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Breathless at Mount Bromo

High up in the mountains of East Java, the village of Cemoro Lawang is a far cry from the heat and humidity of the island’s north coast. We are here a quarter after six on a Sunday night, searching for dinner along one of its two streets laid out in a Y-shaped pattern along the rim of the Tengger Caldera. Below our feet the ground is coated in a thin layer of fine volcanic dust, a sign of the active volcano residing on its doorstep.

Bama is my translator, guide and travel companion, but most of all he’s a teman dekat – a close friend. Swinging open the low stable-like door to a green clapboard house, he calls out into the empty but brightly-lit restaurant. In the next room a family has settled down to watch TV. With a shout the grandmother emerges from the back, wearing a flowing brown dress patterned with red and green highlights. Bama orders us two bowls of soto ayam – spicy chicken soup – and two glasses of hot tea. From the kitchen we hear an audible chop, chop, chop before discerning the sound – and smell – of spices being thrown into the pan. We take refuge from the cold night air, sipping on fragrant teh manis, infused with sugar and the taste of honey.

On the road from Surabaya we had passed rows of red tiled roofs, punctuated by the glittering domes of village mosques. At the end of dry season the well-watered rice paddies were still an iridescent shade of green. Above the bustle of human activity the faded blue silhouette of a distant volcano, Penanggungan, rose over the muggy plains. The roads became progressively smaller, until we saw hand-painted signs for homemade honey and flocks of laughing schoolchildren, dressed in vivid red and white uniforms.

Down below we had spotted an ominous wall of cloud, edging closer and closer until it enveloped our minivan. The narrow two-lane road twisted and turned through the mountains, passing through multiple villages in a mystical landscape dotted with sturdy pines.

Just shy of our destination, the late afternoon sun broke through the low cloud, and we emerged to the welcome sight of a clear blue sky. Here the streets were adorned with janur – drooping, exuberant poles with curls and lantern-like shapes, each one fashioned from interwoven palm leaves. By the roadside, flags waved languidly in the breeze; we had arrived the week before a Hindu festival. “These are everywhere in Bali,” Bama said. He pointed out the posts carved in black temple stone, batu candi, with a chair-like repository for floral offerings.

Cemoro Lawang, “the Pine Gateway”

The main village street

Late afternoon at the Tengger Caldera

Onion patch

Tenggerese children in the fields

I have my first view of the Tengger Caldera from the lookout just outside our hotel – its scale and majesty is such that few photos can really do it justice. Hearing the wind howling far below on the barren expanse of Lautan Pasir, the vast ‘Sea of Sand’, we struggle to make out the tiny vehicles gathering streaks of dust in their wake. Much of the caldera is enveloped in hazy yellow light, but the temple at its centre has fallen under the shadow of Mt. Batok’s cinder cone.

The next morning brings the potent smell of sulphur drifting into our room. At 3:50am we pile into the back of a jeep, its door barely large enough for us to squeeze through. Around the sleeping village the stark, grey-blue landscape is bathed in the light of the full moon. Our driver puts his foot to the pedal and we roar ahead, shaking along a dirt track between the endless onion fields, colonising the fertile volcanic soil in meticulous rows. Halfway to the drop-off point, I turn my head and peer out the back. Far behind us a trail of lights is tracking noiselessly along the same road, mirroring the clear night sky above the darkened caldera.

At Mt. Penanjakan the enterprising vendors have already set up long tables serving tea, coffee and hot chocolate. Others offer surgical facemasks to ward off the ash. We approach a woman leaning against a concrete post, wrapped up in a shawl. “Morning,” she says wearily. I greet her with a polite “selamat pagi”, more than a little breathless from the climb. Roughly 2,500 metres above sea level, the air seems noticeably thinner.

Semeru, Java’s highest mountain, at sunrise

The view from Penanjakan

Cemoro Lawang from afar

Smoking Mt. Bromo

Batok’s shadow

Pura Luhur Poten

Soon the viewpoint hums to a potpourri of languages: English, French, Mandarin, Cantonese and Brazilian Portuguese, with traces of Russian and Spanish thrown into the mix. Beyond Mt. Bromo’s steady plumes of steam, we observe the majestic cone of Semeru, Java’s highest mountain at 3,676 metres. It releases a small puff of smoke, dissipating in the high winds at its summit. Behind us I can hear someone in Cantonese pleading for the mountain to reawaken from its slumber.

