Surabaya, Tosari and Mt Bromo
This is the second instalment from Indonesia, a trip I took back in 2009. After perusing Flores, we flew to Surabaya on Java. Surabaya is Indonesia’s second biggest city. Generally considered of little interest for tourists, we arrived with fairly low expectations. To be quite honest, Surabaya is nothing special; it is a frenetic but surprisingly captivating conglomeration of houses, offices, shopping malls and slums. However after five days in the wild of Flores, we welcomed this with open hearts.
We stayed at the Sahid Hotel which was probably very luxurious in 1982, but had a sort of post-apocalyptic air when we visited. Indonesia has seen a massive downturn in tourism in the past 10 years and any hotels that haven’t gone out of business feel that they too have seen better days. We spent the night in Surabaya’s Tunjungan Plaza which looked fairly classy but in the end was no different from any Australian Westfield (except for the shop selling headscarves and gowns; “for the modern Muslim woman”).
The next morning I headed downstairs for breakfast at the Sahid Hotel’s noisy, chaotic coffee shop. The traditional Indonesian breakfast consists of a clear vegetable soup, plain rice and maybe some fish; it gives the people sustainable energy for the long, hot day ahead. In big cities,like Surabaya you can also find Western options like toast and jam, omelette, cereal with milk, but never bacon. However out in the countryside many locals find the idea of having milk at breakfast quite ridiculous; what use is that going to be in a few hours time when it’s 35 degrees and 100% humidity? And then of course there’s the coffee – strong, black local Javanese coffee. Indonesians drink it at breakfast with a truckload of sugar, then have watery iced tea to keep them going through the day.
Surabaya was our first stop on the island of Java, which is not the biggest island, but it is definitely the most important. Consider this; Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world with 240 million people: half of them live on Java. The biggest city and capital, Jakarta, is here. Coffee and tea come from Java: simply, Java is Indonesia. Probably the most famous attraction in Indonesia (apart from Kuta beach) is Mount Bromo, an impressive, semi-active volcano three hours drive from Surabaya. We hired a car from the city to near the volcano, arriving at midday on Wednesday. Although we had originally planned to stay in Malang (directly south of Surabaya), we ended up staying in a tiny village called Tosari, just near the volcano so it would be easier to access. Tosari might just be the dullest town in Indonesia, however it was the scenery, not the nightlife that we were there for. We spent Wednesday afternoon bracing ourselves for the harsh start on Thursday.
At 3.30 on Thursday morning we hauled ourselves into a jeep for a bone-jarring drive to a lookout near Mount Bromo. Mt Bromo itself is a small, smoking crater, but it is framed by two other dormant volcanoes which stand higher than it. From the lookout, we could see across a sea of sandy volcanic dust to where these three mountains rise up out of the mist. Arriving at the lookout at about 4:30am, we jostled for position with a few hundred other tourists, a Japanese wedding party and a bunch of Korean tourists singing Taylor Swift’s “Love Story”.
We could hardly make out the outline of the mountains, but the first light could be seen to the east, so the crowds rushed to one side. It was only by chance that we stayed where we were, and when the twilight revealed the volcanoes they were directly in front of us. We had front row seats for one of nature’s greatest shows. The smoke from Mt Bromo was rolling across the valley before us like a carpet, before cascading into the next gully. Thursday’s first rays of sun struck the peak of Mt Semeru, which at 3676m is the tallest mountain in Indonesia. Gradually the sun was drawn lower and lower, down the slopes of nearby Mt Batok (2440m) before illuminating the valley in its magical haze. We stood there until daylight at about 6:30am, before driving around the ridge for a different view.
Once we had seen enough, it was time to visit the crater itself. More spine-shattering took place as our all-conquering jeep descended into the dusty volcanic valley, eventually arriving at the tourist post where we were hassled by touts offering horse rides to Mount Bromo‘s crater rim. I jumped on a horse named Bagong and yelled “mush!” as we approached the crater, much to the bewilderment of my horse’s owner Nayo, who was leading us along at a snail’s pace. The horses waited nearby as we made our final scramble to the crater rim, courtesy of a punishing 250 steps.
As we reached the top we peered over into the void . The landscape surrounding us now resembled the moon’s surface, and the other, nearby mountains seemed to be almost on top of us. We were incredibly lucky with the weather; a crystal clear day except for the ash that the volcano was ejecting. The photographs have to be seen to be believed; so good in fact that I coined the term “photogratification” to explain the feeling (being an English teacher, I feel I have the authority to introduce new words to the language). As we made our way around the rim, we shouted into the crater and created an echo which reverberated for what seemed like an eternity.
It was about 9am by the time we returned to Tosari, and we filled up on breakfast and then hit the sack, making up for the hours of sleep we were deprived of. The Tosari Bromo Cottages were made up of a bunch of bungalows terraced up a hillside, capped at the top by reception and a restaurant. In the evening Tosari was blanketed in volcanic smoke from nearby Bromo, but the cool of the night seemed to lift the smoke and by morning it was crystal clear. Then slowly the mountain breezes would send the smoke back towards Tosari, the cloud slowly ebbing into the valley and through the town.
When to go
June to August is a good time to visit – it’s about as cool and dry as it gets.
Culture shock: 6/10
Language difficulty: 7/10 – not a lot of English is spoken out here, but you can get by
Quality of food: 8/10 – where it was bad, it was bad, but when it was good, it was incredible.
Physical demand: 8/10
Advice and warnings
Feral dogs, reckless drivers, rickety infrastructure – the dangers around Mt Bromo are of the environmental kind. The usual precautions apply – no walking alone at night if you can help it, keep a close eye on your valuables, etc. Check Smart Traveller or the British Foreign Office for more comprehensive warnings.
Most Australian and Indian passport holders are eligible for 30-day or 14-day (respectively) visa on arrival for US$25 at Surabaya, Jakarta and other airports. Pakistanis must apply to the Indonesian Embassy in Islamabad; visas cost US$45 and take at least three working days to process. See the website for the list of documents required.
Getting there and around
Air Asia flies to Surabaya from Melbourne (from $511 return) and Sydney (from $504 return), both via Kuala Lumpur.
From Chennai, fly Singapore Airlines to Bali (from INR 38,544 return).
Ask your hotel either in Surabaya or Tosari to organise a pick up and drop from the airport.