Indonesia - Java - Climb Every Mountain
Sep 25, 2003
|"Planes Trains and Automobiles", Indonesian style. That's what it felt like trying to get from Lovina in Bali to Bondowoso in Java. Only around 150 miles as the crow flies, it took us one bemo (minivan-style public transport), 3 public buses (none of which were express, air conditioned or non-smoking), one ferry crossing, one ojek (motorcycle), one becek (bicycle taxi) ... and 8 hours to get there!!
Located to the west of Bali, Java is the most densely populated island in the world. Its major centers like Jakarta and Surabaya are noisy, filthy and crime-filled. As a result, we limited our visit to rural East Java where green fields and quiet country living are still the norm.
As with most Indonesian islands, Java has quite a diverse landscape. Stretching across the flat lowlands are miles and miles of rice fields, sugar cane and tobacco farms. Higher up in the hills and mountains are crops of corn, cabbage and onions as well as large coffee plantations. Sadly, the recent bomb in Jakarta destroyed what little tourism there was in some of these quaint rural areas and vendors, hotel and restaurant owners now almost fall over each other in a desperate attempt to be the first to reach the few tourists who still come.
Our trip to Java had a mission. We had mountains to climb ... volcanic mountains to be exact. Java has 129 active volcanic mountains. We chose to climb two: Kawah Ijen and Gunung Bromo. Now don't get me wrong, you know I'm not crazy (or at least you thought so before I started "backpacking" through Indonesia), these mountains are definitely not Everest material but they are a hard uphill climb at higher altitude. But I wasn't worried, I was in peak physical condition after dining on fried rice, fried noodles, french fries, fried egg, fried fish, fried chicken and Bintang beer for the past month (okay, and maybe some ice cream and Cadbury chocolate when we can find it).
We decided to tackle Kawah Ijen first. We left the hotel at 4:30am to begin our 2 hour drive to the base of Ijen. The hotel provided a packed breakfast for us to enjoy enroute; it felt meager to the touch but we were hopeful. It turned out to be 3 thin slices of white bread with about one tablespoon of margarine-like product (that tastes kind of strange and never really melts on toast) and the same amount of jam-like product (that tastes mostly like jelled sugar with added yellow, red or pink food dye to make it look like jam). No knife, no spoon, not much to fuel the body for a climb!
The vehicle stopped at the base of Ijen ... where it was raining and cool. What? We weren't prepared for rain! We reluctantly set off, wearing borrowed army raingear, bolstered by promises that the rain would stop shortly and it would be sunny and hot at the top. For hours we slowly and steadily marched upwards along slippery dirt paths and finally reached the volcanic rim of Kawah Ijen where it was windy, cool, overcast ... and still raining.
On a clear day hikers are treated to a spectacular view of a turquoise sulfur lake in the crater basin, smoke billowing from a volcanic vent by the lake's edge, and severe crater walls. Through the rainy mist we were lucky to catch the occasional glimpse of the lake, a hint of smoke, and not much else! I'm sorry, I didn't climb up the long, steep, slippery trail for 3 hours, cough up one lung and have a hissy fit along the way to see this! Another hissy fit followed.
JP thought it would be really cool to climb down the even steeper, slipperier, sulfur smelling crater wall to get a better view of the lake and sulfur vent below. I thought it would be really cool to stay where I was, even if it meant dying from hypothermia. So JP hiked down and clawed his way back up while I sat huddled in a small crevice wearing my now dirty and smelly army issue poncho. I still believe that mine was the better option.
An interesting thing about Ijen is that a form of sulfur oozes out of the volcano vent in a bright yellow liquid that hardens, looking like yellow styrofoam but is amazingly heavy. Even more amazing is that Indonesian workers make this trek every day, load hardened sulfur pieces into baskets and carry it down the mountain along these billygoat trails where it's piled into trucks and hauled away for processing. Not an easy feat for the seasoned hiker wearing a light backpack and trekking boots, but they do this with upwards of 80 kilograms of sulfur rock balanced over their shoulders and wearing wellies or flip flops! And they make 2 to 3 trips each day. It breaks your heart to watch these poor fellas slowly shuffling along with their heavy loads ... and all this incredible hard work for less than $10 per day. So those of you who think your job sucks, think again and repeat after me ... I love my job, I love my job ...
