Bromo at Sunrise

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A view of volcanic peaks rising above the mist-filled Tengger Caldera.

The Bromo sunrise hike is part of a regular tour circuit and as such we’re not super enthusiastic to do it. But others have effused to us about Bromo’s beauty at sunrise, so on our last morning we wake at 3:00 am to start the hike.

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A light in the dark on our road to King Kong Hill.

With the exception of a few other tourists heading toward the King Kong Hill lookout point, we are entirely alone on Cemoro Lawang’ s roads. After half an hour, we begin ascending via switchbacks up the hill. There are more people here, tourists sporting headlamps hiking up, being driven on ojeks, or riding horses. A few locals wait along the road, asking if we want a ride. Others have set up stalls selling alluring hot tea and instant noodles. With temperatures at around 40 F, it’s hard to resist these.

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A long-exposure predawn shot of Cemoro Lawang.
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A long-exposure, predawn shot of the smoke rising from Bromo.

The pitch black veil of the sky begins to thin at 4:30 am, before we reach the lookout point, and for a moment we’re afraid we won’t make it in time for sunrise. We stop for a few minutes to snap some photos, then scramble up the muddy, rocky path as quickly as our cold, aching legs will take us. We can hear the noise of people just above, and we find ourselves in a rest area surrounded by a low concrete railing. People chatter excitedly and gaze through camera lenses at the tangerine sky, while locals sell keychains and postcards at a table nearby.

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The first streaks of dawn in the sky, with the moon still hanging above in the darkness.

The rote tourism is entirely overshadowed by the beauty of the valley below. King Kong Hill affords a sweeping view of the Tengger Caldera and Mount Semeru (Java’s highest peak and also an active volcano). Bromo exhales a continuous plume of smoke into the air, while Semeru behind releases small puffs from its own crater. The scene is cast in soft lilacs, dusky pinks, and creamy oranges as the sun approaches the horizon. Then the sun takes her first peek over the edge, spilling her warm yellow rays onto the world.

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A view south-west into the Tengger Caldera. Bromo smokes on the left, while Semeru emits a single puff of smoke in the background.
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Clouds rise from the Tengger Caldera and slowly fan over Cemoro Lawang (lights in center).

We watch the sunrise with a dozen strangers. When the first scene of beauty is over, they stir and stretch their cold limbs, and begin to file out, down the mountain. We look around and notice an empty path further up the mountain. Ten minutes climb later, we emerge onto a broad, paved viewpoint with dozens of giggling, chatting tourists. This is the tour group viewpoint, accessible from the road on the other side of King Kong Hill by a few minutes hike, with no journey to Cemoro Lawang necessary.

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Visitors take photos of Bromo at sunrise.
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Tourists capture photographs of Bromo as clouds spill over the Tengger Caldera and engulf Cemoro Lawang.
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The view of Batok (lower right), Bromo (left), and Semeru (upper right) as seen from King Kong Hill’s viewpoint.

We mingle with the tourists for a bit, enjoying their excitement and watching them take selfies. Then they, too, begin to disperse back to their tour vans and jeeps just over the ridge. We follow them up, curious what this side of the mountain looks like. It’s a cacophony of noise and trapped vehicles, piles of jeeps that have parked each other in on the narrow mountain road now trying to get out with their tourists. I’m incredibly grateful we don’t have to join them.

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A tourists stands on the railing with his camera in the new sun.
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Tourists mill around as locals sell knitted hats, scarves, keychains, and postcards.

As we walk back down, I notice a dirt path leading into the brush.  It first seems to lead only to a rubbish pile, but then it continues up the hill. Stoytcho and I follow it as it crests the hill above the rest area to offer yet another view of Bromo in the rising sunlight. The path then descends and rises narrowly and near-vertical up the next hill. I leave Stoytcho behind to navigate this path alone, higher still, emerging on a ridge about a hundred feet above the rest area. It’s empty, save for one man with a giant camera and his local guide. This is the hidden vista, the one known mostly to the locals and rarely visited.

