Hiking Tumpang to Bromo: Day 2

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Epiphytes hang from a tree along the road to Bromo.

This is day 2 of our hike from Tumpang to Bromo, an ambitious (and overly optimistic) expedition that’s wilted in the relentless tropical heat under the weight 50 kg of gear. Our path is here:

While this hike is do-able, it’s way harder than Google lets on, especially given the near-continuous uphill ascent, the tropical heat, and heavy packs with all of our stuff. Here’s the short summary of the hike verdict:

We sleep through sunrise and wake up around 9 to the sound of people walking around our tent. Then we see a hand slip underneath the rainfly and try to lift it and Stoytcho shouts “HEY!” The hand retreats. We dress for the hot day ahead and emerge from the tent to find a group of guys hanging around our tent, waiting for a ride out to the fields to start work. They’re curious, and stare at us with sheepish smiles on their faces. Our tent, with its slick orange-and-grey rain cover hiding everything, is a UFO – unidentified field object – for them.

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The poor guys hang around after we decamp, waiting for their ride to the fields.

We decamp and continue our hike in the increasing thickness of the day’s heat. Though we’re now continuously climbing in elevation, it’s not fast enough to shake the drag of tropical weather that wearies us at every step. When we stop for a break to check our progress and refill our water, we’ve only covered 2 km in an hour. We’re not going to make it today at this rate, so it’s time to change tactics.

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The morning moon and bird hanging over a tree along our hike.

Back on the main road, we stick out our thumbs in hopes of catching a ride. It fails spectacularly. At first it’s because the trucks are full of farmers catching rides to their fields, so there’s no room for us. Then comes a string of ojeks, some of which are so low-powered that they already have a former passenger running up a steep hill behind them, only to get back on at the top. But empty trucks also bafflingly pass us, sometimes honking with driver grinning. Are they making fun of us? Finally, a passing ojek driver honks and with a laugh, throws us a thumbs up. Holy crap, they don’t know we’re looking for a ride—they just think we’re giving them a universal sign for “good job”!

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Two cheerful guys along our hike, who return our thumbs up and we’re like WAIT WHAT no one knows we’re hitchhiking.

When the next empty truck approaches, we change tack and wave our hands frantically. The driver stops and looks out the window, and we point toward the truck and ask “Bromo?” He nods, and we ask “Harganya berapa?” (how much does it cost?) With a shake of his head, the driver motions for us to get into the truck bed. We scramble up and drop into a pile of wood planks and cardboard boxes as the truck lurches forward. In minutes, we we’re flying up hills that would have taken us hours to walk, gazing down sheer cliff drops alongside the narrow road over the two-foot walls of the truck bed.

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The view from our new ride.

The truck drops us at the entrance to the national park, where we get a nasty surprise: entrance to the park for foreigners costs 220,000 IDR ($16 USD) per person, which is most of the money we’re carrying. We try to explain that we haven’t got much and it has to take us all the way to Cemoro Lawang, but the park guard isn’t interested. He isn’t paid enough to care. We dig around and find enough to pay the fee for admission to an apologetic girl at the admission booth. She speaks enough English to kind of understand the situation, but can’t do anything beyond offer us our admission tickets and a “sorry.”

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The ticket booth at the Tengger Park entrance.

We continue the ascent up the hill by foot, trying to flag down another ride for free since we now only have only 200,000 IDR to take us through Cemoro Lawang and down to Surabaya. Most of the trucks that pass us are tour jeeps, so they’re either full of tourists already or they’re not going to be giving out any free rides. We finally flag down a huge construction vehicle the size of a semi, but there’s nowhere for them to pull off to let us on so we’re forced to jump on while it moves slowly beside us. We find ourselves in a mess of bent rebar and cement buckets beside construction workers—these guys are going up to Bromo to build something. They take us a few minutes to a turnoff, then the drivers tops and scrambles up to tell us it’ll be 100,000 rupiah for a ride. We tell him we haven’t got any money and get off. It looks like we’ll be hiking the rest of the way when another black pickup pulls over at our shouting and waving and motion for us to get into the back.

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The view from our first truck looking up at the sky, under a pile of rebar (and my pack).
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Two guys stare at us as we sit in the back of a pickup truck, headed up to Bromo.

