Never in a million years did I imagine the words “Indonesia” and “coat” would fit in the same sentence. I also never imagined I would one day be able to say that I waded through rivers and climbed rocks to be rained on by a massive waterfall; or that I hiked up an active volcano wearing 4 layers and rode a horse across the plains of a volcano crater kicking up a tornado of ashen dust behind me like a cowgirl in a western flick.
This is Indonesia.
A massive country that offers a countless number of options and surreal diversity by way of nature, people, language, food, weather and activities. Did you know that Indonesia is made up of 17,000 islands, only about 8,000 of which are inhabited? Neither did I. This was an eye-opening trip for me and one I will never forget.
Java is one of Indonesia’s most important islands because the capital sits here. Let’s be clear. People visit East Java for one main reason: to climb the two most famous volcanos. A visit to East Java is not a restful one if you want to do it right. It’s certainly not a holiday. And despite its close geographic proximity to its sister, Bali, it cannot be farther from it in every way. East Java is adventure. It’s very early wake-up calls. It’s a lot of transportation. And it is supernatural beauty. It will take your breath away. And it will reward you in so many ways.
Unless you live in Asia, such a trip would require major planning and at least a week off work. We took one day off and bundled it up with a weekend for 3 days of sheer exhaustion, plenty of time on the road and magnificence; moving from the most eastern tip of the island in Banyuwangi to Surabaya on the northeast coast of the island. There are a few airports in Indonesia but getting to the volcanos limits your options.
We chose the following route: Bali –> Banyuwangi –> Mt. Ijen –> Probolinggo –> Mt. Bromo –> Surabaya.
This trajectory involved 1 ferry, 2 jeeps, 3 cars and countless hours on the road so be prepared. Day 1 – Bali I had been to Bali once before and it was love at first sight. I was so happy to be back on this charming island even if only for a day. We didn’t have much time to explore choosing instead to wander around Seminyak Square for some shopping and a quick lunch at the buzzing plantation-style Bali Cafe before heading back to the hotel to take a car all the way to Gilimanuk for the ferry terminal. The car ride was about 5 hours long and very scenic but extremely tiring after a very late arrival to Bali the night before. We still managed to do several stops to catch photos of the incredibly picturesque rice terraces.
The ferries at Gilimanuk run every 15 minutes and arrive at Ketapang, basically Banyuwangi. Very convenient and comfortable in the sense that the ride was not very rocky; but this is by no means a comfortable journey by normal standards. There are more cars and trucks than people on this ferry and the boat is windowless and open. The seats resemble those joint plastic airport chairs that have worn away with time. We were prepared for adventure however and went along with the ride, exhausted and impatient to get to our hotel for a few hours of sleep before our 3am wake-up call. Day 2 – Banyuwangi & East Java First on our itinerary was Mt. Ijen. We woke up to a 3am screeching alarm and got into a jeep for 1.5 hours to head up to the drop-off area on the mountain. The hike up was not easy. It is steep and can be slippery so it’s absolutely essential to be prepared. I’m an active person but I am by no means ultra-fit and I managed to do it with (some panting) but no issues. The trick is to pace yourself, something I struggle with constantly.
Seeing Mt. Ijen was like watching the beauty and the beast. The view of the crater with the massive tufts of billowing smoke and the über green lake is something I will never forget. It was the ultimate reward after that tough early morning workout. We were exhausted but utterly mesmerized that we forgot our fatigue. Contrasting against that supernatural beauty is a harsh reality that you will witness as you commence your climb.
Scattered across the mountain slope are over 300 workers aged 27 and up, who make their way up and down the mountain multiple times a day carrying from 65-100 kgs of sulphur on their backs in basic wicker baskets. Once they have reached the crater, they descend down to its depths and manually hack off pieces of yellow sulphur with a stick. This is back-breaking work that pays virtually nothing. It was very painful to watch. We found ourselves asking why the responsible party was relying on such a backward method when surely there was a more efficient way to do this, saving those poor men from inhaling sulphur fumes day in and day out, protecting their backs and their knees from the pressures of the steep downward climb. It was heartbreaking to watch and it saddened me to know that what was beauty to us was misery to someone else. These men seem to have accepted their fates however, smiling at everyone who passes by and offering hello’s in basketful’s. Be warned, any photos of the men must be exchanged for a small tip. Something you will not flinch at once you see their sad states and appreciate their tremendous efforts.
