In which we have some volcanic adventures and memorable dives as we island hop from Java to Gili Trawangan.
There’s something about standing on the edge of a smoking volcano that plays havoc with your imagination…at least that’s how I felt peering down into the smoking funnel of Gunung Bromo. It’s not possible to see the magma, but that aside it was just how I’d imagined the top of a volcano to look: a steep sided funnel leading to a circular vent that disappears straight down into blackness. The reek of sulphur and the roiling clouds of smoke issuing from the vent left little doubt of what lay below, and standing on the edge, imagining what would happen if you slipped down into that dark, chthonic pit was utterly intimidating….unless you’re Keith, of course, who went off beyond the safety barriers for a stroll around the rim (much to my futile exasperation).
Getting to Gunung Bromo itself presented us with a few decisions. It had been a wrench leaving Yogyakarta and our bijou but very colourful and comfortable hotel room, but tempus fugit (way too fast) and both ourselves and Jerry had deadlines to meet, so we pedalled off towards Probolinggo a coastal town that’s one of the recommended places for accessing Bromo.
On the final approach into town we separated from Jerry as he decided to head up the (alarmingly steep) ascent to Cemoro Lawang (the village closest to the crater) on a mission to see the sun rise over the rim. Being of a less determined nature and having far less desire to admire the sunrise we opted for the flat ride into Probo and a lazy bus ride up to Cemoro Lawang the following morning. However, things don’t always go to plan in Indonesia. We were at the bus depot (a row of shabby green minivans parked outside some dismal shops) bright and early (6.30am) and were told we’d need to wait for a full bus load before they would depart. Two hours later we were still waiting. It’s not possible to hire motorbikes in Probo so our options were to pay for motorbike taxis (a very uncomfortable 40km journey), continue waiting for more passengers for the public bus (haha), or pay for a whole bus (I don’t think so!). We reluctantly came up with a fourth option: to get up excruciatingly early the following day and make the 1700m ascent on an unladen Pino before the sun came up and broiled us. With our plan decided we got up and started to walk back to our hotel, whereupon a bus driver scurried over and offered to take us up for the same price as a couple of motorbike taxis, and far less than he’d previously wanted for the whole bus. We said yes and Keith then negotiated an even cheaper price for the return journey down the mountain later in the day. As we ascended the increasingly steep and twisting road we could only tip our hats in admiration for Jerry’s determination to ride it.
Arriving in Cemoro Lawang we eschewed the frequently proffered horse, motorbike and jeep rides and instead rode Shanks’s pony the short distance up to the rim of the massive caldera in which Gunung Bromo itself sits and then across the barren plain within to Bromo itself. A caldera is the crater left by the collapse of an empty volcano (usually as a result of an eruption) and this one is vast (around 10 km in diameter). We couldn’t imagine the blast that might have caused that.
Within the caldera is a vast expanse of volcanic sand (the Sea of Sand) dotted with a number of volcanic cones, including Bromo, the most active of them.
Legend has it that a childless 15th century princess and her husband beseeched the mountain gods to grant them children. The gods obliged them with 24 children (be careful what you wish for!) but stipulated that their 25th child must be sacrificed to the volcano in return.
This legend is the origin of the Yadnya Kasada ceremony that continues to this day, but with offerings of fruit, rice, vegetables, flowers and livestock rather than people (we hope!). Right next to Bromo’s cone sits a small temple which organises the ceremonies, and yes, we also wondered how frequently it has to be rebuilt, or at least repaired given that Bromo erupted most recently in 2011 (killing two people), 2010 and 2004. Perversely, as well as believing that throwing things into the volcano will bring luck, some people risk life and limb scrambling into the crater to recollect the sacrificed goods believing them to be lucky also. We don’t quite follow the logic ourselves…how can both sacrificing stuff and then stealing the offerings back again both bring luck?
After Bromo we rode with Jerry to Banyuwangi, whereupon Jerry got the ferry to Bali and Keith and I rented a couple of motorbikes, went to bed ridiculously early and got up at half past midnight for our second volcanic adventure. By 1am we were on the road and bravely navigating a steep, twisting, pot-holed mountain road whilst dealing with drifting fog patches, a badly adjusted headlamp, sunken drainage covers and the option of scratched visor, scratched cycling glasses or bare eyeballs (bare eyeballs won). We then marched up a steep 3km path and then, after renting gas masks, descended into the very bowels of hell.
