Chapter 14: In search of the three brothers

“A good view from top may not withstand the test of time, but a good journey always remains fresh in one’s memory!” – an excerpt from the notes, Ngadaj, East Java, Indonesia, June 2014

A crow gave a call, which was answered by another one. I chose a comfortable chair and sat in the front yard of Da Rifi’s, just like the previous evening.

The guilt poked my mind for having smoked a cigarette the previous day. And yet, I felt a lump in my pocket, a pack of LA lights, almost full.

After a long painful week in Jakarta (my first stop after Philippines) I had moved to Surabaya, a city that can be used as a base to explore the mountains around.

Indonesia, technically lies in the Pacific ring of fire and is known for its many volcanos. Through numerous travel shows, and magazines, I had developed an immense desire to see a volcano from up close. And this desire had taken me to this city.

I took out a cigarette and stared at it, without having any inclination to light it.

“You know, you need to light it to smoke” I heard someone say.

It was the wrinkled face of an Asian guy who, judging from his outfit, looked like a travel veteran.

“I am thinking”, I said taking the lighter from him. It took a couple of fumbles before the tip glowed red. “I am just trying to understand the whole smoking thing”

The guy gave me a nod that suggested he understood me perfectly well.

“People call me Danni by the way”, he said with a salute.

“Aniket” I replied.

“So you are with those European guys? I saw them just a while ago”

“Nah! I came in yesterday, from Jakarta” I said as a fit of cough took hold of my throat. “I’m sorry” I continued through the cough. “What about you?”

“Well I’m an Indonesian, as you can see, but I’m a traveler. Been traveling for twenty odd years now. I come to this place often…to relax”

“Twenty what?”

“Years. Yes twenty years”

“What the hell man”

“Aaaye…just couldn’t give up traveling. I was in Australia for a long time, was a chef there…. My wife passed away when my kids were little…. So I had to work real hard raising them up. Pain in the ass they were”, he gave a chuckle, took a puff and continued “Once all of them had turned 18, I told them ‘look guys, you are adults. Do whatever you want with your lives.’ And then, I sold everything I owned and hit the road! It’s an addiction…I’m telling you…far greater than the cigarettes”

He gave a laugh, probably at my expression.

“You say, how long you been on the road?”

“Not nearly enough. Just about six months till now”

“That’s not short”

“Yeah well…like you say, it’s never enough”

“I love India man”, he said, pointing at the blue Kingfisher shirt that he was wearing.

I nodded.

A small silence was broken by the European guys who entered the scene. They wished us good mornings and left to explore the city.

“So what’s your next plan?” Danni asked.

“I am hoping to go to Bromo tomorrow”

“Really nice place. There are plenty of ways to get there, mind you, and I have explored them all….” He gave a pause and continued, “Tell you what, give me a piece of paper”

I tore a paper off my diary and handed it to him.

“See, this…is Bromo, here….and this……is Surabaya”, he said drawing a map. “And these are two famous routes to get there…one is through Probolingo and another one through Pasuruan. And this one here…is the one I would suggest”, he finished handing over the paper.

“Malang?”

“Yes. It’s easy to get to Malang. And from there, to another small village called Tumpang…and then to a base that is just off Ngadaj. But once you get to Ngadaj, it’s all on foot. Also, you might not get a place to sleep there. But this way, you will experience something like never before….Tell me when you see it!”

“Interesting…” I said, making mental notes of the odds of spending a night in the open.

“Well, the best part is nobody uses this longer route. There’s this Austrian guy…Finn or something. I told him about this route yesterday and he’s gonna take it. I didn’t see him today though.”

I had met Finn, a quiet, tall fellow, who was on a smoking spree the previous night, while other travelers shared their travel stories.

“All right, I’ll get his email from the reception. You are the best!”

“I warn you. This way is not easy. Some of the Europeans are crazy. They can walk for days without feeling the pain. That guys is tall, strong and well-built…and you….well you are like me”

“But you managed to do this route”

He laughed, got up to his feet, gave a pat on my back and walked inside the hostel.

***

Next morning, at around 8.30 I found myself in the waiting area of the Surabaya Bus Station. The station was already swarming with people and the entrance gate saw the most activity: a congested mass of humans trying to enter or exit. One figure towered over them all as it pushed its way through the struggling mass.

“Oye” I shouted raising my hand.

“It’s crazy” he managed to say.

“Well the next bus is already there, we can catch it”

“Ok. How much is it?”

“About a dollar”

The bus was basic, but clean. The only problem in Asian buses, is the leg space…well, there isn’t any. While I still managed, Finn was finding it difficult to adjust. He shifted his legs a few times, before settling on an option.

