One of our GNFI contributors from Malaysia, had the privilege of visiting Mount Bromo last month, and she lives to tell the tale. This article is written by one of her travel companions, and has since been published on Malaysian National News Agency (BERNAMA)
Note: The photographs used here are from their personal albums.
SURABAYA — About eight years ago, the writer watched the Indonesian film “Pasir Berbisik” (Whispering Sands), starring Christine Hakim and Dian Sastrowardoyo. The film by Nan Triveni Achnas left such an impact on her that she vowed to one day set foot on Mount Bromo, the location of the shoot.
So it was little wonder that when her friends asked her to join them on a trip to the volcanic mountain, she immediately agreed – not knowing that the volcano had been actively spewing out ash since last November!
But the plane tickets to Surabaya had been bought. There was no turning back. Armed with stubborn determination, the writer and her three female companions marched on to the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, where Mount Bromo belongs. Any worry that was felt was brushed off by the reasoning that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to view an active volcano, live!
Unlike the Merapi Mountain in Yogyakarta, Bromo spits out ashes and cold smoke, so the safe zone is around 2sqkm, compared to Merapi’s 15sqkm.
A CHAIN OF ACTIVE VOLCANOES
Bromo, located some four hours away by road from Surabaya, is part of a chain of volcanoes spread across the Java Island.
The national park is named after the two iconic mountains of East Java, Mount Semeru (the highest in Java at 3,676 metres) and Mount Bromo. Meanwhile, Tengger is the name of the tribe residing in the area.
Mount Semeru, also known as Mahameru (meaning big mountain), is among the most active volcanoes in Indonesia.
Mount Bromo (2,392m), Mount Batok (2,470m), Mount Kursi (3,392m), Mount Watangan (2,601m) and Mount Widodaren (2,600m) sits across an impressive 5,290-hectare plain of grey sands, aptly named Lautan Pasir (Sea of Sand).
OUT OF THIS WORLD
As soon as we reached the nearby village of Cemoro Lawang, the gateway into Bromo, the writer and her friends felt as if they were transported into another world. The drizzling skies were dark and foreboding, and the air thick with volcanic ash.
Paddy fields, farms, houses, schools and old temples were blanketed by thick ash. However, the streets were clear as the people would clean it daily, sweeping the ash to the sides until it forms a sort of ridgeline.
We arrived around four in the evening. Cemoro Lawang was like a ghost town, with nary a sound. Occassionally we’d come across the odd lorry or motorcycle.
We drove our rented Toyota Avanza up to the first and only person we saw since arriving. His name was Pak Soetomo. To him we enquired the safety of visiting Bromo.
Pak Soetomo explained that Bromo was “on standby”, so the crater and Lautan Pasir were unsafe to visit. However, he said, we could still enjoy Bromo’s exotic view from Mount Penanjakan.
We were grateful because Mount Penanjakan has been known to be the best place to view the stunning beauty of Bromo.
A MINI APOCALYPSE
We stepped out of the car and were greeted by thin clouds of ash that smell strongly of sulphur, despite the masks we had on.
We could hear deep rumbling, much like thunder, and the ground beneath us shook with tremors coming from the Bromo caldera.
Words cannot describe the view. It reminds the writer of an artist’s impression of the world during pre-historic times (minus the dinosaurs) and the images of the surface of the moon.
Feelings of awe, amazement and fear intermingle. God’s creations are both truly beautiful and terrifying!
The caldera would erupt at about every 15 minutes, after which tremors can be felt and brown, black and white smoke would be ejected into the sky.
We spent nearly an hour absorbing the eerie awesomeness of God’s creation. We were about to leave to search for accomodation when Bromo suddenly erupted thunderously.
The grounds shook and it suddenly became dark. The skies were suddenly red from the ash material ejected from Bromo. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that it felt like a mini apocalypse.
Lava spilled out of the caldera. The locals ran towards Bromo, an indication that this was not a normal happening. We, on the other hand, could only exchange worried looks while praying hard in our hearts.
THE LONGEST NIGHT
The good thing about visiting Bromo while it was active was that the hotels around Cemoro Lawang was deserted. Rates were cheaper than usual because of the drastic drop in tourists.
So we had the chance to stay at the most expensive hotel that was also the nearest to the Bromo caldera for RP650 thousand (about RM224) a night for a family suite. The suite was complete with a water heater, a living room and kitchenette.
The same room would cost nearly RM400 a night during peak periods.
