YOU CAN BANK ON BROMO FOR SCENIC DIVIDENDS © Duncan Graham 2007
Visiting Mount Bromo, East Java's premier tourist attraction, is soon to get a little easier and more comfortable – though only because a banker found facilities a disgrace.
Mount Bromo, the huge cone squatting like a boiling pot in a 10-kilometer wide 'sand sea' of lava is a big money spinner for locals and the government. It's part of the 50,000-hectare Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park – a must see destination.
According to official statistics last year 65,000 people made the trek. About 25 per cent were overseas visitors, mainly from Europe, Malaysia and Japan.
The standard way to get there is to drive east of Surabaya for about three hours towards Probolinggo along the coast road, and then turn south. At the villages of Ngadisari and Cemorolawang the hotels and guesthouses are set for pre-dawn trips in 4-wheel drive vehicles. These are organized to view the sunrise from a lookout at Puncak Penanjakan, 2,770 meters above sea level - and almost 400 meters above sulfur-smoking Bromo.
It would be good to add the adjective 'clear' to the description above, but the truth is the chances of the vision splendid aren't always that good, particularly during the wet season. Fickle weather, clouds, rain and mist can't be avoided – but the press of people, defective crowd management, the rubbish and graffiti-strewn lookout – these could all be controlled.
What should be a pleasant experience sometimes becomes an ordeal. Deliberately lit fires in the dry season obscure the view and set watchers choking as the smoke billows upwards.
Sigit Pramono, president director of Bank Negara Indonesia, followed the sunrise ritual last year. And found it wanting.
"I'm a keen photographer and I've seen many fine places overseas," he told The Sunday Post. "I think the Bromo-Tengger area is one of the most beautiful in the world.
"But the problems are the conditions – they're very bad. So is tourism management."
So he persuaded the bank to donate Rp 10 billion (US $1.14 million) to upgrade facilities at the lookout. Improvements include a new parking area, a better sightseeing platform, toilets and a general clean up. Work is now underway and should be finished by August.
"It took time to get through the bureaucracy even though we're donating the money," Sigit said. "The Tengger people need a quality tourist industry to supplement their agricultural economy.
"I hope what we're doing will be an example of what can be done, and encourage others to help improve tourism. There should also be a book of photographs published to spread the word about this lovely place."
However the other curse of Indonesian tourism – rip-offs of unsuspecting visitors - look set to continue reinforcing the sweat-stained travelers' credo: Do your own research.
For example there's a much more interesting legal route into the national park than the heavily promoted northern access. The way in from the southwest offers tourists an opportunity to see people and places that haven't been corrupted by commercialism.
This road turns east at Purwodadi (half-way on the highway between Surabaya and Malang), and then wends up the hill to the vegetable and dairy town of Nongkojajar. Many of the udderful Friesians you'll see cudding by the kerb are from Australia.
There's also another slow and pleasant back way into the park from Malang through Pakis and into Nongkojajar that's a grand eye-filler. Few outsiders use this sealed road. Apart from the opportunity to see rural life up close, there's every chance of catching fairs and weddings, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays. These are staged by the locals and therefore the real thing.
From then on the journey through Tosari to the park entrance at Wonokitri and beyond is a knockout wonder.
For those who want to take it slowly there are low-cost losmen (inns) and a two star hotel in Tosari with prices starting at Rp 375,000 (US $43) a night. Otherwise you can go there and back (from Malang) in a day.
The Tengger villagers are skilled horticulturalists working the acute slopes by hand. Their labor produces a multi-colored grid of freshly turned rich black volcanic soil, the green of blooming plants alongside the brown of withering leaves. Sunflowers speckle the landscape with yellow, matching the saffron sarongs wrapped around roadside shrines.
For the ingenious and tough Tengger are the last remnants in Java of the once mighty Buddhist-Hindu Majapahit kingdom that ruled much of South East Asia more than 700 years ago.
The main crops are potatoes, cabbages and squash. To see men and women tilling, planting and harvesting on land tilting at around 70 degrees is to redefine arable land.
It is also highly hazardous with landslips gouging deep wounds in the hillsides.
Because the slopes are so steep visitors can quiver above the landscape and see the farming below as though from a plane. Aerial photography without going aloft.
At Wonokitri the hustling starts, but it's not heavy duty. Visitors are encouraged to leave their cars and hire a jeep at Rp 250,000 (US $30) for the rest of the journey. This isn't necessary as the roads are asphalted and in reasonable repair.
However if you suffer from vertigo, are unsure of your driving skills and don't fancy having your paintwork shaved by trucks overladen with potatoes and people - with a sheer unprotected drop on one side - then hiring may be worth considering. Always assuming you trust the local drivers. In late May a truck slipped over the edge killing 12 and injuring many more.
Park entrance fees are Rp 4,500 (US 0.50) per person if you're an Indonesian citizen, and five times that if your skin is white and you can't wrap your tongue around eksploitasi dan diskriminasi. If you can and don't fit the stereotype of a cashed-up colonial they may make you a de-facto local.
The board in the tollgate office lists visitors' home countries. Although there are columns for Americans, Australians and a community of European nations, all are included under the rubric Belanda (officially meaning Dutch, but colloquially any non-Indonesian.)
Only around ten to 20 try this route every day. So the farmers and stallholders haven't become blasé and are prepared to stop and chat about their lives. No hassles from fake watch floggers, but you'll be urged to bid for wooly caps that you'd never dare wear elsewhere. You'll also have bunches of 'edelweiss' (looking suspiciously like cauliflower gone to seed) thrust under your nostrils.
This is an experience you probably won't get in the European Alps where the genuine wild plant is a protected species.
Don't let the beauty, atmosphere and flora go to your head. It's unwise to do a Julie Andrews in the tropics and dance down the hillsides singing The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music. Apart from showing your age and taste, one von Trapp trip could be terminal - lose your footing and lose your life.
Nor is this a good place for trainee TV weather forecasters. Before you can say 'bright, sunny periods expected' you'll be wrapped in a thick and chilly mist. When the light shafts through like a religious painting from the Renaissance, be nimble with your Nikon.
While you're fingering the focus ring and eyeing the aperture, the clouds have closed in and you can't see the white of your knuckles. Or the grand canyon sweeping into the distance from the precipice where you're positioned. Take strong nerves, stronger shoes and warm clothes; like the stock exchange index the temperature leaps and falls in moments.
Overall these are minor matters. As with the wind, they're not worth getting under your skin. The upsides – literally and metaphorically – give value with every astonishing and soul-lifting view.
(First published in The Sunday Post 26 August 07)