It was initially a slow crawl through the narrow streets of the city. But just out of the city, we began to cruise. The view on either side was dominated by rice fields, with mountains in the distance.

A couple of musicians with a guitar and a little drum had got in.  With a strum, they began to play a piece of local folk music. Some passengers joined in with claps while others chose to just listen.

While we were prepared to be roasted inside the metal bus, the sun was lost behind a greyish veil and with addition to the folk music in the background, the journey was a success.

This route that runs through Malang is not frequented by other travelers or even locals, and as expected, we got off at a quiet bus station.

We looked around and saw a minivan parked in a corner. A guy wearing a straw hat stood outside, leaning against the door.

“Tumpang?” I asked.

“Yes” he replied.

I shoved my backpack in the van and began to stretch.

“Smoke?” Finn asked, holding a pack of Marlboro.

I had started to enjoy such places. The little stops, with a slow paced life. There was no rush and we waited, as slowly the van began to fill in.

It was a typical van, with two narrow benches below the windows on either sides, leaving the central area open for luggage. The guy with the hat seemed satisfied with the present number and the engine rattled.

Now the smooth strip ran through the hills and the mountains were getting closer. We passed a few farmers, who were on their way carrying hay or wood, or sacks of vegetables.

The local passengers seemed friendly, and we tried to exchange a few chats with them: we using our limited Indonesian vocabulary and they having a go at English.

As we cruised on the deserted road, one by one, the passengers began to get off at their destinations and by the time we rolled in the little town of Tumpang, there were only two of us left.

My wristwatch showed 3 PM and yet, the sun threatened to be already on its way. There was a chill in the air and the town seemed as deserted as the street leading to it.

We walked around a little before finding a small house, outside which a van was parked. A man was cleaning its windshield, who at our approach, ran inside the little house, leaving us confused.

A minute later, the fellow came back with a woman. She was carrying a little child on her hip.

“Hello! Where you go?” she asked as the child stared at us in amazement.

“Bromo”

“Bromo? Too far. No one goes from here”

“Oh. Then Ngadaj?”

“No Ngadaj”, this time the fellow joined in, with an apologetic smile.

“But he drop you near the mountain. Before Ngadaj. There you get many motor bikes to Ngadaj. Also horse…” she said, shifting the child to the other hip. “But horse very expensive” she added with an emphasis.

“Ya ya ok!”

The minivan stopped at what can be described as a base of the mountain. A handful of locals were sipping on a cup of steaming hot tea, while horses grazed on a heap of dried grass. A few moto taxi drivers were standing in a corner by their vehicles, looking at us expectantly, but not really rushing to us, as the way is in any Asian city.

“How far is Ngadaj?” Finn asked to the group.

“Four kilometers” one of them said.

“Five”, said another.

“You go?” the first guy asked.

“I think we walk”

“Ooooh…walk…ok ok…” a fellow said with a thumbs up.

And so we began our walk through the mountain on a winding tar road.  To our left was a lush green valley with a veil of haze and to the right the mountain climbed like a looming wall.

The passersby, that included women carrying straw baskets on their backs waved at us and we returned the gesture. We must have walked for not very long and I was already breathing heavily. With each step, my backpack seemed to get heavier. But we struggled on, keeping a watch on the time.

“Where you go?” a local girl shouted while a horse led by a kid carried her down.

“Ngadaj. Are you coming from Bromo?”

“Bromo? No it’s too far. I just did fifteen minutes of horse riding”

“We are going to Ngadaj”

“Ngadaj? On foot? That’s far too. Don’t go on foot” she shouted and disappeared around a bend.

As more and more trucks passed, we started to realize that probably it would be better not to walk all the way to the village. Sun was already invisible, the cold was reaching our bones and our breath rose in a steam. And slowly the traffic got sparse.

Ahead was another turn behind a thick veil of fog. And now a dim light of a motorbike was coming towards us through that fog.

“Where?” the rider asked, coming to a halt next to us.

“Ngadaj”, I replied.

“Oh I can take you”

“How much?”

After negotiating a fair price, the rider continued on down to get his buddy with another bike. We kept our backpacks on a side of the road and sat down. Finn pulled out two more cigarettes and handed one to me.

“There aren’t many people going up now”, I observed.

“Yeah. I hope the guy comes back”

Indeed, there wasn’t a single van or a motorbike or even a horse going up now. Maybe it was already too late to start the journey uphill.

A few minutes passed and we started to worry about finding a place to spend the night.

“I have a tent” Finn said pointing at a small package that was attached to the side of his big backpack.

“You are carrying a tent? How much does your bag weigh?”

