From Ijen, much of the route was a back-track towards Surabaya. As soon as we turned off the main artery the gradient of the road increased, the air became visibly less dusty and the traffic that had filled every inch of the road vanished.
As we climbed higher, the valleys and surrounding mountains showed more of themselves, even on the steep face, farmers grew cabbages, corn and potatoes, zig-zag paths ran through the crops making the tending and harvesting process just about possible.
Every available muddy patch seemed to grow something, tiny roadside plots produced a string of chilli plants, the fiery red and green peppers hung low like Christmas tree baubles. Long thin plots grew a single line of corn.
The corners got tighter and steeper, the car strained to keep momentum, and just as it felt like we were grinding to a halt, we levelled and onward and upwards we continued.
We reached our hotel as the early evening approached, the clouds had wrapped around the mountains and light misty drizzle filled the air. It was the first time in six months or more that we felt cold, it was nice...sort of.
Our room was dark and damp but it was literally just somewhere to lay our heads for a few hours as again, we were having to get on the road by 3am to see the sun rise over Bromo.
Early dinner, early to sleep and before we knew it, the alarm was going off and we were back in our boots. TRAVELLING'S FUN!
In the pitch black, we met Hendrik and we all jumped into a jeep, the driver was a small local chap of indeterminate age, he could have been 30 or 60. He drove like a rally driver and Jan and I clung on to any available handhold we could find. We headed down the mountain track at breakneck speed, the driver ensuring there was never more than a centimetre or two between us and the jeep in front and out into the sea of sand. At this point our driver really put his foot down, swayed us off of the track for some high speed off road-off roading. We over took maybe twenty other vehicles as we flew across the bumpy sand, I couldn't help thinking if this was really necessary. We reached the far side of the sandy track an rejoined the tarmac. The driver switched the transmission to 4 wheel drive and took off again, overtaking yet more jeeps on blind bends, before hills, basically anywhere and everywhere that overtaking shouldn't be done.
Every so often we could see the sea of sand below marked out by a wiggly line of car headlights as hoards of tourists raced up the mountain to beat the sunrise.
We arrived at the viewpoint around 3.45am, it was already busy. People were wrapped up like they were in the arctic, hats, scarves, gloves,coats, duvets around shoulders. There was a buzz of excitement in the air and we made our way to the front of the platform.
Suddenly, a big cheer went up from the crowd, we looked about and saw that everyone was looking skyward, above us in the crystal clear night, the Milky Way was spread out like a translucent cloud, dotted around it, millions of stars were visible. Then, a streak of green light tore across the blackness as a shooting star bounced off the atmosphere. Up went another cheer. Then another shooting star and another. It was like a show at a planetarium, the scene was so perfect, the tails of the comets were so long and bright that they looked like lasers. A definite top 5 moment.
As we waited, the faintest line emerged at the horizon, separating land from sky. As the seconds ticked by we watched the line widen and brighten until the first true hint of daybreak revealed itself in dark blue hues. The blue lightened with hints of yellow and orange that grew wider and wider and the first rays of light dabbed pink on the highest mountains' peaks. As the sun climbed the pinks became more vivid before finally giving way to the green and grey of the landscapes true colours.
Mount Bromo emerged from the gloom, the huge crater left from the 2010 eruption steamed continuously. The surrounding area carpeted with black sand, ash and rocks from millions of years of sporadic blasts. Next to Bromo was a small mountain (gunung Batok) that looked like a picture-perfect volcano, with a perfectly flat top and sides that looked like deep fork marks in mash potato (thanks Mr Spielberg). In the background, the imperious and truly spectacular outline of Mount Semeru.
We agreed that this was one of, if not the most incredible things we've ever seen.
The sunrise went on for over an hour, the way that black went through orange to get to sky blue was mesmerising, seeing the land creep out of darkness and the long shadows of night, shorten and disappear into bright, glorious day. It was such an amazing experience and one that won't ever be forgotten.
Back to the jeep and a manic drive back down, back through the sea of sand and over to the foot of mount Bromo. As we walked a few hundred metres to the base, the size of the mountain desert felt like it would swallow us, surrounded on every side by mountains, it actually felt like this was the crater, which in turn held Bromo at its smoking centre like an exhaust pipe.
The jeep parked up a few hundred metres from the volcano, as our boots sunk into the black sand, we were approached by a man offering his horse to take us to the mountain. As we continued our walk dozens of horses were offered to us, they were quite small, almost pony sized and looked swamped when an adult westerner saddled up. But, they looked in very good condition and the horsemen seemed to have an affinity with his beast.
To reach the rim of the Bromo crater, there is a mere 250 step climb, no big deal. About half way up we were panting for air like a couple of old dogs on a hot day. After a brief rest we made our way to the cauldron. Actually it was rather disappointing after the Ijen crater and the sunrise. Sulphuric steam was churning out so thickly that the deep chasm from where it originated was largely obscured, the cloying smell made it unpleasant to remain any longer than to get the photos and bug out.
We headed back to the hotel for a quick breakfast before a final drive back to Surabaya. 2 days, 3 mountains, too many early mornings. We're headed to Lombok for a few days rest.