If you are planning a trip to Indonesia it is easy to skip over an area like East Java and go right to the tropical paradise of Bali. Bali is definitely a beautiful place and well worth a visit, but we found the lack of other travellers, genuine locals and the natural wonders of East Java to be a more fulfilling experience. Here’s why…
Mount Bromo is the most sacred volcano in Indonesia. It sits next to two other volcanoes inside a massive caldera which makes the area resemble the surface of the moon. It’s a very active volcano, often puffing out toxic smoke and last erupted in 2011 (so check for updates online if you planning on heading there!).
To get there we had to leave at 1am (totally worth it for the sunrise) from the city of Malang. A bumpy 4 wheel drive ride took us to the outskirts of the caldera from where we hiked up to a lookout point. Along the way we needed to walk up, up, up a windy, mountainous road. The moon was just a sliver on this particular morning so we had to trek along in pitch black darkness, guided only by our headlamps.
Before the sun began to appear, the first few beams of colour started to poke over the horizon. Even with such little light the whole sky turned into a rainbow with the red colours sticking close to the Earth. Orange, yellow, green, indigo and violet continued up into the endless sky. It was these early rays of sun that gave us the first glimpse of our surroundings. Below us we began to discern the wispy, moon-like terrain of the massive Tengger Caldera. It looked like something completely out of this world. A thin layer of fog veiled the earth in the ancient crater, while three volcanic peaks, Bromo, Semeru and Batok rose in the distance.
After the sun had fully risen we returned to our 4WD vehicle to drive down to the sand sea at the base of Mount Bromo. We walked past the Hindu temple Pura Luhur Poten which holds religious ceremonies to honour the volcano, but is closed to tourists. The sun warmed us as we climbed the 250 steps up to the rim of the crater to see inside. Throughout the year local people will throw sacrifices of food or money or flowers into the crater to bring them good luck. At the bottom of the crater is an eerie, blue acid lake, gently smoldering away. From atop the volcano there are amazing views of the rest of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park that make you feel like there are more wonders in this world than you could ever imagine.
Mount Ijen is an active volcano at the far eastern edge of the island of Java. It is famous for two things: First, it’s the largest acidic crater lake in the world. Secondly, down inside the crater there is an incredible sulfur mine. Some of the toughest men in the world work, in extremely dangerous conditions, to haul up to 100kg of sulfur at a time out of the volcano. As an added bonus, the volcano is set near some beautiful coffee plantations and villages, and is relatively un-touristed.
The 3km trek up Mount Ijen varies from gently sloping, easy-to-navigate terrain, to steep rocky portions. Not too far from the top is a mining camp where workers bring there loads of sulphur to be weighed, before carrying it the rest of the way down the mountain. During the hike up, we once again found ourselves above the clouds (the crater rim of Mt Ijen is at 2800m). With blue skies above us, the only things we could see peeking through the clouds below were other craggy volcanic peaks.
After a sweaty scramble to the top we passed a few miners and finally peered into the crater. The view completely took our breath away (luckily not from the poisonous gases which were blowing in the other direction). At nearly a kilometer in diameter, the aquamarine acid lake looks very tranquil. In complete contrast next to it are gigantic, sunflower yellow boulders of sulfur billowing toxic fumes. The colours blend together perfectly in a way that only Mother Nature can provide.
To get to the valuable sulfur there is a treacherous climb down the crater wall over loose rocks and huge boulders. We were blown away to see miners doing it in flip flops or rubber boots with a hundred kilos of sulfur on their shoulders. It is a death-defying climb they do twice a day.
Sukamade beach is in Meru Betiri National Park. Almost every night of the year turtles come here to lay their eggs in the soft sand. However, the road there is not for the faint of heart. Expecting rough conditions, we hired an excellent driver named Jorno and his 4WD vehicle to get us there safely. For about an hour and a half we bumped along through thick jungle, sometimes on the edge of a cliff, other times right through rivers.
Eventually we arrived at a ranger station that doubles as a turtle nursery. The station is surrounded by jungle and is frequented by tropical birds and troops of grey long-tailed macaques. After we set up our tent (on top of our Land Rover!), we met some of the park rangers and were immediately put to work. Our job was to carry a bucket of freshly hatched green sea turtles down to Sukamade beach and release them into the Indian Ocean. Those baby turtles are seriously the cutest things ever! We put them on the sand a few meters away from the waves and their instincts told them where to go. When they finally reach the surf, another wave pushes them back a few feet just to make their journey a bit more difficult. They are tough little creatures though and they all got in the water. In the wild, only about 1 in 1000 sea turtles will grow to be full size. With this help from the rangers they have a much better chance at survival.
Bubbling with excitement from watching the days old turtles begin their aquatic lives, we returned to camp for our next task. Inside the turtle hatchery we dug a ‘nest’ in the sand and buried about 100 turtle eggs. There they would be incubated until they hatch a few months later. In the hatchery they are protected from predators like lizards and wild pigs that dig up the nests on the beach.
Later that night we experienced the third part of turtle conservation. We went down to the beach with our driver, Jorno, and a park ranger. Without any flashlights, we sat quietly at the edge of the beach while the ranger went to see if there were any turtles coming up to lay their eggs. Once a green sea turtle had made her way on shore and built her nest, we were allowed to approach her. She was huge! About three feet long and two feet wide with big black eyes and some very powerful flippers. To make her nest she digs a hole a little bigger that herself with her front flippers, and then inside of that she digs another smaller hole with her rear flippers – that is about a foot in diameter and 2 feet deep – where she lays her eggs. She was so beautiful.
Over the next few hours this turtle, that we named Gertrude, laid 138 eggs. That was the most eggs recorded in the last few months! We stayed with her on the beach until she finished laying her eggs and the ranger collected them all. We really wanted to see her get safely back to the water. However, the poor thing was so exhausted she took a long time to climb out of the nest. It started raining so we decided to head back to our camp and get some rest.
The next morning we had another chance to release more baby turtles in the ocean before hopping back in our vehicle and continuing through Indonesia.
Have you ever found a hidden gem you didn’t feel enough people appreciated or knew about? Time to spill the beans… Please share in the comments below!