My alarm went off at 2:30. In what I consider to still be the middle of the night. We met, bleary eyed and only half alert, at 3 AM to climb with our already-aching bones into Jeeps that were made before I was born. It wasn’t a great beginning. I love a good sunrise, but I kept questioning in my head just how worth the work the one we were about to witness could be. Around hairpin turns illuminated by harsh headlights and over ruts in the road that felt more like valleys we traversed, only to be let out half way up the mountain and told to hike the rest of the way, in the dark. It was at the beginning of that bizarre trek up a mountain in utter darkness that I finally stopped doubting we’d find a reward. The sea of humanity that surrounded me as I climbed told me all of these people couldn’t be entirely crazy. The numbers simply didn’t line up. If sunrise over a volcanic range wasn’t incredible, why would so many pilgrims come to experience it?On the night before our climb, I was in Java Banana‘s art gallery founded by Sigit Pramono, prominent photographer and banker in Indonesia. He’s a fan of the poetry of another Indonesian: Goenawan Muhamad. I think his words, combined with my photographs can best show you what I saw in Bromo. And you tell me, would you trek to a remote part of Indonesia and climb a mountain at 3 AM to experience this?“In the morning of the horses the mist etherizes the space. but the space is an ambiguity. You can hear the clatter of hoofs and the chats of gods, ghosts, and men. They are listening to the fire, they say. And the fire, in the womb of the earth, moves like a perpetual rebirth.” “To the plateau they come and go — mountain climbers, pilgrims, discoverers, volcanologists, tourists, storytellers. They speak of broken heights and transformed terrains – of eruptions and calamities long, long time ago: an immense volcanic memory remembered only by some deathless stones. Once in a while, daybreak disrupts the facade of eternity.”“But Bromo […] is a perpetual reminder that the beautiful is never without its other. Like any volcanic heap of earth, it is a story of fertility and death, tranquility and disaster. It is for the this reason one often finds a trace of the tragic in the serenity of Indonesian highlands.”“In the earliest dots of light, the back of Mount Widodaren is like a long piece of pleated baize. Nature earns its own form. The terrain is coarse: an array of haphazardness.”Here’s the tourist trail in Bromo: You wake up early, ride by jeep part way up Panajakan, hike the rest of the way to the summit where there are vendors selling coffee, hats, gloves, etc. Wait for the fireworks to start (on a good day it’s stunning, on a bad day I’ve been told it’s still worth the climb). After the sun is fully over the horizon, climb back down, reunite with your Jeep driver who will take you back down Panajakan and across the barren plain that lies in front of Bromo where you can walk or hire a horse to take you past the Hindu temple and to the feet of the nearly-vertical 250 stairs which, upon climbing, will allow you to look down into the depths of the active Bromo crater. It smokes daily and sometimes is shut down completely for fear of another eruption. Sulfur will choke you and gusts of ash dust will try to blind you but when you’re standing at the top there really is a bizarre happiness that settles into your bones, joy at having made it to the top and sheer awe at the majesty of nature you have witnessed.
It’s a strange land, constantly on fire under the surface, and harsh in a way that only a place in constant flux could be. Truly a place for pilgrims, whether religious, nature-loving or simply adventurous.
I was a guest of Indonesia Tourism for this experience but all opinions, excessive adjectives and overly emotional thoughts are solely my own.