Sea of Sands

Trip Start Aug 11, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2012

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Where I stayed
Yoschi's Hotel

Flag of Indonesia  , East Java,
Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Getting into Yogyakarta by train is easier than leaving it by minibus, which is what we do. As we often do in Indonesia, we use one of our hotel's transport offers to move us on to our next destination, Bali. The Delta Homestay has several deals for different prices, all of them heading for Bali's capital, Denpassar, and all of them stopping overnight enroute at a place called Mt. Bromo in east Java. We haven't done any research on Bromo - all we know is that it is a volcano - we are more concerned about what we do once in Bali, namely, extending our two month Indonesian Visa into a three month one - this country is so large and quite difficult to travel in without flying, so if we want to fulfill our mission we will need the extra weeks.

Our minibus out of Yogya is a big one, an 18 seater, and as Sheila and I are first on board we snag what we feel are the best seats - first row behind the front with room to put our feet up and our own door and opening window. The minibus then trawls around Yogya picking up other passengers at different hotels, mostly westerners, but also a couple of Indonesian people. Once full of passengers we begin to make our way out of town. This isn't really obvious though as Yogya turns into another town and another and so on for hours. All the while the ominous presence of active Mt Merapi looms on the near horizon, in one way it feels like we are going nowhere. This bus journey is interminable. Unlike coaches, the seats don't recline and even though we can put our feet up we never really get to stretch out properly. The traffic along the highway is relentless, especially when we pass through the centre of towns - a sea of motorbikes, a procession of trucks, a parade of buses, going both directions in equal intensity. 

The journey to Mt Bromo is about 400kms, but we don't go directly there, we first stop at the town of Probolingo on the north coast. We arrive there about 8pm stopping at the travel company office and unload from the minibus. In the spartan interior of the office the passengers of our bus are told what happens next: First we are given our hotel vouchers for the night's accommodation at Bromo, depending on which price option you bought. We went for the cheapest because we new it would only be for one short night; now we are worrying that our choice might be just a bit too 'cheap'. As long as they don't have squat toilets, is Sheila's main concern.It is in the office that we see our first photograph of Mt Bromo, a faded print on the wall. To be honest it doesn't look real, more like a composite, a photomontage, even a drawing. We are told that we will be taken up to our digs for the night, then awoken at 3.30am to watch the sunrise over the crater. Sounds exciting, but we are tired and hungry after our 12 bus journey and it also sounds exhausting.

With the preliminary instructions given, our group is loaded into another minivan for the hour long ride up Mt Bromo. No sooner are we out on the highway again than the van breaks down. It takes the driver and his helper a few minutes to find the problem - a broken fuel line. In torch light he begins to repair the break while someone else rides off on a motorbike to get some fuel. What is really notable here is that while leaning over the engine, patching the fuel line, the driver lights a cigarette and balances it on the edge of the van, right over all the spilled petrol on the road. We passengers quickly haul all our gear out of the vehicle fully expecting it to go up any second; it doesn't.The road up Mt Bromo is incredibly steep; up and up we go for the full hour until Sheila and I and another four people are dropped at our cheap hotel, Yoschi's. Our relief is palpable when we see that it is a lovely place, built a bit like a Swiss mountain lodge out of logs, with a restaurant and attractive bungalows on the landscaped hillside. Even though it past 10pm we hit the restaurant where I order beer, hamburger and chips, comfort food to warm me up - it is near freezing up here.

Mt Bromo, named after the Hindu god Brahma, stands at 2,300m (7,600ft), and despite its proximity to the equator it is bloody cold up here at night; and it's not even the highest mountain around. The room we are given is the family room and we have to share it with another couple. Not as bad as it sounds as they take the kids room and we get the mum and dad's up on the mezzanine part of the attractive apartment. It doesn't matter much anyway because no sooner are we asleep under the thick duvet than we are awoken by the alarm at 3am.We gather in the restaurant for coffee and toast and are then put in a 4x4 jeep parked outside. Both of us are dressed in everything we own, namely multiple layers of t-shirts, scarves and for me, an old denim shirt. We had jettisoned all our warm clothes, except Sheila's hoody, when we left the chill of North Vietnam back in January. 

