After visiting the Puri (Palace) in Solo we head into the mountains to visit Candi Sukuh, a small but intriguing temple almost Inca in style. Dating from the 15th century, little is known of the builders and their iconography which is almost cartoonesque with exaggerated faces and bodies and quite a few of the sculpted panels display more than just a hint of eroticism. Afterwards, we have a simple lunch in the mountain resort of Magetan and rain is pouring down when we arrive late afternoon at the Merdeka Hotel in the centre of Madiun (There is no entry in our guide books of Madiun, but it’s a big sprawling city anyway). We are just having an overnight stop here and we will drive another full day tomorrow before reaching our next big destination: Bromo. It is one of those things we have learned: even if distances do not seem that long on the map, due to traffic and road conditions, it often takes many hours, even days, to get there.
Switching on the Indonesian news the next morning, December 31st, it is clear from the tone of voice, even if we can’t really follow what they are saying, that somebody important has died overnight. It is Abdurrahman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, the 4th president of the republic (1999 - 2001), after Soekarno, Soeharto and Habibie. He is hailed as the man who promoted multi culturalism and tolerance in Indonesia, promoting limited autonomy for Aceh and Irian Jaya (West Papua) and allowing Chinese characters and papers again. ’Yes we’ve heard’, we confirm to Herry when we get into the car and he explains that as it happens our route will take us through Jombang, Gus Dur’s home town, where he will be buried later in the day. Numerous red and white Indonesian flags fly at half mast and groups of people already gather along the route as at least four of five police-escorted convoys of black limousines speed by on the other side of the road, while we slowly crawl forward in the dense traffic until we are clear of Jombang again.
Islamic rules prescribe burial as soon as possible, normally the next day. Over lunch and after we arrive in Bromo, we can follow the preparations that often seem disorganized, but then again all those Indonesian dignitaries, from president SBY downward, were certainly already at their holiday destination looking forward to a New Year’s eve with their families and probably had to improvise quite a bit to get to Jombang to pay their respect.
“And this is supposed to be better than the hotels we stayed in?”, I look at Olive and then back at the beyond basic room in the Bromo Cottages where have just arrived. “No, the guide said it was better than the other hotels here in Bromo“. Pity on the others then, and on us too by the way. We unpack and move back to the lobby for a comfy place to read a book and have a drink before the mandatory New Year’s Eve dinner is.
Upon arrival at the hotel we booked a tour to see the sunrise over the Tengger caldera with the Bromo and another volcano rising up from its floor, the next morning. “We leave at 4 a.m., isn‘t it“, I ask to confirm what Gittan had written in her programme. “Sorry sir, but since it will be very being New Year‘s Day, departure is at 3.30 a.m. and we will wake you at 3 a.m.”
We look around the lobby, the comfortable chair group in front of the TV is already taken by a large family and their offspring have confiscated the two adjacent groupings, only hard wooden chairs remain. As soon as one of the kids gets up I plant myself in it and my sheer foreign presence soon scares the other kid away. ’Come over’, I motion to Olive, but she always hates it when I do stuff like this (in my defense, I think people should bring up their kids better and let grown-ups sit) and it takes some time before she actually joins me and only after we order a cocktail she is ready to recognise my existence again.
“Is the wine included in the price of the dinner?”, I had asked at the reception before, pointing at the announcement of the Rp250.000 a head New Year’s Eve dinner on the counter. With normal dinners costing around Rp40.000 to Rp80.000, I figured that might be the case. “Sorry, sir, drinks are not included”. So I was now looking at the drinks list: Rp140.000 plus 21% tax would make almost € 13 per glass. A price already pretty stiff in Europe and frankly extravagant in Indonesia even at 1700 metres altitude up the mountain (the luxury Puri Artha hotel in Jogja, charged €4.50). To be true wine is rare in Indonesia, many restaurants and shops don’t sell it, in Muslim areas even beer is often not available and where you can buy it a bottle would be €30 or more for just middle-of-the-road wines and Olive and I were lucky to find a supermarket in Madiun where at least they sold some light wines and cocktail type drinks.
“They haven’t laid the tables yet”, Olive looks up from her book to inspect the open dinner area to our left. It is almost dinner time and people are beginning to queue at the separation waiting for it to start. It soon becomes clear they are not going to lay tables and the dinner is just the usual buffet affair. Leaving the karaoke singer singing to a by now almost empty dining room, we are back in our room by 8.30 p.m.
