Thursday, 15 December 2011

Lunar landing

Tuesday 13th December, 2011. Hotel Helios, Malang, East Java.
Total distance: 694.2km
Approximate distance to Jakarta: 920km
Number of weeks to reach Jakarta: 4

We slept long past everyone else. Other groups of travellers rose before dawn and rode a jeep to the summit to catch the sunrise over the caldera. We slept soundly, maybe turning over and muttering something as they crept out across the floorboards in the darkness outside our room. We woke after they had returned, our heads still satisfyingly lethargic from the long sleep. Although we woke on our own accord, well after everybody else in the hotel had, it was not so late when we finally got up and began thinking about breakfast. The sun was up, but it was before 8am. Regular early morning's ensure that our bodies don't let us sleep past 7.30am unless we have an unusually late night.

We gulped when we saw how steep the road got
here. But our route swerved to the left before it
got there, and descended down for a while! Hurray!
But then it veered up again, miles steeper than even this
one. "Ah jeez", we wheezed.
Today was supposed to be an off-day, but it was patent that that was not going to be the case – we were so close to the top we would have to get ourselves up there before the day was done. But we treated the early morning as our own, remaining stubbornly in bed, dozing, while the world came to life around us. After more than an hour of this it was hunger that finally evicted us, and we shuffled out onto one of the garden tables and ordered a gigantic breakfast.

The day was fresh and bright. It was the kind of morning we might have felt guilty about missing, if we didn't feel warranted in doing so given the effort of arriving yesterday. The sky was a bonny azure, dotted here and there with twists of bright white clouds that tumbled down from the pass just above us. Away down the valley below us the folds in the land presented sedate agricultural scenes, growing ever smaller and fading as they got further away. The sun was bright and warm, even at this time, and the two of us were very excited about what lay ahead. Just 5km up the the road was the caldera of the Tengger massif – the five volcanic peaks that sit in an enormous old crater almost 10km around, the most famous being the regularly grouchy Mount Bromo.

Bromo's rumblings are the reason that so much farming is done along the slopes, and its activity was evident everywhere as we made the final push to the top some time after 1pm. Across the windows of any seldom used building, covering signposts, fences, rubbish tips and, in places, the road, is a thin layer of grey dust, fine to the touch. This ash is the work of the volcanoes at the top, with Bromo being the most active participant, sending it raining down on the hill side and feeding nutrients back into the soil. The result is a richly fertile land, and the people here are able to grow a multitude of the more expensive variety of vegetables and bring them down to the markets in the plains below, fetching good prices and affording them a secure and indeed a relatively affluent lifestyle.

As we worked our pedals, gradually hauling ourselves and our gear through the small villages that inhabited the upper quarter of the hillside, this wealth was apparent. With the exception of a few ash covered, evidently abandoned properties, none of the houses were in a state of degradation, as was the case in many villages we had ridden through before, and many of the homes here looked to be expensive; made from sturdy brick, painted in gleaming peaches and yellows, and sporting columned balconies overlooking the land below. It should come as no surprise to learn that annual offerings are made to the crater of Bromo and the Gods that reside in it. Rice, flowers, and even unlucky chickens are tossed into the crater in the hope that it will keep the volcano Gods doing their thing, so the people of the slopes can keep doing theirs. Of course you can't please all of the Gods all of the time, and occasionally an eruption gets out of hand, and villages have to be evacuated while thick plumes of ash pour out, and warnings of potential lava flows are issued.

Bromo remained out of view, and silent though, as we heaved round reluctant pedals on a slope steeper even than the one the day before. Lowest gear felt like mid level third, and we had to stop riding suddenly to gasp for breath, hands clenched to the brakes to stop ourselves rolling back. The final 5km to the top was hard work indeed, but it was only 5km, and after about 90 minutes of punishing work out, Liv recognised the village we were riding through as the one right on the lip of the caldera. We hurried up the pocked track, joined by smiling tourists and the whine of crossers that scuttled past us. The place buzzed with activity. After paying our entrance fee we came to a viewpoint looking down into caldera, and what a view it was!

