Friday, 17 February 2012

Gunung Bromo

You say it's your birthday
It's my birthday too, yeah
They say it's your birthday
We're gonna have a good time
I'm glad it's your birthday
Happy birthday to you.
                                   -The Beatles

We left Jogjakarta on the 15th January, destination Gunung Bromo on the island of Java to witness one of the most spectacular natural sites on earth...sunrise over the highly active volcano; Gunung Bromo. A lunaresque landscape of epic proportions and sureal beauty, it is said to be one of Indonesia's most breathtaking sights. Mount Bromo is just one of three ancient peaks to emerge from a vast caldera, the Tengger Massif which stretches 10km across, its steep walls plunging down to a flat sea of lava and sand. Bromo sits closely by Java's largest mountain, the fume-belching Gunung Semeru, which stands a mammoth 3676m. This smoky cone oversees Bromo's supernatural beauty and the entire vocanic wonderland forms the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park.

We set off early from Jogyakarta; it takes over 12 hours to drive east to our destination and so I was prepared with my ipod fully charged and my superb book...'Once an Eagle'. The journey was fine, we arrived at a small village around 8pm, it was very dark by now as we were out in the sticks, in the shadow of the giant mountain range. We booked our Jeep for the morning, got our accommodation sorted and then got into a more suitable vehicle and drove up into the mountains to our accommodation. It's a strange feeling when you are driving in the pitch dark, unaware of your surroundings, your sense of hearing more in tune trying to make sense of the world around you, listening intently...especially to the lower gears roaring and groaning, determined to negotiate each steep incline.  It was a bumpy ride, an English guy next to me was trying to eat some noodles, but unfortunately dropped them all over his bag...pity the smelt lovely. After about 40 minutes the jeep came to a halt. I noticed the condensation on the windows, the air from the peoples was cold up here. I jumped out of the 4x4, a little short of breath and the cold hit me straight away. We were over 2000 meters high and the clouds hung over us like a giant piece of cotton wool. I had to laugh as I was totally unprepared...I had a pair of skimpy shorts on and t-shirt. It was so quiet it was unnerving but so peaceful. It was a very eerie feeling to be up here away from all the world, away from everyone. We got to our accommodation and it reminded me of Dolly Hall the only difference being, we had a squat toilet. We got changed in to our arctic clothing, had some supper, bought a hat off one the locals and set the alarm for 3:30am...fully clothed ready for bed and an early start.

It's always hard getting up, but, once you are up its worth it and I was full of anticipation and excitement at watching sunrise over Mount Bromo. The jeep took us over very bumpy ground to Gunung Penanjakan (2770m) we got out and walked for about 40 minutes to the view point. From here you get the best views of sun rise over Bromo, the Tengger crater and towards smoking Semeru, which as I was to find out is spellbinding. At the top we waited for sunrise, due for approximately 5:20am. Everyone is waiting in anticipation, but its so dark you cant see a thing. Slowly more light shines through like some one is slowly opening the blinds...tantalizing you. Then, you get a glimpse, an outline of features, which grows until you begin to make out this desolate, barren, primitive landscape that has a distinctly end of the world feeling. About 6:30 we drove the short journey to the Bromo and walked up 253 steps to it's crater and gazed into the guts of this giant beast, a highly active volcano that last erupted only 6 months ago.

Sunrise and the whole experience of visiting this ancient volcanic range was spellbinding, but words can't always describe or even justify what you want to say. Therefore, I have put a series of pictures in chronological order from around 5am to 7:30am to let the pictures tell the story of one of natures most dramatic and beautiful visions. As they say; 'a picture paints a thousands words'...It was an unforgettable birthday...just don’t ask how old I am.

