Watching the sun rise over active volcanoes

They say train is the way to travel in Java. The 8 hour train journey through Central Java and east to Probolinggo was bliss compared to the buses. It consistently moved, it was comfortable, we had aircon, even the toilet was usable. The best part of the journey though was looking out of the window across rice paddies to smoking volcanoes. Pretty incredible and so typically Indonesia.

We were headed to Probolinggo as it’s the staging post for visiting Mount Bromo. One of Indonesia’s top natural attractions it is another iconic Indonesian sight that is often said to be one of the most magnificent landscapes you will ever set eyes on.

Mount Bromo is part of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. With its top blown off, it is more crater than mountain but the smoke billowing out removes any doubt that is is an active volcano, as does the fact that it eruptions fairly regularly. Mount Bromo is one of a number of volcanoes set inside a massive crater known as the ‘Sea of Sand.’ These include Mount Batok (the cone in front of Mount Bromo) and bringing up the rear the perfect cone of Mount Semeru, the highest point on Java at 3676m and which put out a number of puffs of smoke while we were there.

It is said that the best views of the volcanoes are at sunrise so that what almost everyone does.

We’d pre-booked a hostel that organises tours there. All the tours are the same so there is no need to shop around. We arrived early evening, settled in, walked to the ATM and got a few supplies from the supermarket next door and confirmed our tour with the owner over dinner. He clearly didn’t get why everyone goes for sunrise and made clear it was just as good to go later in the day. But we’d got both our minds and plans set on sunrise. Short on time we needed to be making our way further east in the afternoon.

When we climbed into a people mover with 4 others at 2:15am that felt easier said than done. We’d got down to the car park at 2:15 exactly and being the last of our group to arrive Marie got the front seat so it worked out quite well.

Just over an hour later we were parking up in the pitch black on the side of the dirt road on a hill in the chaos of jeeps and cars all doing the same. The driver pointed us upwards and we joined everyone else doing the same thing. Things got calmer where a barrier stops vehicles from going any further. Underfoot was mainly a very steep concrete road, locals offer horse rides up (the horses are not treated well so most international tourists refuse to take them, however the majority of visitors were domestic and they had no such qualms so the horsemen were doing a steady trade). It was brutally steep. The air was cool, so we had jackets on. The locals were freezing and all rugged up in hats and scarves. We knew sunrise was a long time off so took our time. When the road finally became a path and steps replaced the slopes the series of view points started. The vague outline of the volcanoes was becoming visible and while the path carried on much higher we stopped at one of the view points halfway up. We didn’t see what was to be gained by pushing higher and it had been tough enough getting that far.

Sunrise was a long wait but it gave us time to smoothly work our way through the crowd to the front of the view point. It was cool to watch the sunrise over volcanoes in the distance and light up Mt Bromo and the others in front of us, but it wasn’t anything spectacular and probably wasn’t worth the stupidly early start.

We’d all been given the instruction by the driver to be back by 6am, he drummed it into us. The sun only really rose properly around 5:30am leaving not much time. We got down pretty fast and were the fast back at just after 6am. We sat with the drivers around a fire next to a tea stall with the drivers for half an hour until the others showed up. We were then all immediately rushed to a jeep and loaded in. We got the front seat (1 seat between 2), the other four squashed into the back. We drove back down the road, through the village and then out into the crater across the sand. not far in is a huge area where all the jeeps park. A few food and drink stalls lines the edges. From here everyone walks 2 km across the sand to the base of the Mount Bromo and then takes the side footpath up to the base of the crater side and the the steps up to the crater rim. It was a long walk on legs already really feeling the early morning vertical hike in the dark.

We took it slow and enjoyed the early morning coolness, realising how exposed and hot it would become later in the day. When we finally got to the crater rim and peered down into the smoking hole it was surprising how just going a short way from the steps you get away from the majority of people. It was a pretty amazing experience.

When we got back to the jeeps 2 hours later we couldn’t find ours. We split and combed through all the rows of jeeeps. It turned out we’d gone the wrong side of the little patch of trees and we were the last back, 10 minutes late. The jeep driver hadn’t minded the other being 30 minutes late departing but was really rude about us being a bit late so Emma told him he was rude and he sped through the sand like a maniac. Which naturally we thought was great as we go offroading so it wasn’t going to scare us. It more gave the 4 in the back a fright. We think it was simply that when he dropped us in the village he was done and could pick up his next customers. We were dropped at a cafe where our car driver was waiting for us. None of us tipped when we paid the jeep driver.

Breakfast was included in the tour but the other 4 protested they didn’t want it and we were keen to get back to the hostel and hit the road so we said we were fine to skip it too. It turned out that they had a train out booked and that morning and it was hit and miss whether they’d make it back on time. So that explained why they’d bothered to be back on time from the crater walk but got back in their own good time from sunrise. The cafe gave us pancakes to take away. Happily everyone took the same seats they’d had out so Marie got the front again.

It was hot by the time we got back. We washed and packed up and called a Grab to the bus station. We’d picked a mountain village, Kalibaru, half way between there and the port to Bali to head to for the night. We knew we’d have to take 2 buses and we didn’t know how long it would take. In the end it took about 5 hours as the traffic on the mountain bends at the end was at a standstill. The joy of being on buses had worn off by then. Even with numerous buskers, a nun falling asleep on Emma’s shoulder and being a big hit with the security guards at the bus station we changed buses at. Clearly they see very few tourists as they personally helped us onto the bus and then asked for a photo so they could show their boss.

We’d got talking to a engineering student who lived in the village. He told the driver the exact place to drop us off which was super helpful. It was pitch black. We’d booked the cheapest hotel we could find there which was down a dirt track off the main road. Turns out it wasn’t far down but it is signed in a different name so we went way past it and had a long walk down the track past some houses and fancy resorts. The first people we asked seemed to think it was further down but the next people took us to one of the resorts to ask and they pointed us back up the road.

When we finally got there it was nice but deserted. There was a handful of guests. We had a chalet which was nice and while the food was proper restaurant prices there was a good choice and it was nice. We’d been able to book a train to the port town for the next morning so yet another early start meant it was showers and bed.

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