Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Road Less Traveled to Mount Bromo from Malang (Part 1)

Note: This is the first of two parts. You can read the second part here: Mount Bromo from Malang (Part 2).

The jeep slowed down as it rolled through the narrow main road of a small farming village up in the mountains. The noon sun was shining high but the crisp, cool air seeped sharply through our lungs. We decided to walk around the village, so we got off the jeep and asked our driver to meet us up the road.

As we looked back at the hills where we just drove through, we realized we had already risen above the cloud line. In the distance beyond the trees, a thick layer of clouds shrouded the lowlands of East Java, Indonesia. We had just arrived in the remote town of Ngadas. It wouldn't be long now before we reached our destination that day: Mount Bromo.

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
The collapsed, smoldering caldera of Mount Bromo contained in the vast crater of a supervolcano, the Tengger Massif. For scale, the huts of the village of Cemoro Lawang are perched on the massif's crater lip.

Mount Bromo is an active volcano in East Java. Its collapsed, constantly smoldering caldera is situated within the vast and flat crater of an ancient super volcano, the Tengger Massif. Just south of the massif, rising 3,600 meters above sea level, is the highest volcano on Java Island, Mount Semeru. The three, along with other volcanoes, mountains, forests, and lakes, comprise the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park.


The Adventure Begins

There were four of us in this anything-goes journey: three Dutch travelers and myself. To think, none of us had planned to get here this way. I for one thought that I was doing this trip alone, riding passenger on an ojek (motorcycle) to reach Ngadas and eventually trekking on foot to Mount Bromo. My Dutch companions, meanwhile, had planned on going with a tour agency. When that fell through and they found out that I somehow knew how to go to Mount Bromo from Malang independently, an intrepid group of adventurers was born. We met each other in our backpacker lodge in Malang one night. The next morning, we set off together.

Malang, East Java, Indonesia
We began our journey to Mount Bromo from Malang, a breezy and laidback old Dutch colonial outpost.

It was in the breezy and laidback town of Malang where we began our journey to Mount Bromo. Because of the lack of public transport and sufficiently paved roads, tourists rarely took the route to Mount Bromo from here. Many preferred the highway from a city called Probolinggo to the north. That and not much information was available anywhere about this route. However, having seen an account of the journey (one of the few out there) detailing the route to Mount Bromo from Malang written by the brilliant Marcos Caratao of Ambot-ah.com, an account accompanied by the spectacular photos he took, I knew I just had to do this.

Related Post: The Road Less Traveled to Mount Bromo from Malang (Part 2).


Okay, the Real Adventure Begins

"Did he even secure our bags?" I asked my Dutch travel companions as we got in a small van, locally called angkot. Our driver just threw our luggage on the vehicle's roof, which had no railings, and hurriedly went back to his seat behind the wheel. The angkot was the preferred means of transport in many cities on Java Island, certainly in Malang. The cramped eight-seater vehicles often held 12 to 17 people at any given time.

"We'll probably see it fall off the roof," we joked, having settled inside, as the angkot sped forward.

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
It's always a real adventure when you ride an Indonesian angkot. Here, luggage is dumped on the railing-less roof and the seat limit is always "one more."

Fortunately, none of our bags fell off the roof an hour later when we reached Tumpang, a bustling market town right outside the national park. We quickly knew upon arrival in Tumpang that we had some transport improvisation to do in order to get to Mount Bromo from here.

Across the street from the market, we saw fellow foreign travelers speaking with a group of local men who seemed to be just hanging around. The travelers were hiring an all-terrain 4x4 jeep to take them from Tumpang to Ngadas to Cemoro Lawang, a village in the northern part of the national park where guesthouses and eateries were found. Apparently, the road from here in Tumpang to Mount Bromo was so bad that 4x4 jeeps or dirt bikes were the only sensible way to go.

As it went in small towns like Tumpang, the men sitting outside the market knew someone who knew someone who owned another 4x4 jeep. It was not long before we hired one and not long after that before we found ourselves standing on the back of the roofless vehicle as it drove along steadily rising, heavily potholed roads cutting through remote, lush mountains.

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
Wind in our hair and mountains before us, we knew we were having the best day so far in our travels in Indonesia.
Photo by Jordi Habets

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
One of the archways along the western approach to Mount Bromo from Malang welcoming us to the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
Chartered transport is necessary to get to Mount Bromo from Malang. Roads are remote, not to mention very bumpy. Stunning views though.

Ngadas, Mount Bromo, East Java, Indonesia
The plantations signaled we were nearing the village of Ngadas well within the national park.


Remote and somewhat dangerous

We arrived in Ngadas around three hours after we set off for Mount Bromo from Malang. We were walking around in the village when I saw a sign which said Jalur Evakuasi, or Evacuation Route. Strange, I thought, but as we hiked through the village's plantations which hugged the contours of the hills forming colorful geometrical patterns on their faces, the sign made perfect sense. Peeking above the mountains was the top of Mount Semeru, a volcano so active it belched out a tiny bit of smoke, and at times lava, every 30 minutes.

Related Post: The Road Less Traveled to Mount Bromo from Malang (Part 2).

Ngadas, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
Plantations in the village of Ngadas hugged the contours of the mountains, a stark contrast to many parts of Southeast Asia where terraced paddies are used.

Ngadas, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
A sign pointing to the "Evactuation Route" posted along the main street in Ngadas. Strange, until you realize why (see below).

Ngadas, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
In the foreground, a cemetery in the village of Ngadas, a primary pit stop on the way to Mount Bromo from Malang. In the background, Java's highest volcano, the very active Mount Semeru, peeks behind the mountains.

The volcano was a hazard the locals of Ngadas had learned to live with. Unlike the rest of predominantly Muslim Java Island, the locals of Ngadas were Hindu. They were the Tenggerese, descendants of the Majapahit Empire, whose powerful sea-based realm had at some point extended from the Malaysian peninsula all the way to the tip of West Papua. They had fled here when Islam started spreading throughout the archipelago that was to become Indonesia. Today, the Tenggerese, who live in isolated villages within and around the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park, number only to a few hundred thousand.

Ngadas, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
In the distance beyond the trees, a thick layer of clouds covers the lowlands of East Java.

Ngadas, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
The locals of Ngadas are Tenggerese. Unlike the rest of Java, they are Hindu. Their religion closely resembles that of the Balinese.

Ngadas, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
Dubbed "white lightning," the hardy 4x4 jeep we hired along the way to Mount Bromo from Malang is momentarily parked by the main road in Ngadas.

We paid the park entrance fee at the ranger outpost in Ngadas and drove further on. After twenty minutes or so, the jeep reached a fork on the road. The right lane headed south where it climbed further into forested hills. The left lane, meanwhile, headed north. As I got off our jeep which made a short pit stop here, I noticed the left lane went downhill. I looked up ahead and I suddenly realized we were now standing on top of the southern lip of the vast crater of the Tengger Massif. Before us were spectacular views of its famed savannah.

Mount Bromo was calling and it was just a few more minutes away.

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Indonesia
The famed savannah contained in the canyon formed by the crater lip of the Tengger Massif and the hills situated within it. Upon seeing this vast landscape, I knew Mount Bromo could not be far away.


Part two of The Road Less Traveled to Mount Bromo from Malang can be viewed here. Thanks for reading. Enjoy!


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