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.

Next stop, Surabaya!

I’m going to start this post with some basic geography. This is not my picture, but I googled it and it amazes me. Indonesia compared to Europe:

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HUGE! Java is the relatively small island stretching out across the south of France in that image, and this island alone has over 141 million people (the UK only has about 66 million). Surabaya is in Java and is the second biggest city in Indonesia, which means it’s absolutely massive. We decided to travel there by train. Choo choo! All aboard the Surabaya express!

Ok, it wasn’t an express, but it was a train and it took 4 and a half hours from Yogyakarta. I  love long train journeys so was pretty excited about this, and it turned out to be even more fun than expected.

The station at Jogja is hectic and when a train pulled in, at the exact time our train was due, at the exact platform where it was due, we were told not to get on, because it wasn’t our train. We were pretty sure it was our train but have learned to trust people more than official schedules by now. They were right, our train actually appeared about 20 minutes later, but I’m not sure how we would have worked that out if I hadn’t kept asking people. It wasn’t announced or displayed anywhere. Anyway, I bounced on board prepared for some chill time with my kindle and some podcasts at the ready, but bringing my own entertainment wasn’t necessary. The train had comfy seats, more leg room than I’d ever need, and they were showing episodes of what I assumed to be the Indonesian Thomas the Tank on screens. And that’s not even the best part. They also served food, but we didn’t have to walk to the carriage serving it like schmucks. No no no. Just whatsapp them with your order and they’ll come and serve you at your seat! One of the big differences between Indonesia and Malaysia is that fewer people speak English here, and we can get out of our depth trying to communicate in Bahasa Indonesian. So sometimes Google Translate still makes me LOL hysterically on a train while trying to order a hot chocolate:

Surabaya itself is underrated in my opinion. Even taxi drivers and people we met there said if someone asks what there is to do in Surabaya, they say “nothing”. But it’s just not true! It’s definitely a good place to go if you’re interested in Indonesian history. The museums are a little bit weird, like the cigarette factory that for some reason inserts a small section on the evolution of man itself into the story of the evolution of the tobacco trade. This was the House of Sampoerna, which was genuinely an interesting place to spend a few hours learning about the man who started this business, his rags to riches story, the evolution of man (of course) and the tobacco trade, and you can see the workers still packing the cigarettes in the working factory today. It even inspired me to take up smoking (not really).

Another point of interest is the Heroes Monument, which celebrates Indonesian independence with some serious attitude. ALLIED FORCES GO AWAY! Fair enough.

Speaking of allied forces, the museum at the monument mainly focuses on the Battle of Surabaya, fought between Indonesian independence fighters and the… British. Knowing that Indonesia was a Dutch colony, this greatly confused me. What the hell were the British doing there? And why did I have to say I was from the UK to the girl at the door? How embarrassing. The museum does a great job of casually celebrating child soldiers who fought for Indonesia and also not explaining what the British were doing there in the first place. I assume most people would also know that this was a Dutch colony and be confused by the context surrounding this battle, but we had to resort to our own online research to get a proper explanation (and it still doesn’t make much sense, but that’s certainly not Indonesia’s fault).

My favourite story from this museum was the story of the flag (you can take the girl out of Northern Ireland…etc.) Some young fighters climbed on top of the Yamato Hotel in Surabaya, took down the Dutch flag, ripped off the blue strip at the bottom, and hoisted it up again as the Indonesian flag (the remaining red and white stripes). Although it seems like the red and white flag was used before this by an old 13th century empire in Java, the ripping of the Dutch flag still happened, and I love the symbolism.

Other interesting things to do include the Arab quarter, where you can buy all the dates and Muslim fashion you’d ever dream of, sunset by the harbour, Chinese and Hindu temples, and some rooftop bars. I thought it was a pretty cool city with a nice vibe. We made a bunch of friends too which really made our experience a bit more special, although it’s basically impossible to not make friends here as the people are ridiculously nice. By the way, if you’re getting bored with me just loving everything and having a great time, sit tight. It doesn’t last. But can I get a WOOP WOOP for Surabaya (and these explicit Neanderthals from the cigarette factory)?