According to East Javanese folklore, Semeru has a central role in the mythical origin of the island. Before its settlement by humans, Java was said to float freely on the sea, perpetually tumbling and shaking without a firm foundation. The Hindu gods decided to anchor it to the earth, transplanting sacred Mount Meru from India onto Java’s western region. The mountain’s immense weight caused the island to tip, and the gods responded by moving it eastward. This movement knocked several parts off its lower rim, forming a chain of East Javanese volcanoes. Finally its topmost portion was carved off to create Penanggungan, the blue cone we had seen en route from Surabaya.

As the sun swings higher in the sky, the first strands of morning light strike the summit of Semeru, illuminating the sheer caldera walls and evaporating much of the morning mist. We watch the sun’s rays creep down the slopes of Bromo, along the eroded gullies of Batok, and across the raw volcanic landscape. The outlines of the small Hindu temple, Pura Luhur Poten, break free from the sea of cloud, now beginning a slow retreat from the caldera floor.

Later on, after leaving our footprints at Lautan Pasir, and peering down into the steaming acidic lake from Bromo’s crater rim, I ask Bama how I can express my amazement in Bahasa Indonesia. “Mengagumkan”, he smiles. “Mengagumkan.”

Bromo, Batok and Semeru

Restless planet

The ascent

Lautan Pasir, the ‘Sea of Sand’

To the crater

Looking back

The boiling crater lake

Horseback riders

Leaving the caldera

57 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m glad when we went the sky was a lot better than my previous visit last November. Even I didn’t see Bromo puffing every now and then at that time. This is a place where pictures speak for themselves. But your narration makes them even more enticing!

    October 7, 2012
    • Makasih banyak Bama! It was such a pleasure to team up again and go there – plus the weather was perfect for photos. I could never have imagined that I would be visiting Bromo so soon after reading your posts; thanks again for making it happen!!

      October 7, 2012
  2. Did u and Bama ride the horse? 😀

    October 7, 2012
    • Oh no we didn’t, we preferred to just walk instead! 😛

      October 7, 2012
  3. Btw, very nice pictures, James! 🙂

    October 7, 2012
  4. wow, amazing!

    October 7, 2012
  5. Awesome entry and fabulous pictures again! Nice work on the new lay-out of the blog too!

    October 8, 2012
    • Thank you Julie, glad you enjoyed both the writing and the photos! It’s going to take a while to update all the posts to the new format, but I’m very happy with the way it now looks. 🙂

      October 8, 2012
  6. Fabulous photos. Looks like it was a wonderful trip. That boiling crater lake is interesting. I’m so glad you share your photos. You visit many places I’ll probably never get to see!

    October 8, 2012
    • You never know Terri! Hiking at Bromo isn’t particularly difficult and it’s quite accessible from the nearby cities. The sunrise there was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen – I would go back in a heartbeat!

      October 8, 2012
  7. Reblogged this on pejalansore.

    October 8, 2012
  8. Oh my! Lovely mountains! Breathtaking! 🙂

    October 8, 2012
    • I’d never seen anything like it before – you should go!

      October 8, 2012
  9. This has brought back great memories! I went to Mt Bromo to see the sunrise many years ago. It really is a beautiful sight and worthwhile for anyone visiting Indonesia. I believe riding the little horses is actually very uncomfortable and walking might be easier.

    October 8, 2012
    • It must have been such a privilege to have visited before it became such a popular attraction! We were lucky as it wasn’t too crowded when we went, but friends tell me Bromo can get very busy on weekends. It’s hard to say if people found the horses uncomfortable – perhaps they were tired from the hike to the sunrise viewpoint.

      October 8, 2012
      • I hadn’t thought of it being a privilege, but that may well be the case. I visited back in 1986, and Mt Bromo seemed popular enough then, although a bit difficult to get to unless you had your own transport. Who would have thought people would do weekend trips there? I learn new things every day!

        October 9, 2012
  10. JoV #

    Awesome awesome awesome! I want to go there too. It looks amazing.

    October 8, 2012
    • You should definitely visit the next time you find yourself in Indonesia!

      October 9, 2012
  11. These are incredible photos, as always! It looks like you stepped onto the pages of a sci-fi novel…I’ve never seen anything like this. And I like your new blog layout! ~~Very nice! 😀

    October 8, 2012
    • Thanks Rachel! I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got there, the scenery looked as though it belonged on another planet! Glad you enjoy the new look – it’s an effort to make the blog more streamlined and easy to read. 😀

      October 9, 2012
  12. What a wonderful trip….lucky you!

