We swerved and turned and plowed back and forth through clouds thicker than mashed potatoes, darker than sin, and cloudier than Satan’s past—it was four in the morning and we couldn’t see five feet ahead, but not even the most supernatural gloom could reign in Yudi, our driver. He floored the accelerator and whipped our jeep in every crazy direction he felt. Dust spun into the dark, and we blasted toward sunrise.
If we didn’t plummet off a cliff first.
Seatbelts? None. Road? Nope. More jeeps? Heck yes. A whole slew of them pulled in alongside us, a gaggle of unruly monsters blazing their roll-bar lights and diesel exhaust into the abysmal dark.
We swerved and herded and fanned out, all searching for the lost path through the crater lake of sand, all jockeying to be first once it was found. That’s right: we couldn’t find the way out. But that wasn’t going to stop Yudi from driving like mad to get there first.
Welcome to Mount Bromo.
Welcome to the Giant of East Java, the brimstone-churning wart of a volcano belching noxious fumes to the heavens for the past millennia, and one of the most-visited and most-photographed pieces of real estate in the entire Indonesian archipelago.
Bromo’s panoramas have been gracing travel-mag features and Microsoft desktops for decades. The square miles of ancient crater stretch into a lake of lunar dust culminating in sheer cliff faces rising hundreds of vertical feet. At the center of this expanse smokes the stalwart Bromo, steady as a geologic metronome, endless as the vast reaches of empty space spreading out to all eternity.
Tour operators have been plying the nighttime trails up these precipices for over a century—first with wiry, hard-nosed ponies well-suited to the rugged climbs, and now with 4 x 4’s and hardy drivers well suited to the cutthroat traffic battles and tottering tires over jagged cliffs—always in hopes of capturing the ethereal moments of sunrise splendor sparkling tendrils of glory over that cloud-shrouded powerhouse lurking just beneath your feet.
It’s a moment of divine and devilish design, an instant when one is convinced not only of the supernatural, but just how truly it wants to grab you by the collar and yank you in close to stare hard into your soul and let you smell its sulfur-fumed breath. And Andy, that lovely little wife of mine, was wrapping all this up and giving it to me for my birthday.
“A weekend in East Java,” we nodded, “is the perfect commemoration for a hard-fought year of life wrested from death, for another sun-cycle through the rigors of a teacher’s calendar, for the annual reflection on the wonder of existing.”
Let’s go see Bromo.
The itinerary was apocalyptic: Friday night flight from Jakarta to Surabaya; a midnight ride out of the urban sprawl and into the jungle-laden hills; a darkened crawl up the steep crevasses of Bromo’s flanks, and yes, a pre-dawn scramble through the stew-thick clouds converging in the crater lake.
Surabaya’s airport was a wilderness in itself: terminals sit miles apart through a traffic-choked portion of the city, and we found ourselves waiting for Christian, our friend and fellow teacher, to arrive from the other terminal. Meanwhile, we sweated through the humid night and chatted through the unavoidable cigarette fog. We found a Hungarian couple celebrating an anniversary and fell to telling our travel plans; then we laughed with young Frenchman winding his way back home from Australia.
When Christian arrived—all smiles and high-fives—from the other terminal, we all piled into a single jeep and laughed our way from the growl of the city and into the churning calls of the mountain night. Darkness loomed, sleep beckoned, and the buzzing conversation slowly died. Yawns began; eyelids drooped.
I woke in the backseat to Yudi’s seat-of-your-pants careening through the crater—something like a billiard ball in a blender set to Fastest Speed Ever. Yudi was amazing: undeterred by the foggy blindness, un-intimidated by the lawless hordes around him, un-perturbed by our howls of laughter peeling into the night, he sped on restlessly.
We nearly hit a half-dozen motorcyclists who had stopped for a cigarette in the fog. Then, almost smashed on old lady inexplicably carrying a table on her head through the sci-fi macabre dawn (Check out the video). Then, well, we still hadn’t found our trail, so we sped on in random circles and swervings another half hour. Sleep deprived and half-mad, we kept the camera rolling and narrated doomsday scenarios of botched expeditions turned to survival-fights. “Captain’s log,” began Christian in his radio-deep voice, “We’re low on fuel. Food supplies are running out. Our instruments show depleted oxygen levels… Still no sign of civilization.”
Now, we roared passed the cyclists again; now three dozen jeeps jungled up to squeeze through a narrow slot. Was this the road? Nope: a sudden U-turn, back through the slot, honking and ripping up dust into a sky that wouldn’t stay dark forever. Cutthroat drivers clawed and scraped for spots at the front of the misguided pack, and as we fought each other through the fog for a way we couldn’t find, I said to myself, “what a fitting birthday gift: a microcosm of so many of our lives.”
These drivers, these battle-hardened, vein-rippling little dynamos carve up that crater and risk all our lives all for an empty boast of proving to their clients that they, yes they, were the tough guys that could muscle their way to the best lookout of all Bromo’s peaks.
Yes, in case you’re wondering, it was absolutely the best ride I’d been on since being kidnapped in Istanbul, since rolling dice with my neck on a public bus to Jogja, since careening through Sri Lanka’s raucous suburbs from a bus seat reserved for clergy.
I was almost sorry when the sun neared the horizon and glowed its pearly warning shots across the sky. It was just enough light to catch a glimpse of that path.
“No matter,” I muttered to Andy. “It’s not like we’re going to see any sunrise in this blanket of cloud.”
Two minutes later I ate those words and swallowed all pessimism: our near-vertical escape from the crater brought us up and over the wooly mists and into the quickly-lightening world of glory: Magnificence in volcano form. But more on that later.
