Go to Bali for the beaches, but go to Java to be humbled – to be awed and overwhelmed, by phenomena both natural and manmade.
Words and images by Rob Garratt
With its marketable mix of golden sands, bright blue surf and easy infrastructure, Bali takes all the headlines – with nearly half of Indonesia’s 9.4 million annual visitors limiting themselves to just a 0.3% sliver of the country.
But far greater gems lie on the most populous of Indonesia’s 922 inhabited islands. Separated from its smaller, trendier eastern brother by just a few miles, our underwhelming introduction to Java is the dusty port town Banyuwangi. But the goal is some 100 miles inland – and some 7,600 feet skywards – the peak of Mount Bromo.
At the nearby town of Probolinggo, weary backpackers congregate at the sandy spot where buses stop, scoffing nasi goreng, waiting for the necessary pack of 15 needed to split an overpopulated mini-van to the tiny mountain outpost Cemoro Lawang. After an anxious wait of hours, we make our glorious, vertiginous ascent as night falls. The few hotels are full; we negotiate a stay in water-less hovel, and bargain a 3am 4×4 pick-up to drive out to the base of Bromo’s crater, from which the peak is a short climb.
I can say with confidence that there are few more humbling feelings than staring down into the core of a smoldering volcano, billowing smoke and floating soot invading all senses. Package tourists are conspicuous, but few dare to wander around the precarious, ever-narrowing path that traces the volcano’s ridge.
There is no such easy access to the more bellicous Mount Merapi, which sits some 250 miles west in the island’s centre, and erupts regularly to this day. The quaint educational Merapi Museum Center offers a viewing platform, and a small cinema screening a tragic documentary detailing the destruction wrought by Merapi’s last outburst, which claimed 353 lives in 2010.
Little has changed – more than 1,000 years earlier, it is believed to be Merapi’s wrath which drove settlers from the awe-inspiring 9th Century Hindu temple complex Prambanan. One of two manmade UNESCO World Heritage-recognized blockbusters easily visitable from Java’s “cultural capital” Yogyakarta, Prambanan was mysteriously abandoned in the tenth century. Today its jutting, staggered, stone peaks, surrounding the 47m central tower, are equally eerie whether framed by looming storm clouds, or artfully lit at night.
More impressive still is Prambanan’s contemporaneously constructed Buddhist cousin Borobudur, lying just 30 miles northwest. The centrepiece of the site’s three ninth century temples is the largest Buddhist monument in the world, and stands rightfully alongside Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and India’s Taj Mahal as one of Asia’s most awe-inspiring sights.
Built on a 400-feet wide square base, paths slowly wind around each of the nine staggered levels, split into stages representing the three “realms” of Buddhist cosmology. Tackling the entire circular ascent offers a three-mile walk past hundreds of decorative and narrative panels – artistic marvels offering glimpses of Javanese life more than a millennium ago – before arriving at the monument’s majestic plateau, lined with 72 serene Buddha statues.
From this vantage, the shadow of Merapi framed ominously in the distance, it is impossible not to feel awed by the human achievement – and the cooly indifferent natural earth these marvels stand on, which could wipe everything away in an instant.
Originally published in Travel Weekly, June 2017.