Accidentally Hiking in Indonesia

Alejandro Medellin

undefinedOur whole trip through Indonesia. From Surabaya to Ijen Crater Lake to Mount Bromo and finally back to Surabaya to fly off. Image captured on Google Maps. 

After traveling to Singapore only to fly off to Malaysia for four days, I was ready to see something other than skyscrapers and crowded streets. Malaysia was a whirlwind of shopping centers with brands that my sensible American eyes had never seen. Stores like Mont Blanc, Yves Saint-Laurent, and Tag Heuer were a few of those aforementioned brands. It’s true, we were staying in a rather swank part of Kuala Lumpur—the nation’s capital—and apart from feeling poor, it was as if I had never left the west. Where was the culture? I wondered.

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A view from the hotel we stayed at during our stay in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Petronas twin towers can be seen in the image. Photo credit: Sabrina Abdul Ghani

I needed to see the mountains. I wanted to experience the rich culture I had envisioned so many months before, and my wish was about to come true. Luckily, we were flying off to Surabaya, Indonesia from KL, which was a short and turbulence-free flight. (Quick side note here, I had never flown before leaving the states a week prior, and now I was on my third flight—I would end up flying five more times in a span of two weeks.) Arriving in Surabaya, the humidity was palpable, and before I could collect my luggage, my cotton shirt had already bonded to my skin. While my girlfriend and her family searched for our tour guides, I quickly scanned the area for any sign of cigarette vendors. After all, Indonesia has one of the highest smoking rates in the world, so it was not too hard to look for a pack of squares. Thanks to prior research— i.e., asking my girlfriend, a native speaker—I blurted out the word rokok, which is the Bahasa word for cigarette.

However, there would be no time to smoke once we found our tour guides. With bags loaded onto the van, we raced to the east end of Java to our first adventure. The road was pleasant, at least in the beginning, but before long, the heavily-trafficked streets of the city gave way to the narrow one-way country roads of rural Indonesia. We drove hard into the night, my stomach grumbling, aching for a bite of food—my beef jerky rations had vanished in between airports. We arrived in a small town somewhere up in the mountains at around 9 p.m., and Bayu, our tour guide, recommended a sit-down restaurant favored by locals.

The humid air from Surabaya was now gone, and instead, there was a brisk wind coming from the mountains. In the midst of our hunger we forgot to eat; instead, we feasted on dishes I will, unfortunately, most likely never have again. There was ox-tail soup, and a local fish grilled to perfection and dressed in a type of sweet barbecue sauce, and all manner of other things, whose names escape me. Our table, once big, now seemed small with the number of dishes strewn about

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The Indonesian contryside before heading up the mountains. Photo credit: Sabrina Abdul Ghani

It rained then, a soft, cool rain and we were back on the road again. After three more hours on impossibly-dark mountain roads, we reached our Air BnB. Our bungalow had two floors and a stunning bathroom that was both, indoors and outdoors. Showering in that bathroom felt like being in nature itself, bathing under a waterfall. It was a tragedy that we got there late and left so early. Our hosts, an Indonesian woman and an Australia man, offered us coffee and a pastry as we left. I thanked them through mouthfuls of both and, once again, were on our way to Ijen Crater Lake.

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A koi pond at the Air BnB we stayed at. Photo credit: Sabrina Abdul Ghani. 

Bayu had mentioned the night before that if we left earlier we could see the burning blue lights of the sulfur mines. But, we needed to sleep and three hours would not do any of us any good—it was hard to refuse, but our jetlag still plagued us. Declining that offer was my one regret of the trip.

In the morning we arrived at the foot of Ijen Crater Lake, and I had no idea what was going on. I thought it would be one of those monuments like the Grand Canyon where you simply drive up and take in the view. I was as wrong as I was unprepared.

This was when I first learned that we would hike up the whole way. As I took my first few steps into what would become a long day of firsts, I saw some people coming down the path. One of them, perhaps a German tourist, said to me, and me specifically, “good luck.” Though, what bothered me the most what was he didn’t say of the perils ahead. What he didn’t tell me, and neither did anyone else, was that the round-trip hiking distance was over 8 miles with 3,200 feet of elevation gain. On my feet, I had a pair of Adidas trainers I had just bought—they were still stiff—and I was missing every other key piece of gear.