Sitting on the crater of Bromo

"It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves"
                                                         -Edmund Hilary

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Four Countries in Seven Days

After New Year we traveled to Krabi Town, rested up for a couple of days and booked our bus out of the country for new pastures further abroad. In less than two weeks we would journey hundreds of miles from Thailand to Indonesia, using every type of transport available to us and feel near exhausted by the end of it. By  the time we got to Jogjakarta on the island of Java, Indonesia, we were in much need of some rest and recuperation. It was during this leg of the journey, that for the first time I really did feel a very long way from home.

We left Thailand on the 5th January by coach destined for the capital of Malaysia...Kuala Lumpur. We arrived there at 3am and went straight to McDonald's for a early breakfast (Why Not?) and waited there until after 6am...this way you don't have to pay for that nights tip. Most travelers refer to the capital as, KL. To Malaysians the city is much more than a capital, it is there monumental achievement, their economic flag ship,  a thriving metropolis, a symbol of their ingenuity and determination. And there is no better  visual example of this here than the massive sky scrapers that dominate the sky line including the record breaking Twin Petronas Towers. They stand at 452 metres tall and are truly breathtaking to behold. The weather was great while we there, and we spent a few days walking around the city, window shopping and eating some lovely Chinese and Indian food. There is so much cultural diversity here, especially the thriving Chinese and Indian community; hustle and bustle, heat and energy, a common theme during the next two weeks of travel through this part of south east Asia's multicultural cauldron of life.

The Petronas Towers
The Twin Towers

Melaka was our next destination in Malaysia. It’s only a short bus journey south to the coast and you arrive at a very different part of the country…artistic and tolerant, diverse and multicultural, small and manageable; it has a stress free vibe that has so much to offer. I prefer this type of place rather than the big cities, it feels more personal and the people are often more friendly. Chinatown is Melaka’s most interesting and scenic area and of a night especially during the weekend it comes alive with music and dance, beautiful lights and colours and has one of the best markets located on Jonker Street. We stayed right in the heart of Chinatown, in a cool little guest house called Jalan Jalan and spent a few days exploring this little gem.
Notice the distance from Melaka to London

Who's the Daddy? Outside the statue of Malaysia's strongest man
The ambiance at night in beautiful Melaka
Many travelers have said two things to me about Singapore whilst I have been on the road. One it’s very expensive and two the city is that clean you can eat your dinner off the floors. Well I will be honest with you I never saw evidence of the latter; it was a clean city, that is true but nothing special and personally why would anyone in there right mind eat there dinner off the floor. We arrived into the city on the 9th January and went in search of accommodation. If eating off the floor isn’t true (and again, why would you?) being overly expensive, it well and truly is. One night’s accommodation in Singapore cost the same amount of money as one weeks accommodation in any other of the previous South East Asian countries…and were only talking about basic hostels here in Singapore.  On a positive note the city has a special vibe that is created by the mix of Indian and Chinese heritage intertwined with 21st century culture, architecture, most notably it's massive skyscrapers, a symbol of business, commerce and economic power. The best way to explore a city in my opinion is the good old fashion way…walking. If I had a pound for every mile I have walked in 2012 I would be a rich man, however the down side is by the end of the day your legs feel like they have done a marathon. But, by walking you don’t miss anything; you can stop and speak to people, try street food and find hidden gems you would otherwise miss if you took another form of transport.  The city comes alive of a night; it transforms into another city, very modern and futuristic in both  rich colour and sound. The skyscrapers dominate, like a man made mountain rage, summits competing with each other, not only in height but with egos in this eccentric economic age. We sat by the dock and gazed at this spectacular sight for ages, watching the city reflect into the calm waters; a very modern age but with a strange primeval ghost still retained in it.

We originally planned to get the boat to Jakarta, Indonesia but after further research we discovered it was not a passenger boat but a cargo liner, it would take 31 hours  to get there and only 2 days before one ship had sunk in the middle of the sea. With that in mind and  with Laura panicking like we about to book onto Titanic 2, we decided to book a cheap flight that would only take 1 hour 30 minutes and would be a hell of a lot safer.

