East Java: Bromo’s Maw to Ijen’s Ghosts

The fabled Ijen valley--where the dinosaurs (ought to) roam...
The fabled Ijen Plateau–where the dinosaurs (ought to) roam…

“Right now,” I sighed, “right here, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a dinosaur strut around that corner.”

Everyone nodded in agreement.

“I mean, seriously: a Stegosaurus, or a Brontosaurus, or… or something. Or at least their ghosts, you know. At least their ghosts are here.

“For sure, at least their ghosts.”

By now they were starting to look at me a little weird. But the truth is, I know of no better way to paint the wonder of East Java than to say that at any moment, a Pterodactyl screaming overhead, or a Triceratops bellowing a death rattle with a blood-gurgling T-Rex at its throat seems completely, utterly possible. In fact, gazing across that valley greener than a golf course on Easter and denser than a blue ox on steroids, I found myself shocked that there were absolutely no dinosaurs anywhere: the horizon’s ring of smoking volcanoes was perfect; the sky draped heavy with scudding haze was flawless; the jungle humming with insects bigger than fists couldn’t set a better stage. Everything was enormous and raw and utterly humid. It only lacked the dinos.

Well, that and good night’s sleep. How long had it been since we’d slept?

Talk about a crazy landscape: The rocks and sand of Bromo's crater.
Talk about a crazy landscape: The rocks and sand of Bromo’s crater.

As we climbed back into the jeep, I began to count: Let’s see, the six hour jaunt in a jeep that carried us over saw-toothed ranges of Bromo down to the steaming East Java coast, along a sweep of waves deeper blue than a sailor’s nightmare, and back up into the pine-forested slopes of the Ijen Plateau—that included catnaps, yes, but sleep, no. And more than a little of that trip was spent red-slashing a Jurassic-size pile of exams while Yudi, that faithful driver, swung us around hairpin turns and mazed us through crowds of bicycles and schoolkids, and scootered us through market stalls and street food hawkers and rubber trees galore.

Before that, well, we were cruising around the desert bowl of a caldera 7,000 feet in the air: shades on, windows down, heads bobbing to the chilled air pouring through the cabin. We stopped to leap over the lion-shaped boulder; we paused a moment for a few extra snapshots on the jeep, we perused a wrecked 4×4 marooned in a ditch, a casualty of that morning’s fog-run, and well, we were too busy to sleep.

Back up a little more.

Taking a hike around Bromo's rim
Taking a hike around Bromo’s rim

Christian was standing atop a sandy ridge. That ridge—wider than a lake, steeper than a roof, and deeper than a, well, than just about anything—was the gaping maw of Mount Bromo. That cavernous hole before us ran straight down through God only knows what maze of cave-black rock and sulfur-reeking vents and hyper-heated gas belching up from the guts of the planet. He looked at us, turned his back to the smoking hole, glanced down the slope, and smiled: “You think I can scramble down this?” Sun splashed through his blonde waves of hair, and he glanced back down to the bronze plains shimmering at Bromo’s feet, “You know, like Bear Grylls?”

“You mean away from the volcano, right?” I surveyed the steepness, made a few mental notes on pitch and gravity, estimated the footing in the rocky sand. Such a descent might involve a few broken bones. “Sure,” I nodded, “but let me grab the GoPro first.”

And we were off—scampering and sliding and kicking up a trail of volcanic dust in our wakes. We couldn’t stop if we wanted to. But who would have wanted? Mountain air swirling, feet churning, the massy slopes of Bromo sliding away beneath us. At the base, we giggled like kids.

Andy taking a nice little walk--notice how steep the sides are.
Andy taking a nice little walk–notice how steep the sides are.

“I’d do it again if I didn’t have to climb all the way back up there.” Christian managed between breaths.

But back up a little more, cause there was still no sleeping there, and there’s more to Bromo than scampering down the hill. Back up to us still atop the monster, back up to us staring straight down the gullet of the beast. There’s no handrail here: only a stretch of a hundred meters or so of basic brick walling next to the ant-hill lines of tourists climbing up and down the stairs. But no handrail over here.

When you get to Bromo, take a little trek around the rim—over here, apart from the crowds, it’s just you and the rumbling fever of the earth. Just you, looking into the edge of sulfur-smoke churning up from oblivion—no guardrail, no safety net, not even a warning sign. And the sandy edge crumbles away at your foot’s nudging.

A pause in the walk for a little photo-shoot
A pause in the walk for a little photo-shoot

You can walk the entire rim of Bromo. Several miles of sandy trekking, and no matter how you go, at least a third of that distance is going to run face-first into metric tons of sulfur gas pouring out the enormous vent.

All the way around, it’s just you and Bromo—toe to toe, eye to eye.

