Climbing the Volcano (1986)
Updated: Jan 20
A Birthday to Remember!
In 1986, my new bride Elaine and I embarked on a yearlong backpacking honeymoon around the world. With a budget of less than $40 a day (including transport from Canada), we needed to be frugal to make it through our 16 country itinerary. No five star hotels or private jets for us! Instead, beach huts for $1.50 a night and long, uncomfortable, third world bus rides were the norm. While not the most glamourous way to travel, we certainly got to see the “real” world out there, certainly not some sanitized version.
Dateline- December 10, 1986 – Changing Latitudes, Changing Attitudes
A few rough patches thus far on our round the world journey: a terrifying ferry boat ride from Ovalau to Taveuni, Fij during a tropical storm, and a near fatal car crash while hitchhiking in New Zealand.
We emerged unscathed and looked forward to our overland/sea journey from Bali to Thailand; boats, buses, trains, and quirky local transportation common in Asia: bemos, (converted vans or pick-up trucks) horse-drawn carts, and human and motor-powered trishaws.
Sometimes, it helps to be a little naive about what lies ahead. Our motto became: the tougher the journey, the greater the reward.
Slow Cart to Java
After an idyllic three weeks in Bali, a true slice of paradise, we assumed that the rest of Indonesia would be equally memorable. Our next destination was Mount Bromo, an active volcano in eastern Java, a day’s journey away from our splendid beach hut on Bali’s north coast.
After making the most of our last night in Bali, we were up bright and early to catch the morning ferry across the strait to Java. Leaving Lovina at 6 a.m. we were heartened when we caught a bemo van straight away. The journey to the port was punctuated by stops at various temples so the driver could hop out to offer flowers wrapped in banana leaves, and to say a quick prayer. Upon his return to the bemo, he’d present the passengers with blossoms.
As his first recipients we were very touched by his gift and as we tucked the blooms behind our ears- we considered this a good omen.
About half a mile from the port, everyone was evicted from the bemo and offered a transport tin a tiny horse-drawn cart. Elaine and I formed quite a picture as two of us, along with our cumbersome packs, trotted along in a quaint cart to the ferry.
And just in time! The boat was preparing to push off.
The journey across the strait, over crystal clear blue waters teeming with fish, took half an hour. As our eyes lingered over the pristine beaches of Bali, undoubtedly one of the most magical places on earth, a feeling of regret nearly overpowered us.
Would we ever return again?
The instant we stepped off the boat, it was obvious we weren’t in Bali anymore. Young touts descended from all directions, yelling: “Where you go mister? Where you come from? Come with me, I help you find bus!”
We were swept along with the human tide, and soon our bags were being hoisted onto the roof of a rickety-looking “express” bus to Probolimgo, half way point to the town of Ndsera, at the foot of Mount Bromo.
Almost immediately, the bus departed. Another good sign! We hadn’t waited for transport for longer than 10 minutes thus far.
But our elation proved short lived. Passengers were crammed into the smoke-filled bus like proverbial sardines and, as locals used it for public transport, the bus ride ended up taking at least twice as long as a true express journey. Scammed!
Eventually, we moved to the back of the bus, where we stretched our stiff legs in the aisle. The rear seats also impeded our view of road ahead, which was a good thing. Our driver was weaving in and out of traffic like Mario Andretti on the Indy 500 – scary stuff indeed!
A little boy seemed particularly interested in us and struck up a conversation.
“What country you come from?”
“We come from Canada.”
Either he had no idea where Canada was or he’s going to sing the national anthem, I thought.
“Can I have your address?” he inquired.
“Sure, will you write to us?”
“Yes, Canada very good. I come visit you in Canada. Canada Number 1!”
Young Javanese (half the citizens of this, the most populous island on earth, were under 18 years old) are anxious to practice their fractured English on Westerners. (We would often be engaged in conversations during our travels in Java and asked for our address, but never did receive any correspondence.)
After five sweaty hours in our sardine can, the first of many our memorable experiences with an “express” bus – one of the great Asian misnomers – we finally pulled into Probolimgo.
A bevy of bemos
Despite the rigours of the day's journey, we were surprised with our progress. Bemos were conveniently located near the bus station, so before clambering on board, we had time for a cool drink.
In between swigs, we noticed we were providing entertainment for a large group of locals, who found us particularly fascinating. Guess they don’t see too many farangs (foreigners) in these parts.
Filled to the rafters, our tiny bemo crept out of town past picturesque rice terraces before making the steep ascent up the mountain.
The bemo served as a local bus, and a constant stream of passengers climbed on or disembarked all the way to the top of the mountain. At one point, I counted 25 people in the small van; the driver, plus five other people jammed in so tightly in the front seat he had to lean out of the window to drive! These trying conditions did little to enhance our feeling of security, especially when we caught glimpses of the sheer drops next to the road.
Although Mt. Bromo was only 40 kms from town, our ride took three excruciating hours.
Just as it seemed like we were finally nearing our destination, the driver stopped. What now??
Incredibly, he managed to load several 100 kg bags of flour and rice, some vegetables and two geese in a basket onto the roof!
With geese quacking mournfully, the “stuffed to the gunnels” van crawled up an even steeper incline to Ndsari, where we gratefully extricated ourselves from our purgatory.
Our trusty yellow traveller’s guide, Lonely Planet’s “South East Asia on the Cheap” indicated there were several lodges in town where we could stay but we could only find one poorly marked hostel with tiny decrepit rooms. Even on our tight budget, we would have turned it down if had been anything else available. The locals were surly and would not help us in our quest to find a more decent place.