“Sweetheart, I have a proposal”. Olive looks at me, not certain what to expect. “Why don’t we pretend we are in Sydney and midnight is just 30 minutes away”. She sees where I‘m getting at. “Then at ‘midnight’ I open up our slightly sparkling white wine and we toast to a Happy New Year”. Since we have to get up at 3 a.m., she thinks that is not such a bad idea. We do just that and try to catch a few hours of sleep before the early rise.
It is 3.32 a.m. when we walk down the hotel steps towards a cluster of jeeps waiting for their quarries and Dharma, our driver, shifts the engine enthusiastically into gear and races up the small road, apparently happy we are relatively early. Through the village we come to a stop at the queue for the park entrance and with our money in hand he rushes out to get us the entrance tickets. He manages to pass a few other jeeps but soon enough it is a long line of headlights moving up the hairpin road to the top of the mountain at 2.500 metres. After about 45 minutes the column comes to the point where the first (or rather the last) jeeps are parked left and right of the road leaving only a small lane in the middle, barely enough for one car to get through. Dharma backs into an empty spot and motions to us that this is the end of the line as far as he is concerned. “How much further is it”, we try to find out. About two kilometres further up the mountain. “Let’s walk” Olive says, she feels a little exercise would be good for us, especially since this is supposed to be a nature event. Dharma points at the hustle and bustle of motor cycles offering their services in ferrying tourist like us up the remaining kilometres. ‘How much‘, I gesture to one of them. For Rp40.000 he will take the both of us on his buddy seat. “Dua puluh ribu” (Rp 20.000), I offer him, no 40.000 he insists and with Olive already starting to walk he has pushed his luck a bit too far.
For another half hour we wriggle our way between parked busses, jeeps and the literally hundreds of motorcycles ferrying up and down the small mountain road before we reach the slow moving throng of people trying to get closer to where they suppose the views are. At 4.50 a.m. we are in a packed area with still five or six rows ahead of us, difficult to move in any direction even if we had known where to go. We are looking at bushes in front of us and the sky is beginning to colour a little bit red, sunrise should not be too far off. Olive finds a rubbish bin with a slanting cover that she climbs on and, steadying herself against me, she now has a better view. “Just take some pictures, we’ll see what we have got later“, I tell her. The most I can see is via the camera screens of the people in front of me. Two more have climbed on Olive’s rubbish bin, also steadying themselves against their companions, it is 5.01 a.m. now, sun is up, I think.
A few minutes later we decide to try and get a bit further and along a small ledge, climbing through a railing, stepping on people’s toes, we manage to get to another vantage point, where indeed we have a good view over the caldera and another 10 minutes later we even have a front row position at a makeshift fence looking down a sheer slope (there better not be a stampede I privately think or we‘ll be pushed over the edge before we know it). It must be said, the crowds maybe crazy and facilities crumby, but the views are indeed spectacular. Until the clouds roll in that is, but we have done it: New Year’s Sunrise at the Bromo volcano.
“Selamat tahun baru dua ribu sepuluh“ (Happy New Year 2010), it took three takes before we got the line the TV crew wanted us to say right, but we did: New Year's Sunrise and we are on Indonesian TV! We stay for another 15, 20 minutes and then join the throng on the way down. ‘Transport mister?’, is offered every few metres, but since we have walked up the mountain we won’t deny ourselves the pleasure of the easy walk down and we soon discover that, since people are now leaving en masse, walking is way faster than motorcycles or jeeps that are stuck in clouds of exhaust fumes and inextricable knots, almost choking us and completely choking the small road.
Dharma joins the line of jeeps again as soon as we get back to where the Toyota is parked and after a stop at a lower vantage point where the views over the caldera are equally good, if not better, than at the top, we begin the steep decent down the caldera wall to the caldera floor. Then the trip across the lava sand to where the jeeps stop and (if you want) horses bring you up a rising slope to the bottom of the 253 step stairway for the last ascent to the rim of the Bromo crater.
A steady billowing column of acid smoke rises from the deep crater. We are lucky the wind is bending the plume in the other direction so we avoid most of the nasty smell we endured along the crater lake outside Bandung. With our backs to the railing we also admire the view in the other direction over the sharply etched lava formations of the caldera floor under a thinning cloud cover, the parking lot in the distance and the colorful highway of ants moving up and down towards the bottom of the steps that from a distance looks like a Mongolian horse market. “Can we take a picture with you?”. Aren’t we popular here! This time it is three Indonesian boys that want their picture taken with us with the acid smoke belching from he Bromo crater behind us. “Selamat tahun baru dua puluh ribu”, we wish them, almost getting it right, when we finally decide to go and have our late breakfast at the hotel.
So one more time and now in the right order: “Selamat tahun baru dua ribu sepuluh”, to all of you.