—Photos and Content Courtesy Ayesha Parikh
It is a rare opportunity to be able to trek up and down active volcanoes, let alone see them bask in the glory of the first light. Think of magnificent Lord of the Rings views after an adventure trekking up the mountain in the dead of night.
Indonesia offers a few such sites – East Java and Lombok islands are the most popular. Mount Bromo and Kawah Ijen in East Java are more conducive to regular fitness levels. Mount Sumeru, on the other hand, needs some training. An interesting bloke who conquered Sumeru and reached the summit wrote, “You conquer Sumeru for the joy of conquering it, not just to see the volcano.” It is possible to see 80% of the same views from Bromo with 80% less effort. To give you an idea, Sumeru is a 3-day trek whereas Bromo and Kawah Ijen are only a few hours long.
Where to stay
Cemoro Lawang, a small village next to Mount Bromo is the place you want to stay. Plan to be able to travel at 2am up the adjoining Mount Penanjakan in time for the 5am sunrise and view of Bromo, the Sea of Sands its neighboring peaks. Might be a good idea to arrive earlier the previous day in Cemoro Lawang so you could catch some rest and have an early night. We stayed at Café Lava, a decent guesthouse style accommodation, which is as good as it gets in this part of the country. Good local food, canteen with a view, clean rooms and very helpful receptionists who are happy to book you a guide or onward travel. Other stay options include Cemara Indah and Yoschi (20 mins from Cemoro Lawang). If you are prepared to slum it, many places offer home stays that are as cheap at Rp 25,000 a night. Although a fair warning – expect to get nothing more than a simple place to sleep, maybe just a mattress and a shared local style bathroom.
How to get there
Most tour guides will tell you to travel to Probolinggo from Surabaya airport and then get to Cemoro Lawang. But a more scenic and adventurous route, if you have one more day to spend, is to travel via Malang and Tumpang. From Surabaya airport, you could get a bus to the closest bus station and board a bus to Malang. From Malang bus station, catch a Bimo going to Tumpang. Bimos are these 8-10 seater minibuses which wait at the station till it collects enough passengers for the destination. You want to make sure you arrive in Tumpang at least by 2.30pm, so that you can make the rest of the journey while there is still light. Not that it is dangerous otherwise, but because the views get better only post Tumpang. Ask for the ojek stop in the village. It is a small shed with probably just one or two people hanging around to help you find ojek riders. Ojek is the Indonesian word for motorbike taxis. It can transport one person per bike and the drivers are quite reliable in my experience. We used ojeks for most of our travel in Indonesia as they are not only inexpensive but also fun. We booked an ojek each for Rp. 170,000 and climbed on with our heavy backpacks. We rode up and down the mountains, through the Sea of Sands with Mount Bromo in the background and up the final slope to Cemoro Lawang. Bikes may slip a little in the sand but the drivers know what they are doing and the worst that can happen is you fall off the bike while it is moving extremely slowing as the driver maneuvers the sands, not a biggie!
Planning the treks
The sunrise trip has two options – One is to trek up Penanjakan for 1.5 to 2 hours in the dark with a guide and second is to book a jeep that travels a slightly longer route, so also 2 hours long. The trek while a bit more taxing has three advantages – The excitement of a trek in the dark with a flashlight, the satisfaction of having done some exercise and last but not the least, the benefit of seeing the volcanoes from multiple angles as you make your way down the mountain after sunrise. Whichever you decide, the view from the top is the same and the hotels are equipped to book you the jeep or the trekking guide. The second half of the climb is a bit tricky to find in the dark so would suggest getting a guide so that you can make sure you get atop in good time for the sunset. You can buy water, tea or coffee at the top while you wait for the sun to work its magic. Best to reach 20 mins early to get a good spot as it gets crowded. One mistake we made, was to leave for the descend half an hour too early before the sun rays really reach the mountain. I would suggest not be too eager to leave until you are happy with the view of the volcanoes highlighted in warm sunlight. On your way back, ask your guide to take you along the edge of Cemoro Lawang through the fields if possible
The guide may try to coerce you to use him for the second essential trek – climbing to the mouth of the Bromo crater, but this is a very well-marked and easy trek for an hour so suggest to do this on your own after a well-deserved breakfast. If you are too tired to trek back up to Cemoro Lawang on the way back, you can always rent an ojek at the base of Bromo for Rp. 20,000.
One more trek we would highly recommend is to the Madakaripura waterfalls. An hour’s drive from Cemoro Lawang, where we used ojeks to cover the distance, we walk for one hour, wade through 3 beautiful waterfalls aligned in a line, to get a small cove that houses a spectacular 200m waterfall. You can choose to take a dip in the clear water or just be enamored by its beauty from the rocks. I am usually quite wary of seeing commercialized waterfalls, but this is the thing of dreams. Suggest getting there early in the day to avoid the heat and crowds.
The most spectacular place we visited in our entire time in the country. We would highly recommend it. There is no option to drive up to the top, this time, so only do it if you are willing to trek uphill for about 2 hours. The volcano is known for the sulphur it contains, which is mined by workers you will pass on the way up. A slightly more strenuous climb than Bromo but it is definitely worth the effort. If you start the climb from the base by 2.30am at the latest, you have a chance of seeing the famous blue flames of the sulphur burning next to the lake. After the 2 hour climb, you have another 40 mins climb down the crater on a narrow path. The closer you get to the blue flames and sulphur fumes, you will need to wear gas masks. We were happy to climb down only half way through the crater as you can easily see the blue flames from there and so didn’t need the masks. If you need these masks, ensure you ask the hotel for them to be included in your trekking package or if you are lucky, you could find some rented for a small fee at the base car park.
Where to stay
Banyuwangi is a port town and the best place to stay for another midnight trek up the volcano to Kawah Ijen. We stayed at Mahkota Plengkung which had great rooms with air conditioning, en-suite bathrooms and hot water for Rp. 600,000 per night. I have heard good things about Hotel Mirah next door as well. The main thing is to ensure the hotel is able to book you onto a trek including transport to the base and back, which is 1.5 hours one way. This means you should leave the hotel by 12.30am to reach the base in time for seeing the blue flames and sunrise.
How to get there
We travelled from Cemoro Lawang to Probolinggo bus station by Ojek and then took a bus to Banyuwangi. Would not suggest taking the bus unless you want to save on the transport cost. Better to just take a direct taxi if you are okay with the added expense. We first got duped into buying fake tickets for the bus through a man who called out to us and took us to his ‘office’ and even had fake ticket receipts to give us. Once on the bus, we realized these were useless and bought Rp. 15,000 tickets per person for the whole way, as opposed to the Rp 125,000 we paid to a very lucky fake ticket seller! A 5 and a half hour journey by road, it took us 7 hours with two unplanned bus changes, of which the latter two were not air conditioned. Once at Banyuwangi bus station, it is easy to find ojeks to take you to your hotel.
Planning the trek
The online articles I read to prepare for this were quite exaggerated on the difficulty level, the need for gas masks and guides. As mentioned before, gas masks are not absolutely necessary. You can choose how close you want to get to the sulphur fumes in the crater and you only need the masks if you plan to be as close as 5 meters from them. Again, not necessary to see the view or the blue flames. It is a steep uphill tar road for most of the way with plenty of places to take short breaks along the way. The only thing you need is a torch as it is pitch dark and the last 500 meters is a dirt road. A bit cold up at the top, so would carry an extra warm jacket for when your body cools down from the trek. With regards to the difficulty of the trek, it is a bit strenuous but that being said, I saw old unfit men and women climb it, albeit a bit slowly with longer and more frequent breaks.