Two Backpacks

Mount Bromo

Chapter 3 - Misty mountains and smoking volcanoes - Mount Bromo Java

            The wheels of our plane screech onto the tarmac of Surabaya’s Juanda Airport on the island of Java. We taxi towards the terminal. I’m shocked to see the charred wreckage of an aircraft balancing precariously on the grass, edging the runway.

            What happened? Was it simply a training site, or had a catastrophe occurred? I wonder as the blackened shell disappears from view.

            ‘Did you see that?’ I ask, nudging Ron. By the time he’s looked out the window, it’s too late; our plane has turned, and we’re approaching our disembarkation gate.

            On terra firma, I turn and look again at the wreckage. Ron now sees it too.

            ‘I read the Indonesian airlines have had several crashes over the last few years; something to do with maintenance,’ Ron states before turning and following our fellow passengers into the cool airport terminal.

            We retrieve our bags from the luggage carousel and emerge from the relative calm of the airport into the hot, humid arrival hall where men, women and children crowd the barriers.

            Surabaya airport holds so many memories – Pandi, with his wide grin waiting to welcome me when I arrived to begin my teaching career at English First. Weekend trips to Bali with Christina and, of course, my disastrous associations with both Hari and Kaan!

            I quickly push all past thoughts to the back of my mind, grab Ron’s free hand and head to the taxi rank.

            With our backpacks stowed in the boot, our taxi driver picks his way through the nose-to-tail traffic and joins the six-lane highway that takes us to the city’s outskirts and Bungarasih bus station.

            As we near our destination, anxiety builds. I remember again being held at knifepoint and the perilous journey from Surabaya to Jakarta.

            Ron pays off the taxi driver and picks up our two backpacks.

            ‘Don’t wander off, Ron,’ I instruct, still feeling uneasy. ‘Don’t speak to anyone, and whatever you do, don’t let go of our bags!’

            Inside the Departure Hall, I stop, amazed at the transformation before me. Gone are the ticket touts and the crazed, jostling crowds, replaced by an organised calm with neat rows of ticket windows and orderly queues.

            ‘Don’t know what you were worried about,’ mutters Ron at my side. ‘Seems safe enough to me!’

            I glare at him before adding, ‘Well, it wasn’t like this when I was here last! I’ll find our ticket window. You wait here with the bags.’

            His smile is reassuring. He knows how worried I was about returning to Surabaya.

            ‘I’ll watch the bags, don’t worry. You go and get our tickets for the bus to Mount Bromo,’ he replies.

            I walk past the ticket offices, their placards declaring destinations the length and breadth of Java together with those further afield, including Bali.

            ‘Wow! This place has changed!’ I mutter to myself as I spot a booth showing the destination, Probalingo, in bright red letters.

            ‘Berapa banyak Probalingo?’ I ask, pleased that I can at least remember how to ask how much a ticket is in Indonesian Bahasa.

            ‘Empat puluh lima,’ replies the smartly dressed young man in the booth. To my surprise, there’s no haggling; all the bus prices are fixed.

            Relieved at how easy it had been obtaining our tickets, I return to find Ron talking to an elderly gentleman; he wanders off as I approach.

            ‘What were you talking about?’ I ask, watching the man board a nearby bus.

            ‘I’ve no idea! We were getting on like a house on fire until you arrived!’ He just came up to me and started chatting. I nodded in agreement when I thought I should.

            Our bus leaves on time, ten minutes later. Our route to Probalingo takes us through green padi fields, small towns and villages, with numerous stops along the way to pick up and drop off women, children, goats and chickens, plus the occasional male traveller.

            As we near our destination, the distant mountains grow more imposing with each passing mile.

            ‘Which one’s Bromo?’ asks Ron, peering through the window towards the chain of volcanos that now tower above us.

            ‘I’m not sure, to be honest,’ I reply, ‘Maybe that one.’ I say without much conviction, pointing to the largest and most distant volcano with a trail of thin, white smoke spiralling from its cone.

            At the Probalingo bus terminal, Ron retrieves our backpacks, and we make our way to the terminal building. I buy two tickets (Rph25,000 each – just over one pound sterling) for the bemo (a minibus) that will take us up the mountain to our hotel for the night.

            I’m not sure whether I’ve been ripped off, but I’m grateful we don’t have to wait too long in the midday heat before our bus is due to leave. 

            It’s Ron’s first experience of bemo travel. I can see he’s concerned as our bags are thrown onto the roof and tied in place by fraying rope.

            ‘Careful!’ he shouts, but no one takes any notice.

            There are seven passengers as we set off from Probalingo. The van frequently stops to take on more passengers as we journey upwards. I count twenty-six people sitting in a bus built for fourteen! We grip the seats as our overladen minivan swoops around hairpin bends and bumps over the potholed road.

            Passengers alight, replaced by others as we ascend, the air becoming noticeably colder the higher we climb.

             One elderly man tells us he is seventy-two years of age and has six children; another tells us he’s from Madura and his boss is paying for his flight to Singapore on business. I love travelling by bus and train; there’s always someone willing to chat with you.