At Kawah Ijen eerie blue flames of burning sulphur vapour cast a ghostly lambency over the miners who toil, often with no masks, in a choking, eye-stinging atmosphere. Burning sulphur vapour condenses and cools from a blood red liquid to bright yellow rock and the miners hack away at it with crowbars until they have filled their wicker baskets with upwards of 80kgs (12 – 13 stone) of solid sulphur. Then, wearing either flip-flops or loose wellies, they hoist this back-breaking load (Keith and I had a go and he could only just about raise it; I managed to get one basket up but hadn’t got it balanced well enough to try for both) onto one shoulder and make their way back up the steep, narrow, slippery, rocky trail to the lip of the crater and then down the 3km dirt path (wider and less rocky but still steep and slippery) to the weighing station where they get paid a pittance for their load. They do this journey twice a day (or rather twice a night as they work in the cool of the night). The youngest miner is 20, the oldest 67! We gave money to any who let us take photos or test their load, and Keith spoke to several in his rapidly improving Bahasa (Indonesian). One young man showed him his shoulders, scarred and deformed from years of having a loaded bamboo across them. The diminutive man whose load we could barely lift told us his shoulders gave him no trouble, but said his knees hurt a lot on the descent. He probably weighed no more than 45-50 kg (7 or 8 stone) himself. It was an extraordinary and humbling experience: these are very tough men doing a very tough job.
After scrambling back up the path ourselves we then walked around the lip of the caldera to look down at the world’s largest acid lake (at a pH of around 0.5!) and watch the sun come up whilst chatting to some of the many other tourists up there. Keith then saw me down the steepest part of the motorbike descent (which was not as bad as I feared, daylight makes all the difference) before heading off to explore the coffee plantations, during which he discovered that the miners only come from the villages on Banyuwangi side of the mountain, so perhaps it’s a family tradition. We can’t think of many other reasons to go into that line of work considering how little they’re paid.
While Keith went off to enjoy his motorbike to its full capacity I navigated boldly through the morning traffic back to our guesthouse where it took a cup of tea and two entire packets of biscuits to calm my nerves (I think this might be a girl thing, my best friend Sue completely understands but Keith just doesn’t get it).
So, with volcanoes ticked off our Indonesian list that brought us to the end of our Java adventure….next stop Bali.
The public ferry from Banyuwangi to Gilimanuk is a very Pino-friendly car-ferry and only cost 8,000 rupiah (about 40p) for the half hour crossing. Perfect. And our first impression of Bali was also favourable: decent tarmac, ornate Hindu architecture and shady forests.
We headed along the north coast to catch up with Jerry in Lovina Beach. Jerry had primed the guesthouse owner who greeted us warmly, gave us a complimentary cup of tea, and then asked if we were interested in going diving.
“Oh, we can’t”, we said. “We’re saving our diving pennies for Gili Trawangan.”
“OK, but do you want to see some diving photos…?”
And of course, it wasn’t many minutes later that we signed up for two dives the next day at Menjangan island. Nothing too spectacular but two highly enjoyable wall dives nonetheless. It was simply a pleasure to be back in the water again.
From Lovina, Jerry headed over the mountains to Ubud and we continued around the north coast, stopping briefly to check out a bicycle-themed temple before arriving in Tulamben, where we managed to fit in an outstanding night dive at the Liberty Wreck. We’re definitely going to have to come back to Tulamben. It’s a spectacular dive site (at least it appeared that way in torchlight), every inch covered with corals, sponges, and tunicates. Keith was in Giant Grouper heaven and I was thrilled to see my first Spanish Dancer, an unfeasibly large nudibranch (sea slug). The large shoal of snoozing Bumphead Parrotfish was also a bit of a treat. We’ve seen Bumpheads before, but never so many and so massive…several were well over a metre long.
From Tulamben we rolled southwards over a few small hills to Padang Bai, where our brief sojourn in Bali ended and we hopped onto the slowboat to Lombok. There are speedboats taking a fraction of the time, but they are not nearly as Pino-friendly as the slow car-ferry. Annoyingly, despite the man in the ticket booth being happy to sell us a single bike ticket (as had been the case for our Java-Bali crossing), the men checking the tickets for embarkation tried to insist we needed two tickets as our rig is so long. Now we don’t usually find this to be too unreasonable. The Pino and trailer does after all take up pretty much the same amount of space as two solo bikes. But what we did object to was what appeared to be the ticket-checkers apparently trying to make a little extra for themselves on the side. Perhaps we misjudged the situation, but surely if the Pino classed as two bikes the ticket seller would have told us that. It all got a bit wearisome but in the end we were allowed on with our single ticket.
