  I’d been told in Jakarta by a man that he thought the volcanoes were off limits due to recent activity and I took him at his word.  I also learned that it was hard to get there by train because you often arrived into Pobolinggo too late to get a shuttle up the mountain.   The folks at the Green Garden suggested another option-there was a tour option that only cost 400,000 IDR (and an additional supplement of 75,000 since I was traveling solo).  That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s only a little over $50 which included about 600 km of driving and then jeep travel to the place where you start climbing, plus overnight lodging and a breakfast (fried rice and egg).   The tour operator was Nirwana Tour and Transport.   They had to have three people to make the run, so I added my name on the list, not sure if the trip would be a go.  When I got back from the Sultan Palace, I learned that it was on, so I began to collect my things for my next day’s journey.

I had breakfast with Courtney, the only other guest left at the B&B.  She was leaving later in the day for Bali.  At 8 AM, the appointed time, I had my stuff downstairs and ready to go.  And then I waited.   I was told that they were picking up other guest first, so I didn’t worry.  Then the van arrived and I was the first one.  I got on board with a guy who didn’t speak any English and we rode and rode and there were no other guest.  I was getting ready to see that this was going to be an adventure.  Then, when we got out by Prambanan Temples, he stopped and talk to someone in Indonesian, then went somewhere else and talked some more, and the make a u-turn (that was exciting) and stopped a third time.  Two women got on (we each had our own seat).  Then he drove on toward Surabaya and Probolinggo. 

Our driver must have been in training as a kamikaze pilot.  I have seen some crazy driving in my life, but nothing even in Central America could compare to this guy whose temperament was down-right suicidal.  The road was almost always two lanes (which meant four—two each direction for motor scooters and two for cars and buses.  Our driver made a fifth lane for his out-of-controlled van.  With one hand he steered, with another he honked and somehow he also managed to shift gears.  He’d pull out without nearly enough room (and in one case a gas truck  approaching, beeping his horn and gunning the engine and flashing his lights, assuming everyone was going to get out of his way.  They did (otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this).  It was the craziest driving I’ve experienced in my life.  It had been around 10 AM, when we picked up the two women and we didn’t stop until 2:30.  He pointed to a restaurant and with his hands indicated we had 20 minutes, just enough time for some noodles.  Then we were back in the van (we stopped for gas and got to go to the bathroom in traditional bathroom setting (no, not the traditional Asian squat toilet, but a place where you went on the floor with a drain).  They had a dipper in a container of water which you were to clean yourself (I had tissues, but I didn’t need to do that which is more than you needed to know).  As soon as you were done a man came in and cleaned up everything and the wasted was piled up in a corner to be hauled away…  At least (and you’ll have to take my word for it), it was clean.

The two women were from the Ukraine.  One of them spoke perfect English and was living in Beijing.  The other spoke only broken English (I’d love to know what some of her words were when our driver was making us our very own lane through traffic).   I wish I had the time for I’d have enjoyed their trek to Mt.  Semeru.  They kept trying to get me to come (that way, the guide cost would be split three ways and it would have only been another $30) but I didn’t have the time to fit the trip in and ensure that I was back in Jakarta in time for my flight.  We got into Probolinggo around 8 PM and transferred to another minivan.  A few more joined us for the trip to the top of the mountain (two Germans and a guy from Prague whom had taken the “hard seat” economy train from Jakarta—18 hours on a wooded seat and with no air conditioning.  But it only cost 20 bucks, and he swore his butt will never be the same).  We drove for another hour, arriving at a small village on the top of the mountain at around 9:30 PM.   I got a bowl of fried rice for dinner and went to bed, knowing that there would be a knock on my door at 3 AM.  Sure enough, there was…
Mt. Bromo with Hindu Temple at base

The next morning, I was placed into a jeep with people I’d never seen before and couldn’t see in the predawn of morning.  We drove a ways then started going up a very steep grade (it must have averaged at least 20%).  Finally, we got to a parking area and were told to follow a guy on the last kilometer or so up a steep switch-backed trail.  Along the way, locals were there with horses offering to carry us to the top.  Few were availing themselves of such services.  We got to the top view area and it looked like there were clouds or a fog bank on the far side of the mountain.  The stars overhead were bright and another guy (who I didn’t know) and I tried to find the Southern Cross, but no such luck.  Gradually, the stars faded and light came.  The clouds across the mountain turned out to be smoke from Bromo.  We were treated to the most beautiful sunrise on what had been the lip of a huge caldera (10 km across) that now contains at least three volcanoes.  Only Bromo was constantly spewing smoke.  Every twenty minutes, Mt.  Semeru would send up a puff. 

Two volcanoes spewing smoke
The local people had set up shop and there was coffee and various snacks.  As it was cold (as cold as it gets in Indonesia, but then this was nearly 3000 meters), I enjoyed a cup of Javanese coffee (it’s a fine power and is naturally sweet). 
Coffee sellers

Hindu Temple

After sunrise, we headed back to the jeeps (we were told to be there around 8 AM) and were then driven to a point closer to Bromo.  We parked out by a Hindu temple that was still being cleaned up from a recent eruption, walked a couple of kilometers that ended with a climb of the mountain.  They’d built steps up its wall, but they were no longer usable as ash had covered them and only the railings could be seen, sticking out a foot or so from the ash.  It is the most amazing thing to climb a mountain that is spewing forth so much smoke.  The ash was a greenish yellow (probably containing a lot of sulfur) and it smelled.  The climb was steep, but only took a few minutes, and then we were able to peer into an entry of hell.  You couldn’t see the lava, but the volcano had a sound to it that sounded like surf breaking on rocks.  Occasionally, the smoke would shift enough that you could see further down into the hole.  I continually shot photos of the action.  In many ways, it wasn’t the safest place to be as the ash was unstable and it wouldn’t have taken much to have slide down inside and once you hit the hole, you’d drop right in.

A view into hell
A crowd on the rim

Afterwards, we were taken back to the hotel and given an hour to eat breakfast and to clean up for the ride back to west.  In daylight, we could see how everything was covered in ash.  As we drove off the mountain, we could see villages that had taken a huge hit from the recent eruption (some places got enough ash to collapse buildings and fields had to be re-established).  Yet, the area is very fertile.  There is not much rice grown up this high, but all kinds of vegetables as well as tobacco and corn.   When we got back to the bottom of the mountain, we were transferred to another van for the ride east.  This time, the van was filled with people and backpacks (2 Germans, 2 Swiss, 2 Spanish and one lone American).  Our driver was a different one, much more timid and I began to wonder if I would ever get to Solo, where I was dropped off at the bus station to catch a bus to Salatiga to see the son of a friend. 
Fertile Ground


  1. Well....first off...I have to say you are an adventurer. I was thinking during your ride thought would have been just HOW I was going to get back(if I made it there in the 1st place). I may have tried to run down instead;))
    I would have lost years off my life on that ride.
    Your view on the top of that volcano was incredible...and crazy! WHAT were you thinking?!?!;))
    Just beautiful- all of it.
    (ummm...except the bathroom)
    Your trip sounds Incredible!!!!

  2. Wow, this is just incredible! What amazing places...I'll add them to my list of places to see immediately! :)

  3. Sounds like you're having some quite fantastic experiences with people and sights. I like the volcano pics.

  4. That bus ride sounds harrowing! I'm really enjoying reading all this, Jeff.

  5. I have to say you are an adventurer. I was thinking during your ride there.
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