Trying (and failing) to hike Son Tra Mountain

IMG_6170
A Buddhist temple and Da Nang’s skyline seen through the midday haze from Son Tra Mountain.

After the amazing nature we experienced in Indonesia, we were ready to tackle Vietnam’s hiking trails. Unfortunately information online was sparse and having not yet fully internalized how poorly the hike from Tumpang to Bromo unfolded, I figured we could just go out to a place, pick up a dirt path, and follow it in and out. There was mention online of biking trails on Son Tra Mountain, which lies on a peninsula just north of Da Nang and wouldn’t be too far from civilization. So one morning we packed our bags and caught a taxi out there to try hiking around the mountain.

IMG_6044
Signs along the road on Son Tra Mountain. This shadeless path seems to be the only path for cars, bikes, and the unfortunate person who wants to walk.

 

IMG_6043
Cars and motorbikes speed past us as we hike up the road.

This hike was a failure, though not in its objectives. We were able to hike up the mountain and see some of Vietnam’s natural beauty. No, where this hike failed was in that it was utterly miserable for two reasons: lack of information made it impossible to find a walking trail and it was swelteringly hot. When we arrived at our destination, we asked the staff at the InterContinental Hotel about hiking trails and though they spoke English, they didn’t seem to understand the hiking part. They directed us to the vehicle road leading up the mountain. This shadeless pavement path was our trail for the hike and the noontime tropical sun beati down on us. The sunblock we applied simply dissolved in our sweat and we burned. It was not a fun hike.

IMG_6189
Stoytcho rests in the shade of a tree.
IMG_6180
The sun shines through the tree’s leaves. We never get full respite from the sun.

We realized an hour in that we weren’t going to make it to the top of the mountain and picked a smaller, nearer peak as our destination. It still took us another hour and a half to reach this peak and at the top we collapsed in the shade of a tree, panting and gulping down water. From here we could make out Da Nang’s skyscrapers in the midday haze and see the sparkling blue water along the shoreline below. “We should’ve gone swimming today,” we agreed as we hiked back down the mountain, passed by whizzing cars and passing vehicle debris.

IMG_6210
The shoreline of the peninsula, with its alluring aqua waters. Should’ve gone swimming.
IMG_6162
Incense sticks beside a pile of motorbike debris, probably indicating an accident where someone died. 

For those of you who found your way here because you’re looking for a hike in Da Nang, don’t do this one because it’s hot and just not worth it unless you have a motorbike or bicycle. For those of you reading along on our travels, this is a good moment to enjoy the fact you’re at your computer and not thousands of miles away hiking, sweating, and burning in the tropical sun. For us, this experience is a reminder to know there’s a trail before going. While traveling we’re trying lots of new things, and they won’t always work out. Best to keep the spirits up—and remember more sunblock.

Oh! And there was some cool wildlife:

IMG_6199
A Paris peacock butterfly (Papilio paris) collects nectar from a flower.
IMG_6096
A groundskimmer (Diplacodes trivialis) rests on a leaf in the sun.

 

IMG_6078
A soldier ant (unknown species) defends a line of foragers (from us).
IMG_6153
A planthopper of the family Flatidae rests on my hand and nervously eyes the camera.

Bromo to Probolinggo to Surabaya: a primer on Indonesian driving

IMG_4487
Our driver from Cemoro Lawang to Probolinggo, standing intrepidly on his ride.

If you’re at Bromo/Cemoro Lawang and need to get back to Jakarta, the only feasible route (as of April 2017) is through Probolinggo and Surabaya.

Your first step is to catch a minivan from the center of Cemoro Lawang that will take you down the mountain for ~40,000 IDR ($3.00 USD). On paper these vans leave every hour, but realistically they leave when they’re full (about 13 people). It will help you to recruit others going down so you’ll leave sooner, or you can all agree to pay your driver more money to leave earlier.

IMG_4498
Somehow I don’t think this thing has AC, WiFi, OR Bluetooth.
IMG_4500
I claimed shotgun, but without seatbelts I don’t know if I can recommend that to you.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then there weren’t many good intentions to be had when they paved the road down to Probolinggo. It’s bumpy, windy, and your driver will go fast. Buckle up (if you can) and enjoy the ride. You’ll pass tons of adorable little villages, where at midday uniformed schoolchildren crowd the streets as they walk home for lunch. Whizz past them and fear for their safety with drivers like yours on the road.

IMG_4504
Someone having a bad day with a ditch.

In Probolinggo, the van driver will drop you on the street across from the Probolinggo bus station. Ignore everyone trying to help you with your luggage, signs advertising bus tickets (there’s a markup), and men trying to call you over and go straight into the bus station. The bus you want will say Surabaya, but you can double check by asking other people on the bus for Surabaya.