“About eighteen kilos”

“Woh! Mine is only six!”

“That’s a good spot to camp”, he said expertly, pointing at a flat piece of land not very far below in the valley.

But our worries were cut short as the two dim lights slowly made their way up the steep slope and stopped next to us.

“You sit here. And you sit with my friend”, the guy told us, pointing at each one of us in turn.

Backpacks strapped on a carrier, we began a slow and painful ascent up the mountain.

The last 3 odd kilometers were not easy. The road was in a horrible condition and at times, the bike was switching the sides, avoiding big, dangerous potholes in the middle. The slope was so steep that a couple of times we had to get off, as the power of the little engine failed miserably.

But slow and steady, we finally entered a small, beautiful village in the mountains.

“Ngadaj. Very beautiful”, the rider shouted over the gushing wind, waving his hand in a sweeping motion.

It wasn’t a very big village. Handful of houses nestled on the terraces made in the mountain. Small make-shift stairs connected them to the main road. We got off at a tea stall mounted on a cliff, paid for our ride and looked around, hoping to find a place to spend the night.

The village seemed so tiny that within a few minutes, we had looked at all the houses, none of which looked like a guesthouse or a hostel. We came back to the tea stall and greeted the owner.

“Food? Eat?” we asked.

His face showed wrinkles of his age and presently, he was wearing a torn black jacket. As the wind grew stronger, he wrapped a green muffler tightly around his neck.

He nodded, taking the lid off a big metal pan. Steam rose from inside and as I peered over, I saw steaming hot meatballs floating in a watery broth.

He then reached for his pocket and pulled out money.

“5000 rupiah” he said, showing us the note.

“Ok!”

We were then led to a small balcony-like structure on the backside of the stall, which had a couple of stools and a flat wooden board that served as a table.

In front of us opened up the valley. Though the sun was about to set, its traces spread through the darkening sky. The valley itself seemed to be made of green velvet with a curtain of fog clutching to the air. Oil lamps had started to twinkle from the farmlands below.

Another strong wind made the clouds scatter and what was before a grey mass in the far distance, now opened up to reveal a beautiful view of rolling hills and handsome mountains.

We heard shuffling of feet from behind as the owner brought two bowls of noodle soup, a couple of meatballs floating in each one.

The soup was incredibly delicious. I guess it was one of those random places on this good earth, that, when least expected, provide us with the most amazing meal. But you may not find the same place again.

The owner came back again, this time with tiny glasses of hot tea. We sat there, enjoying the tea and enjoying the lungful of fresh air.

Best thing about travel is that the things change considerably fast. While in the morning, I had seen tired face of Finn pushing through the struggling crowd, now we were in one of the quietest places on this planet.

The owner came back once more, gave us a smile and stood in the balcony, staring out into the valley.

One can never get tired of this view, I mused.

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Food with a view

“You sleep?” he asked after a while.

“Yes”, we echoed.

“Come”

He led us outside on the street and then took a small make shift staircase downhill. Not far below was a small wooden cottage with a nice modest verandah outside.

It was starting to get dark already as the old man pushed the unlocked door inside. He then again pulled out money from his pocket, and began to count.

“Ok?” he asked, showing us a few bank notes.

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The town of Ngadaj

***

 

“Come on man. Just a couple of turns and we will be on the top of this mountain. Then we go down”, Finn said.

I was panting, tired and finding it very difficult to carry on with my six kilos, while Finn stood with a straight back, a cigarette dangling from his mouth carelessly. His eighteen kilos of backpack seemed to have no effect on him at all.

I have always considered myself a good trekker. But with the backpack on, it was a different story altogether.

We had got up early with the rising sun and had started off immediately. The morning was still hazy and chilly, but as the dawn passed on, the curtain was lifted, giving a splendid view of the farmlands in the valley and the mountains in the distance. The sun was shining brightly now and the day was cozy.

“I shouldn’t smoke”, I said trying to put the blame for my lack of stamina on those killers.

“No. It’s good for stamina”, he replied, taking a puff.

I gave him a quizzical look, but nonetheless, picked up my burden and began to follow him.

We were still on the tar road that ran through the mountain. The farmers passed by, on their way to the morning routine, sparing us wide and genuine smiles.

The slope was steep and we kept making short stops to allow me to catch my breath while Finn looked as if none of the stops were really necessary. I began to wonder if I was slowing him down.

We had an idea about the direction the Bromo was in and presently our target was to cross the mountain and enter the valley, for a clearer view of the volcano.

And slow and steady, we reached the top of the mountain!

The little settlement on the top meant that we could have our breakfast and replenish the supply of water.