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The sun rises behind a shrine above the King Kong Hill lookout.
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The volcanoes as seen from the highest viewpoint, above King Kong Hill.
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The clouds rushing over Cemoro Lawang dissipate in the warming sunlight.
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A view westward, along the Tengger Caldera’s edge.

It’s past 6:00 when we start our descent from the mountain, an hour after the tourist hordes have disappeared. The going is faster downhill and the warming air is a comfort after the morning chill. Going is mostly easy. About halfway down the mountain I pause at a faint chittering noise. Glancing up, we see a troupe of monkeys gliding through the trees above us, leaping on bending branches and scrambling along the slender tree trunks. In seconds they are there and gone, off to their daily business now that this mountain home is theirs again.

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Locals pack up their wares after everyone has left King Kong Hill.
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Offerings of flowers and tea left by locals for the mountain gods.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of our hike from Cemoro Lawang up to King Kong Hill lookout point.

Summiting Mount Bromo

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People appear as black dots against white smoke at the edge of Bromo’s crater.

After a night’s rest, it’s back on our feet to climb Bromo. We descend back into the sandsea, this time wearing masks to minimize the amount of dust we inhale. Skirting the edge of a massive dust devil forming on the valley floor, we find the line of concrete posts heading out toward the volcano.

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Hiking across the sandsea to Bromo.
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A group of dirtbike riders pauses to watch as dust devil form on the sandsea.

The sandsea floor is crisscrossed with vehicle and foot tracks in all directions, punctuated by the occasional tuft of grass or thread of a dry riverbed. Volcanic rocks ranging in size from baseballs to truck wheels also dot the landscape. These are volcanic projectiles, part of the tephra (“volcanic stuff”) hurled from the volcano during an eruption. Projectiles like these were responsible for two deaths when Bromo erupted suddenly back in 2004 and are an uneasy reminder that the volcano could erupt again at any time. But for now, Bromo seems content to simply issue forth a peaceful stream of smoke.

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A tuft of grass grows in the sandsea.
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Stoytcho poses next to a volcanic bomb in the shadow of Bromo. The face masks reduce the amount of dust and sand we inhale on the hike.

Beside Bromo sits Mt. Batok, a sharp contrast to the volcanic caldera and surrounding plain with its verdant, vegetation-covered east sides. Though Batok is the Tengger caldera’s youngest volcanic cone, it is currently inactive. Life now flourishes on the side shielded from Bromo’s volcanic fury.

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Shielded from Bromo, the eastern side of Batok (right) is verdant and shows reduced erosion compared to the west side.

After an hour of hiking across the sandsea, we’re at the base of Bromo and the trail begins its ascent. Without any vegetative cover to hold sand and dirt, erosion here is extreme. The shallow streambeds that thread through the sandsea floor become ravines and canyons on Bromo’s sides that are six, ten, or twenty feet deep. They fan out on every side of Bromo, a vein-like network of valleys carrying water from the volcano’s surface during rain.

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Stoytcho picks his way through hills and valleys of erosion near Bromo’s base. We’re wearing jackets because we ran out of sunblock.
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Erosion on the slopes of Bromo.

Our hike up culminates in a final flight of stairs to the edge of Bromo’s crater. It’s a surprisingly mundane walk, punctuated only by our curiosity of why a smooth incline bifurcates the staircase all the way up. Maybe people drive their ojeks up here? Maybe they bring things up to the volcano on handcarts? Who knows?

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The final climb to Bromo’s crater.
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People climb the final stairwell to the edge of Bromo’s crater.

Then we’re at Bromo’s summit, staring into the smouldering heart of the beast we spend our whole lives walking around on with nary a thought to what goes on below. While it’s visually impressive, it’s the sound that gets us first: the hiss of the volcano’s offgassing is like the sound of a high-energy jet engine. The audiosonic spectacle is a manifestation of the power below Earth’s crust, the power that builds islands, makes mountains, and moves continents.