Stunning architecture day and night

Singapore comes a live at night
Sitting on the harbor in awe at this beautiful neon lit skyline
We arrived at Jakarta airport the capital of Indonesia late on the evening of the 12th January. We got a tuck tuck into one of the backpacker areas, booked into a dodgy cheap little room and decided to book on a train out of the city early the next day. Jakarta is a big capital, similar to Mumbia in that its big, populated and polluted. I remember sitting down in this smokey bar late the first night after all that travelling, got a beer and sat back and looking back at me was a picture of The Beatles in their prime, 1964; just when you need a little bit of home comfort, the best band in the world from my home city is shinning down on me...'love you yer yer yer'. We left by train at 6am the next morning to Yogyakarta, and it was during this eight hour journey that for the first time I felt a long way from home. 

The journey was fine, we felt safe as the people here are really friendly, however that doesn't stop you padlocking your rucksack up and fastening it to the overhead rail. But, on this journey I just had this feeling of discovery, like I was another planet for the first time, a feeling that seemed to grow with every mile. Perhaps it was the number of new sensations my receptors where all at once exposed to, bombarded with, forced to make sense of this new and curious world. We where the only foreigners on the train, a great feeling, sometimes a little daunting but a challenge since you have to learn a little of the language...I actually learnt a lot of Indonesian and the people are so appreciative of this, it gets you along way in a foreign land. The train stops every few hours,and when it does a dynamic floating market comes aboard selling everything from exotic foods and coffee to silk scarfs and carpets. Poverty is all around you. People playing out of tune Guitars sing and serenade you, women carrying young infants malnourished and tired looking seek your money, beggars mostly children sweep the floors around you, people from all directions put a solitary hand out and deliver you a piercing dejected look that never fails to pulls at my heart strings. All this energy and commotion and noise. And then the train gently begins to move off and this market of beggars and hawkers disappear like ants leaving you to anticipate the next stop a little more educated in how to avoid eye contact and avoid any unnecessary emotional guilt.

I love the rhythmic movement of the train, its therapeutic...relaxing. The biggest change of the train journey was the landscape. Ancient volcanic mountains, grey and black strike out of the ground like giant broken teeth in the distance set against a mixture of barren and fertile lands.  Small villages and towns pass us by, men and women can be seen working this land...I wonder what there life is like out here in this wilderness? It's rainy season again, so the clouds sang grey and stormy against this back drop. I like to spend some time standing by the door of the train. Its not like England, the trains are primitive here and the doors are open. With the cool air in your face, looking out at this spectacular landscape is an unforgettable and timeless.

One incident made me laugh on the train. I was making my way back to my seat and there was a few children with their mothers playing, so I said hello and was trying to make them laugh making faces and funny noises as you do. Well they all started crying, one child even ran away from  me screaming. Was it because I was different? Yes...but it was probably more to do with the fact that I was sporting long hair and a big scary beard. Well it made me laugh to think how ironic it was, to think that it was the English children over two hundred year ago who were afraid of the Indonesian people, the so called 'Bugis' people. These warriors had a fierce reputation for being barbaric sea faring wanderers, and it was said that European sailors should beware of the 'Bugis man' during voyages. Maids of families during European colonialistion of the 'spice lands'  told this story to young children in bed time stories to make them behave, hence the saying...'Beware of the Boogie Man'.

What a journey. We arrived in Yogyakarta late in the afternoon and spent 4 days recovering, eating good food, visiting markets and  exploring temples. I even exchanged places with a Tuck Tuck driver just to give him a break from all his hard work on his bicycle. We stayed in a great little place called Utar, a family run guest house who's owner was the secretary of President of Indonesia. We booked  our trip to Gunnung Bromo, a very active Volcano to witness sunrise on the crater at over 3000m above sea level for none other than my birthday; the 16th January...what a present I had in store for myself!!!

Me and the Secretary for the President 

Exchanged the Tuck Tuck driver a well earned break

Which way mate?

The realisation that I had bitten off more than I could chew