January 16: Kamikaze Horse

Finally, the blog I’ve planned for months: Mount Bromo.

Mount Bromo is an active volcano in East Java, Indonesia. It’s inside a national park, and even the surrounding area is high enough that I get altitude sickness every time I go there. It’s over 2,300 metres (yes, metres) above sea level, and is certainly not the highest point around. The region is about ten degrees cooler than nearby parts of Indonesia.

Since our camera responded to the Great Wall of China by going on strike, I’ve had to take these pics off the net.

After a lengthy drive (or a short walk/drive from the hotels nearby), most people take a horse across the dead edges of the national park. It is a vast plain of sand and mud and ash – black and grainy underfoot.

The whole region is peppered with volcanoes, and Bromo has two sisters.

Of the three volcanoes here, Bromo is the wide and steaming crater on the left. You can also just see the Hindu temple at its feet (the temple gets rebuilt fairly often, as you’d imagine).

Bromo exudes a constant cloud of sulphuric steam (usually MUCH more than is pictured here), and the volcano behind it puffs out smoke at least once or twice an hour. Nearby cities are absolutely filthy from volcanic smoke and steam and ash (and by “nearby” I mean several hours’ drive away). The air is still clearer than Beijing, though.

We crossed the sea of sand on the backs of rather unwell horses (passing many other mounds of green or yellow droppings). My partner’s horse never stopped drooling a white and green goo. As we began to climb winding and soggy paths up onto Bromo, my own horse revealed its own little quirk: given a choice between a path and a sheer cliff, it would always head directly for the cliff. That certainly enlivened the trip for me (plus the increasingly ungentle sloshing of my belly).

After a couple of kilometres spent riding suicidal and drooly horses, we reached the bottom of Bromo’s concrete stairs (built onto the part of the montain that is too steep for the horses). We dismounted and climbed by foot.

Bromo’s entire crater (which is about a kilometre in circumfrence) was shrouded by the smoke, and I knew enough to know things were about to get nasty.

Any reasonably healthy person can get up Bromo’s stairs, but I don’t think anyone would find them particularly easy. About halfway up, when I was breathing hard and trying not to think about the journey back (and how far away the nearest toilet was), the sulphur cloud hit us. It hit hard, and I physically restrained myself from vomiting.

Sulphur smells like rotten eggs. Climbing Bromo, olfactorily speaking, is a little like cracking several eggs into a bowl, leaving them in the sun for a week, then covering your head with a towel as you lean over the bowl and breath deeply.

Bromo is absolutely worth visiting, and the journey is relatively simple. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s easy.

Coughing, retching, and gasping, we reached the crater’s rim. When the wind blows the smoke away, you can see all the way down to the fissure where the sulphur comes from. What breath you have left gets taken away by the glimpse of earth’s secret fires.

Because it was wet season, Bromo was largely deserted. I looked for Fu and Jimmy and Mrs Fu, but saw nothing. My partner and I both heard the eerie howling of the wind inside the crater, however, so perhaps Mrs Fu’s ghost was wailing for revenge.

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