It’s great. It’s amazing. It’s something you have to try—a marvel of nature without a fence or barrier, without idiot signage screaming of the danger you ought to plainly see: no pesky nets and guardrails.

Just keep the pets on a sturdy leash. Maybe the kids too.

But the point is, it’s real up there. You feel the clout of the planet under your soles.

Power of Bromo underfoot--and the smell of sulfur in your nose.
Power of Bromo underfoot–and the smell of sulfur in your nose.

Maybe it’s exactly that sense of primordial power right in your face that brings the sacrifices to Bromo. Yeah, the sacrifices still happen. Every year, a local tribe climbs up here to dump in a yearly offering to the Bromo gods.

We’ve all seen that sort of thing in King Kong films: a delegation of dignified elders escorting a hefty raft of goodies to the edge of the fiery pit, chanting their underworldly chants, and then chunking the mess inside. All it’s missing is the orange madness of a roiling lava lake. Well, that and the screaming girl to be rescued by Kong.

Personally, I was content to reach out my toe and test the ragged fringe of sand at the rim. Grainy waves of sand broke away and skittered down the slope. “Man,” Christian proclaimed, “If you go over here, there’s nothing stopping you. You’re going all the way down.” Thibaut, our tag-along tour sharer, stroked his beard thoughtfully, and nodded in agreement.

“Yes,” he replied in his snazzy French accent, “I believe you may die.”

Did I mention that you've got to get out on the rim a little?
Did I mention that you’ve got to get out on the rim a little?

I guess that danger is part of the fun—part of the reason why Christian insisted on re-creating scenes from Lord of the Rings, part of the reason why Thibaut couldn’t stop snapping pics, part of the reason why I kept testing my yoga-pose balance on that sandy edge, part of why I kept trying to tell Andy it’s just like that thing from Return of the Jedi that reached up and swallowed Boba Fett and almost Hans Solo—except the tentacles, of course.

“For the last time,” Andy told me one last time, “I’ve never seen that movie and I don’t know what you’re talking about. Now take some pictures of me over here with Batok.”

Next filming location for Lord of the Rings?
Next filming location for Lord of the Rings?

An hour earlier, we still hadn’t slept. At that point we were just pulling into the sand sea—the ex-lava lake burning bronze in the heat of the Java sun, the wispy clouds of dust and remnant fog rolling past. This was the site of our blind run through the clouds earlier that morning. Now, though, visibility had improved. Yudi parked and shuffled off in search of some coffee; the rest of us hustled to climb Bromo.

Blogs and guidebooks claim that the hike to the rim is merely a few hundred stairs. They’re mostly right—after you tack those stairs onto the end of mile-long trek through a sandy wasteland fit for a Mad Max sequel; tack that onto the rolling hill lifting you up from the plain to the foot of the stairs. It’s a route fraught with fellow tourists in all stages of fitness and discomfort, and especially fraught with the superfluous pony rides offered by the tourist trappers.

The little hike up to the top of that little volcano
The little hike up to the top of that little volcano

These mountain steeds—the horses, I mean, not the tourist trappers—were once the mode of choice to climb the ragged crater walls. Today, their continuance in the sulfur-sandy caldera is merely a throwback to the pre-jeep times. And our parking a mile away is merely a contrivance, I’m sure, to keep the pony-profferers in a little bit of throwback tourist dough.

We kept our Rupiah in our pockets and hoofed it ourselves, content to dodge the wiry ponies ridden by city-slicker horsemen and small children, guided loosely by surly mountaineers trudging along beside them.

As for the fabled staircase straight to Bromo’s lip, well, it’s so stuck with tourists and clogged with sand that you might find it easier to step off the stairs and just walk up the hill. Andy did. It wasn’t tough. It wasn’t more than a quarter mile. It was much more fun, Christian and I agreed, coming back down.

The trusty little steeds--and guides--that can take you to the top
The trusty little steeds–and guides–that can take you to the top

In any case, clearly we still haven’t found it—the sleep I mean. So you have to back up even more to find our last little bit of quality shut-eye: back past the sunrise fiesta on the slopes of the crater rim, back past the midnight drive down from Surabaya, back past the Friday night flight from Jakarta, back past another hectic day of Friday school, back to the Thursday night before.

Now it was Saturday’s sunset, and I was seeing dinosaurs rumble past my eyes.

The traditional mounted ride up
The traditional mounted ride up
The modern steed that can give you a lift
The modern steed that can give you a lift

Welcome to the Ijen Plateau, where Java’s hearty reign finally yields to the lapping tide of the sea, and where volcanoes’ blue flames burn deep into the ancient night, where every other peak is pouring smoke to the steaming sky, where the forests of palms burst like fireworks before giving way to the proud mountain pines, and where the coffee crowds in thick and juicy in its bright red fruit. In the plains below, tobacco leaves wide as umbrellas cover glorious stretches between cones of topographical madness, and over it all—plains and hills and peaks, Java’s green glows bright enough to put even the most ardent Irish leprechauns to shame.

