Tackling Indonesia’s Active Volcano: A Backpacker’s Hike to Mount Bromo

View of Mount Bromo during the day from the ground.

Indonesia is home to several volcanoes, Mount Bromo being one of the more active ones. Also known as Gunung Bromo in Bahasa Indonesia (the Indonesian language), it is part of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park and towers at a height of 2,329 metres (7,641 ft). The name “Bromo” is a Javanese pronunciation of the Hindu god of creation, Brahma.

Starting the hike in Java – Was it safe?

When my friend and I visited Java, Mount Bromo was one of the top hikes on our list, but also one of the most challenging destinations to get to. The main reason was that Mount Bromo had erupted in January 2011, and we were unsure of the situation there. Was it still dangerous? Would the volcano be erupting again? But news reports described the situation as safe, and hiking up a post-erupted volcano was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Mount Bromo is a distance away from the major cities in Java – 380km from Yogyakarta (7.5 hours by car), 100km from Surabaya (2 hours by car) and 51km from Malang (1.25 hours by car). We were coming from Yogyakarta and decided to take a train to Probolingo. It was quite a hassle to make an online booking beforehand. Thankfully, there were tickets available when we arrived at the train station in Yogyakarta.

Locals praying in the direction of Bromo

Locals praying in the direction of Mount Bromo – a very sacred mountain to Indonesians

Getting there from Yogyakarta

From Yogyakarta, we took a train to Probolingo, and then a minibus (2 hours) to Cemoro Lawang. Cemoro Lawang is a mountainous village, the main point of access to Mount Bromo with an altitude of 2,217 meters above sea level. There were a number of minibuses that were going up to Cemoro Lawang, and we found one without much hassle.

On the way up, it started to drizzle and the driver switched on his wipers. As they moved from side to side, they produced little grey streaks on the windscreen. I thought it was just dust, as ubiquitous as the ones found on dirt trails in South East Asia. But I was wrong.

A grey with specs of green edit

Little villages on the way up to Mount Bromo

Discovering the ash desert on foot

We arrived at 3pm in the afternoon to our pre-booked accommodation – Cafe Lava Hostel, an affordable option made of wooden huts and comfortable beds with thick blankets. There are rooms with attached bathrooms and those without. It was comfortable.

The ash desert edit

The bleak landscape of the ash desert

When we first stepped out, we gasped in awe at the sight before us. A cluster of volcanoes were before our very eyes, not just the famed Mount Bromo, which was spewing a huge ash cloud before our very eyes. Far beyond, there was the tall Mount Semeru, and on closer look, the mild-tempered Mount Batok. Behind us was peaceful Mount Penanjakan, the base for sunrise watching and photo-taking of these great volcanoes.

Mount Batok, the calm neighbour of Bromo edit

Mount Batok, the calm neighbour of Mount Bromo

There is no direct path to the foot of Mount Bromo, only footprints of travellers who had gone down the same path. In a matter of minutes, these footprints can disappear, due to strong winds and ash rain that comes down like an endless drizzle. We saw some people walking in the direction of Mount Bromo’s ash desert, and we thought it would be a good idea to check it out, on foot.

It was a sight to behold. On the way there, the trees by the side of the road were completely covered in ash and were drooping down. I guessed that they had been burnt by the immense heat caused by an eruption some time ago. We felt droplets hitting our faces and thought it was a drizzle of rain. Little did we realise that these droplets were greyish in colour – it was ash rain. Cold, wet and grey.

Mount Bromo at a closer look edit

A closer look at Mount Bromo

Despite being protected by a plastic raincoat and an umbrella, it felt very overwhelming as ash rain hit my glasses, nostrils and mouth. Soon there were even flecks of grey in my teeth.

But we trudged on, with the aim of arriving at least at the foot of the volcano. And we were rewarded. We came face to face with the deep crevices of the ash-like desert of Mount Bromo – a geologist’s delight. We had visited lakes, trekked up hills and even paraglided, and this was nothing like we have ever seen before.  These crevices, deeper than the height of a full-grown adult seemed to be created by lava flowing down as the volcano erupted. Some came to an abrupt end, while others joined to form a deeper crevice, like tributaries merging to form a large stream. The lava was all gone, leaving only marks like the ones we saw.

Deep crevices along the ash desert edit

The strange lunar landscape of the the ash desert

A Guardian Angel?

We realised that there was someone following us. An elderly man and his pony. Although he covered his head and mouth with a cloth, you could still see lines across his weather-beaten face. Although we did not understand much of the local language, it was clear that he wanted us to take a ride. We declined. After all, the entire experience was about us being there, with our feet against the ash desert, reaching out for our goal.

