Cigarettes & Ojeks

The road to Mount Bromo

The edge of the crater stretched out before me and disappeared into the afternoon haze. With no promise of the trail being passable at the other end, I decided to find out if was possible to walk around the edge of the Mount Bromo crater. In contrast to the chaos of tourists around this morning, it was nice to be up here by myself. After months of ideas and planning I’d finally made it to this spot how I wanted and when I wanted and it was as awe-inspiring as I expected it to be.

Mount Bromo Crater Climb

Traversing the Mount Bromo crater

Mount Bromo is one of Javas most popular natural attractions and although that’s what initially drew me in, I knew there must be so much more to discover. Mount Bromo, it’s more active cousin Mount Semeru (also known as Mahameru ‘Great Mountain’ and the highest peak in Java) and the dormant Mount Batok sit in the middle of a vast plain called the sea of sand, a protected nature reserve since 1919 and a major feature of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. I wanted to visit on my own terms. I didn’t want to roll in on a cramped tour bus for one night and see one sunrise from the same spot as everyone else. I wanted to explore the different sides of this mysterious smoking beast and see what else the surrounding country side had to offer.

My journey started 200 kilometres away in Surabaya, an industrial city where I’d been staying in for a few days working on a personal project. When that was done, I needed to escape the smog and find some nature. Getting to the park independently ended up being pretty easy thanks to a bit of help from this post by Ikimasho! A bumpy three hour bus ride through local villages later, I hopped off at a town called Probolingo and set about finding someone to take me up to the Volcano. 100,000 Rupiah got me on the back of an ojek (motorbike taxi) and we sped into the mountains. I could feel the air temperature dropping as we got higher and I was itching to see a volcano rising out of the mist as I’d never seen one before. Apart from having to walk up one particularly steep hill because we were too heavy with (my camera) gear, it was an awesome ride up.

After arriving in the crater-side town of Cemoro Lawang late afternoon and quickly buying my rider a beer for putting up with me, I set about finding somewhere to sleep, a pack of cigarettes and somewhere to rent a motorbike (which turned out to be surprisingly hard). Decent accommodation ended up being pretty hard to find at late notice but as I was hanging around for five days, I opted for a local room about the size of a small toilet for the first night with the promise of an upgrade to a proper room for the remainder nights of my stay. I dumped my backpack and went for a wander along the edge of the village to watch sunset. Had dinner and a few beers afterwards and although I knew it would be a super early start, I couldn’t resist heading back out for a late night wander through the foggy streets with my camera. An hour later I was done and called it a night.

  • Bromo Countryside
  • Cemoro Lawang Night
  • Cemoro Lawang Foggy Night Street

Getting up super early wasn’t so bad, it never seems to be an issue when I’m on the road. A jeep booked the night before with some other travellers picked us up at 3:30am and we were off across the sea of sand, the vast area of black volcanic sand that lies between the edge of the main crater and the actual volcanoes. After 20 bone crunching minutes, we reached the other side of the crater and headed up the long and winding road to get to the top of the Mount Pananjakan which overlooks the volcano massif.

Jeep across the sea of sand

Sunrise express across the sea of sand

The Jeep dropped us about 20 minutes by foot from the main viewpoint, and I hiked the last couple of kilometres as quick as I could. The view point was pretty impressive, though I’ve never seen so many people gathered for a sunrise before. I jostled to the front and set up, only to realise the main spot where people gather doesn’t even face the volcanos, it was the direction that the sun rises sure, but it didn’t face the craters! I found my bearings, jumped a couple of fences and set up at a good, if not original spot and waited for sunrise. Watching the sun rise for the first time at a new spot is always a humbling experience and this was no different. Seeing the days first light hit something as ancient and raw as a volcano is something I’ll never forget. If you ever get half a chance to come to this place, take it, you won’t regret it.

Bromo holds a special spiritual significance to the surrounding Hindu population. On the fourteenth day of the Hindu festival of Yadnya Kasada, the Tenggerese people of Probolinggo travel up the mountain in order to make offerings of fruit, rice, vegetables and flowers to the mountain gods by throwing them into the caldera of the volcano. Fraught with danger, some locals risk climbing down into the crater in an attempt to recollect the sacrificed goods that they believe could bring them good luck. I didn’t witness this festival and though enticing, I didn’t plan on venturing into the crater to search for good luck charms, tempting as the thought was.