IMG_4514
Okay, time to play guess-the-real-ticketseller! Which guy down there will give you a REAL bus ticket?

Now here comes the hard part: ONLY pay the ticket collector once the bus is moving. Ignore the guy or pair of guys that board the bus and tell you to pay for a ticket from them. Do not hand over money for the official-looking bus ticket in their hand. It is a scam targeting foreigners and that is a fake bus ticket. If they get angry at you, stay calm. If they yell at you to get off, get off the bus and stand in front of it. The real bus driver will have a laugh at the scammers’ failure and usher you back on the bus. ONLY hand over your money once the bus is moving, and give it ONLY to the guy you see all of the locals paying. And check your change, as he may try to shortchange you. A ticket from Probolinggo to Surabaya cost 20,000 IDR ($1.50 USD) in April 2017, and you can always ask ‘harganya berapa di Surabaya?’ (“How much to Surabaya?”) to a person next to you.

IMG_4518
Did you guess the man in a striped shirt with a ponytail? You win! But check your change.
IMG_4523
Why yes, this is our bus passing a semi carrying a shipping container, passing another truck carrying construction supplies. Truck-ception, whoaaa.

Phew. Made it to Surabaya? Then you’re past the difficult part. You’ll likely be dropped south of city proper at Purabaya Bus Station, and it’s up to you to take a bus to the train station or airport. There is a WONDERFUL info booth in the bus station where the staff know some English, so politely decline the taxi callers and make your way there. As of April 2017 the bus to the train station was the P5; it cost 6,000 IDR ($0.45 USD) for a ride and took about 30 minutes. We had no scam problems, but it’s literally crazy taxi bus edition, so sit at the front for the 90 km-an-hour ride of your life along Surabaya freeway.

IMG_4540
Taxi drivers trying to wave us down at the Purabaya Bus Station. Ignore ’em, unless you’re in a hurry. Even then, the bus is going to be (disturbingly) fast.
IMG_4536
A P5 bus rolls into Purabaya Bus Station.
IMG_4545
The driver’s ed test: what’s wrong with this picture?

You’ll get off on the West side of the train station, which as far as we could tell had no actual entrance. You’ll have to find your way around to the other side of the station with a map or asking the super-nice locals. There aren’t really cheap street eats at the train station, but there are a couple of cafés and minimarts nearby. After buying your tickets, head over to stock up on snacks for the overnight ride back to Jakarta.

IMG_4555
You made it to the train station alive! The train from Surabaya to Jakarta will be a breeze, but bring an eye cover–they never turn the train lights off.
IMG_4564
A beautifully-domed mosque near the train station. You may want to offer a prayer of thanks to whatever you believe in for making it here alive.

Hiking Tumpang to Bromo: Day 2

IMG_3252
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.

IMG_3233
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.

IMG_3261
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”!

IMG_3240
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.

IMG_3267
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.”

IMG_3272
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.

IMG_3281
The view from our first truck looking up at the sky, under a pile of rebar (and my pack).
IMG_3316
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.

IMG_3337
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.

IMG_3379
The road through Tengger caldera’s prairie, with hills on the left and the steep rim of the caldera on the right.
IMG_3376
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.

IMG_3406
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.

IMG_3500
An altar at the edge of the sandsea.
IMG_3509
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.

IMG_3518
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.

IMG_3538
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.

IMG_20170417_151553
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.

IMG_3970
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.

Hiking Tumpang to Bromo: Day 1

IMG_3149
A rusted road sign pointing the way to Mount Bromo.

Having successfully hiked a dormant volcano (Merbabu), it was time to hike a live volcano in Java! Bromo was the best choice because it’s between Jogja and Jakarta, where we’ll be flying out to Vietnam after the hike. But searches online didn’t bring up any multi-day hikes around Bromo, and it’s only a couple hours up the volcano from the nearby village of Cemoro Lawang—hardly a hike at all! Online searches also revealed that getting to Bromo from Jogja could be tough. Most visitors come from Surabaya in the north or Bali in the east, meaning that there’s little infrastructure to get there from any other direction. After several hours of searching, I found that we could get from Jogja to Malang by train. There were rumors online of a minibus that could take us from Malang to Tumpang, and from there it seemed that most travelers hired a vehicle to take them the rest of the way. That’s neither reliable nor cheap.

But this might be the perfect chance for a multi-day hike. Google Maps indicated that the 30km distance between Tumpang and Cemoro Lawang is about 9 hours of hiking, which should be perfect for a two-day trip! Since we won’t be coming back to Jogja, we’ll have to carry everything we own plus food and water on this hike. That’s about 50 kg (110 lbs) of stuff. This is a great idea, right?