            Tightly pulling my fleece around me, I’m grateful when the bus stops at the entrance to Café Lava. A young boy unties our packs and throws them onto the verge of the road before the minibus sets off, its engine screeching and wheels kicking up a cloud of dust.

            The hotel is comfortable, but our bed is not so much! We take a walk in the late afternoon sunshine to one of the many viewpoints. Volcanic cones and distant valleys stretch before us; the lunar-like landscape is breathtaking.

            We decide to book a sunrise tour for the following morning on our return to the hotel.

            ‘I hope we get a clear morning,’ I mumble as I snuggle up to Ron later that night, trying to find a comfortable spot between the lumps in the mattress. ‘It’ll make getting up at three in the morning a bit more bearable!’

            Despite the ungodly hour, we are dressed and downstairs in the dining room, tucking into a breakfast of bread rolls, jam and hot, thick, sweet coffee the following morning.

            An hour later, our guide ushers us into the waiting jeeps, and we head off into the pitch-black night; nothing is visible beyond the short, bright beams of the car’s headlights.  We’re off to see the sunrise over Mount Bromo.

            The dirt and dust that the tyres kick up make it impossible to see anything beyond the car’s tail lights in front of us. I’m wedged between Ron and another woman in the back seat, trying to remain upright as we bump and weave our way down from the hotel towards the Sea of Sand. We’re in convoy with vehicles in front and behind us.

            We begin to climb, the steep track becoming more perpendicular the higher we go, twisting and turning around hairpin bends with only our headlights to show the way; it’s a nerve-wracking drive. Eventually, the trail levels out, and we find ourselves at the top of one of the mountain peaks.

            Easing our shaken bones from the vehicle, we follow our guide to a viewing platform already crowded with tourists.

            ‘It’s bloody cold!’ moans Ron, blowing on his exposed fingers before wedging them back into his jacket pockets.

            I snuggle closer, glad for the fleece I’d managed to wriggle into over the three layers of T-shirt and travel sweaters. Even so, I can still feel fingers of cold air penetrating my skin.

            The sun peeps above the horizon, casting shards of light across the purple sky, shadowing the volcanic cones and lighting the morning mist that drifts in the valley below. Gradually, the sky lightens; the few wispy white clouds quickly dissipate.

            The faint outline of volcanic craters appears in the distance as orange hues tint the sky; below us, volcanic steam curls from cones formed by previous eruptions.

            Camera shutters click all around us, everyone keen to capture the beauty of the sunrise over Mount Bromo. The scene before us changes as the climbing sun’s warmth gradually evaporates the thick mist to reveal distant volcanoes.

            Our guide rounds up our group and leads us back to our transport; the next stop is at the crater’s base.

           On arrival, the one-kilometre walk to the top of the volcano’s crater doesn’t look too bad. Horses are standing nearby for those unable or unwilling to face the hike. They, like their owners, lazily munch on their breakfasts as Ron and I walk by, determined to make it to the top without anyone’s help.

            About a third of the way up, I begin to struggle. Two horsemen have followed us, their mounts begrudgingly trailing behind on loose reins.

            ‘They think we’re potential customers!’ Ron mumbles between deep intakes of breath as we stop for a rest.

            We wave away the offers of a ride to the top and set off once more. But after a few minutes, I stop again; breathing is difficult.

            ‘You rest; I’ll get to the top and take some photos,’ offers Ron. ‘No one will know that you didn’t make it.’

            It’s a loving gesture. I watch as Ron sets off again, determined to get the pictures to prove we both made it to the crater’s rim.

            Watching him climb, I know I can’t sit there and give in; it’s not in my nature. I decide to climb ten paces, then rest, then ten more, and so on until I reach the top. It takes a while, but I make it and join Ron on the viewing platform that hangs over the lip of the crater.

            ‘Knew you wouldn’t let me get one over on you!’ is Ron’s welcome when I arrive.

            ‘No way! I’d never hear the end of it,’ I reply, between rasping breaths as I suck oxygen into my struggling lungs.

            Once I can stand straight again, I look about, shocked to see the crater rim and cone covered in rubbish. Then I realise the dead flowers, fruit and bottles of various fizzy drinks are offerings to the volcano’s spirits.

            We take pictures before turning to begin our descent to our waiting guide. As we do so, the vista before us stops us in our tracks. In the valley below, a thin veil of cloud hovers over buildings, horses and their riders, giving the vista below an eery, ethereal atmosphere. We take more pictures and then slowly pick our way back to our waiting transport.

            Back in Surabaya, I take Ron on a site-seeing trip down my memory lane – the English First school on Jalan Kayun, the warungs where I used to eat lunch and hang out, and Colors bar, where I spent many an evening relaxing with friends after a day’s teaching.

            I also arrange to meet Arief, my dear friend from Madura, the following morning. I can’t wait to introduce him to Ron and catch up with all that’s been going on in his life.