The hike back down was extremely slippery and slow going, and by the time we got back to the vehicle I was cold, hungry, soaked to the bone, and covered in mud. But I had successfully climbed my first volcanic mountain. And wouldn't you know it, by the time we got back down the sun was shining!
The next day we were on the road again, taking various forms of transport to reach Cemoro Lawang, a small village that's further up in the mountains and is the approach to Mount Bromo. On this trip I learned that in Indonesia there's no such thing as a full bemo. There we were, all 24 of us, crammed into a vehicle that most westerners would think crowded if carrying 8 passengers!
We seemed to leave the heat behind as we made our way up the mountain and it got downright cool in the evenings - probably around Calgary's summertime temperature! After spending a month in Indonesia's blistering heat, I actually had to put on a sweater when we went out for dinner.
Bromo's mountain range is reputed to be one of the most impressive volcanic landscape sights in Indonesia. Cemoro Lawang is perched on the rim of the large outer crater which is about 10 kilometers across. From there you have a great view of the steep crater walls that plunge down to a flat expanse of lava sand, and in the middle of this are 3 tall volcano cones - 2 that are not active, and the smoking peak of Mount Bromo.
Okay, so I'd like to know why all the views from mountaintops are always best at sunrise? There we were, flashlight in hand, in the pitch dark, stumbling down the outer crater wall at 4:00am. A thick fog hung over the basin floor, making visibility even more challenging once we reached the bottom, and we were very glad that the trail was marked with white stones. An hour later we reached the base of Bromo and started our climb upwards. Dawn was breaking. The last steep climb to the crest of Bromo is reached by climbing stairs - 246 of them to be exact! The view from the top was absolutely breathtaking ... sun peaking over the horizon, mist still hanging below. It felt like we were at the top of the world.
Okay, so before the birds start chirping and angels appear, I will admit that we didn't stay at the top very long as sulfur dioxide misting out of Bromo made it very difficult to breathe and actually stung where it touched your skin. So 15 minutes later we were marching back down the stairs. Doesn't matter though - I had successfully climbed my second volcanic mountain!
An interesting thing about Bromo is that there's a Balinese Hindu temple at its base. Very strange indeed since we weren't in Bali and, well, the Javanese are muslim. It's explained by a long story of transmigration that I won't bore you with. Anyway, although the temple is clearly visible by day, the fog was still thick when we descended from Bromo and we literally stumbled into the temple quite by accident, only then realizing we had taken a wrong turn.
We relaxed for another day at Cemoro Lawang then decided it was time to move on again. Thankfully there were fewer passengers in the bemo this time - maybe only 16 of us - which was a good thing since we needed the extra space to make room for the live sheep! (I've see tons of goats in Indonesia but this was the first and only time I've seen sheep). Like I said, always an adventure!
Our final stop in Java was to Baluran National Park on the northeastern coast. The vast savannah grasslands, looking more like a scene out of Africa than Indonesia, are the home of wild buffalo, boar, barking deer (yes, they really do bark!), monkeys, peacock, leopards and various jungle fowl. Of course, in typical Indonesian style, we reached Baluran only after traveling another full day, the last 12 kilometers reached by motorcycle over badly broken roads.
The guidebook had warned that the rooms were basic and that no food service was provided although a small kitchen was available. No problem we thought, this is just like camping, so we brought some provisions along. Well, when we arrived we noticed that things may have deteriorated a bit since the guidebook was published: the rooms were way more than "basic" (and believe me, in Indonesia that's pretty bad) and I won't even try to describe the kitchen which was absolutely unusable. If leaving right that minute had been possible we would have done so, but unfortunately the motorcycles had already gone and we were stuck there for the night. I had a very sleepless night, worrying less about the wild animals outside our door and more about the little creatures going bump in the night inside our room!
Things always look better in the morning right? Well, no, actually they didn't in this case. So we admitted defeat, waved down the first motorcycle we saw, and decided to leave the primitive pleasures of Baluran to those more young and hardy.
And then, after one ojek, one bemo, two buses, one ferry crossing, one taxi, and 8 hours of travel, we arrived back in Bali, very glad to be back in civilization, but also very glad that we had traveled to Java ... where I had climbed my first volcanic mountains.