Once while walking around Yogyakarta‘s shopping district of Malioboro, I had met a couple who had spun most fantastic travel tales to Mount Bromo and Ijen Plateau. Both of them had been master story tellers and by evening had piqued my wanderlust to no limits. Stunning photos and amazing travel experiences shared by travelers on various blogs had gotten me hunting for a Bromo-Ijen group tour and I was good to go by the next weekend. One of the most popular trips to do in Java, all Yogya tour operators sell them by the dozen and while Bromo is very easily a DIY trip, Ijen is hard to access. Both the places are far from Yogyakarta (in the middle of nowhere, but closer from Surabaya) and lack of much easily accessible infrastructures (and/or widespread information about them) makes Bromo-Ijen group tours very popular. They were cheap too (although most DIY travelers claim them to be overpriced) and perfectly suited for solo travelers like me.
Situated in east Java, Mount/Gunung Bromo is an active volcano and a part of the Bromo-Tengger-Sumeru National Park. Named after the Hindu God of creator, Brahma the Bromo region is most famous for its surreal beauty. Gunung Bromo is not as active as the highly volatile neighbouring Mount Sumeru, but the beauty of its perfectly shaped cone rising out from the eerie Sea of Sand is unforgettable. The wild and desolate Ijen Plateau is further away from the Bromo-Tengger-Sumeru National Park and home to Indonesia’s most famous acidic lake. It is located near Banyuwangi city and not many Bromo travelers continue up to it. Banyuwangi is the eastern most tip of Java, from where a ferry to neighbouring Gilimanuk, Bali is just some minutes away. Famous for sulphur production and coffee plantations, Ijen Plateau (the crater lake actually) is like no place on earth. A surreal sunrise, Sea of Sand, grisly legends of human sacrifice and the most vivid aqua blue sulphur lake were promised to us by the Yogya tour operator and needless to say, had made me deliriously excited.
I don’t have much recollection of the road trip to Probolingo, except that it was really long (around 8-9 hours or more), the mini bus shuttle was horribly cramped and that we had reached our base village of Cemoro Lawang (at the edge of the crater) very late. The drive would have been beautiful, if made in better conditions and we had passed through long stretch of Java’s stunning coastline. It had been late evening by the time we had reached Cemoro Lawang and the cool air had given away its high altitude. The hotel at Cemoro Lawang had been pretty comfortable and after a quick dinner all of us had called it a night.
The next morning had been guaranteed to be really early and all of us had eagerly waited to catch one of the most spectacular sun rises in the world. We had woken up around 4 the next morning and bee lined to the popular vantage point of Mount Penanjakan for a Bromo sunrise. It had been pretty cold and our breaths had come out in puffs. Thankfully a bright moonlight had pervaded all over the sleeping region and illuminated the short uphill dirt track. Rising smoke had been faintly visible in the distance and dark mists had created a shroud of supernatural. I too had waited by the edge of Penanjakan cliff with huge number of other tourists and tried keeping myself warm by stamping my feet. All around me photographers, film makers and gaggle of spectators had busily started getting their paraphernalia ready and excited anticipation had hummed through the volcanic air.
The Bromo sun had risen in the most dramatic way possible and drawn a collective gasp from all its viewers. After a faint staining of the eastern sky, it had stunningly lifted the veil of mists from the surrounding lush Javanese country side and slowly revealed the glorious smoking cones of Mount Sumeru and Mount Bromo. Mists had swirled around the volcanoes in perfect rings and the mountains had changed colours from pink, orange, brown and green. The profusion of wild pink flowers growing in abundance at our feet had made the scene all the more spectacular and I had never seen a sunrise so glorious. The vast emptiness of the Sea of Sand had seemed straight out of a sci fi movie and in the orange glow of the sun rise, the entire scene had looked absolutely like the end of the world.
With a faint pinkish orange sunlight guiding us, we trooped down to the vast, dusty Sea of Sand and faint glimpses of people, horses and spires of a temple peeping through the thick mists had made it look unreal. It had been the most unbelievably beautiful experience in my life and rejuvenated by the glorious morning, I had gladly given the offers for horse rides amiss. The short moderately steep walk to Bromo crater had been disappointing and the billowing noxious sulphuric fumes had made me extremely nauseous. Bromo crater lip had also been very badly littered and trash had lain strewn like unkind words.
