TRAILS OF THE GODS
At the heart of East Java lies Bromo caldera, a volcanic landscape of awesome power, real and symbolic.
SUNRISE ATOP MOUNT BROMO. TO THE NORTHEAST, A SEA OF CLOUD begins to spill silently over the caldera rim. Slumping to the sandy floor as an ominously expanding puddle, its front edge quickly nears the foot of the giant ashy cone on which the four of us stand. As it breaks upon the margins of the mountain there’s even a faint irrational sense of alarm – are we being marooned? Then come the first piercing glints as the sun chases the cloud over the rim. Reassuringly, there is to be another day. The rays are answered by flickering from the Penanjakan viewpoint to the north as hordes of tourists share the moment. Soon another wave, of vans and bikes and horses, will impact Bromo. Now though, we are alone with the spiritual axis of the universe . . . we tilt that axis and let the ash take us, whooping into cold air, moon-striding metres at a time as we slither down a mountainside too steep to run, too fun to not try.
Indonesia is strewn with still-smouldering volcanic peaks. Java in particular has plenty of craggy, cratered moonscapes, but the Bromo caldera is positively Martian in scale and strangeness. Protected today as the Bromo-tengger-semeru National Park, this area has long been revered. Back when Indonesia was mostly Hindu, it was thought to be the centre of creation, a belief maintained by the local Tenggerese who are among Java’s last surviving Hindu holdouts. Semeru, the peak that looms imperiously at the back in a million selfies of Bromo, is named after Meru, the abode of gods. Most of those selfies are taken from at sunrise from the highest point of
We are alone with the spiritual axis of the universe . . . we tilt that axis and let the ash take us . . .
the rim, at Penanjakan. If you aim to be among them, head out really early as it gets choked with visitors well before the sun ever shows itself. Otherwise, elect for a lower viewpoint or embrace the contrarian view and head across the Sea of Sand that lines the caldera, to its twin centrepieces: the fluted form of Mt Batok, and Mt Bromo itself. In the past, Tenggerese horsemen eked out a living from ferrying tourists all the way to Bromo but today most reach this sacred spot dragging a billow of dust behind their 4WD or motorbike. All must then relinquish such proud monuments to man’s ingenuity – leave their motorised transport at the car park – and assume a more proper level of modesty as they approach the mountain and its attendant Hindu temple. Looking up, you will often see this craterwithin-a-crater topped with an off-white cloud of steam as evidence that it remains very much
Move around the rim beyond the stone railings for more room to contemplate this extraordinary place.
active. Follow the obvious trail through a maze of water-carved gullies, and mount the stone stairs for a view down Bromo’s gaping gullet. As the crowds build with daylight, move around the rim beyond the stone railings for more room to contemplate this extraordinary place. Each year, Bromo’s rim is the precarious setting for the climax of the Tenggerese festival of Yadnya Kasada, or Kesodo, when offerings are thrown into the crater to assuage the gods.
The Tengger people have long used horses to get around their mountainous home. Their nimble hooves cope as well with the ash inside the caldera as with the rich volcanic soil of the farmland that lies on its out slopes.