Waking up at 3am to climb a mountain is not something I would normally care to do, but when the mountain in question was the mighty Gunung Bromo – one of Indonesian Java’s most impressive active volcanoes – I was prepared to make an exception. And what an exception it was. To get there, we had to spend twelve hours in a minivan from Yogyakarta (in itself a challenge), then spend a night at a guest house high up in the mountains from where we would leave at 4am the following morning to drive up to a view point for sunrise and then onto Bromo itself.
When the alarm clock went off we were less than enthusiastic about climbing out of our cosy beds into the frosty air outside, but no sooner had we walked outside the hotel than our spirits were lifted by the sight of a shiny pink Jeep. It took about half an hour to reach the car park for the view point, from where we walked up a further half hour to reach the summit. Soon after we arrived, the sun began its steady ascent into the sky, lighting up the mountain range with the most beautiful array of colours; blue, amber, gold and pink to name but a few. When the night finally succumbed to the day, the stars disappeared and an eerie pink mist in the valley beneath us began to creep like a thief around the mountains. Above it, a layer of fluffy white clouds hovered unobtrusively. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed.
After the sun rose, we picked our way carefully back down the volcanic ash-covered mountain to the Jeep, stopping to take pictures of Bromo in the distance and pat some of the gorgeous little mountain ponies who give lazy tourists a ride up from the car park. We then drove to Bromo itself, parking in a vast expanse of desert-like plains where we succumbed to the lure of three ponies and agreed to ride them to the bottom of the steps leading up to the crater. The mountain cut an impressive figure rising up out of the sand dunes, and as we approached we could see the thousands of other tourists snaking their way to the top like ants on an anthill. We dismounted our trusty steeds and began to walk up the 253 steps to the crater lip. By the time we reached the top I was painfully aware of how much my fitness had slipped in the previous few months of travelling, and had to take a moment to catch my breath. It was only then that I realised how incredibly high up we were, and struggled to keep my fear of heights in check. As I teetered precariously on the edge, I took in the awesome sight of the deep crater below us, sporadically puffing white clouds of steam like an old man lazily smoking a pipe. It was hard to believe only four months previously this apparently benign natural wonder was on the verge of eruption, spewing great swathes of grey smoke and ash into the air and prompting evacuation from the local villages.
We walked back down to the car park in awestruck silence, hardly believing what we had witnessed in just a few hours and feeling so far removed from the reality of our lives we were akin to Alice when she fell down the rabbit hole and emerged into Wonderland. I really believe that it’s moments like that we should seek out and treasure in this too short life, through which most of us sleepwalk. Because it’s only in moments like that we can be truly present, and experience what it is to be fully and completely alive.