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Many people told us: “It’s too hot, the roads are extremely busy and the mountains are too high…” But somehow we had made it to this point… Over the past 98 days we had cycled from Sumatra to Central Java, taken a canoe trip along the estuaries to Cilacap, and visited the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur in Magelang. We had now made it to the home of the volcanos, Bromo Tengger Semuru National Park.
As this would take us 2,392 metres above sea level, we decided to give our legs a rest and strap our bikes to the roof of a taxi. As we drove up the hillside and peered out of the window, we noticed how the scenery started to change. The warm coastal breeze had been traded for cool mountain air, and as we drove further along the road that took us past spice farms and coffee plantations, we noticed that the locals had switched t-shirts for hats and shawls.
When we jumped out of the car, I rifled through my luggage to try and find the one coat that I’d packed for my journey home, while my friend Rian started bartering with a man over a scarf. But this change in temperature didn’t ruin the moment. We loved the fact that we could briefly escape from the sticky, sweaty tropical temperatures and breathe in the cool mountain air.
Over a dinner of steaming nasi goreng and mugs of kopi panas, we worked out what we were going to do next. We were there to see Mount Bromo, a live volcano which sits in the famed Sea of Sand, but the question was, after we saw it where would we go from there? Rather than take a taxi back down the mountain, we asked if it would be possible to ride across the Sea of Sand to our next destination.
The bemused restaurant owner said it could be achieved, so after arranging with two locals to take us up to the volcano to see the sunrise, we called it an early night so that we were ready for our adventure the next day.
The alarm woke us at 3.30am and we staggered out of bed and wandered down the stairs to meet our guide who was wrapped up in the obligatory hat and scarf to protect himself against the freezing temperatures.
We climbed into a Jeep and were whisked up the mountain to where we were given our next mode of transport – a horse. In the pitch black, I was slightly wary about where we were going and what we were doing. My horse seemed more like a pony, as I climbed aboard and my 6ft 4in frame engulfed him. Yet somehow its legs managed to hold out as he carried me down from the crater’s edge to the bottom of the volcanic park.
From here we joined other riders crossing the sand. It felt less like a day trip and more like a pilgrimage. The light started to break and we could see a dark shadow in the distance. As we started to get closer I began to recognise the shapes of other people making the trek across the crater bottom by walking, riding motorcycles or driving cars.
We scrambled up the dusty spine of the volcano. As part of the Yadnya Kasada Festival, Tenggerese worshippers will trek across the Sea of Sand to give their offerings to the mountain gods by throwing rice, fruit and livestock into the crater of Mount Bromo. As the wind blew across the crater rim, I just hoped that the horse didn’t have any plans to hurl me in as well.
After a 20-minute ride, the horse pulled up at the bottom of the crater and the guide gruffly told us that if we weren’t back within 45 minutes they would leave without us. When we looked confused, he gesticulated to a set of 250 concrete steps behind me that had been covered by the wind-blown sand. As we stood there considering our climb, the thick pungent sulfuric air suddenly hit our nostrils. We began the climb only stopping to catch our breath. We tried covering our mouths with scarves to breathe easier, but every now and then we would start coughing as the gas was so strong.
At the top there was only a narrow ledge to stand on – on one side was a smouldering crater puffing out white smoke, and on the other a steep drop. Among the crowds, we managed to find an empty rocky perch upon which we could sit.
Talking and shivering in the darkness, we waited for the moment we had taken ridden thousands of miles for… and then looking towards the east we began to see a slight slither of sunshine peer its head over the adjacent mountain crater. It was quite simply the most beautiful sunrise I have ever witnessed.
There was something so divine and spiritual about the next 15 minutes. Silence spread throughout the awestruck crowd. It was as we were all frozen in time.
After a few minutes there was a rustle as people started to gather their bags and make their way down to their very punctual guides. I looked to the south where I could see the Sea of Sand stretching out before us and the next port of call on our adventure.
We collected our belongings from the base, and spurred on from the show-stopping sunrise, started to ride across the Sea… However, within a matter of minutes our wheels got stuck in the soft sand. Our triumphant ride turned into a slow push, as we hauled our bikes across the volcanic desert. It was slow progress, but struck by the scenery, we didn’t care, we were just happy to be there.
The sky was clear, but the wind was strong and our path was halted by a sand tornado that blew across the desert. We both stopped, turned our faces and braced ourselves, but it blew over quickly and I turned to see Rian with a huge smile on his face. We knew that this was a good day.
With the volcano on our right and the rim on the left, the sand gave way to a rough road that we could cycle upon. This road took us out of the crater and over the rim. Once at the top we had a great view of where we had come from, which was nothing short of inspiring. To see what you had accomplished is an amazing reward. Suddenly the temperature dropped again and we were riding through lush countryside. Volcanic ash turned into green pastures, forests of trees and a picturesque blue lake. This was one of the best days so far on our cycling journey across Indonesia. It was completely unexpected, which is what adventure is all about.
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