Mount Bromo: feeling tiny, scared, happy and amazed

For someone who is basically afraid of everything, I am proud to say that I climbed to the crater of a live active volcano and it made me feel amazed and amazing.

Indonesia is part of the “ring of fire”, so is vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcano eruptions. I read up about it one morning and was horrified by the risks people take by just living here and how often homes, towns and families are destroyed. For visitors like us I wondered if it was worth putting ourselves in danger to see some beautiful things, but my experience here was so much more than that. There was something about Java and the people that really touched my heart. We, and loads of people like us, are lucky to visit these places and make wonderful memories, and the local people clearly love to welcome us and show us what they are rightfully proud of in their country. So for all of the positive things I took away from this trip, which were immense and overwhelming, it was worth it. It is possible that I’d feel differently about it if we had experienced a natural disaster, but luckily I don’t know the answer to that.

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Mount Bromo is an active volcano near Surabaya (using the word “near” very loosely here). For one of the main attractions in east Java, it is remarkably difficult to organise a trip there independently. There are many tour companies offering very expensive trips, but we feared a repeat of the Cameron Highlands experience and being shuttled around from location to location like a herd of cattle. We did eventually manage to arrange a trip for ourselves with a local guy we met in Surabaya. The cost of getting there and into the national park this way was significantly cheaper than anything else we could find, and the best part was that we could plan our own itinerary and missed the crowds of the sunrise tours. Oh yes, the dreaded sunrise tour again. Why does EVERYONE want us to do sunrise tours?

Presumably the reason is because sunrise at the volcano and surrounding mountains is beautiful. That’s fine and I appreciate that. But everything I read also mentioned hoards of tourists and it being really busy. I know that I’m a tourist too and I’m part of the problem, but I really hate being unable to appreciate something in its natural glory because I’m in crowds of people taking selfies and shoving past each other.

Following the success of our trip to Borobudur at sunset, we decided (against all advice) to go to Mount Bromo for the afternoon and sunset too. This blog is difficult to write because I can’t express in words how special it was and how I felt that day.

It’s a weird landscape, because after climbing (via jeep, not feet) up quite a lot of mountain, you reach a big sandy plain that looks like you’re at ground level and there’s a volcano and some mountains there, but you’re already super high and this doesn’t come across in photographs. After driving up through thick rainforest and lively mountain villages, suddenly it feels like you’re on the moon.

From this sea of sand we went up Mount Pananjakan which is the main lookout spot over the volcano, and then we climbed (on foot this time) up Bromo itself. It’s over 2,300 metres high but not a difficult climb (and you obviously don’t start at sea level). I became a bit breathless close to the top but I think it was due to anxiety and altitude more than physical exertion of the climb. It’s quite terrifying as you begin to hear the ominous bubbling, rumbling sound of the lava and you can see is the smoke gushing out above you. And the smell that we all describe as rotten eggs, although I’m lucky enough to have never encountered a real life rotten egg, so this is speculation on my part.

I actually became quite over excited and hysterical and silly at the top, and tried to video call people to share the experience with them. I took an accidental selfie and I am genuinely laughing an hysterical, mouth-open laugh in it while gazing wide-eyed into the smoke. I thought it was hilarious.

Nobody was available for a video call and that is probably for the best, because it didn’t take long for me to really contemplate where I was, become absolutely terrified, and urgently shuffle my way back down the slopes expecting lava to engulf me at any moment. Every time the bubbling noise stopped, or changed, or the direction of the smoke altered, it is impossible to assume it’s benign, because it might not be.

Somewhere in between those extreme reactions, I had moments of quiet amazement. This was undoubtedly helped by the fact that we were literally the only two people up there. I have seen photos of Bromo at sunrise and it’s just SO jam packed with people, I can’t imagine the atmosphere is the same.

Back on the sandy moon-like plain at the bottom of the crater I relaxed again and felt like I was having an outer body experience as I watched the sky change colour as the sun set, the smoke rising out of the volcano, and then the full moon rise and shine brightly over us. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect set of circumstances and I’m so happy I experienced this night.

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