The short story is Mount Bromo is a pain in the arse to get to, but well worth it for the insanely spectacular views at sunrise. But we like to tell you the long story…
The time came for the two of us to hit the road alone once again, leaving behind the comforts of Singapore we’d grown too accustomed with. We had to say goodbye to the endless supply of cereal, fresh fruit, Sunday roasts, plush pillows, fluffy towels and Friday night cocktails. But we felt ready to get back out there and have a couple of weeks roughing it up like the good old days. Even though a two week trip to Indonesia sounded more like a conventional holiday to us, we were well aware that this was one of the last big adventures we’d be undertaking before heading back to the UK in a months time.
We had an early start travelling from Singapore to Surabaya, catching the 8:30am flight out of the city. It was a shock to the system after our lazy mornings and 9am alarms but excitement levels were high.
It was safe to say we anticipated the worst when it came to making our way from Surabaya airport to our hotel at the base of Mount Bromo. We’d read consistently bad reviews online and in blogs about the nightmare public transport situations travellers have had to endure. Ali and George had also confirmed these tales of woe regarding bus scams, long, grueling drives and pushy locals claiming they know which bus you should board and how much you should pay i.e. their mates one. As we weren’t working with a private transport kind of budget, we gritted our teeth and told ourselves it’d make for an interesting blog post at the least.
As we landed we immediately braced ourselves for a tough day. But the thing you forget is we’re hard as nails mate, and nothing phases us, not 11 months into our South East Asia adventures. Luckily we (which actually means Lawrence) had done extensive research into the buses, prices and times we would expect to be catching in order to reach Cemoro Lawang, the town that tourists braving Mount Bromo stay at.
So why are we choosing to put ourselves through all of this distress and suffering to reach the mysterious Mount Bromo I hear you cry!? The whole point of flying directly to Surabaya was to conquer nothing else but Mount Bromo, an active volcano standing 2,329 meters tall. It’s one of the most visited and most iconic tourist attractions in East Java and sits in a protected nature reserve. We were making the journey to explore the tales of rugged, barren volcanic peaks, gravel plains and unworldly, desolate beauty!
The first task of project ‘Chasing the Mount Bromo Sunrise’ successfully involved purchasing a SIM card at the airport, withdrawing cash and catching a fairly well priced taxi to Purabaya bus station. From here a charismatic and confident young man greeted us. Carried away by his assertive and alluringly cheap offer of a bus ride to Probolinggo, we followed his lead. We marched straight through the station to the bus bays where about 30 buses stationed themselves, varying in quality and age. We were a little bewildered as to how we should know which one would take us to our destination, but our new friend directed us towards the most rusty, decrepit old bus in the bay. Our bags were rammed into the boot and we were hurried on to the bus before we had time to scout out other competition. It quickly became apparent that this was no VIP business and the people running it were a tad dysfunctional. Apparently customer service hadn’t reached Surabaya. What looked like a 15-year-old boy was sat in the drivers seat chain smoking and rocking the bus backwards and forwards with the acceleration pedal, while we blindly waited.
We remained in the bus bay for almost one hour before the bus actually made any signs of movement. We attempted to ask when we were expected to leave, only to be met with ‘now’ or ’10 – 15 minutes’ every time, regardless of the fact we’d been told the same thing half an hour ago. Finally at noon, we (along with every other bus in the station) were on our way and thankfully the 15-year-old boy was just an apprentice/co-driver. The actual driver was a cocky looking loon who wore knock off ray bans and smug grin as he hurtled down the highway. There was no air-conditioning but this didn’t matter, as the main door was wide open for the duration of our journey. This open door policy allowed all of Surabaya’s homeless buskers to hop on the bus as and when they pleased. Floggers selling food, pens, tissues, and other useless drivel were also allowed to approach the bus at their free will, forcing their products literally on to our laps. Little boy’s main role was to hang his body half out of the open door and let the driver know if the hard shoulder was clear enough for an outrageous undertake. In spite of the lack of communication between us and the drivers and the somewhat sketchy driving, it turned out to be quite a smooth journey after all. Naomi got a decent nap (as usual – she’s a napping fiend on public transport), mainly to shut herself off from the terrifying driving and into a bubble of oblivion. Meanwhile, Lawrence passed the time by chatting to a friendly local who lived in a small town near Bromo.
