2011
07.15

As a landscape and travel photographer, I strive to produce images that capture the incredible beauty of our planet and motivate people to visit and protect these places. I believe that photography has the power to implant images in our brain that will stay with us forever.  I know this is true because it is the photographs I have seen which inspired me to travel halfway around the globe just to see the wonders of the world with my own two eyes.  So there is hardly a feeling in the world that brings me more satisfaction than standing before a scene of limitless beauty and hearing the snap of my shutter, knowing that my photo might motivate someone else to make the same trip one day.

As a young man, such inspiration was derived from the pages of National Geographic or the work of photographic masters that hung on the walls.  But in today’s interconnected world, the power to inspire each other can be as simple as the click of a button or a post on our Facebook wall.  No longer must we be masters of our trade or highly acclaimed to bring the beauty of our planet to those around the world.  Though a harsh realization for those, such as myself, who strive to make a living in this trade, the greater importance lies in the fact that never has it been easier to motivate a worldwide audience towards awareness and conservation.

The inspiration for my recent visit to the island of Java in Indonesia came not from an acclaimed magazine, but from a photo that I had seen posted online back in 2006.  It was not made with high-end gear or fancy equipment, but instead was a portrait of my friend taken with a simple point-and-shoot camera.  Yet, it was a scene of such incomprehensible beauty that it has stayed in my mind for more than five years.  At the time I could hardly believe it was real.  How could such places even exist, I wondered, and how far must I travel to see them myself?

My answers lie in the country of Indonesia, a vast archipelago of over 13,000 islands that straddles the equator between Malaysia and Australia.  At 1.92 million sq km, Indonesia makes up 10% of the world’s forest cover and contains no fewer than 129 active volcanoes- more than any country in the world.  Indonesian’s refer to their country as Tanah Air Kita (“Our Earth and Water”), as the nation is made up predominantly of water, with coral reefs among the world’s richest, harboring four times more species than those of the Caribbean.  Yet, the landscapes that do exist are of such incredible natural diversity that it is simply staggering, from the jungles of Borneo to the snow-capped peaks of Papua and the sandalwood forests in Sumba to the vibrant rice paddies in Bali and Java.  There are dragons on Komodo that grow up to 3m (10ft) long and can weigh in at 100kg (220lbs) and orangutans in Kalimantan with faces so expressive that their name in Malay means “person of the forest”.  One could also find rhinos, tigers, tree kangaroos, and the world’s largest flower, called Rafflesia.  All in all, Indonesia is more a continent than a country and one could spend a lifetime discovering all the country has to offer.*

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Unfortunately, we would only have a few weeks to sample Indonesia so we were forced to focus our efforts on a small fraction of the country and save the rest for another visit.  The three months we had already been traveling would hardly suffice for a visit to Indonesia and our goal was not so much exploration this time around, as rest and relaxation.  We were desperately in need of a break from our travels and we discovered the solace we were seeking on the sun-soaked Gili Islands.  For 11 nights, we savored a paradise of beachfront bungalows, turquoise-tinted waters, and sandy streets free of motorized traffic.  It was the longest I have ever stayed in one place in all my travels and even when we managed to pull ourselves away, I was still hardly prepared to leave.

View from Gili Trawangan at sunset in Indonesia's Gili Islands

Yet, still that image hung in my mind and beckoned me on, fueling the motivation that I desperately needed to escape my island paradise.  A direct boat from Gili Trawangan carried us back to Bali, an island so choked with traffic and tourists that even one night was more than I was ready to bear.  Thankfully, the next morning a short plane ride carried us on to the island of Java, the so-called heart of the Indonesian nation, where smog-choked cities co-exist with scenes of breathtaking natural beauty, such as the one that I had so long waited to see.  Our destination was East Java’s biggest attraction, Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park, where tourists come to view the same extraordinary volcanic landscape that I had first seen in that photo five years prior.  Though there was a wealth of other locations that I longed to explore, this was the one place in Indonesia that I refused to leave without seeing.

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Most travelers make the easy side trip to Bromo from the main backpacking highway that runs between Bali and Yogyakarta, on the island of Java.  However, with limited time, we chose to approach Bromo from the city of Surabaya, the capital of East Java.  Surabaya offers little in the way of attractions, but its international airport has direct connections to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur (as well as other destinations), making it an ideal hub for quick trips to and from Bromo-Tennger-Semeru National Park.  From Surabaya, trains and buses travel regularly to Probolinggo, the usual jumping off point for trips to Bromo.  We were hustled from the airport to the bus station and within minutes we had departed on a direct bus to Probolinggo, making for an easy and straightforward trip; though the last leg of our journey would prove far more difficult and frustrating than we ever expected.

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In typical Asian style, the bus “conveniently” dropped us in front of a Probolinggo travel agency where they were eager to book the next week of our trip for an exorbitant cost.  As seasoned travelers, we declined their offers for transportation, hotel and jeep tours, confident that we could make such plans on our own for cheaper costs.  So we made our way to the bus station where Colt vans make the hour-long trip to the village of Cemoro Lawang, gateway to Bromo-Tennger-Semeru National Park.  Unfortunately, these vans only depart when they are full and hour after hour we waited while other passengers trickled in.  The driver was adamant that he would not leave until the van was full and after three hours of waiting, we remained on the side of the highway while the sun was setting, though we were only short one passenger.  Frustrations eventually boiled over and soon we all gave up hope, some hiring motorcycles to carry them the remaining distance and us retiring to a hotel in town.