We were standing atop a mountain pass at sunset, the tipping point in our six-hour journey up and over the ridges to finally reach Ijen’s fabled heights. As we stared now into the landscape, we realized that we were too exhausted, much too exhausted, to be hunting dinosaurs.

Bromo's staircase
Bromo’s staircase — you might as well just walk the hill.

Yes, for the moment, dinosaurs could wait. What we needed now was a hefty meal and a few hours of shut-eye. Fortunately for us, Ijen Plateau offers a bit of both. Yudi sped us off the dinosaur-infested rim and down into the lush plantation-land. Darkness was closing in, and headlights bounced between thick trees and ropey vines and miles after mile of coffee crops.

The wood-shoed Dutch are responsible for that: they wanted a cash crop from their non-spice-producing islands. Sugar cane and tobacco came to the lowlands; coffee to elevated holdings such as Ijen. Java’s expansive stretches of cool mountain fertility proved perfect for setting up the coffee gig—so much so that the island’s name became synonymous with the drink itself.

Ricefields of the East Java lowlands
Ricefields of the East Java lowlands

But don’t ask me how it reached into programming lingo: Ijen didn’t offer much on that platform.

What Ijen did offer, though, is accommodation in a centuries-old plantation home. Take those spacious, high-ceilinged rooms and subdivide with some bamboo partitions, hastily glue in a few water lines, toss in a couple old mattresses and gritty nightstands, add an outdoor café featuring a basic buffet, and you’ve got yourself a guesthouse that caters to budget Ijen-goers. It’s the kind of place you get when you haggle too much over prices with Yudi’s boss back in his Bromo tour office.

More of the Javan countryside
More of the Javan countryside

The rooms are mostly dusty and always musty, the floors creaking from years of foot traffic and humidity, the walls sighing with lives wisping through on their brief journeys through Ijen, though Java, through life. Black-and-white photos hung semi-straight along the hallways: Ijenese women chopping coffee, cleaning coco, painting batik. Ijenese men straight-faced and barefoot alongside smiling, red-faced Dutch colonizers in heavy boots—all now ghosts of Ijen’s tangled past.

It’s the story of the colonies yet again—how a few foreigners showed up and managed to wrest control from the owners: of the crops, of the lands, of the lives, of the people. How continental homes came to rest on island soils, how sustenance farming gave way to cash-cropping, and how the outsiders came to be so red-faced and booted and the locals the ones with shovels and machetes and sweat. Ijen was just one more chapter in how the Dutch came to dictate the holdings of one of the most storied and celebrated isles in all the globe.

Faces from the past -- Bromo staring back
Faces from the past — Bromo staring back

And behind those scenes of human greed and connivance and power struggling, behind each and every face in each and every picture, in every background of every photo, springs the rampant verdure of a soil that just won’t quit growing: weeds and palms and flowers and coffee and rice. They struggle and strangle and trample one another in the same search for self-abundance. The soil fuels this. The minerals peppered in from dozens of hyper-active volcanoes create a super-rich mixture that, combined with the steady rains and steamy humidity, keep every square centimeter of Java productively employed in sprouting forth some form of something, all the time.

The trick of a gardener here is not to get something to grow, but to keep only the things you want to grow.

Ijen's fine stand of rubber trees
Ijen’s fine stand of rubber trees

Aside from soil on steroids that farmers across the globe would love to borrow for their own topsoil, Ijen boasts a load of hotsprings. Thermal-heated rivers slip through the jungles, and have long been a destination to holiday-goers, even back to the days of the colonists chugging up mountain passes in the fickle black automobiles and wide white sun-hats. Come and baste yourself in water warmed by the fires of earth itself; come luxuriate in the heat that bursts forth ash and lava across the landscape every generation or two; come and slip into the skin-tingling warmth of nature’s own water-heater.

As for our little Ijen-touring party, we arrived after dark and yawned through the buffet of fried rice and spicy noodles. Yudi disappeared to wherever it is the drivers disappear to at tourists digs like this.

Did I mention that you can jump off a rock shaped like a lion?
Did I mention that you can jump off a rock shaped like a lion?

