Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Explore Mount Bromo, Indonesia from a photographer's perspective

While Bali hogs all the limelight in Indonesia, there is actually something even more dramatic which you should absolutely visit during your trip your trip to Indonesia. This is the Mount Bromo active volcano on Java Island in Indonesia.

OK, it depends a bit on what you are looking for - if you are looking for a nice family vacation with nice temples, beaches, rice terraces and waterfalls (yes, there is a lot to see in Bali), with a lot of hotels options and developed touristic infrastructure; then Bali ticks all the boxes. However, if you are a bit more adventurous and do not mind roughing it up a bit, then a trip to Mount Bromo is definitely recommended. The landscape (below) is simply out of this world - this is probably how I imagined Mars to be like :) - you can even see the volcano fumes coming out of the crater.

Mount Bromo, Java, Indonesia

Why is it unique?

Based on our experience, this is as close as you can get to an active volcano. The craters look simply amazing up close and it is possible to climb up to the top for the crater from where you will be able to basically look inside the crater's mouth (more on this below in the tour description).

We have been to Mount Etna in Sicily before, and while the surrounding landscape with black volcanic ash is quite dramatic; this is a completely different experience with multiple craters in the vicinity nestled among mountains.

Up, close and personal with an (active) Volcano


How to get there?

Mount Bromo is located within the Taman Nasional Gunung Bromo Tengger Semeru (Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park). It is located on Java island, which is basically a different island than Bali. So you will need to take a flight to Surabaya.While there are a few direct international flights to Surabaya from neighboring Asian countries, your best bet is to take a local flight from Bali.

There is also a domestic airport in Malang, but very few  planes fly to this airport. You have to also understand that the local airlines scene in Indonesia is not very well regulated. While there are a lot a domestic airlines, some of the airlines have a bad safety record and flights often get delayed - not least because of weather conditions. Also, note that some airlines charge a 'foreigner tax' which you might need to pay at the Check-in desk, so please take all this into account while booking local flights in Indonesia.

And, this is also the reason why we recommend flying to Surabaya, which is a large city in Indonesia, so you will at least have some options if your flight gets inadvertently delayed or canceled. It is a 3-hours drive from Surabaya airport to Cemara Lawang village (more on accommodation options later). We booked the Mount Bromo tour with Helios Tours (including airport pickup and drop) and can definitely recommend their services.

Finally, regarding domestic airlines, we would also recommend the national carrier Garuda Indonesia which flies to both national and international destinations. Although more expensive, we flew with them from Bali to Labuan Bajo (Komodo Islands) and Surabaya; and in both cases everything went smoothly. They are also part of the SkyTeam network (Air France, KLM) which means that you can both use/earn miles + (and more importantly) you can be assured of some international oversight and review of their safety and performance track record. 

Is the Sunrise tour worth it?

Most of the tours to Mount Bromo are advertised as Sunrise Tours, which basically means that you reach a viewing point called Mt. Pananjakan around 45 mins before sunrise, and then watch the sun rise over the mountains.

However, this means getting up at 2.30 am in the morning (even if you are staying at Cemara Lawang village, which is the closest base point), and then jostling to catch one of the special 4WD Jeeps that will take you to the viewing point. The crowded scene in the morning with 100s of Jeeps making their way to the viewing point can get a bit overwhelming even for hardened travelers like us who are used to crowded and chaotic cities of India.

So the question is if a sunrise tour is worth it? It is of course possible to visit the mountains later in the day, when it is much less crowded and chaotic. So the "it depends" answer basically lies in the question if you find the below pictures dramatic enough to justify the hustle and bustle. To see the sun rising over the peaks and the moon during sunrise is something you will only experience during a sunrise tour. So from a photogrpahy (or Instagramming) point of view, it is absolutely worth it. However, it is not for the faint hearted and also not something to be attempted with kids.

Sunrise on Mount Bromo
Sunrise over Mount Bromo
It was amazing to see the Moon during Sunrise
Mount Bromo Sunrise

You can of course rough it up even further, by starting a couple of hours earlier and hiking up the viewing point. However, note that you will be hiking completely in the dark (with head lamps, but without any makred hiking trails) on slippery slopes - so this is absolutely not recommended unless you are an experiences mountaineer.

Finally, please remember that all these tours are very weather dependent. Even after all this trouble, you might end up with a thick fog at the top with very low visibility. So please make sure that you make your flight bookings with a bit of buffer in hand, so that you manage to get a few shots even if you miss the sunrise. 


Where to stay?

As mentioned earlier, the default (and closest) staying options are in Cemara Lawang village. Popular lodges include Hotel Café Lava or Bromo Permai. The staff are friendly, however note that the hotels are very basic with mininal lodging and dining options - think of 2* B&B type lodges.

You can find better hotels, e.g. the Jiwa Jawa hotel, which might be preferable if you are with family and kids. Note that it is an additional 1-hour drive from Jiwa Jawa hotel to Cemara lawang village, which directly impacts the time you will need to start from the Jiwa Jawa hotel (1.30 am) for the Sunrise tour. The bottomline is that you are free to explore options other than Cemara Lawang, but please keep in mid that everything will need to go via the Cemara Lawang village - which is the starting point for the special 4WD Jeeps.

In some blogs, it is also written that staying in Cemara Lawang village is prefereable because of its exceptional views. In our opinion, that views you get from Cemara Lawang village are not specific to the village, and you will get the same views during the tour or later in the day upon returning from the tour - so do not stay in the village just because of the views.


Tour Summary

In short, this is how the tour works:

1. (Assuming you are staying at Cemara Lawang village) There is someone banging on your hotel door at 2.15 am asking you to get up - so you basically need to be ready to go by 2.15 am.
2. You wait outside your hotel for 15-30 mins to get on your (shared) 4WD Jeep. They probably have a parking spot somewhere outside the village and you need to get on yours when it comes in front of your hotel - unfortuantely, they are not waiting for you, nicely parked outside your hotel, for you to board as soon as you go outside :)
3. The Jeep stops a short walk before the viewing point called Pananjakan. You walk in the dark, but on a paved road with others - everyone walking in the same direction - so it is not very challenging. There are also some stalls on the sides where you can have tea/snacks if you reach the viewing point before time.
4. Watch the sunrise and take as many pics as you want, all the while jostling with others talking selfies at all weird (and sometimes dangerous) positions.
5. Go back to your jeep. They are all parked along the road, so please make sure to remeber your jeep number or always stick with your tour guide. You will now drive down over the sand sea to be close to the craters (refer to the pic below).

Race to the Volcano

6. From the Jeep parking spot, it is still quite a bit of walk on the sand sea before you finally reach the stairs that take you up to crater mouth. The walk on the sand sea also includes climbing up a bit on some short slopes (refer to the pic below). Note that the tours usually give you around 1.30 hours to go to the crater and come back to the jeep - which might be quite challenging. The good thing is that you can also do this on (rented) horseback, which is recommended unless you are really fit and are  able to still walk fast after the hectic day so far.

The great escape

7. The stairs (below pic) although full of sand are quite safe - you can always hold on to the rails. The only issue if that they are quite narrow, so you will need to go in a line which simply adds to your overall tour time. So keep this in mind while calculating how much time you will need to climb it. 

8. Once you reach the top however, the view inside that crater is simply amazing and makes everything so far worth it. So make every effort to reach this point as it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Living on the edge (of an active volcano)

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