The next morning we found the same van and driver waiting and again we were forced to wait.  It was nearly three hours before we finally started towards Cemoro Lawang, almost a full day since we had arrived in Probolinggo.  To make matters worse, the driver began picking up local passengers for short distance rides and even stopped to haul a load of coconuts.  I was thoroughly enraged by such an incompetent system that would delay us nearly a full day of travel and, in hindsight, I would recommend travelers to arrange transportation to Cemoro Lawang.  Also, there are few hotels in the village and, especially during high season, their rates are expensive so it might benefit you to make reservations beforehand.

The village of Cemoro Lawang is situated at the lip of the vast Tengger crater which is a flat, desolate landscape that stretches 10km (6mi) ringed by steep walls and mountains.  From this sea of sand rises three distinct peaks, including the fume-belching Gunung Semeru and, most notably, the smoking cone of Gunung Bromo, often referred to as Mount Bromo.  It is this trio of peaks rising from the crater floor which forms the other-worldly supernatural beauty that is Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park.  From the village one can stand high above the valley floor on the crater’s edge and gaze down into the volcanic wonderland while the active Gunung Bromo spews forth plumes of thick black smoke almost continually, night and day.  In fact, several of the hotels offer fantastic views of this extraordinary scene with views of Bromo directly out your hotel window.

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The sight of Bromo from the village is impressive, but it is the views from the surrounding mountains for which so many tourists come.  The best way to experience Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park is by visiting these overlooks at sunrise when the early morning sun casts an unforgettable light across Bromo, the Tengger crater, and Gunung Semeru.  Travel agencies in Probolinggo and hotels at Cemoro Lawang can arrange for 4WD jeeps which carry 6 passengers each, departing at 4am in a long train of dust and lights and climbing the switchbacks to the first of two overlooks.   Especially during high season, it is a somewhat ridiculous sight with countless jeeps scrambling for roadside parking and dumping hundreds of passengers in the dark to continue up a steep and narrow trail to a viewpoint, known as Gunung Penanjakan.  It is about a 30-minute climb from the parking area to the overlook and though horses are available to hire, I urge you to do yourself a favor (and everyone else) and harness your own strength to make the climb.  I guarantee you it is well worth a little exertion and will help to keep your body warm when temperatures can be very cold before sunrise.  Alternatively, it takes between 1-2 hours to make the hike from Cemoro Lawang to the overlook, but you are forced to follow the same road, thus choking on thick clouds of dust (both there and back) from the endless line of jeeps.

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The scene at Gunung Penanjakan is quite a spectacle with hundreds of tourists jockeying for space and vendors serving food and drink under the light of glowing lamps.  There is constant chatter and little space to sit or place a tripod if you arrive too late.  Personally, on my next visit, I would attempt to locate a guide who could take me to a view free of such a distracting crowd.  Nevertheless, as the sun begins to peek over the mountains and the light touches down upon the volcanoes, the annoyance of the crowd is quickly lost in the beauty of the scene unfolding before you.  On the morning of our visit, under the light of a full moon, the park was easily visible well before sunrise and a thick sea of clouds blanketed the crater through which the volcanoes rose.  It was an unbelievable sight before the sun had even rose, but when the light touched down upon Bromo and Semeru, it was as if we were looking upon the landscape of a distant planet.

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The sun had risen around 5:30am and thirty minutes later we were due back at our jeep.  Crowds had begun to filter down, but I still could not pull myself away from the overlook.  An ocean of clouds filled the bowl of the crater pushing against its lip like a surging tide.  The three peaks that emerged from this white, puffy sea were bathed in the beautiful glow of early morning light.  Gunung Semeru towered in the distance emitting occasional puffs of smoke while Bromo’s crater filled the air with thick smoky haze.  It was an other-worldly scene, just as remarkable as the photo long stuck in my brain, and though the light was still good, the time had come for us to leave.

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The second half of the tour comes when a long line of jeeps continue down the lip of the caldera and across the crater bed, nearly all the way to a Hindu temple at the foot of Bromo and Bator.  It is about a 3km walk (or horse ride, if you choose) across this bizarre moonscape and up a flight of 253 steps to the lip of Gunung Bromo.  Access to the crater rim is determined by the ranger on a daily basis, but if conditions are deemed safe, you can hike up to the rim and peer directly into the depths of Bromo.  It is an eerie and somewhat unsettling experience standing upon a precarious, sandy edge with no protection from plummeting to certain death, except your own good senses.  Invariably, people have died here and, personally, it is not a place that I would bring my kids, though many do.  That being said, if you are careful and mindful of the risks, it is an exhilarating experience to stand upon the lip of this active volcano and watch as it spews forth thick smoke and ash.

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During my visit to Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park, my thoughts often drifted back to that photo I had seen so long ago.  I could still picture every detail of the landscape and the caption with the words, “Mount Bromo”, forever ingrained in my mind.  I had known little more than its name or the country in which it stood, but I had promised myself that one day I would visit such an unforgettable place.  Finally, five years later, I had fulfilled that dream and it had been even more spectacular than I imagined.  Now, I can only hope that my photographs will spark the same desire and dream in somebody else and a circle of sharing will continue to that will help to preserve another of the world’s natural wonders,  Indonesia’s Gunung Bromo.

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*Excerpts cited from Lonely Planet

3 comments so far

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  1. Kyle, you just keep amazing me with your blogs and photos to go with them. Thanks so much for keeping my travel dreams alive and still going. I know that as soon as we can, Lori and I will start on our adventures. I am so happy that Rachel has had the opportunity to experience what I have always dreamed of. We can wait to see you guys again and hear first hand all about your travels. take care and God Bless.

    Adolfo and Lori

  2. First shot is greatness. . .

  3. These absolutely rock Kyle. Thanks for pointing me towards it. Hopefully I can fit Bromo in (I have 2 more weeks in Indonesia before Singapore and Malaysia). Nice work.