As we stare down into the crater, we can’t help but notice all of the items scattered along its sloping sides. At first it appears to be entirely trash, but when we squint we can make out bunches of flowers, herbs, woven charms, and food. These are offerings to the volcano god, the human attempt at appeasing this force of nature. While we’re staring down at them, a guy nearby takes notice. “They have a festival here,” he tells us in English, “where they throw things into the volcano, like food and chickens.” I nod and reply, “Looks like it.” The guy continues, “Men go down into the volcano, to there,” he points down the slope, at about the halfway point to the gaping hole in the Earth, “and people throw things and they catch. Sometimes they fall.” He gestures to the hole. I turn and stare at the guy, trying to ascertain whether he’s joking around with us. He’s not*.

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The view down into Bromo’s crater, with offerings in the foreground.
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An altar at the crater’s edge.

The barrier between us and Bromo’s crater is only two feet high, more a warning sign that the other side is dangerous rather than an actual barrier. Rising four feet over this barrier, Stoytcho is decidedly nervous walking beside it, but he bravely accompanies me from one end to another. Further along the crater’s rim, far beyond the barrier, I can make out a hiking couple. Maybe we’ll do that one day. But not today.

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People standing next to the concrete barrier illustrate how short it really is.
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And in some places, the barrier has collapsed entirely.
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Two people walk on the far side of Bromo’s crater.

We climb back down the stairs and start the hike back when *ahem* nature calls. I scramble down into one of the eroded ravines for privacy, and when I’m done I realize I can’t climb back out. I’m stuck navigating in the crevice for several meters, following it until there’s a twenty-foot drop, then doubling back and finding a slope gentle enough to clamber back up.

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Inside one of the ravines below Bromo’s crater.
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A twenty-foot drop in the ravine, probably a spectacular waterfall when it rains.
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Indifferent kind: plants grow above a twenty-foot drop in a ravine at Bromo’s base.

We rejoin the stream of tourists heading back to their tour jeeps and hotels, having climbed Bromo as it simmered uneasily beneath us. Hopefully it does the same tomorrow.

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A visitor shuffles his feet in the dust.
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Stoytcho crosses a dry streambed in the sandsea on our way back to Cemoro Lawang.

*Sort of. The only mention I can find of this is on the Wikipedia page of Mount Bromo under the culture section, which states that locals often climb down to retrieve objects. It may have evolved since then into a game where locals try to catch things when they’re thrown into the volcano, or it might have been a miscommunication.

Cemoro Lawang

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A sign for the village of Cemoro Lawang in the sandsea, with volcano Bromo in the background.

Cemoro Lawang is a tiny village at the edge of the Tengger caldera and were it not for Bromo’s close proximity, it would likely have never seen tourists. Most residents here are farmers, though some are now part of a growing tourism industry that serves tourists to Bromo as hotel staff, restauranteurs, and tour guides. The wealth disparity between the visitors like us and the residents here generates a feeling of desperation, where streetside vendors sell Bromo souvenirs half on pity. Part of the reason is that we’re (once again) in a tourist town during the off-season, when times are hardest. But part of it reflects an economic shift wherein people realize that tourism-related jobs, even one that requires standing out on the cold street selling Bromo kitch, will make far more than any farming work. We might visit Cemoro Lawang one day to find the fields replaced by artisans’ shops and tour agencies in their place. But for now, the dominant feature of village’s landscape remains rows of neatly-planted spring onions, nourished in the volcanic soil.

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Farms cover the hills in Cemoro Lawang.

 

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A field of spring onions stretches off into the horizon.

 

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A farmhouse surrounded by fields of spring onions.

 

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A man carries his farm produce into town.

 

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A woman burns garbage at the edge of town.

 

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Our hotel in town, the Cemarah Indah.

 

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The entrance to Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, with a tour jeep parked in front. The poles hanging over the streets are charms, important to the Tengger people who inhabit this and nearby villages.

 

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A view down the hill into town on a foggy day. The proximity to the Tengger Caldera means that most days start or end with fog.

 

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A communications tower in Cemoro Lawang disappears into the fog above.