Sunrise on Mount Bromo

Sunrise view of the volcano massif from Mount Pananjakan

Once sunrise was over, I met the team back at the Jeep and enjoyed some delicious grilled corn from a street vendor on the way down. From here, we were taken back across the sea of sand for a stop at the base of Mount Bromo where we were told you we could climb the volcano to look down into the crater. Along with about 5,000 other people. I said no thanks and wandered around taking photos of local dogs and temples while the hordes did their thing. I’d come back later in the day when it was quiet. Everyone returned super sweaty so it made for a delightfully cosy jeep ride back to the hostel.

After I grabbed some breakfast I found a local to hire a motorbike from, $25US later (well over priced compared to anywhere else in Java but when there’s no other options, there’s no choice) I was set and headed off across the sea of sand to find some volcano solace. Little tip here, riding a motorbike on sand? Not as easy as you think, just go slow until you get the hang of it. I nearly came off a couple of times much to the amusement of the local guys watching. Got there eventually and in stark contrast to the morning crowds, there was me and only one other person climbing the crater. I reached the top and just sat awhile and watched the landscape, totally amazing place, so far from the busyness of everyday life. Desolate sea of volcanic sand in one direction, active volcanos in the other. Such an enjoyable moment, just me, my camera and the wind. And the smoke. So much smoke!

After an hour or so I decided to see if it was possible to walk around the top of the crater, it was, but it did get a little sketchy in places. If you ever attempt this, wear some decent shoes. The trip back down was uneventful, until a sand tornado whipped up right in front of me. Having no idea what to do in a situation like that, I hit the deck and hoped it would pass over me. It did, but not after it left me with sand literally everywhere and my skin the colour of a sooty volcano!

  • Across the Sea of Sand
  • Mt Bromo Crater
  • Down the Mountain
  • Mount Bromo Rider
  • Mount Bromo Crowds

Madakaripura falls

A side trip from Cemoro Lawang

With not much else planned for the afternoon, I set about finding the Madakaripura Waterfalls which were reportedly not far from Cemoro Lawang. What was to be a one hour round trip turned into a three hour enduro which involved getting stuck in a street parade, getting completely lost and battling a stubborn monkey who believed a coconut was a fair trade for my camera.

The waterfall valley I found though, made it all worth it. In stark contrast to the hot and dry volcanic landscape the Madakaripura valley was something to behold. Lush green canyons with water flowing in from all directions made this one of the highlights of my journey. It’s about a 30 minute hike from the carpark and my advice would be to hire a guide. While not totally necessary, it’s nice to support the local villagers and having a good chat is always fun, plus, they should provide you with a poncho, which you will definitely need! A long swim under the falls was exactly what I needed and rock jumping into the main pool from behind the waterfall curtain was something I’ll never forget.

Madakaripura Waterfall Valley

Over the next few days I visited a lot of the other viewpoints and areas around the park at different times. At sunrise, under stars or in the blazing mid-day sun, every spot was stunning in it’s own right. Whether you’re exploring by motorbike, jeep, foot or even tour bus, it’s always possible find a unique spot. Explore a little further, leave the crowds behind, if only for ten minutes, and find your own angle. There’s so many options, it’s a shame to see nearly everyone flock to exactly the same spot every morning.

On my final morning, I arrived well before sunrise at a little cliffside ledge I’d found the previous day and had it all to myself. The volcanos under the Milky Way were an incredible sight, Mount Bromo smoking in the foreground and Mount Semeru glowing in the background. As the pre-dawn glow illuminated the low cloud hanging just above the sea of sand, then watching it turn to fire as the first rays of golden light appeared, I thought, yes travelling in a group can be amazing but the freedom of hitting the open road by yourself and embracing the whole solo thing is incredible. It’s something I’ll always enjoy doing.

Milky Way Java IndonesiaMid morning mount bromo

Locations explored

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park

Here’s a custom map showing a lot of the locations I explored in the area, if you’ve got any questions, don’t hesitate to drop me a message in the comments below. I’ll answer the best I can.

Enjoy this article? Have a question? Been somewhere similar that I should know about for my next trip? I’m a little obsessed with volcanos now so let me know where I should wander next.


Photographer and designer from Australia, always wandering.


  1. Comment by Linda

    Linda Reply December 17, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Jonathan, what a fabulous journey you just took me on. Loved your story – loved your photos……
    Cheers and safe travels
    @lindyfrance on Instagram

    • Comment by Jonathan Sander

      Jonathan Sander Reply December 18, 2016 at 3:31 pm

      Thank-you for the kind words Linda! Many more adventures to be posted here so stay tuned..

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