Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fiery Bromo

The message came exactly one day before we were due to fly.

"You know?" it read in broken English. "Bromo eruption today."

We had planned to hike Mount Bromo and Ijen during the five days I was between jobs, but this sudden eruption had thrown a curveball at us. (Rinjani had been our first choice but that had gone and erupted too.) The media was already reporting that Bromo was ejecting huge columns of smoke, and the local government had even given villagers money to evacuate the area.

We called an emergency meeting and sat down to review our itinerary. Ijen by itself wasn't going to be interesting enough to warrant all five days - in fact most people hike Bromo and Ijen in three - and try as we might we couldn't find anything else around Surabaya that piqued our interest. And besides, it would be massively cool to see an eruption live...

Long story short, we decided we would go ahead with our plans regardless.

Now here's the thing about Bromo that confused me the most when I was researching the trip. The main mountain you are going to climb is actually Penanjakan. The signature conical mountain in the photos you see in Google when you type "Bromo" is really Batok; Bromo is the titchy one behind it. The only time you will set foot on Bromo is after sunrise, when you take a jeep across the Sea of Sand from Penanjakan in order to peer into its crater.

What this meant for us was that we could still visit the area and catch the sunrise from a viewpoint on Penanjakan; we just weren't allowed to cross the Sea of Sand, as there was a three kilometer radius restriction levied on Bromo.

We touched down in Surabaya just after noon and immediately headed down to Cemoro Lawang, the village closest to the foot of Penanjakan. There, we knocked on a few doors and checked out several rooms before deciding on a homestay that came with an ensuite shower. As the sun set, a light fog fell over the village, but it wasn't quite thick enough to hide the dark stain of ash rising into the sky.

"Maybe you hear tonight," our driver said encouragingly, sensing our excitement. "The eruption. We near enough so maybe."

We didn't actually hear the eruption, but I managed to injure myself during the non-event anyway. A passing storm cloud gave an ear splitting thunderclap, which propelled me out of bed to check for signs of something apocalyptic descending upon the village, stubbing my toe in the process. A quick scan of our surroundings yielded absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, and in fact the only signs of stirring in the sleepy village was from behind me, where a groggy Jared mumbled "What are you doing?", sniggered, then promptly fell back asleep.

Our wake-up call came at one-thirty a.m., and in forty-five minutes we were dropped off at the foot of Penanjakan. I think we were the earliest on the mountain, but that's not saying a lot since the tourists were staying away - we didnt see more than fifty persons, mostly local, the whole morning anyway.

The whole reason we wanted to start our hike this early was because we wanted to try our hand at star and timelapse photography. Ambitious, I know. We thought we could spice up our trip with some sort of a mission.

Unfortunately, the conditions turned out to be extremely unconducive that morning. Cloud cover was insanely thick, and the viewpoint we settled at (the summit) didn't provide the most unobstructed panorama. We abandoned our attempt and spent the morning recce-ing the entire mountain for our next attempt.

Now if you've spent even just five minutes researching Bromo on the web, you would undoubtedly have come by names like "King Kong hill", "Seruni hill/point", "Viewpoint 1" and "Viewpoint 2". Contrary to some of their names they are all look-out points sequentially located along the same trail (though maybe not this particular order, I can't quite remember). Here's a tip: the best place to catch the sunrise isn't any of these. All of them are obstructed in some way, and if you're hoping to get a picture without any trees fringing your frame, you'll be better off at a little open space just above Seruni. To get there, you have to find the small trail - and it's pretty steep - at the back of the shelter. It rises fifteen, twenty metres and then opens up into a bare patch of ground big enough for a tent. The view is unparalleled.

With the sun now high in the sky, we hiked back down to our car. In the daylight we could finally see our surroundings - rows upon rows of onions planted on the mountain-side. The onion is one of the few crops that grow well at this altitude (the others are reportedly strawberry and coffee), and so every spare bit of land around the village is covered with them.

The rest of the day was spent napping and exploring the village of Cemoro Lawang. (There is a very good view point from the village itself by the way, if you don't feel up to trekking. Just look out for the park entrance gates, where the bakso noodle sellers are gathered.) At one point of time a convoy of police vans turned up and gave out surgical masks to everyone. They took particular interest in us because we were the only foreigners around, and snapped a few photos of themselves teaching us how to use it. I suppose you might see us in their newsletter next month.

The next morning, we returned to our sweet spot above Seruni. This time we were considerably better prepared. We brought along two camping chairs, some biscuits, tuna and a heatpack - everything to make the cold night more tolerable! It took almost half an hour to set up our equipment and frame our image in the dark, but once we had it we could finally sit back and let the remote control do its job.

We were lucky to get a gorgeous sunrise on our second attempt. As the sky transitioned from a pale rose to a vivid red, Bromo's outline took on a more solid shape; to its left, Cemoro Lawang awoke in hues of orange that gradually got less muted as a thin veil of mist slipped gently off its edge onto the caldera below. It was easily one of the most unique sunrises I have ever seen.

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