Thursday, 15 December 2011

Climbing Mount Bromo

Saturday 10th December, 2011. Yoschi's Bromo Hotel, near the top of Mt Bromo, East Java.
Total distance 629.3km

Surabaya during one of its quieter moments
Given that I've already said that Surabaya's traffic wasn't that bad, one might argue it is a bit of a fruitless task to try and drum up some dramatic tension about cycling around the city. And it's true, it wasn't as bad as we had expected, but that might not be saying much. Our high water mark for dreadful traffic is probably India, a place where nine lanes of traffic weave in and out of each other, honk incessantly and floor the accelerator at any remotely opportune moment. Into this tightly packed carnage add several dozen beasts of burden hauling carts, an elephant, a bloke on horseback, and something suitably random – say, a pack of dogs, or a chariot pulled by cats for a festival or... whatever. So Surabaya was not anywhere near as bad or mad as it could have been, but it was still very busy and very polluted. People don't come here for the cycling.

We found an internet cafe and located a guesthouse in what seemed like a decent location, and then spent the next hour or so pedalling alongside waves of cars and motorbikes as we streamed from one set of lights to the next, exhaust fumes in our faces the whole time. The thing with riding in Surabaya is just to keep your cool, and not do anything unexpected. We keep as far to the left of the road as possible, although this is fraught with it's own special hazards since the left lane is often used as a naughty “I took the wrong turning” lane where motorbikes, cars and vans drive up the wrong way in order to get to a turning they missed. Once you see a lorry driving directly at you on the wrong side of the road, you learn to keep your eye out for them, and it's no longer an issue. Scares you the first time though. Then it's just a matter of being predictable. Keeping a straight line so the numerous motorbikes that swarm passed you don't bang into you. Check and double check before you turn anywhere, and when you do start making a turn keep doing it. Don't hesitate just because there's, I dunno, six lanes of speeding vehicles flying at you. Keep turning, they are used to it, and they will miss you. It's kind of like being Neo in the Matrix.

After a bit of looping around, getting lost and a little frustrated we finally found our hostel just as the sun went down. It was perfect really. Busy little place (but no western tourists, all Indonesian as far as we could make out), serviceable beds, wifi, free breakfast (that was really bad), and the location was great.

We won't bore you with a day to day summary of what we did, but we stayed there for three nights and just basically refuelled ourselves. For the first time since Bali there was the possibility of eating good food, and we spent most of our time there doing just that. Steak for dinner, pizza for breakfast, large Indonesian dishes with all manner of spicy dips, milkshakes, fruit juice, chocolate biscuits,  bolognaise. It was heaven, and got us both, but especially sick little me, back on track ready for the days ahead.

People don't come here for the fishing either...
I think I am being a little bit harsh on Indonesian food here, and it must be said that away from the major cities and towns the food is usually pretty good. Fried rice, fried noodles, fish, chicken et al are all readily available. But Indonesian food has been harsh on me, and having two bouts of sickness from them has put me off rice, chicken, tofu and peanut sauce. Which rules out 90% of what's usually available, and made me rightly cautious about going to places that don't appear to cook the food there, but just grab stuff that's been sat in the sun all day, or been bubbling in a pot for an unspecified amount of time, and serving it up. Such aversions wear off, and we're learning which street stalls to go for – generally the ones with a crowd and a large steaming wok where the food is prepared, plus we're figuring out what food is readily available from supermarkets that can be converted into meals. That hasn't been easy, unless you like eating sugary crisps, or sugar sweets for meals, but we've found a regular source of brown bread and mackerel, which serves as the basis of a reasonable lunch on the road when the only warungs available are lacking in the food hygiene department.

With such worries being in our mind, you can imagine how great our few days scoffing good, safe food in Surabaya were. We did some other things too, wandered round a bit, visited the old town and a few other places. But Surabaya is a busy city and what we saw of it was aesthetically lacking – just concrete buildings, eye-wateringly bright shopping malls, and lots and lots of traffic. Not much to write home about.

After two whole days off we awoke on Thursday the 8th December and rode out of Surabaya, and along the highway that clings to the coast, veering away from Jakarta to the west in order to make a little diversion to visit Mount Bromo. Riding down highways is not that exciting, but we covered a decent distance and slept in a little hotel just off the road outside a quiet dusty town. Returning with a bump to the meals outside of Surabaya, we had a choice of seafood that had been left out all day, or two minute noodles with egg. We opted for the noodle egg, it reminded me of my university days.