We arrived in Probolinggo and were greeted by a man flogging bus and boat tickets to Bali, as well as a jeep to take us from our hotel to the base of Mount Bromo. The offer sounded decent so we went for it. We were then driven to the mini van pickup point (who knows how we would have gotten there if we’d refused to made a purchase from the man), which happened to be timed to perfection.
As we arrived we were approached by some tourists who ushered us towards the mini van they were boarding. The vans wait until they have 15 passengers before leaving and we brought those numbers to a full bus. The mini van was battered and decaying, held together by all of our 15 bags that were precariously thrown and tied down on the roof.
As the van trundled along Lawrence could feel his feet warming up above where the engine screamed and worried his flip flops were melting. The journey was meant to take an hour and a half but we ran into difficulty in the form of a punctured tyre. The two drivers told us all to hop off, reassuring us it would only take ten minutes. Half way through jacking up the van, we heard an almighty clunk and everyone screamed, afraid that the bus would crush us all as it tumbled down the hill. Luckily the bus had just fallen off the jack and was then propped up with a boulder to stop it rolling back. We’d broken down at a nice sunny spot on the road so at least we could admire the increasingly spectacular views of the national park.
We finally arrived at Cemoro Lawang and our hotel, Café Lava around 5pm. We could feel the temperature was much cooler up in the mountains and it reminded us of our nights spent in Kalaw, Myanmar. Our room was nice and clean, and had a dramatic landscape view so we were happy with our choice, in spite of the kettle taking longer to boil than it did the two of us to take a shower. After a warm meal and some delicious, steaming Java coffee, all was well again. The coffee in Indonesia comes in close second to our number one favourite Vietnamese coffee. They serve spoonfuls of ground coffee with hot water poured over. So there’s a grainy silt-like sludge that settles at the bottom of your mug while you sip. But the flavour is rich and bitterly strong. We love it.
We were so tired after our early start and knackering public transport escapade that we went to bed at 7:30pm that night. To be fair we were on Singapore time so it did feel like 8:30pm. After a brief conversation in which we stressed ourselves out by wondering whether we had been conned by the ticket man, we settled down and went to sleep. It turned out to be a great decision as our alarms were set for 3:15am. Luckily the man we bought our jeep ticket from back in Probolinggo was true to his word and someone collected us from the hotel in the morning along with four other tourists. A convoy of Toyota jeeps laden down with Mount Bromo goers rattled their ways up the volcano. It felt like we were an army of soldiers all travelling in convoy in the dead of night to launch a surprise attack on the enemy. Maybe we were a little over excited. We winded our way up some very steep hills, the sky still pitch black and starry. We hopped out and made our way to the viewpoint.
It was a brisk but easy 15-minute walk to the viewing point of Mount Penanjakan, which gave us a good vantage point of Mount Bromo’s crater and Mount Semeru. There was very little cloud as the sun rose so we found ourselves a good spot to set up shop. As we waited sellers flogging Bromo branded hats, scarves and gloves mingled with the tourists. Everyone was wrapped up yet still feeling the cold so we’re sure they made some good sales that morning. Sunrise at Mount Bromo was probably the coldest weather we’ve experienced since being in South East Asia. Naomi’s fingers were so numb she was afraid her phone would slip out of her grasp when taking photos. But we quickly warmed up as the sun gathered some height
It almost seems unfair that such an easy ‘hike’ is rewarded with such breathtaking views. The ethereal landscape is comparable to what we imagine Mars would look like. We certainly felt like we’d conquered another planet as the pale orange skies gently illuminated the volcanic crater edges for us. Mount Bromo looked majestic and elegant despite having it’s entire top blown off. The crater still spews white sulpherous smoke and we witnessed a puff or two spouting into the chilly air. Mount Bromo is still one of the most active volcanoes in the world and there are areas blocked off to tourists due to its imminent danger. Being up there at sunrise was an unforgettable and magical moment.
