My alarm clock sounds at ten past three in the morning. It doesn’t take much to wake me as I’ve been kept on the edge of consciousness by bone-numbing coldness. The surroundings are unfamiliar. A timber cabin. And the smell. Not since we left the northern Philippines have I smelt pine.
Gradually I assemble the pieces. After a long day’s drive across into East Java, during which we avoided certain death about once an hour on a treacherous road packed with cars, fuel tankers, goats, men with grass strapped to their bicycles and coaches hurtling down the middle of the road, accelerators and horns hard down, we turned up into the foothills of the Tengger highlands as night fell. Steep gradients and hairpins brought us up slowly but surely into cool refreshing mountain air, seven thousand feet above sea level.
Cool and refreshing it may have been last night, this morning it is just bitterly cold as I delve into the bottom of my suitcase for every sweater I can find, all the while cursing sunrises, volcanoes, television documentaries and everything that has brought me to this god-forsaken place at this god-forsaken time.
A cup of coffee and a bar of chocolate later, it’s a quarter to four and I already feel as if I’ve been up half the day. I’m sat astride a small pony heading off into the darkness from the dimly lit doors of the hotel. The sky is clear, there is no wind and the stars are out. A group of local guides watch their ponies anxiously as they bear us off down a stony track. We are a motley posse. Some Japanese, an Australian or two. The only thing we have in common is an inability to ride.
After half an hour the stony track levels out and I feel a little more confident astride my podgy little mount, comforted by the warmth coming out of him as I put my hand to his neck. We strike out across a solid, dusty plain. The first pale shades of blue and white creep into the pitch black sky and it’s like having a blindfold lifted.
At first sight we are in a stark, silent, vaguely menacing landscape, unlike anything I have ever seen. And the more the light fills the sky the stranger it becomes. We are crossing a deeply fissured surface between looming ridges of volcanic ash stretching, like giant splayed fingers, up to the top of the nearest peak. A lone cloud hovers above the peak and I catch an unmistakable smell of sulphur. We have reached our destination. Mount Bromo, active volcano. Height: 7639 feet above the sea. Latest substantial eruption: last October.
We leave our horses and climb two hundred steps to the rim of the cone. The scene behind us is biblical. A column lit by lamps and torches is crossing the dusty plain and heading for Bromo, occasionally lost to sight behind the dunes of freshly-spewed lava.
I pick my way cautiously along the narrow lip of the volcano and, when I have found a secure footing, peer down inside for the first time. Five hundred feet below me at the bottom of a great blasted bowl of earth is a dark hole from which rises, slowly and steadily, a hissing plume of white steam, soft as a sigh at the moment but brooding and threatening, like a fuse attached to explosive.
This is for me as great a manifestation of the earth’s natural power as was looking over into the Victoria Falls. But there everything was falling in. Here on the edge of Mount Bromo, I’m looking at what has been blasted out.
A hazy pale lemon sunrise reveals something even more fantastical than I had imagined. Brand new landscape, oven-fresh and still steaming. Rock so new that you could write your name in it.
I stay as long as I can, until the crowds of gabbling visitors have gone and apart from myself there’s only Fraser left on the rim of the volcano, microphone boom pointed downwards, recording the sinister wheezing of the earth..
We leave Bromo and the Tengger highlands in mid-morning. In my case, reluctantly. It is not only the spectacular landscape I shall miss. The weather I was so rude about early this morning is now almost perfect. The sun shines from a sky skimmed with high cirrus cloud, the air is dry and fresh, the temperature 70° Fahrenheit with a gentle breeze that comes and goes.
The people in the villages up here are mostly Hindus, pushed to the farthest end of the island during the Muslim conquest of Java in the seventeenth century. They make a precarious living in every sense of the word, growing onions, leeks, cabbages and other crops that seem to defy gravity, as they cling almost miraculously to sheer slopes.
Surabaya, a city of four million and the capital of East Java, lacks the beauty of its name. It’s a city of red roofs being rapidly superseded by the bland, modern, high-rises typical of so many Pacific Rim boom towns. But like many of them, it had very little option but to modernize. Having survived the Second World War, Surabaya was almost destroyed by the peace. After the Japanese surrender in 1945 young members of an Indonesian republican party were suspected of assassinating the British General Mallaby, sent to oversee Allied occupation of the city. A battle ensued which raged for three weeks, during which the city was flattened by Allied bombing and thousands of its occupants killed by Dutch troops. It was one of the key moments on the road to independence four years later and earned Surabaya the title of Heroes’ City.
As we drive into the centre we pass a roundabout dominated by the Hero Monument. It portrays a massive crocodile wrestling with a shark.