It’s already dark when I reach Probolinggo, just like Desy said. It’s a little past 6 p.m., but with the streets practically empty and only a few sleepy eateries and stores open, it feels later in the night. I don’t have much difficulty finding my hotel, though, and after less than an hour, I’m in my room, lying on the bed and absentmindedly watching an Indonesian soap opera on television.
I call Asrori Kholid, the one-man staff of Probolinggo’s tourism office and whom Desy had earlier connected me to. I announce I’m already in Probolinggo and tell him where I’m staying.
“I’ll meet you in a short while,” he says.
It’s almost eight by the time Asrori knocks on my door. He’s either in his late twenties or early thirties, looks more like a front man of an Indonesian rock band, but speaks with such a weary tone, like the hours of singlehandedly manning his job has taken its toll on him.
He gives me a map of the area and details me on the plan: we will leave for Cemoro Lawang at 1:30 in the morning, and from there, one of his friends will take me to Bromo. Asrori has planned this trip in such a way that I would arrive at the Penanjakan Viewpoint ahead of the crowds, allowing me to choose my spot for the sunrise.
“I’ll leave you now to rest,” he says. “It’s going to be a long morning for you.”
In the predawn darkness, Asrori and I zip our way to Cemoro Lawang on his motorbike. Without much warning, the air drops in temperature, and it’s now cold – really cold. I can’t feel my fingers anymore and with the wind whipping my face, my eyes well up. The trip takes about an hour and a half but it feels much longer.
We reach Cemoro Lawang at around three, and we stop at the house of Asrori’s friend, Uji, who owns a homestay near the entrance of the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park. Uji invites us to warm ourselves in his kitchen first. He hands me a hot cup of coffee – fortified with lots of sugar – and builds a makeshift fireplace out of a few coals.
When I finish my coffee, Uji gives me a pair of mittens and leads me to his motorbike in front of the house. We soon make our way to Penanjakan.
I don’t know it yet, but we’re riding on a lunaresque caldera with five volcanoes – four active – looming nearby. Further south stands Java’s highest mountain, the Mount Semeru, the peak of which towers above the Tengger Massif. Sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is home to countless volcanoes. Java, which was formed by a series of volcanic activities in the past, contains mountains acting like a spine that spans across the island. East Java in particular is generally a mountainous region, with volcanoes dominating the landscape.
Mount Bromo itself isn’t that large, but it’s the most popular and the most significant to locals, who treat the volcano with utmost reverence. Legend has it that after a childless couple asked the gods for assistance, they were granted 25 children but with the condition that the youngest must be thrown into the volcano as sacrifice. Nowadays, during the Yadnya Kasada festival, locals throw various offerings – humans not included – into the crater to appease the gods that inhabit it.
“It’s really beautiful,” exclaims Wei, her voice shaking from the very cold air. My fellow solo traveler from China leans a bit more on the railings and takes a picture of the surreal view in front of us. We had just met a few minutes earlier and decided to stick together to be each other’s photographer.
The sky has turned into a light shade of purple, the dawn slowly revealing the park’s breathtaking landscape. Dozens of people are huddled in the viewpoint to watch the sunrise paint an ethereal look on the three peaks of the park – Bromo, Batok and Semeru.
The sun has risen way up of the horizon when we climb down Penanjakan. After a brief stop at Bukit Cinta (Love Hill), which offers a less stunning, though still pretty, view of the volcanoes, Wei and I make our way to Bromo, a large billow of smoke escaping from the volcano’s crater. Aware that boiling lava rumbles underneath us, a primordial fear creeps within me. I tread the crater’s lips very slowly. I am at the full mercy of this volcano, and once it awakens, we’re literally toast.
After snapping each other’s photos, Wei and I decide to linger a bit more to take this all in. A group of young Indonesian mountaineers are cheering each other as they finally make their way to the top. Below, people seem like ants against the immense size of the Laotian Pasir. Silvery sand dunes are reflecting the early morning sun’s rays. For a moment I have a sense of triumph, feeling less like I’ve conquered a volcano than the moon.