Noodles and bananas did a lot to regain our energy and two bottles of water seemed enough for the rest of the journey. We thanked the owner and started off again.

As we left the small settlement behind, the tar road wound to the right, opening up the valley to our left: the empty grasslands.

The sun was still playing hide and seek with us, with wind to its aid. And with change in its light, the shade of the grasslands changed.

“Reminds me of the Lord of the Rings”, I mused as we made a stop to soak in the scene that lay in front of us.

“Is that why you wear that ring around your neck?”

“That and my emergency money”, I replied.

“You must destroy it in the fires of Mount Bromo”

I gave a chuckle.

A little ahead the road got submerged into a dirt track and almost immediately began to descend.

This part of the mountain was largely scarce of any trees, and instead grass and shrubs seemed to have taken over the area.

The descent, though easy on lungs, wasn’t so easy on the knees, especially with backpacks bearing down on us. Also, lack of much vegetation meant that the soil was loose and with each step we took, little round stones rolled down, trying their best to throw us off balance.

But we made it to the valley floor without any accidents and without any stops.

The wind blew very strong in the valley and thin blades of grass danced on it. To our left were rolling hills that we might have seen from Ngadaj, while to our right was a rocky mountain. With a lot of time still on our hands, we began a relaxed stroll through the empty grassland towards our target…not a soul to be seen.

About an hour through the valley, the geography began to change drastically and the wind grew stronger.

The dusty curtain that we had seen from far off actually turned out to be made of a sand storm. The grass was long gone and the earth now wore a thick layer of dark sand.

With each gust of wind, little tornados of black sand rose in the air, making it very hard to keep our eyes open.

We paused for a moment and got the shades out. With shades covering our eyes and scarves covering our ears, we trudged on through the black sea of sand.

As we carried on through the sand storm, the flat ground gave way to the rising dunes.

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The dunes

“Where’s Bromo gone!” I said looking around, as the endless dunes spread ahead of us and the sea of sand, behind.

“We keep going straight”

“If we understand what straight is” I muttered.

My wristwatch showed that there was still a plenty of daylight left. And so we crawled on, ever so slowly, keeping our eyes down, fighting against the sandy wind.

The wind subsided without any warning, the sand settled down where it belonged and all of a sudden we caught the sight of the volcano. Dunes seemed to extend all the way till the base of the mountain. From far off, a little activity could be seen at its base. The mountain itself was a handsome mass of black body, wrinkles running down its sides, creating a beautiful pattern.

“It’s still pretty far away”, I said.

We climbed a small dune to give us a vantage point and saw a few vehicles in the distance, apparently moving towards Bromo, dust clouds rising around them.

“We either go there and follow the tracks…or cross the dunes”, Finn said, taking long deep breaths.

“We cross the dunes”, I replied.

We took off our shoes, tied the laces to our backpacks and began to descend the first heap. The sand was smooth and cool to the touch. Once down the first barrier, we climbed the second one, and then slid down its top.

The dunes turned out to be a lot of fun and we made a very good speed, running up to the top and then sliding down to the bottom. A random gust of wind would again make the sand rise in the air, but we didn’t care. We knew where our destination was and we cruised on!

The volcano slowly got closer as we crossed the endless dunes and now we could see another smaller volcano beside it, thick smoke rising from its top.

The dunes slowly got smaller and soon, our path joined the regular one at the ancient ruins at the base, which turned out to be a Hindu temple.

“How come Hindu travel so far away, so long ago” Finn said, looking at the ruins in amazement.

“Beats me!”

From up close the mountain looked massive and there was no carved out path that was visible. Whereas, a few people could be seen climbing the properly built stairs to the top of the smaller volcano.

There were a couple of tea stalls at the base and we decided to make a pause there.

We were tired. A thick layer of black sand had settled on our clothes, hair and the backpacks. We walked inside a tea stall, kept our backpacks down and began to stretch.

An old woman, who ran the stall poured hot tea in small glasses and kept them in front of us.

“How do we climb this Bromo!” I mused, taking a sip of tea, observing the wrinkly mountain.

The old woman seemed to have heard the words as she shook her head and said, “That not Bromo!”

“Eh?”

“That is Bromo” she replied, pointing towards the smaller volcano that had a staircase.

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Mt. Batok

So, all this while, what we had been assuming to be Bromo, was actually Mount Batok. But real Bromo wasn’t too far away. Only disappointment was, after taking the off beaten path for the whole day, the final path was carved out of concrete and the volcano was really small!

