Mount Bromo: East Java

Visiting Mount Bromo, East Java’s premier tourist attraction, is soon to get a little easier and more comfortable — though only because a banker found facilities a disgrace.

Mount Bromo, the huge cone squatting like a boiling pot in a 10-kilometer wide “sand sea” of lava is a big money-spinner for locals and the government. It’s part of the 50,000-hectare Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park — a must-see destination as award winning journalist Duncan Graham explains.

According to official statistics, last year 65,000 people made the trek. About 25 per cent were overseas visitors, mainly from Europe, Malaysia and Japan.

The standard way to get there is to drive east from Surabaya for about three hours toward Probolinggo along the coast road, and then turn south.

At the villages of Ngadisari and Cemorolawang the hotels and guesthouses are set for pre-dawn trips in four-wheel-drive vehicles. These are organized to view the sunrise from a lookout at Puncak Penanjakan, 2,770 meters above sea level — and almost 400 meters above sulfur-smoking Bromo.

It would be ideal to add the adjective “clear” to the description above, but the truth is the chances of the vision splendid aren’t always that good, particularly during the wet season.

Fickle weather, clouds, rain and mist cannot be avoided — but the press of people, defective crowd management, the rubbish and graffiti-strewn lookout — these could all be controlled.

What should be a pleasant experience sometimes becomes an ordeal. Deliberately lit fires in the dry season obscure the view and set watchers choking as the smoke billows upwards.

Sigit Pramono, president director of Bank Negara Indonesia, followed the sunrise ritual last year, and found it wanting.

“I’m a keen photographer and I’ve seen many fine places overseas,” he told The Jakarta Post. “I think the Bromo-Tengger area is one of the most beautiful in the world.

“But the problems are the conditions — they’re very bad. So is tourism management.”

So he persuaded the bank to donate Rp 10 billion (US $1.14 million) to upgrade facilities at the lookout. Improvements include a new parking area, a better sightseeing platform, toilets and a general cleanup. Work is now under way and should be finished before the end of August.

“It took time to get through the bureaucracy even though we’re donating the money,” Sigit said. “The Tengger people need a quality tourist industry to supplement their agricultural economy.

“I hope what we’re doing will be an example of what can be done, and encourage others to help improve tourism. There should also be a book of photographs published to spread the word about this lovely place.”

However, the other curse of Indonesian tourism — rip-offs of unsuspecting visitors — look set to continue reinforcing the sweat-stained travelers’ credo: Do your own research.

For example there’s a much more interesting legal route into the national park than the heavily promoted northern access. The way in from the southwest offers tourists an opportunity to see people and places that have not yet been corrupted by commercialism.

This road turns east at Purwodadi (half-way on the highway between Surabaya and Malang), and then wends up the hill to the vegetable and dairy town of Nongkojajar. Many of the udderful Friesians you’ll see cudding by the kerb are from Australia.

There’s also another slow and pleasant back way into the park from Malang through Pakis and into Nongkojajar that’s a grand eye-filler. Few outsiders use this sealed road.

Apart from the opportunity to see rural life up close, there’s every chance of catching fairs and weddings, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays. These are staged by the locals and therefore the real thing.

From then on the journey through Tosari to the park entrance at Wonokitri and beyond is a knockout wonder.

For those who want to take it slowly there are low-cost losmen (inns) and a two-star hotel in Tosari with prices starting at Rp 375,000 a night.

Otherwise you can go there and back (from Malang) in a day.

Duncan Graham (