In a cold dawn at Cemoro Lawang, James and I are awaken by the loud alarm from my phone and smell the putrid odor of sulphur inside the room. The night wind must have blown away the puffs from Mount Bromo’s crater to the village a few hours earlier. One minute later a man knocks on the door – a cue for us to get ready for the early dawn hike to Mount Penanjakan in the cold but refreshing air more than 2,000 m above sea level. Mount Penanjakan has always been the main choice for viewing the fabled sunrise when the warm golden light would fall onto Tengger Caldera where the restless Mount Bromo and the long-extinct volcano – Mount Batok – reside on its bed.
We walk to the front yard of our hotel and find a handful of Jeeps waiting for the guests. We spot ours – a green and sturdy old Jeep – and hop onto it right away. A short bumpy ride takes us to the base of the hiking trail to the viewpoint which is only passable on foot or by horse. With two flashlights in hand, we hike the treacherous trail which feels like covered in powdery thick ash to get to the viewpoint before the sun streaks its first light.
We feel the thin air makes the hike challenging, but fortunately the sun has yet to rise when we arrive. Being among the first to reach the viewpoint, we manage to secure a nice spot – on the edge of the caldera’s wall where a rock perched on the ground on which we put our cameras and get a good grip to keep ourselves firmed onto our positions. While the sun is still hidden behind the horizon, the full moon and stars brighten up the cloudless dark sky, and eventually hide themselves as morning comes.
At 5 am, the sun begins to cast orange hue to the wall of the caldera, dramatically changes the majestic landscape into bursts of vivid colors. At the background, Semeru – Java’s highest point – peeks out of the dark, followed by Bromo and Batok a short moment later. The morning mist still lingers on the bottom of the caldera, blanketing the Sea of Sand beneath. Even though this is not my first time, this legendary sunrise over the enthralling landscape never ceases to fail me. This time it is actually even better.
“This is one the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen,” James says.
Amidst the amazement and amusement of the visitors, vendors offer various kinds of hot drinks one might need to keep the body warm in the chilly mountain air. However, that is not the thing which catches my attention.
“Masker, masker,” some of the vendors are trying to sell simple facemasks along with hot drinks and simple snacks. I approach one of them and ask her if it is so dusty down there in the caldera. “Ya,” she answers while nodding. I buy two, just for preparation in case we would need them.
We do not have to wait that long to find out. On our way down to the hiking base, the sun has completely risen and we can see our path clearly – it is indeed covered in thick ash. Every single step, or horse step, causes minor clouds of dust over the path. Apparently, we do not need to wait until we get to the Sea of Sand to wear our masks.
On our way down to the Sea of Sand at the bed of the ancient caldera, we pass through Cemoro Lawang – a very small village where we spent the previous night at one of the more decent hotels. The village does not change much from my last visit. But this time the sky is such a delight – blue and clear with no overcasting clouds.
One day earlier, we reached this village which is the primary choice for visitors to Bromo to stay due to its proximity to the caldera. In fact, it is located on one edge of the caldera. Before sunset, we set our tripods at one corner of the village, bordering the steep slope of the deep caldera. The silhouette of Mount Batok, Bromo and the rugged terrain surrounding the two mountains were just too good to miss. However, it was the creeping thick mist which forced us to pack our tripods and go back to the hotel for seeking refuge from the coldness.
A few steps away, there is a restaurant where I had my dinner last November. Unfortunately when we found it, it was already dark, devoid of any sound or activity. Then we walked to our hotel, in search for another local restaurant where food usually tastes much more authentic. We spotted an open restaurant and peeked inside. There was nobody in there. Hesitantly I went inside and looked into the living room behind the dining area and found a family watching TV. I asked them whether they still serve food for dinner and gladly a grandmother who was sitting in the kitchen said yes.
I ordered two bowls of soto ayam (chicken soup with a generous scoop of white rice, tinted with the yellowish color from turmeric) which came with a very spicy but addictive sambal (stir-fried ground red chili) and sweet hot tea. To my surprise, it actually tasted a lot better than my previous soto ayam in Cemoro Lawang. Such a simple yet perfect dinner to warm up our bodies against the cold air, indeed.
With the wall of the caldera to the left and the the Sea of Sand to the right, the Jeep takes us down the slope through a narrow road which opens up to the vast expanse of the desert-like caldera bed. January 2011 was the last time Mount Bromo erupted, leaving thick layers of ash on its surroundings. The Jeep rushes us to the base of the hike to Mount Bromo, cutting through ethereal morning mist which together with the majestic backdrop bring surreal atmosphere to this place.
The Jeeps parks just outside a row of ash-covered fence, lining up with other colorful 4WDs. The view is as breathtaking as ever and it makes me relive my memories of the amazement I felt for standing right on the bed of this ancient giant caldera for the first time. We walk toward the hiking trail, following the very same trail I took eleven months earlier.
Reaching the summit, we stand on the rim of the seemingly docile crater, puffing clouds of sulphureous gas every now and then. However, the water level of the crater has increased significantly than what I remember from my previous visit, implying an increasing activity of this volcano. Nevertheless, I feel strangely peaceful up here.
Satisfied with what we just saw, we head back to the village which is currently adorned with janur (Indonesian Hindu decoration made from palm leaves). The local people – the Tenggerese – have just observed the Karo several days earlier, celebrating the creation of the universe. Despite some differences in Hinduism practices, all the janur really remind me of similar Balinese traditional decoration which is also still used by most Javanese on wedding ceremonies.
Mount Bromo is not the most active volcano in Indonesia, nor it is the tallest. But it is easy to comprehend why this volcano draws so many visitors every year. Its sublime backdrop will always amaze even the most experienced mountaineers and well-seasoned travelers.
At 11.45 we jump on our car which takes us to Surabaya, leaving the great landscape behind. But this short trip only makes us even more curious to further explore the breadth of this beautiful archipelago.