There is not much to do in Banyuwangi itself unless you choose to spend another day or two. Around the city are a few options that require some driving: one is Tabuhan Island, which is situated 20 km from Banyuwangi. This is apparently great for scuba diving and snorkelling. Sukamali Turtle Beach is another of them if you think you could enjoy an untouched sandy beach and turtle sightings. Unfortunately we had time for neither. I regretted not being able to do this as witnessing the laying of turtle eggs is something I have heard is life-changing and is something I would love to experience.
Nonetheless, we were back at the hotel at 11am, just in time to pack, check out and have lunch before hopping back into the car for a 6 hr drive! It sounds worse that it was! No really. The first four hours were actually quite enjoyable because the route was extremely scenic and we stopped for photo breaks, snack breaks and to stretch our legs quite often. Rice paddies, ocean views and lush plains dwarfed by mountains and volcanos kept our eyes and our minds entertained as we drove along the coast to get to Probolinggo from where we would begin our steep ascent to Mt. Bromo, our home for the night.
The last two hours I will not lie were utter torture, mainly because the sun had descended throwing us into total darkness. Our impatience soared as we went up the mountain one slow bend at a time, for 45 long minutes until we finally stepped out to be met by chilly winds and fresh mountain air. A godsend after being in Asia for just 2 months. Day 3 – Mt. Bromo & Surabaya After experiencing our first active volcano at Mt. Ijen, we were on a high. We couldn’t wait to get to the 2nd one even if we knew we had another 3am wake-up call waiting for us. As I mentioned above, the road from Banyuwangi to our hotel on Mt. Bromo was very long. 6 hours long to be precise. Somehow we made it thanks to copious amounts of junk food and numerous stretching breaks. The fact that the scenery along the way was stunning didn’t hurt either. To watch the sun descend on East Java is like watching an artist at work. The sky was a canvas of bold splattered colors that were utterly magical. There is so much beauty in nature.
What Mt. Ijen lacked in ease, Mt. Bromo made up for. Likewise what Mt. Ijen offered in peace, Mt. Bromo lacked in bucketfuls. In contrast to the peaceful and calm hike up we experienced at Mt. Ijen, Mt . Bromo felt like a vegetable market. It was absolutely jam-packed with thousands of people, mainly locals. Being more central and more accessible to more populated surrounding cities makes Mt. Bromo the more popular of the volcanos.
Unlike Mt. Ijen, and thanks to the excellent location of our hotel, we had a mere 15 minute drive at 3am to get to the drop-off point. The road was far bumpier than that we experienced the day before and suffice it to say we were happy we hadn’t eaten breakfast. It was like experiencing an Asian massage on the rough. We walked up towards the observation point at the peak of Mt Penanjakan. This is directly facing Mount Bromo and is the best spot to catch the sun rising above the cluster of mountains. This was a 15 minute walk and we were glad to have the 5 layers we were wearing. It was cold and slightly windy. The walk up was torturous despite its relative ease and its briefness. The road was choking on motorbikes, jeeps and a noxious combination of cigarette smoke and motorbike smoke. Not my kind of wake-up call! Still, we made our way up to the observation deck to be greeted by a crazyyy crowd. We literally had to squeeze our way through to find a decent spot where we could wait for the sunrise and have a sense of personal space where no-one would be breathing down our necks.