Man and donkey following us edit

We were being followed – a stranger or our Guardian Angel?

Despite us rejecting his services, he continued to hang on by. And somehow, his presence felt very reassuring. Reason being that the further we walked, there was almost no one left and it honestly felt a little unnerving for two city girls to deal with the unexpected changes of a volatile volcano landscape.

At 6pm, the sun started to set and the ash rain continued. It felt even heavier as approached the foot of the volcano. We had no trekking gear with us, just a sweater, plastic raincoat and sneakers.

Then our “guardian angel” turned and left. I think it was time for dinner, and he had to turn back. We had to make a decision, continue on, or follow him.

There wasn’t so much of the fear of getting robbed or bullied in the dark. But this was one of the rare times I felt that nature’s wrath could easily snuff out the lives of us, two mere mortals. Hence, the decision to follow him back.

And it was the right move. On the way back, I let my guard down. I thought I was on the beaches of Sentosa back here in Singapore and I trotted on the ash-tainted sand with ease. Little did I know that my right foot sank right into what appeared to be quicksand. There was a huge suction force pulling my right foot into the depths of the ash desert. Thankfully, my other foot was unaffected and I managed to pull my right foot out just in time. A gluely greyish paste continued to cling to my sneakers after that.

Sunrise at Mount Bromo from Mount Penanjakan

Our hostel accommodation offered a travel package which involves a four-wheel drive to watch the sunrise at Mount Bromo from the sturdy Mount Penanjakan at dawn, followed by a ride to the Hindu Temple of Pura Luhur Poten located close to the foot of Mount Bromo.

We woke up at 5.30am the next morning. It was cold and our coats were damp due to the condensation of water vapour on the mountain top. It was a struggle to get up.

Trekking up the ash desert edit

Trekking up the ash desert

As we piled into the four-wheel drive, we realised that there were a number of other tourists who were going by the same way. It was pitch dark, the light source only stemmed from the lamp lights of the SUVs.

The driver stopped 50m away from the foot of Mount Penanjakan as he could not go further due to the line of 4WDs in front of us. He told us to follow the steady stream of people who were climbing up the adjacent mountain to watch the sunset.

On the mountain plateau, early birds had already perched tripods with their cameras, all waiting for that perfect moment.

Then it happened. At about 7.00am, the sun sunlight slowly streamed past the trees of Mount Bromo. The rising sun was mostly hidden away by the trees, but it was sufficient for us to catch a great shot of the whole experience. Mount Batok looked especially serene.

Sunrise from Mount Penanjakan blog

Sunrise from Mount Penanjakan

On the four-wheel drive – to the Hindu Temple Pura Luhur Poten at the foot of Mount Bromo

We got back into the SUV, which took us further to the ash desert, the one which we had started on foot a day before. It brought us to the Hindu Temple, an existing temple in which locals prayed and worshipped in. I literally saw locals praying in the direction of Mount Bromo.

Hindu Temple Pura Luhur Poten from far edit

Approaching the Hindu Temple of Pura Luhur Poten

Hindu Temple Pura Luhur Poten edit

At the Hindu Temple

We were also given some time to wander around the ash desert of Mount Bromo. Thankfully, the ash rain abated and we were comfortable in our dry jackets amidst the ash dunes.

Mount Bromo is a destination like no other. Of the sights in South East Asia, it gets the laurels of being the most volatile one. One moment you are covered in ash rain, and the next, your feet get sucked into the ash desert. It’s all in a day’s work.

On our way back, we passed by a plot of greens amidst the drapes of grey and we noticed that the locals were replanting rows of green saplings. It then struck me that they have no choice but to do that each Mount Bromo throws a tantrum. Ash rain, planting, replanting, building and rebuilding – it’s a cycle of hope and of never giving up. Beyond the grand sight of Indonesia’s stately volcanoes, we got a glimpse into the simple lives of those who live near danger and uncertainty.

Villagers rebuilding their lives edit

Locals rebuilding their lives after so many volcanic eruptions 

Plants, dead from the heat edit

Plants, dead from the heat

About the author: The Travelling Squid

Phebe Bay is the author of thetravellingsquid.com, a travel blog filled with tips and anecdotes of her ‘career of travelling’, which began at the tender age of 19. Despite having been to many “top” destinations around the world, India continues to be Phebe’s favourite place in the world. Phebe has a bad sense of direction but continues to travel, sometimes alone because of her quirky habits and intensely inquisitive mind.

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