The temperature at Bromo dropped drastically at night and could go subzero. However, Bromo’s lodging facilities did not include heating. Jackets and layers of thick clothing did little to stop the chill from reaching the bones.
That night the thunderous sounds and rumbling grew louder. Occassionally we could see specks of lava lighting up the night sky like fireworks. A sight truly extraordinary and deeply sobering. The tremors shook the windows and floor of our suite all night. We felt like it was the longest night of our lives.
Come 3.30 in the morning, we made our way to Mount Penanjakan to catch the sunrise which happened at 5am. Based on our internet research, our rented jeep was supposed to take us straight to the location. But it turned out there were actually two viewpoints on Penanjakan.
Viewpoint 1, the lower and more popular one, could not be visited because we’d have to cross Lautan Pasir to get to it. Viewpoint 2, which we were about to visit, was more challenging to get to. The jeep could only take us halfway. The last kilometre would have to be scaled on horseback.
Four horses and their caretakes were already awaiting us on the road halfway through our journey. None of us had any horseriding experience, much less riding on the treacherous cliffs of a mountain in the dark.
But there was no time for regrets. Once again we strengthened our resolve, got onto our horses and prayed we made the right decision.
We were halfway up when one of our companions fell off her horse after the mare tripped over a rock. Luckily, the caretaker was quick to react, keeping the situation under control.
A half-an-hour ride brought us to a vast plain. The writer breathed a sigh of relief thinking we had reached their destination. Unfortunately, there was another 200m more to go, on foot!
A LAND ABOVE THE CLOUDS
We arrived at Viewpoint 2 of Mount Penanjakan after climbing a slippery slope, with only a small torchlight lighting the way.
In spite of the rising sun, the shrouds of volcanic ash and fog around Bromo were only getting thicker by the minute.
The only sounds we could hear were Bromo growling; occassionally it “coughed” and thundered. But after waiting for two hours for that promised view of a magical sunrise to appear, we gave up and begun our way down.
We were cursing in our hearts because we probably could have gotten a clearer and more spectacular view from the hotel, sans the trouble.
But at that moment – as if sensing our frustration – the fog suddenly cleared, revealing the calderas of Bromo and Mount Semeru. We were enthralled by the beauty presented before us.
The writer has no words to explain her feelings watching Bromo ejected clouds of brown, black and white smoke amidst the majestic backdrop of Mount Semeru. It felt as if we were in a city above the heavens.
We drank in the view of Lautan Pasir stretching as far as the eyes can see, the shadows of mountains across the plains and Pura Luhur Poten at the foot of Bromo’s crater. Oh, the majesty of God’s creations! We captured the moment to our hearts content – both mentally and digitally.
The way down Mount Penanjakan is not as difficult as the climb. The writer and another friend chose to enjoy the mysteries of Bromo on foot while her other companions rode their horses back down to the waiting jeep.
On her way down, the writer had the chance to chat with Primus, a horse keeper from the Tengger tribe who bore a resemblance to Bambang Pamungkas, the former Selangor football player.
THE LEGEND OF BROMO AND THE TENGGER TRIBE
They are moderate in their rituals, compared to Bali Hindus. However, those rituals were the exact ones practiced by their forefathers centuries ago, without deviation.
Legend has it that the Tengger people were descendants of the Majapahit princess who migrated to the mountains upon the arrival of Islam.
In mid-August the Tenggers make way for an important ceremony called the Kasada, also known as the sacrificial ceremony.
Five days prior to the day, there would be dances, horse races and exhibitions. On the day itself, performance items called “ongkek” would be thrown into the caldera. Ongkek comprises 30 different fruits and cakes. The items have to be from a village where none of its people have died in the past year.
The Tenggers are known for their politeness, obedience and diligence. They are physically small and tanned from the daily sun. They are also champion horsemen.
The men tend to keep a mustache and wear their sarong on their shoulders as one would a poncho. At a glance it feels like one is in Peru, especially when looking at the neat, cute and colourful houses, kept that way even in times of disasters.
Local reports say Bromo need at least five years to recover. Coincidentally, the media also reported Bromo’s highest activity to be the day we were there.
A statement from the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VACC) in Darwin, Australia, said it was the high pressure that caused volcanic ash to spew out of Bromo, shooting 5,500m into the sky and swept by winds 370km across the east and north-east.
It also threw up volcanic bombs in sizes as big as a human fist to a metre in diametre.
The writer asked Primus: “What if Bromo becomes more violent?
“We just stay optimistic about it,” was his calm reply.
The writer nodded, and vowed silently to return.
By Soraya Jamal
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