Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Fiery Land of Indonesia

  It shivers and it rumbles. It will exhale with frustration. It will make you know of its own temper and tantrums. In Indonesia, you begin to believe that the Earth is alive. 

I'm used to travelling independently around a foreign country, mainly thanks to James whose fascination over trains and public transport links in general makes planning route an exciting puzzle than a chore. However, despite the fact that Jogja - Mount Bromo - Kawah Ijen - Bali is a popular route, there wasn't an obvious choice we could take. There are no direct public transports between the routes so we have to make a choice of risking a complex itinerary or using a tour company.

Now I have an obvious dislike for using a tour company to exploring a country - you aren't given enough time. The route we wanted to take have an infamous reputation for gruelling 11+ hour cramped bus rides and unpleasant accommodations. After pouring over blogposts about alternative routes, I secretly knew I would fall back on the tour company option. I didn't want to admit it so James and I kept postponing our decision until we got to Jogja. Staying in Surabaya and making our own way seemed risky at such a short notice while we had an endless amount of tours available at Yogyakarta. We took the easy option.

Jeep packed adventure at Mount Bromo

Waiting for the sun
At 3 am, we had the convenience of hot water shower to wake us up and refresh us from the 13 hour minibus journey. Bearing in mind how awful people have rated their experience with tour companies, I was relieved that road trip flew as I alternated between sleeping and reading as well as that our room was not freezing and falling to pieces. We walked out to see a line of jeep ready to start our adventure. James and I got pushed onto sharing a front passenger seat (well, that's not dangerous) and we drove off in the pitch black. Well, it wasn't exactly pitch black... we could see the path we were taking as a bright trail of headlights and rear lights trailing into the distance - Mount Bromo is definitely not Indonesia's best kept secret.

Our jeep parked on the side of a steep road and we had to continue walking for another fifteen minutes. I looked up and it was the first time I noticed the starry skies since... Mexico? It was already busy once we reached the platform at Mount Penanjakan. I still wanted a good view of the the volcanoes or sunset but that was proving a little difficult due to my height. I found a little gap against the railing but before I could lean against it, a French man next to me turned around and said:

"What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm trying to see the volcano."
"That's my space."
"But there's space for two people." (Bearing in mind he was adjacent to me, I wasn't trying to squeeze in front of him).

He then proceeds to push in front of me and gets on the railing to block my view.  A woman then told me that she tried to get in there earlier but he blocked her too. I recall a friend believing that travellers are the best kind of people in the world. No, they could be the worst too.

I couldn't let the selfish attitude of the man spoil my experience, but I was really hurt. James came into the rescue and pulled me to another side of the platform where he found space for us to watch the sunrise instead and boom, I was happy again. 

Cemoro Lawang can be seen on the edge of the caldera (bottom left).
Amidst the selfie sticks and tall western tourists, I was still one of the first to catch the moment the sun broke into the horizon and watched Mount Semeru erupt quietly. I finally saw the Tengger massif for the first time and I was amazed to see how perilously Cemoro Lawang (the town we were staying overnight) sat on the edge of the caldera. I realised that we had driven from the town, down into the caldera and across the "Sea of Sands" in a jeep to get to the top of Mount Penanjakan. We went past the volcanoes and I was oblivious to it? The crowd slowly started to thin as everyone started going back to their jeeps to get down to the Sea of Sands as it was time to get up and personal with Mount Bromo.

Starting our journey through the Sea of Sands
Mount Bromo vent!
Failing to walk confidently around the crater rim
Mount Batok - now an extinct volcano
Always a selfie with a volcanic vent
The Sea of Sands is a vast plain of volcanic ash and just like san, it's incredibly tough to walk across. There was several touts ready to rent a horse so you can gallop across the ash but as awesome as that image may seem, we thought we'd give that a pass. We reached the bottom of the cone and braced ourselves for the walk up. A staircase was built right onto the slope of the volcano, which seems like a strange thought but a much easier alternative to trying to climb up the steep slippery slope. We tried walking along some of the rim of the volcano but the path was so thin and I wouldn't help but panic with every step I took. We thought a better way to enjoy the volcano was to sit as far (safely) we could towards the vent and listening to the volcano rumble. Despite the number of active volcanoes I've walked on, I wasn't prepared for the deep ominous sound Mount Bromo made as it degassed. I was mesmerised.

Journey into a Volcanic Crater: Kawah Ijen

A glimpse of the Blue Fire
We were still euphoric from our journey around Mount Bromo when we had to be whisked away to our next destination. Another twelve hour journey, another cold night's sleep. We had to be ready so that we could be picked up at one am so that we could be at the national park before two to meet our tour guide and sign in. It didn't take long before the group separated from each other but our guide was close by us. We were by no means alone or deserted, there were plenty of people who opted for the blue fire tour. We reached a lodge about forty-five minutes into the hike which was a short pause for everyone to have a chance to rent a gas mask to make it easier to breathe through the sulphuric emissions - we were only at the half way point! We continued to zigzag with the path when we noticed more and more sulphur miners walking past us, we must be close. We reached a dense crowd and a stairway going downwards along with a sign warning "No Visitors Allowed in the Crater". That didn't stop anyone.

Aren't we the cutest?
Cover of my next music album
Mount Raung erupting in the background
Our journey into the crater was unstable. There was no path, just Ioose rocks and ash from past eruptions. As I made my way down precariously balancing on one volcanic rock before making it to another, I was grateful for a tour guide. He held onto my hand and found the best route for us to get down while being prioritizing the sulphur miners. The miners continued on with their business, carrying heavy loads of sulphur through the crowds of tourists. I was too worried about slipping to be conscious about time but all that frustration was gone once we made it to the blue fire. One of the only two places in world where the blue fire is known to be - such a beautiful shade of electric blue caused by the ignition of sulphuric gas after it travelled up under higher temperature and pressure. 

We had to make our way up by sunrise, it was quicker to walk up especially under pressure, and we caught a glimpse of the crazy path we had just taken. We saw the crater lake from above and the beautiful texture of the crater. The gas emissions were getting heavier and within few moments of sunrise, the volcanic gas engulfed the whole region - crater lake and all. 

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