Panorama Hotel outrigger
Panorama Hotel outrigger

The single-day transition from the island of Bunaken to the summit of Bromo is a lesson in how to pack for anything.

Bunaken, where we started this morning, is a tropical paradise fringed with white sandy beaches and vibrant coral reefs. The intense sun burned the tops of my feet blush pink. The jungle steamed like a sauna, and at night I sweltered under a single thin sheet to ward off the voracious mosquitoes.

Bromo, at over 2000 m, is cold and dry, and any mosquitoes surviving the chill must have given up long ago after finding their prey coated in thick layers of wool and down.

We arrive late at night after an interminable drive up a narrow winding road, which finally stops when it runs out of ground at the rim of the Tengger caldera. Even as late as 11:00 p.m., vendors are out hawking woolen hats and scarves. They must be doing a brisk business. It’s hard to imagine how cold it would be up here, even after being told to come prepared.

Our hotel is in the village of Cemaro Lawang, which is a popular base camp for exploring Bromo-Tengger National Park. Only a few weak porch lights burn through the pitch black night, and one can only imagine the active steaming crater nearby. I have a room with a view, so I’m told, but there’s nothing to be seen in the dark. So I pile on all the blankets available, throw my unzipped down sleeping bag over the top, and elapse into dormancy like a caterpillar in a chrysalis.

Bromo and Sand Sea
Bromo and Sand Sea

In the morning, everything becomes clear, except for the caldera. A layer of clouds fills it like cotton candy, but Bromo, the active crater, is poking its nose out and sending up a plume of steam. By the time breakfast is over, the clouds have dissipated, revealing several older cones and the Sand Sea, which ripples across the caldera floor. The day is “free” on the itinerary and there’s no sign of Tom yet, so I decide to go visit Bromo.

Hiking boots and wool socks replace the Teva sandals of yesterday morning. The expanse of sand, sparse vegetation, and badland erosion remind me of Death Valley. The climate of east Java is considerably drier than that to the west and certainly more arid than that of Sulawesi. I asked somebody at the restaurant if it ever snows. They replied that it doesn't quite get cold enough. Even in winter? What winter? I knew it was a silly question as soon as I asked it. Here in the tropics, the temperature doesn’t change much throughout the year and it manages to stay just above freezing, sparing Bromo the distinction of being branded a ski area.

On the Sand Sea, jeeps are zipping around, kicking up dust, transporting tourists to viewpoints and craters. Horses and horsemen are standing about expectantly, looking for riders. I need the walk. At the base of the crater the smells of sulfur and ammonia mingle with the dust. I walk up the lower slope, which is littered with the remains of campsites, and then climb the 249 concrete steps to the rim. I didn’t count them at the time, but Doni told me latter. He should know -- he works as one of the volcano observers on Bromo. He lives in a village partway down the mountain and has taken the day off to visit his family.

A mushroom cloud appears from behind the hills. It is Semeru erupting. I circle the crater clockwise to get to a better viewpoint. But as I stop to take a photo at the highest point on the rim, Semeru goes quiet!

Bromo crater rim
Bromo crater rim

Too restless to wait, I continue around the rim. No one else is here, but I’m following fresh tennis shoe tracks with a distinctive tread. I wonder who made them. Wind stirs the silt and dust devils sweep across the Sand Sea. Other tourists are now approaching the crater. Close to the stairs, the rim narrows to knife-sharp and I hesitate for a moment, trying to appear like I’m contemplating the crater. Don’t look down, I tell myself, just walk.

I make it around to the landing and take the escalator back down. The owner of a pretty white horse offers a ride. I decline, but stop to pet the horse, who seems rather bored with the venture.

I scurry back across the Sand Sea and take the jeep road up to the rim, popping out rather conveniently at the visitor center for Bromo-Tengger National Park. It happens to be open, surprisingly enough, but nobody is inside. There are displays explaining the geologic development of the region: 1 m.y. ago a substantial mountain blew apart, turned itself inside out, and collapsed to form the caldera. Since then, smaller cones have popped up in the middle, with Bromo being the most recent.

Back at the hotel I finally meet up with Tom. We have lunch and he suggests I take a walk a couple kilometers down the road to the next village. “You will find it quite interesting,” he promises.

High road to Bromo
High road to Bromo

I head down the road through fields of cabbages and past neat little houses. A recording of gamelan music is coming from one of the houses and the ensemble of xylophone, flute, and drums seems most appropriate for the mountains.

The road is every bit as steep as it seemed in the dark yesterday night. Motorcycles zoom up and down at breakneck speed. One section that we circumvented on the way up has an impossible pitch – it must approach 30% and is paved with corrugated concrete. The motorcycles coast it without braking.

One motorcyclist with a billowing purple sarong passes several times, always with a woman on the back seat. The women sit side-saddle and often balance a large package or bag on their knees. The driver has an impish little grin and seems to be enjoying his job as short-haul motorcycle transport. Other than motorcycles, the native vehicles are mid-sized busses and four-wheel-drive Land Cruisers.

People are hanging out by the shops and sitting on their front porches. Kids come running up yelling “Hello mister,” then giggle and run away.

“Where you going?” comes at me repeatedly. One doesn’t just walk around here, you’ve got to be going somewhere or doing something. Women carry baskets of cabbages on their heads, men carry machetes on their belts. If I had a shopping bag or something, it would probably make more sense, but to be just walking around sight-seeing is considered crazy.