That, by the way, is another unsolved mystery of Indonesian tourism, and one of the most obvious remaining vestiges of colonialism in the archipelago: the servant class. Ours was a common site: You kind of need a driver, and of course you pay the guy, but everywhere you stop, he disappears. At restaurants, he goes somewhere and eats something—much less, much cheaper, probably included in your “service charge” on the bill—but you never know or see it. At tour stops, he slips away to chat up the other drivers somewhere in the shade that you’ll probably never notice. And at an overnight guest house, he will sleep in the car, or in a back room on a plastic mat, or anywhere the owners will offer him.

He stays out of sight, and the moment you decide to drive, your buddy Yudi magically appears with the keys in his hand.

It’s disturbingly similar to the old “separate but equal” maxim that used to circulate civil rights policies in the states: separate for sure; equal just a joke. The drivers, the wait staff, the cleaners, all segregate themselves—and are segregated by force—from the tourists they serve.

More of that dinosaur-ish landscape
More of that dinosaur-ish landscape

Once, for example, in Bali, after spending three full days with the same driver, we finally convinced him to let us buy him a meal at a local Babi Guling joint on the ride back to our final drop-off. Mr. Wayan finally gave in, finally shared a meal at our table, finally became more than just the servant. But he was nervous; he got “the look” from all the surrounding staff, and even when we returned to Bali months later, he wouldn’t hear of repeating the feat and joining us at our table.

The Ijen night in question, Yudi snuck off to his driver-class digs while we chewed slowly and debated whether to hit the hay for a few hours or hit up the local Jazz festival happening a few miles away. We shuffled feet and groaned with full bellies. We looked at each other under heavy eyelids. We stifled more yawns. We stretched our aching limbs and confessed that yes, maybe we had bitten off more than we could chew with our itinerary. Sleepy heads propped up in weary hands; we admitted we couldn’t keep up this pace much longer. Eyes itched with exhaustion and minds drifted off in the middle of haywire sentences.

Andy and the trusty Jeep -- Yudi right around corner... somewhere
Andy and the trusty Jeep — Yudi right around corner… somewhere

And then, then we nodded, stood up, and there was Yudi with the keys in his hand and a smile on his face. We loaded up and drove to the Ijen Jazz Fest anyway.

What else could we possibly do—we coincidentally arrive in Ijen the same night as an annual Jazz fest, and we skip it in favor of sleep we could easily catch on any other night of our lives?

That’s right—Jazz it up: we might never live this chance again.

So there in our weary bones and shivering skin, we huddled under mountain stars and stage lights and witnessed the region’s finest musicians and painters take the stage to lift voices and chords and arts with the ancient land ringing us around. These were the artists of Ijen, the ones whose grandparents peopled the photos in the hotels, the ones who grew up with feet in the hotsprings and heads in the clouds and hands in the coffee. Ijenese smiles had drifted from the subjugated wage-laborers of the colonies and turned hipster and artist, rocking the silky Jazz runs deep into the chilly fogs that settled into the scene.

Kicking back at the Ijen Jazz Fest -- not exactly the pastime of past Ijenese.
Kicking back at the Ijen Jazz Fest — not exactly the pastime of past Ijenese.

The songs have surely changed, but the love and the pain they sang formed the story of existence that pours through proud veins, that wafts from mute voices long since buried in the rumbling earth, that moans from souls tied to souls in the loom of Ijen.

OK, this is too much. I need sleep.

We shivered and yawned off to the jeep, woke Yudi from his nap in the driver’s seat, and set off back to the hotel. We’d have just enough time for a midnight nap—just long enough to charge the camera batteries for the following day’s hike.

Artist plying his trade at the IJF.
Artist plying his trade at the IJF.
The time honored tradition of Batik--some things haven't changed over the centuries
The time honored tradition of Batik–some things haven’t changed over the centuries

A schedule like this is precisely the reason not many people travel with Andy and me. We skip meals and lack sleep; we drive long hours and sleep budget digs; we feed scenes to camera lenses from a dozen different angles, and we don’t leave until we get the shot we dreamed of. We’re pains. Christian and Thibaut were discovering that now. Luckily, he was a good enough sport to alternately gulp coffee by the barrel and crash into sleep instead of offer any complaints.

In a few hours we’d wake to a midnight alarm to hike another volcano for a pre-sunrise photo-shoot. For the moment, though, Yudi sped us through the darkened plateau and I put my aching arms around Andy: 24 hours ago we were landing in Surabaya. In that time we’d climbed Bromo, scampered through its panorama, and long-hauled it across miles of East Java to reach the fabled Ijen plateau, soaked in its scenery and sampled its Jazz.

“Keep a lookout,” I whispered to her between yawns, “for dinosaurs crossing the road. I’m sure they’re here.”

Bromo advice: after you see the sunrise, stick around to climb the cone.
Bromo advice: after you see the sunrise, stick around to climb the cone.
Jumping on in--an effective way to stay awake.
Jumping on in–an effective way to stay awake.
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