We made a quick descent back to the jeep before being taken back down to the base of the volcano to the savannah area. Here we were able to climb up the crater on foot through a dusty flat plain made up of blackened ash. Locals on bedraggled looking ponies offered rides up to the to but we did the climb by foot, marching up a steep flight of stairs before we were able to look directly in to the face of the burning furnace. It sounded like a plane was taking off the gas was so loud. From the crater’s edge, we were rewarded with an unbroken view of the desolate landscape beneath us.
We were extremely chuffed with what we’d seen and the views made the nightmare of travelling all the way to Mt Bromo worthwhile. We had a big buffet breakfast back at the hotel before packing up and making our way back down the mountain.
The next stop was Bali and we thought the worst part of the trip was behind us as we moved forward to more relaxing and warmer climes. In reality, we were about to embark on the most frustrating public transport journey to date; the road from Bromo to Bali was hell. Brace yourselves.
We were picked up in yet another rickety looking van at 9:30am and things already got off to a rusty start. Our driver had overbooked so we, being the smallest couple in the van, had to squeeze into the back. This meant that four of us in the back were sharing three seats. We were wedged in for about an hour and half. The journey back down the Probolinggo took longer than expected (no surprise there) as the roads were being used for local celebrations. Groups of people marching through the streets made it impossible to overtake. What made it bearable were the screaming faces of local kids delighted to see some Westerners drive through their little village. We felt like our bus was part of the parade, a float that we’d boarded to wave at the crowds as we crept past the festivities.
We finally made it to Probolinggo bus terminal where the bigger bus arrived to take us to Bali. It felt like heaven sitting on our own seats and with air-conditioning praise the Lord! Although there wasn’t much legroom, we had a toilet on the bus, which sounded great at first, but in reality it meant we inhaled wafts of stale piss every time the door was opened. The bus itself appeared in surprisingly good nick, except from a slightly concerning torrent of water that gushed down the side of the bus windows.
It took about 6 and half hours before our bus packed in. We pulled over at a petrol station while our driver took a look at the engine to address the problem. Things weren’t looking good. It was now dark outside and we’d been cramped up on the bus for a long time already. We hadn’t even left the island of Java and still had a ferry ride to Bali and more driving on the other side before reaching our destination. Thankfully drive knew what he was doing and after a big blast of black smoke puffed out of the exhaust pipe, we were on our smoky way.
We were told that the bus would arrive in Denpasar, Bali at 8pm. This was impossible as the ferry only arrived in Bali at 8pm. Who knows where this 8pm time frame was plucked from as it seemed very unrealistic even if our bus hadn’t broken down. We hit a low on the ferry ride, as we knew we still had a mammoth journey ahead and wouldn’t be arriving at our Bali hotel until after midnight. Everyone on the bus with us was getting disgruntled as we’d all woken at 3am that morning for our Bromo adventure. The driver spoke zero English so couldn’t do much to reassure us or even let us know what was going on.
After some fragmented, crook necked napping (by Naomi), we were woken at a bus terminal around midnight and told we were not going to Denpasar as planned and had to get off the bus. Naomi was on her last legs, groggy and ready to punch anyone who was going to prolong this misery. We were ushered to a pick up point at the bus terminal with our bags and told we would have to get a taxi (£5 per person) which would take us to our hotel. This seemed like a decent deal considering our hotel was good 40-minute drive away. Once again, Lawrence and Naomi were forced to share three seats between four people.
Finally…we arrived at our hotel in Seminyak, Bali at 1am. We were so happy we’d chosen to stay at a more upscale boutique hotel. We were warmly greeted by the staff who provided a welcome drink and took our bags to our room.
Even with all the travelling, we can safely say that the joy of being up Bromo for sunrise was one of the highlights of the whole year.