Our little 4x4 is filled with two more couples from other hotels further up the mountain and then proceeds up more steep inclines for a further 30 minutes. We are finally let out and told to walk to the viewpoint, only 300 metres away. Well, it might be 300 but feels like 500 and it's a very steep, slippery gravel road and pitch dark. We are the oldest ones here and are soon left behind by young Euro trekkers in sensible footwear who blaze on ahead. Our salvation comes in the form of two local Tengger men with ponies who urge us to ride up the hill. We refuse at first but soon realise it will take us ages, so for five bucks each we mount the sturdy ponies and are soon overtaking the puffing Euros with smug grins of relief all over our faces. Then the horsemen tell us to dismount - there is still a long flight of steps to climb before we reach the top.By now we have warmed up and the adrenalin is pumping after the horse ride and we puff our way up the steps to find ourselves in a surreal position overlooking total blackness. 

The viewpoint is at least another 1000m higher than Bromo but all we can see at this early hour is a faint glow on the eastern horizon silhouetting a sharp ridge and distant peaks. Up here we find a small group of local people with campfires, selling hot coffee. One of Asia's best things is 3-in-one - instant coffee, sugar and creamer pre-mixed, just add hot water - it's good coffee too.All we have to do now is watch the Sun do its thing. The long slow dawn gradually creeps over the clouds and mountain ridges, revealing the landscape around and below us. It looked fake in the picture back in the office, and as the morning light rolls across the crater below us it looks even more unreal. Mt Bromo is a breathtaking sight - look at the pictures, I can't describe it. 

Just as astounding as the Triple cones within the main crater is the tall, active volcano a few kilometres beyond it, Gunung Semeru, Java's highest peak (3,600m), which spurts out a massive puff of white smoke every 20 minutes or so.The landscape around the crater is equally as stunning. Lush green mountains, rolling pastures, and villages perched right on the rim. The vast flat floor of the crater is called the 'Sea of Sands' and as the daylight finally brings the scene into sharp focus, we can see tiny spots that are people and vehicles moving around on it. On one of the cones in the centre we can also make out a trail leading up to the rim of that crater and it is there that we head next. We walk back down to where the Jeep awaits, pile in and are driven down onto the Sea of Sands. As we cross the wide dusty plain, Tengger horsemen gallop ahead, hoping to pick up more customers for the hike to the central cone. 

Sheila and I don't hesitate this time. She chooses a handsome white pony and for once, I don't get lumbered with a nag either. There's no health & safety, no helmets, just mount up and hang on. Though the horsemen run along behind urging the ponies on with quaint horse whispers, we have free rein to ride as hard as we like and Sheila is soon cantering off toward the volcano and I'm not far behind, although I'm no Frankie Dettori that's for sure. On horseback we out strip all the other people trudging across the grey dusty landscape on foot. We ride up through a twisting, mini-canyon, much further than it looks, until we reach the bottom of a long concrete staircase leading to the rim.When our horse guys catch up we pay them and proceed up the stairs. We are almost out of breath by the time we reach the top, the air is thin and the dust is very fine and swirly. There is no platform, no safety railings at the top, just a flattened out patch of volcanic dirt and a steep drop down into a steaming volcanic cauldron, the bottom of which we can't see. It would be so easy to fall to an almost guaranteed death. A vendor blags me into buying a bouquet of paper flowers which I'm supposed to toss into the crater in an effort to appease the God that lives there - this I willingly do. 

We look back down the mountain and see hundreds of people beginning their ascent of the steps, mostly Indonesian tourists, although there are quite a few westerners here too, this is a 'must see' attraction if ever there was one. We also notice the swirls of ash forming into a fully blown dust storm, so having satisfied our deepest volcanic urges, we battle our way down the steps and walk back to the jeep as the dust storm obliterates any decent view or photographic opportunity. With scarves wrapped around our faces we manage to pick our Jeep out of the dozens lined up on the Sea of Sands and wait patiently and fully satisfied for our fellow passengers to return.

When they finally locate the correct jeep in the blinding sand storm we drive back up out of the crater and down to the hotel where the air is clear and fresh. There's a bit of hanging around and more coffee for an hour or so then a couple of minibuses arrive and all the people heading back to Yogya get in one, and those of us bound for Bali board the other. We have another 12 hour minibus and ferry journey ahead of us - at the end of that, more sand and sea.
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