Saturday, 23 September 2017

Farewell, Indonesia!

Our time was running out. We had just two more weeks before we would part company and we still wanted to fit in a trek to the rim of an active volcano. Early the next morning we said a very sad goodbye to the House of Nasi Bungkus (which unfortunately is no more), dropped off our bikes at a local restaurant for their owner to collect and boarded a minibus shuttle for the 14-hour ride to Cemoro Lawang on the edge of the caldera. A tiny village in the mountains in eastern Java, this is the main jumping off point for visiting Mount Bromo, one of several active volcanoes in the region and arguably one of the most beautiful. 

The journey there followed the usual hellish pattern we had now become accustomed to – insane driving interspersed with attempts to relieve us of money, be it the expensive lunch or purchasing a tour. We declined both, determined to hike on our own via a back route to the sunrise viewpoint and then to the crater itself. We had heard already of ‘free’ routes by which we could do this and decided to spend the next day scoping this out. Upon arrival in Cemoro Lawang, we were a bit surprised to find that our food options consisted of pot noodles at four times the going rate and accommodation was a cold room with a cold water shower, despite the fact the temperature at that elevation was almost in single figures. 

The following morning we took a walk up through impossibly terraced farmland to check out the views. A short hike up the hill from where we were staying revealed a stunningly beautiful vista looking out over the plain, Laut Pasir, with Mount Bromo there right in front of us, shrouded in early morning mist. We walked for a while through the fields and found several tracks that would lead us to the volcano, but it also became clear that hiking there at 3am would be cold, dark and slippery in places. Not only that we would have to share sections of the route with a continuous stream of jeeps that ferry tourists first to the highest viewpoint for sunrise and then across the desert-like plateau to the volcano itself. We relented and bought two jeep tickets for the following morning.

At 3am, as we walked the few hundred metres to our meeting point in the crisp morning cold, we were grateful we had chosen the jeep option. We weren’t really prepared for just how many of these little cars there would be though. For twenty minutes a continuous stream of jeeps passed us, a couple of hundred perhaps, all owned by local jeep club members. I’ve never seen anything like it. Eventually, someone figured out who our driver was and we set off up adjacent Mount Panajakan. I suppose we should have expected the crowds we found at the top given how many jeeps had passed us before we even left, but it was still a shock. Our jeep driver took us as far as he could before he could move no further and we were turfed out to climb the rest of the way. The half an hour’s steep, upward hike that followed made us glad we hadn’t decided to walk the whole distance after all. At the top people pushed and shoved with no shame whatsoever as they fought for a view out over the valley. Two small concrete platforms have been constructed at the summit with nowhere near enough capacity to hold even a quarter of the people present.

We scouted out our options and struck it lucky when we hopped a barrier and made our way around the base of the platform via a narrow path. We then spend the next hour and a half defending our space with our elbows as the sun rose and the colours changed from grey to pink to orange and the volcano slowly appeared through the mist. Despite the crowds, despite the commercialisation of the place, the overall experience was well worth enduring the negative aspects for. I doubt there is a more beautiful place in the world to watch the sun rise over a volcano. This week I just read an article advising that this path will be closed for the next few months while they remove the stupid pavilion and staging at the summit to make more room for people to view the sunrise. It can only be a huge improvement. 

Once the sun was up, we returned to our jeep and headed down to the foot of Bromo. Tearing across the plateau to the base of Mount Bromo felt as though we had accidentally found ourselves in the midst of filming for an Indiana Jones movie, with jeeps whizzing past us, throwing up a trail of dust in their wake. Walking across the sandy plain the sulphur was heavy in the air, burning our eyes and nose every time the wind blew in the wrong direction. Surrounded by horses carrying both those less able and those too lazy to walk, we made our way slowly across the sandy plain and ascended Mount Bromo itself. From the rim, some 200+ steps up, it’s possible to peer down right into the smoking crater. We stood awhile, watching the spurts of smoke and the other people who had come to witness this incredible natural site. It’s not the first time I’ve stood on top of an active volcano, but it never fails to leave me in awe of nature’s extraordinary power.

After a quick stop for breakfast in the village, we jumped on one of the earliest minibus shuttles back to Probolinggo, the seediest town we saw in Indonesia by far. Well known as scam-central, we experienced more beggars in two blocks than we’d seen in the previous five months. Upon reaching the train station we sharpened our elbows yet again in order to queue to buy tickets to Surabaya from where we were due to begin our long journey home the next day. Some hours later, after a quick wander around a submarine parked in the centre of the city and some sushi, we found ourselves once again in a seedy motel room with no bathroom, just a toilet and a basin and a dodgy door lock that didn’t want to let us leave. Eventually though, we did just that, heading first back to Jakarta and then onwards to KL and then Bangkok to each begin our journey home.

Arriving in Bangkok we took a room at the conveniently placed ‘Bedroom @ the airport’, a modern building with surprisingly nice little rooms managed by an old security guy who didn’t speak any English at all but had handy little laminated cards I used to request a taxi at 2.30am in order to catch my first flight back to KL (ironically) and then back to London. We wandered down the road to find our last meal together and were pleasantly surprised to find a little car park food court with a steak stand and friendly people. At 2.30am I struggled to make the security guard understand that only I was leaving at this time and that Evan would leave later on. He eyed me suspiciously and I had to smile as it occurred to me that it’s probably not uncommon for women to be leaving rooms alone in the early hours in that area.

It’s always bittersweet parting at the end of these trips; part of me is excited to see what has changed in the places I haven’t been for many months and to see friends and family again, but perhaps a larger part of me is sad that we’ll inevitably be spending the next little while apart. We have our moments, we disagree on many things, we come to blows, but really there’s no-one I’d rather share these experiences with. Leaving this time had the added question mark that we’d not really decided where was ‘next’. Sitting here now, several months of working long hours later, we have ideas but we’re still not entirely sure. Maybe Australia and New Zealand? That appears to be the current favourite, but really, who knows. I guess that’s the joy of not planning, you never know what’s going to be around the next corner. One thing is for sure though, Indonesia has its place firmly on my ‘to return to’ list.

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