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Climbing Mt Bromo and Ijen Crater

sunny 5 °C

Somewhere at home, in storage box, alongside some school reports and BAGA certificates, there is a project titled ‘Rocks by Stuart Finch aged six’. On the front is a crayon drawing of a cone shaped volcano spewing red and orange lava down its slopes, threatening the lives of the crudely drawn dinosaurs at the base. It is only now, more than thirty years after that drawing, that I have actually had first-hand experience of an active volcano.

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The Indonesian island of Java, sitting on the Pacific ‘ring of fire’ is dotted with many volcanoes and Mount Bromo is one of the most visited and photographed of them. Easy to hike and set in a spectacular caldera, across which you can get inspiring sunrise vistas, a trip to Bromo can sometimes feel more like an ordeal as visitors are herded in great convoys of jeeps along the same route. We aimed to avoid the crowds by travelling slower, staying longer and walking to both the crater and sunrise viewpoints. For this effort we were rewarded with a far more contemplative experience and saved ourselves a fair amount of money too.

How we avoided the crowds at Bromo:

Firstly, we did not take a jeep tour. We walked to the crater from our Cemoro Lewang hotel, setting off at 8am as the hundreds of jeeps were heading back from the crater to allow their occupants to grab some breakfast before leaving. The walk took just over an hour and as the mist lifted we had great views across the desolate ‘sand sea’ to both Mt Bromo and its inactive neighbour, Gunung Bator. By the time we had passed the Hindu temple and climbed the steps to the lip of the crater we had the place pretty much to ourselves; the billows of steam rising in slow motion from the unseen depths. By walking, we saved ourselves the frankly extortionate park entry fee (recently tripled in price to in excess of 200,000 rupiah per person)

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The following morning we walked to Serumi Point (or viewpoint no.2) which was easy to find with the map provided by Café Lava. To arrive in time for the spectacular dawn across the caldera, we left our hotel around 4am. After a moonlit walk through the fields of vegetables and up the side of the caldera we had a clear view of Mt Bromo and Bator with the smoking giant, Mt Serumi in the background. Serumi Point offers virtually identical views to those from the higher but very crowded Gunung Penanjakan, instead we shared it with just 12 others and a couple of ladies offering a very welcome hot coffee. Without being tied to a jeep tour, we were able to linger way past sunrise and still make it back in time for breakfast at the hotel.

We completed both walks on consecutive days but you wouldn’t need to be superhuman to manage both in one morning – a good idea if you want to avoid staying two nights in the overpriced hotels of Cemoro Lewang.

Much less visited but in many ways so much more spectacular, the Ijen Crater is famous for its turquoise crater-lake, sulphur vents and the eerie blue flames. It is arduous but not impossible to reach Pos Paltuding and the start of the trail to the crater by public transport but again, most people choose to visit as part of an organised tour. Having left our hotel in Bondowoso at 11pm we attempted to grab some sleep in the car before starting our climb at 2.20am. For safety reasons we were not allowed to begin walking any earlier than this and had to wait for an hour in the car park at the bottom for the all clear.

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It soon became apparent that this concession to our health and safety was justified as the sulphurous fumes stung our eyes and throats as we climbed the 3km steep path up the side of the volcano. Lit by a nearly full-moon and stopping frequently in any patch of clear air, we were soon joined by local men who make a living collecting the sulphur that condenses around the vents near the bottom of the crater. They would make this trip two or three times a day, seriously risking their health, carrying loads of sulphur weighing sometimes over 70kg for what seemed a pittance. To supplement this income most would try to sell you small sculptures made from the pungent yellow stone but what use did we have for a sulphur turtle?

As we arrived at the edge of the crater the moon illuminated a monochrome world that would only really reveal itself as the sun rose later that morning. For now, the pre-dawn darkness meant that we had great views of the blue flames burning continuously around the sulphur vents. As the miners continued their descent into the crater we stayed a respectful distance back, mindful of the warnings of increased volcanic activity we’d received earlier and the news that two tourists had been hospitalised by the acrid fumes the previous day. This must surely be the original fire and brimstone.

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As we were slowly warmed by the first rays of the sun, the blue flames faded and the scale of the sulphur works were revealed. Ladders, tubes, hand-rails, baskets and huts were visible dotted across the boulders at the edge of the lake from which the gases belched like giant exhausts. It took just moments and the slightest change in the breeze, for clouds of fumes to cross the crater-lake and envelope the collectors and tourists alike so that they might temporarily disappear from our view. And as the quality of the light changed, the lake itself appeared to change colour from grey to green to an opalescent blue; set against the red morning sky and sulphur stained rocks, it made for a pretty spectacular sunrise.

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Peering down into the smouldering depths of an active volcano may not be on everyone’s bucket list and the effort required meant we’d had little sleep but this achievement has been a real highlight of the trip. We headed to Bali with the intention of sitting by a hotel pool or on the beach for a few days…

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Posted by stuartfinch Tuesday 1 July 2014 06:53 Archived in Indonesia

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