In the center of town, tall banks of loud speakers are blaring thumping music loud enough for a stadium rock festival. Kids huddle around an outside black-and-white TV, watching intently. Neat stucco houses with green and blue pillars and white tile porches sit on foundations of basalt boulders. The rocks have been selected for size and roundness and have been carefully painted white. I wonder if it’s for better visibility along the road at night.

I walk back to the hotel, yes all uphill, and bask in the sun outside the restaurant. Bromo is steaming in the caldera. Ah, this is the volcano life!

“Many cones, volcano less violent,” I remember Doni saying. But it doesn’t take a catastrophic eruption to do damage. Doni told us that last year two boys were killed in a small eruption of Bromo crater. The man who was supposed to be on site monitoring the seismograph at the time wasn’t at his post. Later he claimed the seismograph batteries were dead. Doni claims the records were destroyed. There was an investigation and the observer got thrown in jail. Doni bailed him out, but he had a stroke after that and now has a speech problem.

Later in the afternoon Tom and I pay a visit to the volcano observatory. The observer is in. We ask him if he knows Doni. He shakes his head vigorously, no. Tom gives Doni’s full name. No, never heard of him. He speaks with an impediment and we guess that he is the one who was supposed to be on duty when Bromo exploded.

The seismographs are running today, though, and the squiggles look subdued. On the wall are good photos of Bromo in eruption, some taken by Anton, son of the observer. Tom studies them for a long time, an uncomfortably long time.

We have a special occasion tonight. Doni has invited us to dinner at his house in Sukopuro, thirty minutes down the mountain. On the way we encounter a mob of people filling the street. We have to slowly inch the vehicle through the crowd, while people stare in the windows, slap the vehicle, and point. It's a bit unnerving. There is a covered stage nearby with lights, music, and action. Doni explains that this is a Hindu wedding and most of the people are uninvited guests looking for some entertainment. It could go on for three days.

We arrive at Doni’s village, park on the street, and walk down a quiet alley. Doni’s house is small, trim, and pink.

“She painted it pink – pink! I can’t stand it,” he grumbles of his wife’s choice in décor.

Volcano pictures decorate a poster board on the wall. A rock-climbing poster fills the opposite wall. Doni used to do that a lot, he explains.

We look at a CD slideshow of volcanoes on the TV, while Doni’s toddler pads back and forth across the room and pulls out CD’s from the stack. Doni suggests to his wife that she “practice her English,” so she and I sit on the couch in the living room and look at a photo album of their wedding pictures. It was an elaborate Hindu wedding -- five different outfits and a large supporting cast of relatives. It lasted "only" one-and-a-half days.

A special vegetarian menu has been prepared for me – mixed sauteed vegetables, tempe (a soybean patty), small new potatoes, fish (spicy), and steamed rice. Dessert is fresh mango, pineapple, and jackfruit. The food is all delicious, and I feel honored to be a guest at Doni’s home.

It is getting late and we must get up early tomorrow, so it is time to head back up the mountain. Doni is under the weather with the flu and tries to get his nephew to drive us back, but without success. So we all pile into Doni’s Land Cruiser, including wife, toddler, and baby and grind up the dark road. Partway up the mountain, Doni suddenly stops. Out of the darkness a bus appears, with banks of lights on the front, like the stage lights of a theater. Doni talks briefly with the drivers and Tom and I are hustled into the bus. Doni apologizes for leaving us like this and he and his family return home. I wonder what we’re in for.

I had told Doni about walking the amazingly steep stretch of road this afternoon, and he told us that it is closed at night because of all the wrecks that occur there. People go much too fast, and it is difficult to see in the dark. There is an alternate, less steep route, but it is longer. The bus groans and grumbles up the road and we come to the fork in the road. A gate with a no-entrance slash lies across the road to the forbidden grade. We’ll go the other way, of course.

No, the bus stops. The driver gets out and after some discussion with a couple villagers, the gate is opened. Up we go! It’s like a funicular tram ride, though the lack of perspective in the dark mitigates the sensation of steepness. Tom is nonetheless impressed.

Later, our suspicions prove true – it was a setup. Doni arranged for the funicular bus tour, which provided the evening entertainment for his guests and got him out of a long trip up the mountain. Better than Disneyland, we agreed.

After a late night, there’s no way the body wants to be awake at 4:00 a.m., but that is the schedule if we are to get to the Pananjakan viewpoint in time for sunrise. I stumble down from the hotel room to the parking lot, where jeeps are waiting outside, warming their engines. The throng of hotel clients sorts itself into three’s and four’s and piles in. A German girl bums a ride with us.

Waiting for Bromo
Waiting for Bromo

At the summit, it’s raining enough to need a rain coat, but really it’s just the cloud forest dripping. I feel like Michelin Mum, with layers of clothing under a parka and the regulation-issue wool hat and scarf I finally bought from the vendors. While most of the people stay at the top, we walk back down the road to a lower viewpoint. In a couple hundred feet we’re out of the drizzle. We pick our vantage point with an expansive view of the caldera and Tom sets up his tripod.

At sunrise, Semeru awakens with an eruption, sending a mushrooming ash column into the air. Streaky clouds rest like gauze in the caldera. The sun illuminates the craters and the palette changes from pastel pinks and yellows to chocolate brown and ochre. After the light settles into day, the rest of the German girl’s group arrives and we head down the mountain. Temperatures are now warming up and we shed layers of clothing as we walk. The caldera clears up and by the time we get to the hotel, people are out working in the fields, the birds are chirping, and it is the usual warm summer day on the mountain.