We scrambled to the windows with cameras and phones; Yudi narrowed his eyes and tightened his grip and prepared for the fight of his life: a Bromo-sunrise traffic jam on a Saturday. The peak of Southeast Asia’s most famous steam-roiler doesn’t come without a few hundred more tour rides on top, after all.
Ah, yes, the crowds—part of the giant’s curse. The crazy thing about visiting an amazing place, a marvel of the world, a once-on-the-globe kind of spot like Bromo, is that, curiously enough, you’re never the only one who wants to see it.
Bromo draws us in, like honey for flies, like magnetized iron, like sin. And there on the craggy peaks in the chill, wind whipping past, in the hazy gray moments counting down to the blissful advent of light spraying over the horizon, groggy-faced zombies trudged between the crawling bumper-bumper jeeps, hauling cameras and noodles and coffee. Screaming Pop-Mie and Bakso slingers hawked their morning noodles to those unheeding crowds; jeeps jutted obnoxiously from the shoulder, and herds and herds of spectators milled with thermoses and I-phones with selfie-sticks.
We careened ruthlessly on, searching for an impossible parking spot. I shouldn’t blame the crowds. They just wanted to share the same sunrise. They just needed some new pics for their facebook spread. They were no different than us—and would probably appreciate a smile and a nod and a bit of sleepy-eyed camaraderie.
But we weren’t here as bringers of smiles and goodwill and cotton candy. Or personal safety from oncoming vehicles: We had fought our way up here to have some sunrise photos, dang it. And if we didn’t get ourselves in position in the next few minutes, that chance would be sunk forever in Time’s unforgiving abyss.
Vinny kept up his honking and shouting and balancing the jeep between squashing pedestrian and spilling over the cliff. We grabbed our gear and got ready to run.
This was it, this was what we had scrambled clear across Java for.
We flung the doors open and sprinted for the east-facing cliffs. It was a race against time and the un-stopping sunrise.
Five minutes remained until the sun unleashed its blazing red face across the glorious wasteland stretched before us. We shoved and shouted our way down the crowded paths, cold-shouldering the coffee-hawkers and hip-checking the slow and elderly. Huffing bright steam-clouds to the mountain chill, and wheezing in the altitude exertion, we arrived at a quaint little overlook, a cryptically-named King Kong Hill.
Two minutes till the moment arrived: sunrise. But even in the orangey-grays wafting in from the east, we stood mesmerized.
I remember the day Andy and I first rolled up to the Grand Canyon. It was a sun-soaked afternoon in summer Arizona, and the vistas of the wonder-gorge sparkled under an immaculate blue dome of sky. We were hours late and hell-bent on cover-shot photos. We were rushing like Wall-Street stockbrokers on Red Bull binges and we just about as friendly.
But right there, in that moment, when slapped upside the head with the wonder staring us in the face, we stopped. It was too much.
We stopped our photographers’ dash in mid-stride and stared. Or gaped, I guess I should say. And we kept gaping.
“It’s strange,” Andy finally murmured. “I can’t just take the picture. It just… it doesn’t fit.” I reached over and took her hand. Together, we gaped at the canyon a little more.
Bromo’s fabled sunrise proved the same such beauty: enough to stop us in our tracks and slap us with a dose of our humanity, enough to make the camera in my hand feel like such a plastic toy, and the slaving through the office days enough to make poor Thoreau turn over once more in his premature grave.
Here’s the scene: The cosmic basin of Bromo spilled slow rivers of cloud over its rim to drift down the slopes and leave the nearest village in the pinkening hues of a baby day. Above, the glowing orb slipped across the horizon’s line and soaked the feather-painted heavens with a shock of light that humbled all shadows to flight and submission. And there, center stage, lonely Bromo smoked cynically on. He’s seem millions of these sunrises, after all. Next to him, his taller, rutted twin Batok rumbled in disapproval. Out in the distance, towering nearly twelve thousand vertical feet of steeple-steep grade, Semeru, Java’s tallest volcano, wafted his own brimstone clouds up from the flawless symmetry of a textbook cone.
We scurried through the photographer’s rush of getting all the shots in the most perfect light. We fought the crowd’s cell phones and selfie-sticks. We scrambled for new angles and fresh frames. We spun and clicked and ducked and climbed and sought to somehow, someway, take a new angle of the Giant of East Java in the glory of yet another wondrous sunrise.
In the end, all we have to offer is a few frames that a thousand others have taken on a thousand other similar sunrises.
Which is precisely the other problem of waking for a giant like Bromo—no matter how great a job you do with your photo—or your blog—someone’s already covered that angle. And probably has done a better job, too. I sighed, dipped the camera, and looked out over the giant that has summoned and entranced humanity for centuries.
In all the glory of a sunrise painted on the canvas of heaven, I mulled the possibilities— if I can’t be the best, is there any point in being part at all? Should I just to give up on the photos and let the professionals seize a monopoly on the beauty? Should I get some more sleep, unwind with a little TV, and not bother to keep scribbling out my unheard little notes in the chorus of humanity?
If my voice isn’t the loudest, should I just keep it quiet?
Well, call me idealistic, but I’m still here writing, still busy re-writing.
The giant didn’t crush me.
Andy and I stopped and watched long after the others had trudged back to the jeeps and descended to the crater below. We stayed until the last bits of fog lifted from the basin and left a gleaming bronze desert in its wake. A tiny ant-line of tourists scurried up the ragged cone of Bromo to peek inside the monster.
We were alone with the giant.
“Happy birthday,” Andy said as she leaned over. “Just think, no one ever in the history of history, has ever seen this same sunrise, in this same moment, from this same angle. It’s all ours.”