In fact, Bromo is so small that within half an hour we were at the top. The smoke rose high through its depth and a pungent smell of Sulphur was in the air. We had walked on for hours, with our backpacks, without sense of direction, following the wrong Bromo and yet there we stood, at the top, watching the smoke and enjoying the cool breeze, fairly satisfied at our triumph.

But it wasn’t over yet. The sunrise over the three brothers was what we had come here for!

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That’s Bromo!

***

Next morning at 2, my alarm went off. Even though my shoulder ached I was all fired up. I wanted to hit the trail again.

“Come on man! We need to go”

After coming down the Bromo, we still had to do a bit of walking and climbing to find a bed. Cemoro Lawang is a little village not very far from Bromo, which nestles on a hill. After walking aimlessly through the village, we had found a cheap guesthouse towards the end of the main street. We had scavenged some street food and immediately hit the bed.

Finn sat up on his bed as I opened the door of the room, letting an ice-cold breeze inside. I could hear a couple of dogs barking in the distance, but apart from that the town was silent, sleeping….dreaming.

A flashlight in hand, we set off through the small lane that led us out of the main town. The constellations were bright against a dark sky as we passed small Tenngerese farms and houses. A few cows still awake, snorted at our approach and swung their tails, while dogs warned us about their territory.

We were heading towards Mount Penankajan (2770 meters), the top of which offers a spectacular view of the sunrise over the beautiful landscape. About six kilometers through the farmlands, we reached the base of the mountain. While the top was reachable by vehicles, we had elected to follow a little trail from the other side of the mountain, since taking a vehicle was out of question for us.

It was incredibly dark at the base and the flashlight did very little to pierce the darkness. We took a small trail that wound through the bushes on the lower slopes of the mountain. The air was still and the mountain asleep. Dew was clinging on to the grass blades and the trail was wet and slippery.

The torch was dim and we had to keep our eyes within its focus area, without having a clue of what lay a couple of paces away. But we carried on, smoothly.

The trail was wild and unused and as the bushes gave way to stout thorny trees, it became wilder. But with our backpacks back in the guesthouse, there was no weight slowing us down and by the time we reached the viewpoint, the stars were still bright.

To our surprise, we saw a bonfire crackling merrily on the top, surrounded by a few hooded figures. A small cart was also set up and a man stood by it, wrapped in a blanket.

We walked up to the little group and took places near the fire.

“Very cold” one of them said.

During our ascent we had not realized how cold it was. But now here on the top, the air wasn’t still and the wind blew freely at its will, piercing through the layers of clothes and chilling our bones.

Another gust of wind made me clench my teeth and I held my hands over the fire, trying to warm the blood in my veins.

The guy with the blanket handed us two cups of tea and sat by the fire. The sunrise was not until an hour and so, we sat by the fire, sipping on the hot tea, feeling the warmth of the fire in our bones.

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A bit of warmth in the cold

The group was that of local photography enthusiasts, who were here to capture the most iconic image on the Indonesian landscapes. They had ridden all the way from Malang on motorbikes and when we told them about the route we took, they looked immensely surprised.

“You don’t look strong. But you are strong” one of them told me over the sound of the burning wood. “I can’t do it”

The time passed by and we exchanged stories over more cups of tea and slowly, the eastern sky began to light.

“Some clouds. Some problem”, one of them said as we gathered on the cliff’s edge waiting for the sun to rise.

Indeed, though the darkness was quickly fading, thick mass of greyish clouds still hung over the Eastern horizon. While in the valley below, the landscape had wrapped itself in a thick sheet of haze.

But when the scarlet sun slowly rose up, and colors spread out through the mist below, I was left speechless. It was breathtaking and for a moment I was lost, as the world below was being painted.

First to come alive was the green valley in the now scattering mist and dotted by red slanting roofs of the houses along the square fields. Then it was the Sea of Sand, dark and relentless! And then finally the three brothers: the scarred and grey, Mount Batok, the little and alive Mount Bromo and the grandest and the most majestic of them all, Mount Semuru!

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The three brothers

***

Back in the village, tired, sweaty and dirty, we bathed ourselves in the warm morning sun.

I had taken up the adventure, based on a map made by a stranger on a piece of paper. I had no clue as to how would it turn out for me. I had neglected the normal travel routes given in Lonely Planet and instead chosen the off-beaten trek, as I always did.

For me traveling was not about moving from one tourist attraction to another. It was about exploring the culture, the food and the landscapes and for that I was ready to get my feet a little dirty. I was ready to venture into the unknown.

“Need a break now. Beach, beer and some more sun”, Finn said smoking his millionth cigarette, looking at the traces of fog reluctantly fading from the town.

“Bali?” I asked.

“Bali!” he replied.

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