Mount Ijen was a dramatic introduction to Indonesia’s island of Java, but my volcano experience didn’t end there. After a night trek to the blue fire of Ijen and a quick rest the next day, my new companions and I were off again to the next volcano, Mount Bromo.
I had been dreaming of photographing a Mount Bromo sunrise for over a year before I finally got my chance. I had read up on the ways in which I could get to a quiet viewpoint for sunrise and my intention was to find my own way up by hiking from the nearest town. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) things didn’t turn out how I had expected.
But wait, there’s more…
The driver who took me to to Mount Ijen began to offer “deals” to everyone at our guesthouse who had gone up to Ijen with him. We all had plans to continue our journey west and our driver offered us an amazing group discount to continue on to Bromo. The deals continued as he offered us accommodation in the town nearest to Bromo, a ride up to see sunrise the next day, a ride to the crater, and a ride to the next town on our westward itinerary.
If I had not taken him up on his offers, I would have paid quite a bit more to continue on alone just to have that quiet sunrise that I had been hoping for. So I succumbed to peer pressure (because of my thinning wallet, but also because I enjoyed the company) and stayed with the group. Just as I feared, we were taken to a VERY crowded viewpoint the next morning, so there was no hope for any solitude.
Mount Bromo Sunrise
Accepting my fate, I hustled up to claim the best spot I could find and set up my small tripod on a wide post to wait for the sun to rise. People crowded all around, standing shoulder to shoulder, taking selfies in turns. People were not dressed appropriately for the chilly weather, so many of them came and went before the sunrise was even over. Fortunately, I have had my fair share of chilly mountain sunrises and I was prepared to stay for the duration.
As the dark faded, my heart sank when I saw that clouds had settled in the Tengger Caldera, home to five volcanoes including the erupting Mount Bromo. Fortunately as the sky lightened more and the clouds dispersed a bit, all of the volcanic cones began to emerge. This cloudy Mount Bromo sunrise was not quite what I had in mind after seeing so many others during my photo research, but at least it was unique. I decided that if I really hated what I came away with, I could always go back. Back to Bromo and back to Ijen too!
Ash covered Sand Sea
After my sunrise appetite was satiated, we were driven to the ash desert at the base of Mount Bromo. Here we were dropped off along with the other hoards of people who had just been at the viewpoint. The volcano was spewing a cloud of ash and I could hardly believe that we were about to walk right up to the crater! It was so surreal to be walking through the desolate field, thick with layers of ash, towards an erupting volcano.
People walked or hired ponies to continue the journey up to the crater rim through the Tengger Sand Sea. It was a long walk, and parts were pretty tiring… especially after a few nights in a row of very little sleep. I considered hiring a pony to bring me there, mostly to have the novel experience, but I decided to save my money. I was walking faster than the ponies anyway, despite my socks and sandals.
When we finally huffed our way to the rim, we looked in and saw more ash. No lava, just ash. Clouds and clouds of it. After soaking in the surreal experience, we took some obligatory photos in front of the magnificent view opposite the volcano. Apparently erupting volcanoes create a static charge in the air, evident in some of those photos we took!
We were soon covered in chunky flakes of ash that had drifted down to land on us. The air was thick with it so we headed back down. We stopped for more photo ops along the way. The horses and their owners made great foreground subjects with the dramatic backdrop. The view in every direction really was spectacular. I particularly enjoyed visiting the Hindu Temple that seemed so out of place in the middle of this barren wasteland. It made another interesting foreground at the base of ash-spewing Gunung Bromo.
This experience ended up being the highlight of my time in Java and one of my favorite travel moments of all time. I think sharing this experience with my new friends made it that much better. We all ended up spending about a week together, even after the “deals” had stopped.
My best advice for anyone arriving to photograph a popular site is to get there early. I was only able to get nice sunrise shots because we were there early enough for me to claim a spot. Later there wouldn’t have been enough space for me to set up a tripod, no matter how small.
Don’t forget to intentionally put people in your shot! Having people against a vast landscape like this will show the scale better than most anything else. I have to remind myself of this too!
When conditions are questionable for your camera gear, don’t take chances. Cover up your camera or put it away. If my camera was out in the ash the entire time, it would probably have been ruined despite its weather durability claims.
Sometimes you’ll need to weigh your options when choosing to pull out more equipment such as a graduated neutral density filter. Is this going to be more trouble than it’s worth? You can’t be lazy if you’re serious about getting good shots, but if your filters will be constantly covered with ash and difficult to clean off, maybe you’re better leaving it in the bag.