    October 8, 2012
    • It was short but sweet – and the best part was having Bama there as a guide and travel buddy!

      October 9, 2012
  13. Absolutely Bromo is awesome :-D, your picture and your story about Bromo are stunning me, even i already went there, suddenly i just want go to Bromo again :-D.

    Just curious did you go to the place in the middle of (Looking back) picture – the black one?

    I will wait for your next post in Indonesia. 😀

    October 9, 2012
    • I agree – Bromo is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen on my travels!

      You mean the Tenggerese temple, Pura Luhur Poten? We walked past the compound but didn’t go inside.

      Things are incredibly hectic this week (as so happens when you return from holiday) but I’ll do my best to have the next one up before the weekend. 😀

      October 9, 2012
      • Things are incredibly hectic this week (as so happens when you return from holiday) –> I agree with this haha.. But it seems you can make it :p two post :-D.

        October 15, 2012
  14. Reblogged this on itezachan's Blog and commented:
    It’s a great blog!

    October 9, 2012
  15. Hey James, amazing place, pictures and post! And the volcanic landscape reminds me of Fuerteventura 🙂

    October 10, 2012
    • Thanks Sophie! Thought it would remind you of your recent trip. 😉

      October 12, 2012
      • greentrailsandteapottales #


        October 14, 2012
  16. “Mengagumkan”, indeed, James – especially the shot of the three mountain cones, that really tells the story of the ring of fire of our ‘restless planet’, as you so beautifully describe it. 🙂

    October 12, 2012
    • It was so beautiful I booked another trip to Indonesia the day after I returned home! December is rainy season but I’m dead-set on exploring other parts of Java, before the Christmas peak season. Bromo will remain one of my favourite travel experiences for years to come. 🙂

      October 12, 2012
      • The Wanderlust Gene #

        I can understand why 🙂

        October 12, 2012
  17. James, what a truly breathtaking sight! You and Bama always seem to be in some awesome adventures. Your photos are just spectacular. I particularly like the one captioned “Cemoro Lawang from afar.” It looks so ethereal.

    October 25, 2012
    • I loved my time at Bromo – the sunrise there was easily the most beautiful one I’ve seen so far! The trip came some four months after our previous adventure in China; it was a short (too short in fact) but also a much-needed break. In December Bama and I will be teaming up again to see a bit more of Indonesia… hopefully there won’t be too much rain!

      October 25, 2012
  18. nice picture of Cemoro Lawang from afar 😀

    November 5, 2012
  19. Beautiful pictures 🙂

    November 23, 2012
    • Thank you – the landscape was quite literally out of this world! 🙂

      November 23, 2012
      • What’s ur next destination? =)

        November 24, 2012
      • Taiwan, the “beautiful island”, next March/April. Until then I’ll be uploading content from my previous trips!

        November 24, 2012
      • I’ve been to Taiwan 🙂 If you go to Taipei, make sure you eat dinner at the Taipei 101 tower. The view is great 🙂

        November 24, 2012
      • I’ll have to check it out when I’m there – I’d love to visit Taipei 101 to see the view and the massive damper. Thanks for the tip! 🙂

        November 25, 2012
      • My pleasure 🙂 Have a nice sunday!

        November 25, 2012
  20. Nice shot on the soft sun light on “Cemoro Lawang from afar” picture.

    November 27, 2012
    • Makasih! That is one of my favourite shots from the trip.

      November 27, 2012
  21. Is amazing! your work is admirable!

    November 30, 2012
    • Thank you Corina. 🙂

      December 7, 2012
  22. Bromo.. always great !

    April 22, 2013
    • Wished I could have stayed another day longer!

      April 22, 2013
  23. Reblogged this on fiverrearn.

    May 17, 2013
  24. Ow Gunung Bromo is always stunning!! 🙂

    May 31, 2013
  25. One of my favorite places of all time to visit…brings tears to my eyes at the thought of it. Glad you got to witness this spanning landscape of beauty.

    January 21, 2015
    • I see how it inspired your custom header! Yes, Bromo is totally out of this world – so raw and primeval, almost like something on another planet. I’d love to go back and see the sunrise again.

      January 21, 2015
      • Good eye man, it absolutely did, and actually is a real picture I took of Bromo and had a talented friend of mine do some work to it to incorporate the more celestial aspect that ties into the sci-fi theme that I’ll be expanding upon in the days and weeks to come

        January 22, 2015

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