The edge of the crater stretched out before me and disappeared into the afternoon haze. With no promise of the trail being passable at the other end, I decided to find out if was possible to walk around the edge of the Mount Bromo crater.



 

Mount Bromo is one of Java’s most popular natural attractions and, although that’s what initially intrigued me, I knew there must be so much more to discover. Mount Bromo, its more active cousin Mount Semeru, and the dormant Mount Batok sit in the middle of a vast plain called the sea of sand, a protected nature reserve and major feature of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. I wanted to visit on my own terms. I didn’t want to arrive on a cramped tour bus for one night and see the sunrise from the same spot as everyone else. I wanted to explore the different sides of this mysterious smoking beast and see what else the surrounding countryside had to offer.

My journey started 200 kilometers away in Surabaya, an industrial city where I’d been staying for a few days while I worked on a personal project. After that, I needed to escape the smog. A bumpy three-hour bus ride through local villages later, I hopped off at a town called Probolingo and set out to find someone to lead me to the volcano. One hundred thousand Rupiah (10 USD) got me a ride on the back of an ojek (motorbike taxi) and I sped into the mountains, clinging to the driver. I could feel the air temperature drop as we got higher and was itching to see a volcano rise out of the mist ahead of us.

After arriving in the crater-side town of Cemoro Lawang in the late afternoon and quickly buying my driver a beer as extra thanks for the ride, I set about finding  sleeping accommodations, a pack of cigarettes, and somewhere to rent a motorbike. I opted for a local room about the size of a small toilet for the first night with the promise of an upgrade to a proper room for the remaining nights of my stay, ditched my backpack and wandered along the edge of the village to watch sunset.

Getting up early the next day wasn’t so bad — early mornings never seem to be an issue when I’m on the road. I boarded a Jeep at 3:30am with some other travelers and we headed off across the sea of sand, the vast area of black volcanic sand between the edge of the main crater and the actual volcanoes. After 20 bone crunching minutes, we reached the other side of the crater and headed up the long and winding road to get to the top of Mount Pananjakan, which overlooks the volcano massif.

The Jeep dropped us about 20 minutes away from the main viewpoint and I hiked the last kilometers as quickly as I could. The view point was pretty impressive, though I’ve never seen so many people gathered for a sunrise before. I jostled to the front and set up my camera equipment, only to realize the spot where everyone was gathered didn’t even face the volcanoes. I found my bearings, jumped a couple of fences, set up at a better spot, and waited for the sun to rise. Seeing the first light of day hit something as ancient and raw as a volcano is something I’ll never forget. It’s what I’ve always loved about travel and photography —  being drawn to these mystical places with no guarantee that you will experience them in the way you expected.

Bromo holds a special spiritual significance to the surrounding Hindu population. On the fourteenth day of the Hindu festival, Yadnya Kasada, the Tenggerese people of Probolinggo travel up the mountain to make offerings of fruit, rice, vegetables, and flowers to the mountain gods by throwing them into the caldera of the volcano. Fraught with danger, some locals risk climbing down into the crater in an attempt to recollect the sacrificed goods they believe could bring them good luck. I didn’t witness this festival and didn’t plan on venturing into the crater to search for good luck charms, tempting as the thought was.

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Once sunrise was over, I met the team back at the Jeep and enjoyed some delicious grilled corn from a street vendor on the way down. From there, we were taken back across the sea of sand for a stop at the base of Mount Bromo where we were told we could climb the volcano to look down into the crater, along with about 500 other people. Instead, I decided to wander around taking photos of local dogs and temples and planned to return later in the day when the crowds would have dispersed.

After I grabbed some breakfast, I found a local willing to let me rent a motorbike for $25 and headed off across the sea of sand to find some volcano solace. Riding a motorbike on sand is not as easy as you’d think.. I nearly fell off a couple times, much to the amusement of the local men watching me struggle. Eventually, I arrived and found a stark contrast to the morning crowds — there was only one other person climbing the crater.

I reached the top and watched the landscape around me, so far from the busyness of everyday life. A desolate sea of volcanic sand stretched in one direction and a line of active volcanos in the other.

I live for moments like this. Traveling with friends can be fun, but the serene feeling of solitude that came with being perched on the edge of a live volcano in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do and all day to do it, was perfection.

It was just me, my camera, and the wind.

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Jonathan Sander is photographer and designer from Australia. Travel and photography inspire him to live creatively, and he's never happier than when he's wandering along a hilltop or coastline, camera in hand, @scoutthespanador by his side.

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