One minute into the hike I knew it wouldn’t be an easy task. Apart from being unprepared and severely lacking in gear, I was, and am still, out of shape. My constant desire to sit down for a smoke break probably exacerbated my condition. Briefly, I wondered if I should pay one of the men that were hauling people up the mountain on makeshift carts—I decided against it. Such a load would have been too much for them, and, for my dignity. Eventually, I decided I would hike up the damn thing but at my own pace, with plenty of breaks in between.

undefinedThe author looking absolutely miserable at a rest stop along the trail. In hindsight, he admits that smoking was not the best way to recover. Image credit: Sabrina Abdul Ghani

After sweating through my shirt multiple times, and probably annoying the shit out of Bayu, we approached an encampment. My girlfriend and her family were calmly sipping tea as I sat down to catch my breath for three lifetimes. I learned that we were only halfway up the mountain and, against all my wishes, it would get steeper with some fun scrambling sections. Before ascending, I drank enough water to sweat out later, and I also had a coffee for performance—I would need it. Bayu, in all his graciousness, offered me one of his smokes—called a kretek cigarette, and popular in Indonesia—but the sweet clove was too much at the time. Eventually, they would become my favorites on the trip, and I would come to miss them once back in the states.

As we hiked further up, I could see, from our vantage point, the forest through light clouds, and the odd peak or two protruding along the vista. Sure enough, I thought to myself; nothing could top this view. As breathtaking as the view was, it did not detract from the arduous climbing ahead. We scrambled a few times, made way for other tourists, and occasionally stopped so that I could catch my breath—Bayu was a veteran of a hundred hikes by that point.

undefinedThis was about three-fourths of the way. Photo credit: Sabrina Abdul Ghani

undefinedThe peak was extremely foggy with sulfur at first. Photo credit: Alejandro Medellin. 

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The men in this image travel up and down the mountain to sell their loads of sulfur. Photo credit: Sabrina Abdul Ghani

undefinedJust take a look. As gorgeous as this image may be, it looked better in person. Photo credit: Alejandro Medellin. 

With aching legs full of lactic acid, I finally reached the top, and the air was thick with fog and an undeniable smell of sulfur. The men who carry sulfur down from the mines were there, and they inspected their loads, which they carried on baskets over their shoulders. As I got closer to the rim of the crater, I looked below and saw the lake of acid. I had not known what the lake would look like, and what I pictured in my imagination was inadequate when compared to the real thing. With blue waters that transformed into turquoise as the Indonesian sun hit the surface, it was indeed something to remember. There were also plumes of smoke wafting upwards from the surface that added to the mystery of the pulchritudinous lake. For a while, I sat transfixed and gazed upon a natural wonder unlike anything else in the world. When it was emblazoned into my memory, I snapped a few photographs, and we bought a small piece of solid sulfur, which sits on my bookshelf still.

With no equipment, hiking shoes, trekking pole, or special hiking socks, I had made my way to the top. My body, of course, would feel it in the coming days but in that moment,  I felt triumphant. Yet, with languid limbs, I finally put one foot in front of the other and left that place in hopes of coming back.

If I would have understood what the trip entailed I probably would not have gone, but I am glad to have done it. I had never really hiked before, and I had no longing to hike up a mountain, but thousands of miles away from home, I could feel myself pivot towards the outdoors.

A few days later we hiked through an undisclosed jungle on flip-flops to take in the view of a gorgeous secluded waterfall. We would see another waterfall after that, and camp out in the early hours to see the sun rise behind a volcano—we then proceeded to climb said volcano and look into the caldera and hear the deep guttural sound of the earth.

When I visit again, and I hope that is soon, my adventures will not be accidental.

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Our ride on our way to Mount Bromo. We still had to hike a considerable amount and climb up the volcano afterwards. Photo credit: Alejandro Medellinundefined

Don't remember too well where this waterfall was, but we hiked for about 30 minutes before getting there. In sandals. Photo credit: Alejandro Medellin. 

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Our tour guide, Bayu, and the author. A good dude for sure. Photo credit: Sabrina Abdul Ghani