Let me tell you that in hindsight and despite my brutal honesty of the reality that unfolded before us that this experience was simply incredible. People cheered as the sun started to awaken from its slumber, casting the sky in beautiful hues of orange and pink. As the volcanoes slowly came into view we excitedly snapped photo after photo of the same view…until we were left with somewhat of an ombre effect of lighting…a still object surrounded by a morphing sky… what makes this mountain special, and you will clearly see this in the photos below, is that it consists of several mountains within a mountain giving an overwhelming appearance to the whole view. As the light slowly began to cast an eerie pale orange light upon these smoldering beasts, we agreed that the whole setting looked somewhat prehistoric. We felt as though we had stepped into a real-life set of Jurassic Park. It was magnificent. We then walked back to our jeep, where our driver made his way down the mountain to drop us off to the crater floor you see in the photo above. The objective was to climb up Mt. Bromo (the most shallow volcano you see with billowing smoke). As one would imagine, the crater floor was full of grey ash which was quite suffocating due to the wind and the sheer number of people kicking up the sand. Thankfully hubby and I had surgical masks with us. Combined with our sunglasses we were a pair of MJ’s on the loose. Actually, once we got on our horses to ride across the crater floor to the base of the staircase under Mt. Bromo, we became a cowboy and cowgirl, playing out a real life western flick with huge tufts of ashy sand blowing behind us. Yeehaw…
The staircase was as expected stuffed with people but we somehow made it up those 220 steps to be met by a very narrow crater rim that looked down on a huge crater angrily blowing smoke. It was surreal and spectacular all at once. With the second volcano checked off our list, we headed back to the hotel in time for breakfast on the beautiful terrace overlooking the breathtaking mountains of the Tengger Highlands. I am calling it the Switzerland of Asia from now on because it was crazy green and so mountainous! We walked down from the hotel for about 10 minutes and visited a strawberry field where we picked some delicious, juicy and super sweet strawberries. It was then time to head back out on the road for another long car ride (4hrs!) to head to Surabaya for our evening flight. Along the way, we found ourselves in the heart of another action-packed adventure at the Madakaripura Waterfalls! We literally waded through rivers and climbed rocks to get to the base of a massive waterfall. It was out of this world, like being in the ad for Fiji water or Bounty chocolate or something. Suffice it to say these 3 days were exhausting but so fulfilling. It was a dream and one I would have never imagined being a part of if it weren’t for my explorer hubby. I love you. Thank-you for showing me the world. Banyuwangi & Mt. Ijen
Recommended hotel: Ketapang Indah
This hotel garners the highest recommendations online for the area and its well deserved. It is expensive by Indonesian standards but I use this word quite loosely because Indonesia is ridiculously cheap. The grounds of this property are huge and very lush and sit on the beachfront even though the sandy shore is so narrow you can see Bali across its waters. The rooms were roomy and simple but sufficient and the staff was just amazing. Evenings are calm and you have a sense of being far away from everything. We walked around the property at night and saw the starriest sky ever on our evening there.
- Arriving at the ferry terminal was an experience for us because it was impossible to find a taxi to drop us off at the hotel. There were plenty of moto-taxis (motorcycle cabs) but this did not interest us even though we had tiny pieces of luggage. We ended up hitching a ride with a small lorry! lol To this day we have no clue whether or not he was a cab but we were just sooo happy to see something on four wheels. We hopped onto the back of the lorry (covered thankfully!) and he got us safely onto hotel grounds. Ask your hotel to book a ride for you in advance.
- Contrary to what you may think, the mountain peak is not as cold as you may imagine. We were a little overdressed for Mt. Ijen. You need a good wind proof coat for the start of your climb as the temperature is certainly cooler before the sun comes up and before you begin the ascent. It gets warm quite quickly however especially because of the effort you are making to hike up. I found myself shedding layer after layer as we rounded every bend. It is about 20-25C at the top. Maybe 15-17 at the parking lot level.
Probolinggo & Mt. Bromo
Recommended hotel: Java Banana
This property’s name does not do it justice. One hears such a comical name and assumes nothing that could match the reality we experienced. This is a beautiful hotel reminiscent of a Swiss chalet in the Alps and the views and greenery may just as well compete with their Swiss counterparts. This is a stunning part of the country. The hotel was located on the mountain in the Tengger Highlands where mountains dwarf little villages and fields upon fields of produce that cannot grow in mainland Indonesia due to the climate thrive here: like strawberries and onions to name a few. The owner of this property is a celebrity in his neighborhood thanks to his philanthropic nature and his renowned skills as a photographer. His photos of people from the village as well as of the volcanoes are all over the property and lunch or breakfast on the terrace of the main restaurant is an absolute must-do. This is the best hotel in the area. Don’t stay anywhere else. It is expensive by Indonesian standards but, again, I use this word with a lot of bias because Indonesia is ridiculously cheap. It is not at all expensive in the grander scheme of things and is worth every penny if only for its proximity to Mt. Bromo.
- It can get quite cold at that altitude so pack well. We spent the 2 days before our trip in a mad scramble to find warm clothes. It’s not easy in Singapore! Our trick was to layer but its key to have a fleece and a light sports jacket at least for the first part of the trip. It gets warmer once the sun comes out and you are at the base of the crater but still it is no where as warm as mainland. It’s refreshingly crisp. We found that our Columbia insulated jackets were just perfect.
- Sleep early. This sounds like a no-brainer but it’s a must if you want to wake up feeling rested and enjoy the experience. It would be miserable to have come all the way for the volcanos and be grumpy about the 3am wake-up.
- You do not need to book the excursion in advance. Most hotels will arrange that for you on the spot. We had put it in our email with the booking but all arrangements were confirmed once we checked in. There are hundreds of drivers and you should not face any issues. A lot of them speak very little English however so don’t expect comprehensive explanations