Fortunately, the air was cool, as we had climbed to 8,000 feet, so we felt somewhat rejuvenated after escaping the oppressive tropical heat.
Later, much to our chagrin, we were to discover that most western travellers stayed in a lodge at the foot of the volcano, which required hiring a donkey or horse to transport bags, etc. to the top.
Staying in our sleazy little inn was especially depressing for Elaine, as the next day was her 30th birthday. Fortunately, we met some other travellers in the inn and we all commiserated together, and agreed this would certainly be one birthday to remember.
Give Me A Bromo (this Volcano’s Got Gas)
According to our guide book, the best way to reach Mt. Bromo was to start before dawn to catch the sunrise. Bromo’s summit was fairly easy to access, requiring little in the way of climbing skills, so was quite popular with travellers.
We rose at 3 a.m. to begin our assault.
It’s amazing how dependent we had become on that damn Lonely Planet book. Here we were, frazzled by the previous day’s rigours, sleep deprived, tempers frayed, trudging up a steep 5 km road in complete darkness. Were we nuts?
Poor Elaine fretted that bandits hiding along the path would pounce on us in the dark.
“I feel like we’ve being set up!” she exclaimed, as we plunged blindly forward.
It was indeed a possibility given our encounters with the locals thus far. Perhaps we’d never be heard from again. Trying not to let our imaginations run away with us, we proceeded a little more cautiously, just in case.
When we encountered some men renting ponies to tourists, we could’ve have taken advantage of the opportunity to make things a little easier on ourselves, but no, we were too stubborn, dumb and cheap to rent one. Upward we plodded.
A short time later, a couple on horseback, smart enough to pay the few bucks for the easier way up, clip clopped by and we instantly regretted our decision.
We tried cheering each other up by insisting that there had to be another pony-for-rent place up ahead.
But that wasn’t meant to be. Two hours later, with daylight beginning to penetrate the cloak of darkness, we stumbled by foot onto what looked like the surface of the moon. A vast plateau, smothered in grey volcanic ash, was the next stage of our quest. To our left were two perfect mini volcanos, but the holy grail – a large smoking truncated volcano that had to be our Mount Bromo, still lay about a 1/2 mile ahead.
Elaine was not buoyed by this vision. “Wouldn’t it have been just as good at sunset?” she said.
After slogging through the fine grey ash, we still had to climb 200 stairs to reach the lip of the volcano. Surprising myself, I felt a surge of energy and practically bounded up, but Elaine lagged behind.
“It’s physically exhausting turning 30, you know,” she muttered when she finally dragged herself to the top.
The sky was brightening to a rosy red and we were starting to think that maybe this had all been worth it – that we would about to be treated to the sunrise of a lifetime. A small group of felllow yellow bible zombies stirred in shared anticipation.
It seemed like one second, we were expecting a solar spectacle, and the next it was as bright as noon. We couldn’t believe it. Was this what all the fuss was about?
We tried to ease our disappointment by concentrating on the plateau below. It was rather interesting to guess which footsteps in the soft ash were ours, but the sulphur stench emanating from the huge crater behind us was making us queasy.
A western couple sauntering by interrupted our ruminations. We thought they must have dropped in by helicopter as they were dressed to the nines! He was resplendent in yellow pullover, pink shirt and green patterned pants, and she was quite fetching in a white pull-over and pants, red blouse and red shoes, and get this – perfect make-up!
As the rest of us were dressed in our typical backpacker garb of light windbreaker, t-shirt, comfy pants and sneakers, they definitely won the best-dressed couple on Mt. Bromo award.
Retracing our steps down the volcano, we couldn’t believe how steep the walk up had been.
“If it had been daylight, we would’ve never done this,” declared Elaine when we realized we’d climbed 2,000 feet – straight up!
Part way down, we took a break at a small hotel to see if it was any better than our dump, but an Aussie couple said they were paying three times the price of our sleazy room, and the nearby disco blared music all hours of the night.
As we clambered down, our spirits received a boost when we encountered an old man playing a charming song on what sounded like a fiddle, but was a primitive wooden instrument unlike anything we‘d seen before. We paused under the shade of a tree to listen, and when he was finished, he gave us a toothless grin, happy to have an audience.
We arrived back at our hotel at 8:30 am, and wasted no time catching a few winks.
After our nap and a bite to eat, we felt somewhat rejuvenated and since we were only here for one more day, decided to explore the town. Ndsari was easy to get around, and we spent the afternoon walking up and down its tiny lanes.
It reminded us of Nepal, even though we had yet to visit that country. The people were dressed in sweaters and scarves and one fellow sported a down-filled parka, probably donated at some point by a world traveller.
Terraces had been carved out of the hillside, and sturdy multi-coloured stucco buildings with red tiled roofs and coloured glass windows dotted the landscape, in marked contrast to the bamboo huts so common in Bali. The villagers seemed robust, possibly due to marching up and down the steep lanes. The main crop in the black loam fields was cabbage; one slip off the vertical drops between the fields could mean instant death.
That evening, we began to feel better about things, especially after a nice meal and a toast to Elaine for her birthday. We talked about the road ahead; we still had the rest of Indonesia to explore before catching a boat to Malaysia in five weeks.
We would set off for Jogjakarta the next day.
Before leaving Indonesia, we'd get another opportunity to celebrate Elaine’s birthday at Lake Toba, Sumatra, with new friends, a rubber birthday cake and fresh puppy for dinner – but that story was still down the road.
Next Stop: Java Jive