We are visiting in the wet season. It’s a risky time to come – the fog can descend thick and heavy at a moment’s notice, obscuring the best views. But this season has its own magic. The fog can evaporate just as quickly as it appears, and the effect is ethereal.
First the trees in the foreground come into view, then the deep valley floor, and slowly the ominous contours of the volcanoes themselves – emerging out of the white cloak of fog as if an old Polaroid photograph is developing before your eyes. At 2,392m in height, Bromo is not Indonesia’s largest volcano, but its unique setting and structure make it one of the most stunning landscapes in the country, or indeed the world. Part of the mystique comes from the surrounding valley – the Sea of Sands is partly an other-worldly plain of grey-brown rock, a lunar landscape created by the ash from Bromo’s sulphurous depths. But further away from the crater it becomes a lush savannah of vegetation and rivers that stretches across 5,250ha. From above, it is an astonishing scene – like travelling far back into prehistory. I almost expect dinosaurs to come lumbering into view. All this was once the ancient super-volcano Tengger, which exploded around 250,000 years ago to create the valley. The Sea of Sands is now ringed by the walls of the former crater – mountains that jut suddenly and sharply up from the flat, sandy floor. Five smaller volcanoes have appeared within this collapsed supervolcano – known as a ‘caldera’ – of which Bromo is the most active and revered.
We approach the area – now known as the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park – from the southwest. Lush tropical vegetation covers the mountainsides, and there are jagged peaks and stepped plantations on both sides as our jeep forges its way up the narrow pass. The fog appears in the late afternoon. We stop outside the village of Ngadas to watch it flowing into the valleys beneath us, a huge cloud drifting slowly in like a ghost ship coming into port. One gets accustomed to looking down on clouds in this part of the world. We are staying in the home of Muliati,
whose status as a former village chief has earned him the moniker ‘Bromo-Putra’. It is a simple village home – a bamboo ceiling, concrete walls. Life revolves around the fire burning in a stove in the back room – where family meals are cooked and the winter cold is held at bay. We perch on wooden benches around the fire and Muliati tells us some of the local legends that surround Mount Bromo, which takes its name from Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.
The name ‘Tengger’ supposedly derives from those of two young lovers – Princess Roro Anteng and Jaka Seger. The princess was a member of the Majapahit kingdom to the north, and her parents disapproved of her engagement to Jaka, a commoner. So the pair eloped to the mountain to marry. Unable to have children, the couple prayed to Brahma in the nearby Widodaren cave. They got more than they had bargained for, with Brahma providing them with 25 children. But there was a price to pay – Brahma demanded that the last child be sacrificed to the volcano to demonstrate their devotion. Muliati tells me there are two versions of what happened next: “In one version, the parents agree to sacrifice their child,” he says. “But in another version, the parents refused, making the volcano angry. The child decided to sacrifice himself, without his parents’ permission, to appease Bromo. A voice came from within the volcano telling people to continue the sacrifice every year if they wanted to survive.” This story has given rise to the annual Kasada Festival, usually held in August, when the ritual sacrifice to Bromo is made. Depending on which version of the story you believe, it is either to honour the original sacrifice made by the family or to pacify the angry Bromo.
Fortunately, children are no longer thrown into its bubbling depths. Instead, a procession led by local chiefs and shamans from all the surrounding villages carries crops and flowers to throw into the crater, praying for good harvests and protection from the occasional outbursts of the mountain. There is more than legend at work in the locals’ respect for Bromo. The ceremony also reflects the tremendous gift the volcano provides in the form of the volcanic ash that coats their fields, making the soil incredibly fertile. Farmers can expect three or four harvests of rice a year. “Farming is very easy here!” one farmer will tell me later. “That’s why we are so happy with Bromo.”
We set off from Muliati’s home at the slightly ridiculous time of 1.30am, trawling through the pre-dawn passes in our jeep until we reach the Sea of Sands. The mist is hanging low this morning, and we are treated to one of the eeriest sights of our trip – horsemen appearing from the white gloom as dark silhouettes, the bright colours of their shawls and caps drained away by the fog.
After a stop to watch the sun rise, we head down to the foot of Bromo. The terrain – wildly diverse – is astonishing. Alongside Bromo sits Mount Batok, whose deep green ridges, scored by the passage of lava over the centuries,
are particularly striking. As you approach Bromo across the lunar desert the ground becomes great sculpted megaliths of black rock. Then a steep climb brings us right to the lip of the crater. To stare down into Bromo’s belly is the stuff of awe – a great gaping wound in the Earth, a rare window into the vast subterranean power that rumbles and collides constantly beneath our feet. Every now and again, Bromo gives everyone something to worry about. His timing is unpredictable – eruptions can take place every 4 to 16 years and often with scant warning, although the twitching needles and computer models at a nearby volcanologists’ office keep a close eye on Bromo’s mood. The last eruption – which lasted from November 2010 to March 2011 – was the most violent since records began in 1826.
A procession led by local chiefs and shamans from all the surrounding villages carries crops and flowers to throw into the crater, praying for good harvests and protection from the occasional outbursts of the mountain.
There were three months of ‘Strombolian’, when red-hot rocks are fired out of the crater to heights of up to 500m. Ahmad Sultan, one of the two full-time observers at the office, had arrived just a few months before the eruption
started. “It was good fortune because I quickly got to see the special characteristics of this volcano, but it was also quite scary. Some rocks landed over a kilometre from the crater. But curiosity overcomes fear.” There are no flying molten rocks during our visit, but we still leave with the sense of having confronted the raw and terrifying energy of the Earth. I feel tiny and insignificant, yet somehow more alive for having glimpsed this vision of the ancient world.
5 Senses – Sight
It can be a gruelling start to the day. If you’re on the other side of the valley, it can mean getting out of bed before 2am to start the drive to reach the viewpoint on Mount Penanjakan, a 2,770m peak with some of the best views of Bromo and its neighbour, Mount Batok. But it’s certainly worth it as you see the first rays of sun spill over the horizon and light up this prehistoric scene. Remember to hang around for a while as tourists quickly disperse but the light becomes ideal for photographs an hour or so after sunrise.
5 Senses – Sound
SILENCE OF THE VALLEY
One of the best ways to avoid the tourists and get some alone-time with the volcanoes is to head out into the farmyards that surround the nearby town of Cemoro Lawang. Wander through the abundant fields and you’ll find a number of quiet trails cutting along the edge of the valley. It’s not as high as the official viewpoints, but you’ll find yourself alone amid the powerful silence of that vast panorama.
5 Senses – Scent
The sulphuric fumes that billow out of Mount Bromo hit you suddenly as you emerge on to the lip of the crater. Gasping for breath from the steep climb, the whiff of rotten eggs is the last thing your lungs want, although the view soon makes up for the bitter smell. During high levels of seismic activity, sulphur levels can become toxic, killing off plant life in the surrounding region. The volcanologists’ office was once surrounded by dense vegetation that was killed by sulphuric gases in 2006.
5 Senses – Touch
SEA OF SAND
The collapse of the massive 4,500m strato-volcano an estimated 250,000 years ago created a valley floor of dusty lunar-like blackbrown sand that crunches underfoot on your approach to Mount Bromo. It is mostly andesitic rock that has continued to spew up from inside the volcano during most of its recent eruptions. Bromo has erupted more than 50 times since records began in 1826, often caking trees and vegetation in ash.