The next day was going to be tough. We were only about 35km from the lip of the caldera that Bromo sat in, but it was almost two and a half kilometres above us. We set out just after 9am, and within an hour were up against steep roads and hot sun. Climbing mountain roads by bicycle is slow going. The day before we were knocking off close to 20km every hour. Here we were struggling to manage 4. The road was quiet though, and wound its way through small towns and cultivated land. Kids regularly came to shout hellos at us, workmen in the road waved as we passed, and cows tethered to the side of the road watched nonchalantly as we made our way passed.

The cows up Bromo are proper nonchalant, like.
We have rules now, with cycling. After the incident with the dogs going up Batur on Bali, coupled with almost getting stranded at night before Anton saved us, we have been quite strict lately on searching out accommodation between 3-4pm. Of course though, when volcano lust comes along it can mess things up.

Yes, the views were stunning.
It was 2pm, and we had just made our way up a staggeringly steep stretch of tarmac to a bus terminal in a town perhaps two thirds of the way up the mountain. We drank tea, and ate cake and looked at our map. After some discussion with the locals it seemed that the next town up had hotels, then there was a little gap until the run of towns along the lip of the crater. According to the signs on the way up we were within 15km of the top, so although the road had suddenly gotten much steeper and more difficult, we decided we would get to the next town – that we expected might take an hour or two – and decide what to do from there. As it happened the next town came round within about half an hour. The road was much gentler than we had feared, opting for a gentle winding route rather than a bold straight steep line as we'd encountered previously. Perhaps we could make the top today then, that would be great! It was only 3.30pm, and we didn't want to stay part way up the mountain, true we should be looking for accommodation but the top was only just over 10km away, and there was a town between us and there anyway. So we kept on, slowly gaining altitude as we wound up the piles of hairpin bends, while the sun gradually descended behind the steep pile of rock that marked our destination.
The road was steep, and kept getting steeper.

The road became tougher, the temperature dropped, and we began to tire. It was like Batur all over again. Exhausted, and covered in sweat. We had made it to the next town after lunch in no time at all, but although the town after wasn't much further on the map, after an hour and a half there was still no sign of it. Then a marker on the road announced that the next town was 8km away. That was meant to be how far away the summit was. It was passed 4pm at this point, and at the rate we were going we wouldn't get there until after 6pm, well into dark. We were at least riding through villages, so we asked people about the nearest losmen, and were told it was indeed 8km away, and they signalled with a sloped palm, wide eyes and commiserative laughter that it was going to get steep. As if it wasn't already.

Although the light was fading and we were utterly knackered, and feeling a little bit stupid for making a text book error again it must be said that the landscape we found ourselves struggling up was beautiful. All around the road the land dropped off into steep short valleys that reared up again sharply not so far away, all of it either bristling with a crop, or the soil turned in neat lines ready to receive the next seasons seed. Small wooden dwellings painted in warm reds or browns sat on neat mounds a little way off, some with smouldering chimneys where the occupants had turned in for the evening. The landscape rippled in this way all the way back down as far as we could see, and far far below us through the haze, we could just make out the flat lands at the bottom of the mountain, with occasional speckles that marked out buildings. On either side of us the land rose sharply to form a kind of valley wall; green, but almost vertical. This appeared to be a part of the lip of the crater, although it is hard to figure out how it all fits together until we get to the top. And where these two walls meet, and as it so happens exactly where the sun was setting, was a low pass that seemed to pour clouds down the side of the mountain. These wispy cirrus rolled in slow motion, backlit by the setting sun, and curling along the farm land and houses close to the top. The view faded with the sun, but as the land faded in the twilight, the sky took on a brilliant rosy red, with trees and houses now silhouetted against it, like the backdrop to a Wayang Kulit production

The cloud generator
Relief came in the form of a large orange sign in the road, announcing that Yoschi's hotel was only 2km away – failed to add the word “gruelling” to it. We were too out of breath to whoop with joy or anything like that, but you can imagine how happy we were knowing that we only had to pedal for another half an hour in the dark – not two hours as the villagers had indicated. No dogs bothered us, and we made it to Yoschi's tired and sweaty. It could have been our Ketapang concentration camp lodge and we would have welcomed it at that point. But not only did it appear at just the right time, but Yoschi's was also a really cracking guest house, with friendly staff, cosy rooms, and an alpine style wooden restaurant. So we were still 5km from the summit, who cares. We had good food, a beer, even hot showers and we didn't have to haul ourselves, two bikes, and 80kgs of gubbins on into the night. Volcano lust would have to wait another day.

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