The train ride to Malang and minibus ride to Tumpang are without incident, with the exception of the mini-bus itself being a really mini mini bus. Seriously, Stoytcho has to double over inside it, we barely fit with our packs, and we’re somehow back here with a whole Indonesian family. Our driver is chainsmoking out the window.

IMG_3097
Stoytcho, crammed into minibus line #70. That tan thing in the lower left is MY knee.
IMG_3114
A street entrance (Ken Arok) in Tumpang; many of the large streets in these towns sport ornate gates like the one above.

Once we’re dropped off in Tumpang, the walking begins and the folly of our choice reveals itself. The goal is to make it halfway (15 kilometers) today, but as we trudge along the road with hot tropical sun beating down and ojeks whizzing by, we realize we’re slow. Really slow.

IMG_3144
Ojeks pass us on the road (Jl Raya Tulus Ayu). This guy has his whole food stall attached to the back of his ojek.
IMG_3169
Stoytcho hikes along the road, later in the day.

We climb foot by foot up hills and through villages, where people come outside their homes to stare at us, wave, and smile. We’re funny and weird wherever we go, with our massive packs and sunblock-smeared skin. People riding ojeks up and down the road pull over and want selfies. We try to buy a couple of bananas from a roadside stand and the woman there first wants to sell us the bunch for 5000 rupiah; when we clarify we just want two bananas for 5000 rupiah, she laughs, then pulls two from the bunch and hands them to us. “Gratis,” she smiles and waves us off. We’re insanely grateful, but I feel bad because we have way more money in our accounts than she’ll amass in a lifetime. But we’ll later find out there are no ATMs in Cemoro Lawang and cash will become scarce, so we’re lucky to have saved money here.

IMG_3148
These kids stopped their ojek to take a selfie with us. Their camera and mode of transport are definitely more glamorous than ours.
IMG_3166
The gift of a banana on the road.

By nightfall we’ve made it only 11 km, to the rest stop just past the town of Gubugklakah, and we’re utterly exhausted. We set up our tent across from the rest stop, Ponco Kusumo, where all of the jeeps that run tours to Bromo are lined up in the fading light. There’s barely time for dinner before we fall asleep.

IMG_3181
We reach Ponco Kusumo Rest Stop. Stoytcho’s expression says it all.
IMG_3137
A moth hiding in foliage nearby.

THUD! WHAM! BRRR-AM! We’re awakened around 21:00 by what sounds like a whole marching band by our tent. Our first thought is that some of the teenagers who passed us earlier in the day are playing tricks on us now, but doesn’t seem to be in line with the Indonesian attitude. The noise continues as we lay there, wondering what to do. We eventually crawl out of our tent to gaze over at the rest stop, where lo and behold, there is an actual marching band. It’s the local school band, and this is where they practice on Sunday nights, far enough from the town to avoid disturbing anyone.

IMG_3183
The local high school marching band practices in the rest stop parking lot, far enough from town to avoid disturbing anyone (except us).

We can’t sleep, so we wander over to the rest area to get a cup of hot tea and watch the band practice. There are about a dozen people here watching the practice, some parents and friends who came up to show support, give someone with an instrument a ride, or just to hang out on a Sunday night. It’s surprisingly similar to watching high-school band practice in the U.S.—the students work on marching in time with a senior student up front correcting them. They work on getting the timing of the piece right. The music starts strong and polished as they cover the most practiced parts, and then no, that’s a little too fast: start over. The only difference is that we’re at an open-air rest stop in the middle of a tropical island, and some kids less than half our age have started a small fire—a common Indonesian pastime.

IMG_3187
A high school student practices flag waving with the marching band.

A group of curious guys catches sight of us and starts to ask us questions. They don’t know English and we don’t know Indonesian, so Google is our interpreter. They ask us where we come from and what we’re doing out here, and we tell them about our travels and our hike toward Bromo. One asks where we’re sleeping and we point out into the murky darkness at our barely-visible tent. With each answer we give him, he responds with an ever increasing pitch of “oohhhhhhh!” as if he were a kettle coming to a boil. I wonder if at some point his excitement will launch him from the ground with enough acceleration to reach escape velocity.

IMG_20170416_213556
Our buddies for the night, full of questions. Thanks to Google Translate, we found out they’re high-schoolers, all around 16 or 17, and they want to know all about the world.

Band practice winds down around 23:00 and the students slowly disperse, loading into trucks with their flags and drums or climbing onto precariously balanced ojeks with their instruments and speeding off into the night. We’re getting drowsy too, so it’s time to head back to our tent. Goodnight Ponco Kusumo rest stop. Goodnight Gubugklakah. Goodnight Indonesia.

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