The Tengger massif.
The ground dropped away vertically in front of us more than a hundred metres, before suddenly levelling out into a vast ocean of grey ash that surrounded a piled heap of matter several kilometres away in the centre of this city-sized bowl. The tall rim of the bowl that we stood on went curved around the entire landscape, rising even higher in places, surrounding the area with what appeared to be an impenetrable vertical wall that faded off into the distance and around the back of the cluster of volcanoes that jutted out in the centre. Of the volcanoes that we could see only one adhered to the classic coned volcano shape, rising abruptly out of the perfectly flat sand sea around it, but this was Mt Batok and, we would later learn, the only one of the five that is no longer active. Away in the distance, almost obscured from view was the tip of Java's highest peak, an active volcano called Semeru. It took me a moment to figure out which part of the mass was Bromo itself. Lying there, looking somewhat deflated – like an enormous boil on the landscape, was the shallow sloped cone of Bromo. What it lacked in height it made up for with the diameter of its crater, that lay slack jawed, gaping up at the sky above it, like some deep sea angler fish, biding its time.

The excitement of reaching the top and catching a glimpse of the volcano had to give way to the banalities of finding accommodation, and getting a late lunch. Rooms weren't cheap up here, and the streets were dotted with hawkers milling around offering motorbike rides, small wooden instruments, woolly hats, food, beds in their house, you name it. Their style was relaxed and friendly though, and they were never persistent. We got the impression of this being a means to some extra cash, rather than a livelihood.

After an hour we settled on a slightly less expensive room, overlooking the caldera, and sporting a hot shower. Paying $30 for a room does have its benefits.

We ate, and milled around for an hour or so, letting our muscles relax back into themselves, and at around 4.30pm we decided it was high time to explore the volcano, despite the fact it would be dark soon.

It must be said that Java has been hard work at times, with the pollution from the traffic, the feeling of alienation that a hundred staring faces and pointing fingers bring, and the internal disruption caused by some of the food, and in our darker moments we might graze against the question of whether or not it is worth it. Our evening in the Tengger caldera answered any doubts for us. Yes it is, and this is what it's all about.

"The night seemed to turn the colour of orangeade."
We were alone as we we marched the 3km across the duneless ash desert towards the congregation of volcanoes at its centre, darkening as the sun slipped away behind them. Around us the edges of the caldera rose up steeply like mighty walls that obscured any trees or farmland, ensuring that all we could see was this lunar desert, and the distant twinkle of a few lights of the town from where we had descended. It was as though we were on some alien planet, a reconnaissance group from Star Trek sent out across the moonscape to investigate the mysterious geography that lay ahead.

As we approached Bromo the land became choppy. The previously flat ground began to rise up into dunes that piled into each other, and we followed the footprints and tyre marks of the morning crowd as they cut a path through the maze of sand and ash towards the stone staircase that rose sharply to the crater's edge. The sky had turned a startling fluorescent orange, the last of the day burning out brightly, fuelled by the ash that hung in the atmosphere. Despite it's intensity the light was fading fast as we began the climb up the hundred or so cracked and giddy stairs to the top, behind us a full moon was rising, gradually replacing the sinking sunlight with a steel blue light that froze the contours of the land.

The skyline had turned a deep citrus orange as we reached the top, with just enough light to see down into the enormous crater. “Woah.” I exclaimed, I couldn't help it. Just a few steps from the top there was a feeble stone barrier that only came to our shins, fallen away in places, and then a steep inverted cone cascaded down to a large black hole at its centre. In the fading light the detail was lost, but this gave it a supernatural quality that genuinely unsettled us. This enormous black hole sat in this sand trap, large enough to swallow a house, and seemed to drop away into nothingness. We could just make out sheer rock inside, but there was no sign of a bottom to it. A strange vertigo held us, and I made concious checks that my footing was secure, so as not to tumble and roll down the sand banks towards that deep abyssal hole that lay patiently at the bottom. Even having snapped what few pictures the light would allow, and then turning to try and get a shot of the sunset, or the moonrise, we could both feel the presence of this menace behind us. It was a void incarnate, its depth indeterminate, its contents unknown.

With the presence of that maw on our minds, we hurried down the steps invigorated to find the sand sea before us glazed in cold moonlight. The land seemed frozen under a spell, and yet here we were traipsing across it, kicking up puffs of ash in the soft light. The darkening sky revealed hidden stars behind it, and off in the distance a silent thunderstorm raged, flickering with electrical energy.

This was an evening that shan't be forgotten. A landscape that might resurface as the backdrop to a dream in forty years. Dusty with ash, and beaming, we ate dinner, and climbed into bed.


The next morning we confronted the sand sea on the back of our loaded cycles, pedalling south of Bromo along a faint track that marked the route across the caldera. For the most part the ash was compacted enough to allow us to ride over it, but here and there it amassed in soft dunes that dragged our wheels off to the side and required slow, careful manoeuvring to prevent falling over. Liv, with her thinner road tyres, had a harder time of it than me.

