Peering into the Guts of Mount Bromo

We walked about 300 meters down the road from our hotel to the bus station where we had read vans leave regularly to Cemoro Lawang, the village on the lip of the Tengger crater and overlooking Mount Bromo, Mount Batok and one or two other volcanoes. At the bus station we met Norbert and Ula, a German couple in their fifties who we ended up getting along great with. They were on an amazing sounding 9 month backpacking trip, both on sabbatical. They had started in Australia and were spending a few months traveling across Southeast Asia before flying into Buenos Aries and heading north through South America. Anyways, the vans to Cemoro Lawang only leave when full and Norbert and Ula had been waiting an hour and half or so for an additional 12 people to show up to fill the van, but only Emily and I arrived so far. Not knowing how long we would have to wait we agreed to just split the cost with them to rent the van ourselves and headed up the mountain. We climbed up and up through switchbacks, out of the sweltering lowlands and into cool, green terraced farmlands blanketed in fog. The respite from the heat was invigorating.

We all checked into a cheap homestay and chatted over lunch at a small warung down the street. It turned out Norbert used to be a geologist, a great sort of guy to bump into while visiting a volcano. Once we were done the great meal of nasi goreng and fried bananas we all walked right up to the lip of the Tengger crater and were able to catch glimpses of what lay inside through rapidly blowing masses of fog. The sheer size of the crater is mind boggling. It is about 10 km across from one edge to another, the walls looking themselves like mountain ridges, in places towering several hundred meters above the crater floor. The ancient explosion that created it must have been enormous indeed and would have been of the size to have almost certainly significantly affected the global climate at that time. In the millennia following that gargantuan event volcanic activity has continued in the center of the crater, leading to the formation of several smaller volcanic cones within it, including Mount Bromo and Mount Batok.

We hiked down a steep dirt path and emerged out of the vegetation onto the flat, sandy floor of the crater. The landscape was remarkable, like a grey moonscape of sand, ash and the odd weed, and as flat as a pancake.  As we were walking Norbert picked up a rock and tossed it high into the air. It hit the ground and came to a dead stop in the grey ash and sand, but amazingly made a loud echoing hollow sound as though we were walking on a thin layer with a vast expanse of nothing below it. He explained that the volcanic rock below, and even the sand particles we were standing on are filled with tubes and holes of all sizes and partially hollow due to the gases escaping the lava as it cooled. All these tubes and hollow spaces served to amplify the noise of the rock hitting the ground as the sound waves resonated through them. We walked past an elaborate Hindu temple at the foot of Mount Batok made of intricately carved volcanic stone, before starting to ascend the path up the slope of Bromo. The trail led though some little valleys of loose ash where it was apparent flash floods might race through when it rained heavily. Norbert pointed out many different layers of vegetation in the ash profile as we walked by, each indicating another eruption from the very active Bromo that covered the plants in thick layers of ash. Creepily, the locals had carved spooky looking faces into some of these areas.

The slopes of Bromo were dull and gray and not quite like anything either of us had ever seen, the thick layers of soft ash shaped into a haphazard arrangement of steep sided valleys and ridges by the erosive forces of wind and water. Surprisingly, the locals have built a staircase through this area, all the way up to the edge of the caldera and a cement fence right along the lip. We ran up this in no time and found ourselves looking down into a funnel shaped grey caldera with a giant round hole at the bottom billowing out sulphurous smoke. Masses of plastic bags and other garbage festooned the sides of the crater and I mentioned to Emily that it seemed as though the locals had devised their own waste management system. She informed me that she had read the garbage is actually thrown in for religious reasons and is not garbage at all, but rather offerings to the volcano in an effort to appease the gods and keep it from erupting. At certain times of year the locals throw everything from bags of food, to live chickens, to money into the smoking crater. Apparently poorer local people will actually climb down into the pit and run around trying to catch any money that is thrown in. We made our way along the caldera to a higher point with an even better view into the guts of the volcano. Emily and I were shocked to see a small orange and brown butterfly fluttering about in this blighted place. As we watched and wondered what the small creature could possibly be doing up here on the edge of a volcano the fast moving wind brought a thick bank of cloud to us. It hit the slope just below us and was forced swiftly up and past us, leaving behind condensation on my beard and mustache. We couldn’t see very far in the now thick fog so we descended to where Norbert and Ula were. On the walk back across the sand to Cemoro Lawang we got caught out in a big thunderstorm. Lighting flashed with tropical consistency, thunder boomed and cracked right over heads, and the downpour of rain had us soaked and muddy in no time.

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