I was freezing. Not just cold, mind. Literally down to the bone, convinced that I’d never feel my legs again – that kind of cold. Which surprised me, as I was in Indonesia.
It was 4am, pitch black and I had scrambled to dress myself in every long item of clothing I had packed for my summer in Asia (which, as it turned out, was not very many). My travelling companions and I jumped into the back of an ancient Land Rover and trundled up the hillside, probably not that quickly but the lack of seat padding made the journey feel much faster.
The road to Mount Bromo hadn’t been smooth – and I mean that as metaphorically as much as I do literally; Indonesia’s roads are more pothole than tarmac. But I was also approaching the tail end of a trip that had taken me through Thailand, Cambodia and through to Indonesia. Friends had joined me the previous week for the jungle trek of a lifetime, meeting wild orangutans in the Sumatran rainforest, but had fallen ill, making our road-trip through Java an unexpectedly high-risk adventure: there was still the very real threat of vomiting or fainting episodes.
From darkness to light
No matter how you see Java’s favourite, flawlessly-formed conical volcano, Mount Bromo always looks picture perfect. The locals however, insist that the best view by far is from the top of the adjacent volcanic peak at sunrise – and that’s how we ended up in the Land Rover.
I was looking forward to it, of course I was, but when I spotted a sand-coloured Jeep emblazoned with the words ‘National Geographic’ it began to hit home that this wasn’t going to be any old sunrise. When we reached the top of the mountain to find the viewing platform, there was not a cloud in the sky. It was inky-black, pinpricked with billions of bright stars.
Losing feeling in my extremities and almost wishing I had purchased one of the outrageously-priced wooly hats on offer, I turned my face in the same direction that everyone else seemed to be facing and waited. Sunrise takes an awfully long time when you’re waiting for it, but soon the skyline began to glow – announcing the arrival of a new day.
Welcoming the sunrise
First a pale blue hue crept over the horizon, followed by yellow and then a deep orange, silhouetting the other volcanic peaks of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. As if on cue, a faint puff of smoke started to seep from the mouth of a distant crater, drifting slowly into a large ash cloud and reminding us all that the chain of volcanoes we were standing on, are very much still active.
Mount Bromo rose from the gloom, welcoming the light of day. But so did the bulging cones, gently smoking open craters and vast dusty expanses of the plateau. This alien moonscape was illuminated and all of a sudden, I felt incredibly small. It’s not Mount Bromo that makes this spectacle; it’s the phenomenal view from the top of the world, and it’s the split-second of astounding silence as everyone watching pauses to take a breath.
And then a flurry of movement – cameras clicked on arms outstretched and that infinite moment of raw wonder was broken. After snapping plenty of photos of my own, it was time to head back down the steep mountainside. But our volcanic exploits weren’t over just yet.
Close-up crater encounters
Even at dawn, I could feel the powerful heat of the early Indonesian sun warming my face. We strode across the plateau to the base of the rumbling cone next to Mount Bromo. The black, sand-like volcanic ash underfoot and stocky packhorses that surrounded us created an addictive, exhilarating feeling that we were pioneering explorers, venturing deep into unknown and dangerous territory. The other tourists brought me back to earth, but the next hour was probably the most truly remarkable 6am that I will ever experience.
Arriving at the rim of the crater with my nostrils desperately trying to adjust to the stench of sulfur, I was thrilled to find that the Indonesian’s general lack of health and safety regulations extended here. A wooden barrier ran some way round the rim but the rest of it, much like most of Java, was relatively untouched. I wandered straight past and promptly sat down to swing my legs over the edge. Periodically the rumbles loudened, the ground shook and a burp of gas escaped from the gaping mouth of the crater.
All too soon it was time to head back to the Land Rover and my stomach was beginning to grumble as audibly as the crater. It was only 8am, but it had already been an extraordinary morning and I couldn’t wait to see what else Indonesia had in store.