The four hour crossing was fairly comfortable. The boat was not too crowded, the sea was calm, and luckily we both fancied having a bit of a snooze as many of the seats only offered a reclining position. There was even televisual entertainment provided, which would be fine if you like 1980s Benny Hill style ‘entertainment’. In this case a beautiful but incompetent female has a flat tyre on her car, four young mechanics squabble over who gets to assist her, one hands her the air hose to inflate her tyre, cluelessly she puts her finger over the end of the hose and lo and behold! her breasts inflate….you get the idea. We found it interesting that this was deemed suitable entertainment on a government run ferry in a predominantly Islamic country ie a culture that takes pride in modest attire.
We spent a couple of nights in the main town of Mataram in a very comfortable guesthouse (Hotel Melati Viktor 3) and then completed the short pedal to Bangsal to get the boat to our final destination (for now) of Gili Trawangan where we will train to be diving instructors and afterwards hopefully get some work….at least that was the intention before arriving on Gili T. After four nights there we’re not so sure.
Even before arriving on Gili T things started to go wrong. Internet reports warned of varying boat prices in Bangsal and advised that we only buy from the main ticket office, which we did, but even there they tried to charge us 150,000 rupiah for the 15,000 rupiah crossing. Then Keith asked a man to stop fiddling with the Pino and the fiddler took great exception to this request. We then got into a lengthy negotiation over fast-boat tickets from Gili T to Bali and got what we thought was an OK deal but which turned out to be quite a lot more than we would have paid if we’d bought the tickets on Gili T.
Although we’d heard that Gili T was a bit of a party island, we’d also heard that there are no cars or motorbikes, just horses and bicycles, so it was hard to reconcile the idea of a party town with the bucolic mental image of bicycles and horsecarts. We should have tried harder.
We arrived into a seething mass of pink and red European flesh, noisy beach bars, and the constant honking of horns as wide-eyed, frothing ponies were urged into a relentlessly fast trot, whisking their carriages into the tourist crowds with a manic urgency. Aghast we pedalled as rapidly as we could through the throng in search of a little serenity. Thankfully we found it down a back-street in the form of Latifah Bungalows where we based ourselves for the first couple of days before hunting out a cheaper long-term home. We quickly discovered that the Pino is not a good way to get around Gili T. Tourists stop us to ask where they can rent one, and 8 out of 10 locals shout “Nice bike, nice bike” as we pass….which we believe is meant well but honestly gets pretty frustrating when you’re just trying to get from A to B. The next frustration was trying to get a SIM card. We must have stopped at a dozen shops before finally finding one that actually had some in stock, and then the kid who sold it cut it to the wrong size so it kept slipping in and out of contact. Keith returned it and asked for a new one and also for the extra credit he’d bought to be transferred to the new SIM. This process took much polite repetition of the request and subsequent bullsh*t response before the kid finally phoned and asked his manager to come and sort it out. We then got ripped off at the night market where the price of various dishes was not explained clearly, and then when we returned to where we’d locked the Pino (at a location recommended to us by one of the friendlier locals) we found a young man resting his ass on the pannier rack while he chatted to his mate. The mate took great exception to Keith asking the man not to sit on our bike and started off complaining about where we’d parked the bike and ended up shaking his fist and making all sorts of ridiculous threats. As a result the Pino is now locked up at our room and we will be walking wherever we need to go.
The next saga was getting off the island for a visa run. The fast-boat ticket we’d been over-charged for in Bangsal was marked as an open ticket but the man had assured us that we would be booked on the 11am boat to get us directly to Padang Bai (back on Bali) and then onto a bus to Denpasar airport in time for our 17:40hrs flight. We arrived at the Gili T office in good time, to be told that the boat was not at 11am but at 11.30, and in the end it was after midday before we actually embarked…and that in itself was in question for a while as there were more people wishing to travel than would fit on the boat and some people were going to have to wait for another boat (to arrive at some unspecified time). Which people would be on the second boat would be decided on a first come first served basis of when you’d checked in, but since we hadn’t been told when we’d bought the ticket that we needed to reconfirm which boat we were leaving on upon arrival on Gili T, we weren’t sure if we’d be far enough up the list. Thankfully we were, and we made it to the airport in good time in the end, but the whole experience did little to endear Gili T to us.
Thankfully the dive school staff are really nice. We’ve been on some excellent fun dives and everyone we’ve met has been really helpful. We’ve moved to a nicer room on a monthly rate, but will continue to keep looking (with the help of the dive school staff) for somewhere a bit cheaper.
We’re currently in Singapore picking up our dive kit from our friends’ house, getting new visas and going to the Asia Dive Expo before returning to Gili T to do some studying before the Instructor Development Course starts in early May.
Wish us luck!