Takeaway

Finding Mount Bromo

Sugato Mukherjee | Updated on June 08, 2021

Sunrise: The soft morning light turns the volcanoes into ethereal hills floating in an ocean of clouds   -  SUGATO MUKHERJEE

Indonesia’s most active volcano is a cauldron spewing sulphurous smoke, folklore and colourful traditions that keep a fuming god appeased

* Mt Bromo (2329 metres), sitting rather idly in the middle of the sandy plain, looks like a sidekick beside the formidable Semeru

* During the festival Kasada, the Tenggerese people come up here and throw fruits, vegetables and livestock into the crater below to appease the mountain god

***

The small village of Cemoro Lawang perches itself on the fringes of an undulating stretch of fine volcanic sand. This is Laut Pasir which, in Javanese, means Sea of Sand. My hotel, Bromo Permai, has a charming lobby that overlooks this unsettlingly unearthly territory.

“Five hundred years ago, my ancestors came through this route,” Sewak, my Tenggerese guide to this part of East Java, points to the far north in the desert where Mt Semeru (3676 metres), one of the most active volcanoes of the Indonesian archipelago, belches out another thick volley of steam into the fading evening sky, the third time in the last half an hour.

Mt Bromo (2329 metres), sitting rather idly in the middle of the sandy plain, looks like a sidekick beside the formidable Semeru. But its peculiarly shaped summit — an inverse cone formed when the entire top had been blown off during an eruption — belies a violent nature. The youngest of the surrounding five calderas, the first of which began to take shape more than 820,000 years ago, Mt Bromo has erupted more than 55 times in a little over two centuries, making it one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia. It erupted last in 2016. The event, that lasted six months, produced plumes of ash that rose up to nearly 4,000 metres generating local small tremors. Even now, it continuously spews off sulphurous smoke inside its crater.

Gust of wind: Mt Bromo’s arid moonscape is a swirling dust bowl dotted with horses trotting across it   -  SUGATO MUKHERJEE

 

My visit is scheduled for the following morning. The rest of the evening I remain engrossed in the fascinating history of the Tenggerese, a minority tribe who had settled around this barren volcanic caldera five centuries ago. Sewak’s sunburnt, moustachioed face becomes animated as he recounts the story of Princess Roro Anteng and how she fled with her husband Joko Seger from a band of marauding invaders who had attacked their homeland in the lush green plains of Central Java.

With a small group of followers they crossed Laut Pasir on horses and mules and set up their new kingdom in these volcanic plains and named it Teng-ger using parts of their respective surnames. With strong roots in Hinduism, a legacy of their lost homeland, the people came to be known as the Tenggerese.

Next morning I wake up at 3.30 and gulp down some strong Javanese coffee to ward off the last vestiges of sleep. A 1970s-era Toyota Land Cruiser is waiting for me outside and after a 15-minute ride that involves many twists and turns, I reach the base of a dirt path that seems to lead on to the scattering of twinkling stars overhead. I am at the base of Mt Penanjakan (2770 metres) and from here it is a trudge uphill over a thick carpet of volcanic ash. The only sounds we hear are the collective heaves and sighs and the soft thud of hiking boots on the steep trail, lit up by the beams of overhead lamps of the sunrise trekkers. As the trail eases after about 40 minutes, the eastern sky turns a pale violet. I reach a flat top in another 20 minutes and find a vantage point that overlooks the valley below. If the twin mounds of Bromo and Semeru looked foreboding and desolate last evening, the soft morning light has metamorphosed the volcanoes into ethereal outer-worldly hills floating in an ocean of clouds that seem to rise from the valley floor!

Coming down at the base of Mt Penanjakan I replenish myself with a hearty breakfast of Mee Goreng (fried noodles with eggs, fresh vegetables and a generous topping of peanuts) for the next course of action — a two hour walk over the Sea of Sand to the summit of Mt Bromo. I could take a ride up to the drop off point in the 4WD Land Cruiser but I am tempted to wade through the arid moonscape — a swirling dust bowl dotted with horses trotting across it. The horses help ferry the people across the Sea of Sand. The eerie landscape is fringed by barren deep-fissured mountains all around and it is hard to imagine that beyond the 10 km stretch of this Laut Pasir lies the greenest tropical valleys.

Out of sight: Dust blocks the vision of the eerie landscape fringed by deep-fissured mountains   -  SUGATO MUKHERJEE

 

Mt Bromo looms in the distance — a layer of dust lovingly encircling its base. Sewak points to a small complex of buildings at the foot of the volcano. “That is Pura Luhur Poten, the Hindu temple of the Tenggerese,” he says. “And every August our Kasada festival starts from there.” I ask him about the ceremony to honour the god of the mountain. “There is a colourful procession in which all 30 Tenggerese villages take part. It ends up there,” he says pointing to the slightly collapsed head of Mt Bromo, grey-white fumes shooting out of it.

We arrive at the base of Mt Bromo where a long flight of 245 stairs goes up straight to the rim of the crater. A lone horseman disembarks from his saddle near us and Sewak talks to the diminutive old man reverentially. He is a high priest of the Tenggerese tribe and as we go up the stairs he tells me an ancient tale. The royal couple — Princess Roro Anteng and Joko Seger — were childless. They prayed and meditated on Mt Bromo for many days before the crater opened and the god of the mountain Hyang Widhi Wasa announced that they would be given children, but the last born would have to be sacrificed back to the mountain.

Eventually, 25 children were born to Roro and Joko. But they broke the promise, refusing to sacrifice their last born, Prince Kesuma. A dreadful eruption of Bromo followed and Kesuma was swallowed into the volcanic crater.

Almost as soon the story ends, we reach the rim of the volcano. From up here, the ruggedly barren expanse of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park is looking straight out of a set of a period drama with horses and men moving slowly through its sandy-brown textures. I look down into the cavernous interiors of the crater. The fissured slopes converge down into a huge, dark cauldron from which sulphurous smoke shoots skyward with a thick, pungent smell.

“During Kasada, the Tenggerese come up here and throw fruits, vegetables and livestock into the crater below to appease the god of the mountain,” the old priest says. “If the god is not satisfied with our offerings, he erupts,” he concludes in a simple tone of finality.

Sugato Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer

Travel Log

Getting there

Fly into Surabaya from any of the Indonesian cities of Jakarta, Yogyakarta or Denpasar. A three-hour bus ride (Rp 40,000-50,000 one way) takes you to Probolinggo, the gateway of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. From there, a 10-seater minibus ride of about 90 minutes (Rp 20,000-30,000 one way) through the lush green Javan farmlands takes you up at Cemoro Lawang.

Stay

Cemoro Lawang has quite a few homestays and modest guesthouses, conveniently located right on the edge of the Tengger caldera. Bromo Permai is a midrange option (Rp 4,00,000-10,00,000, breakfast included) that offers stunning views of Laut Pasir.

Travel Tip

Carry enough woollens as the mercury often dips near freezing point atop Mt Penanjakan in the pre-dawn hours. A gasmask would be handy not only as a protective gear against the toxic sulphur fumes from the crater of Mt Bromo but also from the ashes and dust kicked up by the hooves of horses when you are crossing Laut Pasir.

A few travel agencies operate from Surabaya making arrangements for all transfers, accommodations and guide for the hike. Java Discovery based out of Yogyakarta and Surabaya is a reliable outfit.

Published on June 08, 2021

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