As we rode around and got out of the range of Bromo the lifeless lunar landscape gave way to an explosion of greenery. Cotton tipped grass waved from the ground as we passed, with small birds flitting between them. The banks of the volcanoes in the centre turned from pasty sand to a verdant green, and locals appeared on them, gathering a crop of some kind.

Unlike the night before, we were not alone on the sand sea. Motorcross bikes buzzed passed us, and could almost always be seen either in front or behind, off in the distance. An SUV, packed with chattering tourists was even making the journey. It stopped as we passed and pointed a multitude of flashing cameras out of its window at us as we passed.

After about 45 minutes the ash track abruptly ended to be replaced by bumpy cobbles. The road was very thin, and marred by pot holes and large loose stones which made it at times harder going than the sand sea track. But the land was inclining out of the caldera, and a dirt track leading out would probably not survive a few downpours of rain.

The path crawled gently up the surrounding slopes at first, and then began to wind more steeply as it came up against the caldera rim. Despite only cycling for a couple of hours the day before our legs felt heavy and sluggish with fatigue, and it was hard going getting out of the caldera. Finally, at around 1pm, we made it to the lip on the other side, where a few small food stalls waited our custom, and the track then veered down the long road to the bottom of the valley on the other side.

As we sat down to a plate of noodles it became apparent that we couldn't cheat ourselves out of days off, as we had done by using what had supposed to be a day off to cycle the last 5kms to the summit, and gone walking up to Bromo afterwards. Liv was plagued by a cold that was bogging her down, and both of our energy levels weren't what the should have been. We needed a day off to rest properly.

Stress comes easily if you haven't rested up as much as you ought to, and our patience was tested when the food store charged us 7000INDR for a bottle of water that I had foolishly opened without checking the price first. This was double the going rate, and obviously just a way to squeeze some extra money out of the rich tourists who would be able to afford it. It infuriated me because the owner had made a point of chatting to us beforehand and seemed like a friendly guy, and both of us had in the last two days been short changed on two separate occasions by shopkeepers, and overcharged for a plate of 2 minute noodles on the ride up. A few thousand rupiahs here and there isn't so bad, although it does add up, but what really angered me was the distance it put between us and everyone else. We were evidently just rich westerners, to be ripped off whenever at all possible. It sullied the afternoon, and I didn't return the many cheerful “Hello mister”s as we rode down the track to the valley below. We needed a day off.

The soil on the slopes is rich indeed.
It was a shame to be in a bad mood with a 40km descent ahead of us, and it didn't last, the views wouldn't allow it; humped hills with wood brown soil turned in neat lines, clouds creeping through quiet villages like smoke, and then miles of thick rainforest, dripping from steep hills while foamy rivers cut a valley beneath them. They made me feel stupid for getting worked up over an expensive bottle of water, and we both just focussed on getting ourselves down the slope. It certainly did require concentration as well.

The route down was, or rather had been at some point in its life, paved. Now this already narrow cobbled track was completely dogged by massive pot holes, and coupled with the roller-coaster angle that the land pitched us at, it made the experience of getting down off the mountain an intense one. If the risk of flying off our bicycles wasn't enough, the ridge we rode along regularly thinned so that sheer drops of more than a hundred feet sat at either side of us as we nervously rumbled down, brakes squealing.

Clouds snaked up the valley, as we rode down.
The track widened and became a road. We rocketed through a few larger towns and the road flattened out somewhat, but gravity and our loads ensured we could keep at around 30kmph for a good while. Sat in the valley at the base of the mountain lay the city of Malang. All we knew about it was that it was more peaceful than Surabaya, although that wasn't really saying very much.

With the help of an internet cafe we pin pointed a hotel in the city and coasted down the main road into town half an hour before dark. The traffic was much thinner than Surabaya, and the buildings remained at about two or three stories, not venturing up into ugly grey skyscrapers. It was like somebody had taken a dial and just turned it down a few notches, and here in Java that can only be a good thing.

After some faffing around we were directed to the hotel by a patient chap on a moped, who chased after us as we continually misunderstood his directions and took the wrong turnings. It never takes long for some good people to show up and redress the balance. The hotel we found ourselves in was nice, if a little expensive for our needs. But shattered as we were we took it, hauled all our stuff up to our room on the second floor, and dropped on the bed with a long loud sigh. The next day all we had to do was concentrate very hard on doing absolutely nothing.

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