It couldn’t get any luckier. These guys drop us off in Jemplang, the highest point in our hike, and point us in the direction of Bromo in the wide valley below. They’ve been so kind to us that we ask “Harganya berapa?” but the guys in the truck smile and shake their heads. “Terimah Kasi” is all we can offer them.

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Staring down into the Tengger crater.

The Tengger Caldera:

We make our way downhill for the first time in hours, descending to the floor of a miles-wide valley. Steep hills flank us one side, erosion lines snaking down their sides. A towering cliffedge rises to our other side, a near-vertical wall that seems too perfect for mountain erosion. And it’s not. This sheer cliff beside us is the rim of the ancient Tengger caldera, the wall of a hollow more than three miles across made by an explosive volcanic event millions of years ago. We’re merely ants, crawling on its surface.

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The road through Tengger caldera’s prairie, with hills on the left and the steep rim of the caldera on the right.
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Wildflowers in the Tennger caldera prairie.

The west side of the crater is lush green prairie, cut only by the dirt tracks used by humans for travel. It’s beautiful and isolated, silent except for the cooling wind coming off the surrounding mountains and an occasional vehicle engine. Clouds drift over us so slowly, we can see and feel the shift between sunlight and cloud shadow. We hike by families picnicking, couples resting by bikes, and newlyweds doing photoshoots, all lost in an endless sea of waving grass.

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Young lovers.

We proceed eastward as the sun dips in the sky, signaling the disappearing daylight hours in the moments we can see it. The clouds have become thicker, forming a wall before us. The landscape is also changing: the endless prairie has faded to a few sparse patches of grass huddling together on an increasingly barren landscape. This is the start of the sandsea, the barren desert of brown-black dust and sand between the prairie and Cemoro Lawang.  We hike on, breathing in the chilling air, using the wheel tracks of ojeks and trucks to guide us in an otherwise featureless landscape. Occasionally a vehicle materializes from the mist wall before us and passes by, dissolving back into the mist from whence it came.

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An altar at the edge of the sandsea.
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An ojek (white dot to the left) approaches us in the distance in the sandsea.

But the sandsea is not silent. There’s this dull rumble at all times, like a simmering of malcontent just beyond the wall of mist. Finally, there’s a break in the mist wall that reveals the source of both sound and overcast sky: the volcano Bromo, exhaling a continuous miasma into the sky above us.

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Our first view of Bromo, spewing gas into the atmosphere.

The last few kilometers of the hike are messy, as the poor visibility ahead and crisscross of tracks left by tourist vehicles and dirtbikes make it hard to find the trail to Cemoro Lawang. We finally find a row of concrete posts leading in the town’s direction and follow it. Though there’s no change in the landscape, each step draws us closer to the town, to putting down our packs, to a room with a bed in a place that hopefully takes credit cards.

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Nearly there: the concrete posts that lead out of the sandsea to Cemoro Lawang.

Suddenly a form materializes from the mist before us, an oasis of a lone tree surrounded by a wall. Scattered remains of flower and food offerings lay on the altar before it, and we stop for a few minutes to rest. The temperature continues to drop and we can feel the cold through our jackets. A few meters on, we find the east lip of the crater, a steep road zig-zagging up to Cemoro Lawang. It’s our final ascent in the creeping dusk; it can’t have taken more than half an hour, but it feels like an eternity.

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The sacred tree at the base of Cemoro Lawang.

Cemoro Lawang, perched on the crater’s edge, is utterly silent. By some miracle we have phone reception (many thanks, T-Mobile) and manage to find a hotel on Hotels.com that we can pay via credit card. After checking in, we walk the streets looking for an ATM, and our fears are confirmed: there are no ATMs in Cemoro Lawang (as of April 2017). Luckily, the hotel restaurant and a handful of others take credit cards. Freed from our packs, we sit down to a hot meal of stir-fried vegetables, rice, soup, and tea.

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Cemoro Lawang is in a cloud today and the streets are devoid of people. Still, buildings mean beds and warmth and food.

In the end, I can’t say that hiking from Tumpang to Cemoro Lawang is something I’d recommend to everyone. But given the chance, I’d do it again. We saw parts of Indonesian life that are otherwise unseen, the streets of villages and families living beyond the bustling cities that make up Java’s economic heart. We were the recipients of endless kindness and curiosity and warmth. And we like to think we gave the folks at Google some good corrective data about their walking estimates—the elevation feature that’s now standard in walking routes was added shortly after.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of our hike from Tumpang to Bromo.