Declared as a national park in 1982, the volcanic complex of Bromo-Tengger-Sumeru is very unique. It is one place where a new volcano forms inside a larger and extinct volcano and there are at present 5 calderas inside the ancient Tengger volcano. Because of the huge deposit of ash and lava rock spewed by Tengger when it had blasted a few millions of years ago, the vast area inside its caldera is barren. Only fine blackish sand (Laotian Pasir) cover the ten miles of Tengger caldera and on misty mornings make the region resemble a Martian landscape. It is perhaps the most unworldly national park in the world and its unusual sunrises, mysterious cloud formations, swirling Dervish like mists and intense powerful display of natural colours make it feature in nearly every Java travel itinerary. The eerie landscape had given rise to many equally strange myths and legends, the most famous being the human sacrifice story of Prince Kesuma.
According to legends a 15th century Majapahit princess and her husband had fled from Islamic forces and taken shelter at the foothills of Mount Bromo. There they had developed the powerful Tengger kingdom, which had prospered thus saving their religion too. The couple however being childless had prayed to God Hyang Widi Wasa who had emerged from the crater of Mount Bromo and blessed them with 25 children. The powerful god had 1 condition, that their last born be sacrificed to the mountain. The royal couple, out of parental love had broken their promise and angered the mountain god by refusing to sacrifice Prince Kesuma.
It is said that a mighty explosion of Mount Bromo had followed, which had destroyed the kingdom heavily and swallowed up the poor prince. His royal siblings to appease the god had held a ceremonial offering at the crater every year and the dreadful ritual is still followed today as the famous yearly celebration of Upacara Kasada. Every year during the festival, pilgrims travel together up to the Bromo crater to throw offerings to the volcano. Although human sacrifices had stopped way back, flowers, fruits, vegetables, livestock and money are still poured into the smoking active volcanic crater every year and in spite of evident danger (and death if slipped) some locals clamber into the caldera to collect these offerings for good luck.
We had stayed back at Cemoro Lawang that day and had explored the picturesque flower filled village to our heart’s content. It had some very pretty hikes nearby and we had visited the lovely Madakaripura Waterfall too. Deemed as the elixir of life it had been cold, very beautiful and a bit crowded. Mount Sumeru had been closed off for trekkers owing to eruption warnings and unfortunately because of that we had to give the mystical village of Ranupani and its ghostly lakes amiss. The stunning Sumeru forest area had also been closed off and we had seen none of its fabled wildlife.
The tropical forest cover, green valleys and rivers had hidden the Java rusa deer, leopards, marbled cats and wild pigs and apart from a few hawks and eagles spotting, our entire day had been spent among the rice fields and casuarina groves. It had been a lovely day, of eating traditional Javanese dishes like rujak singur (sweet and spicy ox nose salad), more of opor ayam and some strange, but not bad tasting Chinese food. We had yet another pre dawn start the next day and going to bed watching an unworldly Bromo landscape from my window had been till date one of my strangest feelings. Outlandishly beautiful and almost unreal like a mad, angry painter’s creation, Bromo had been nothing short of a spectacle.
TRAVEL TIP – Most easily accessible among all of Java’s active volcanoes, Mount Bromo is around 4 hours away from Surabaya. The nearest train station is Probolingo and many group tour packages are available from Yogyakarta. Although I did not have a lot of issues with my tour package, there are too many stories of Bromo-Ijen package tour scams floating around, to make them wary choices. Most package tours conclude with ferry transfers to Gilimanuk in Bali and include Ijen (optional). Cemoro Lewang, Wonokitri and a few other villages offer charming hotels and home stays and it is possible to camp inside the park. It gets quite cold at both Bromo and Ijen and warm clothing are necessary especially at night and early morning. The entrance ticket for the national park is available at the office near the parking lot and most travelers recommend asking for vouchers/receipts against payment. Stories of bogus park tickets being fleeced off from tourists by middlemen near the office are quite rampant and it is best to exercise caution.
The best Bromo sunrise point is Mount Penanjakan and crater can be easily walked around on foot. Horse rides, motorcycles and jeeps are also available inside the caldera and it is an easy walk up to the Bromo crater. Mount Sumeru too is open for serious trekkers but extreme caution needs to be exercised as it is a very active volcano. Most parts of the mountain is cordoned off as off limits during periods of eruptive activity and high level of physical fitness is required for this strenuous trek. A guide, permit and prior information regarding the current state of the volcanic activity are strictly advised before undertaking a Sumeru trek. Information is available at the park office at Ranupani.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE