As a misty dawn began to break over the Tengger Sand Sea the figures started appearing.
At first it was a trickle, a few hardy souls briefly appearing before disappearing into the ether, but before long it became a deluge as more and more shadowy forms skulked past, some on motorbikes, others on horseback, but most on foot and all with a common purpose.
Their destination was Mt Bromo, an active volcano in East Java and one of Indonesia’s truly iconic images, and try as it might, the morning sun could not break through the smoke belching forth from its crater.
The day had begun in the early hours of the nearby village Cemoro Lewang. A convoy of jeeps raced across the flatlands, their passengers sitting silently, trying to gauge their surroundings as the impenetrable blackness raced by outside.
Before long they reached the viewing platforms of Mt Pananjakan where already a formidable crowd had gathered to take in the otherworldly grandeur of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park.
Below lay some of the conservation area’s volcanic inhabitants, seemingly emanating from the swirling fog itself: the collapsed crater of Mt Bromo, the dormant Mt Batok and in the far distance Mt Semeru, a gigantic cone rearing over the entire landscape, the constant plume of grey smoke, ash and stones rising from its peak reminding visitors of its destructive, and most definitely active, power.
A dense mist was already ebbing and flowing around the vast plain, bestowing upon the area a somnambulant quality, ideally suited to the park’s mystical atmosphere. As the crowds descended upon the volcanic sand sea the fog, if anything, had grown thicker as smoke continued to pump from Bromo’s crater. The outline of strange swirling forms could be seen in the distance, quickly growing and reconfiguring themselves before disappearing completely.
Finally though, the sun had finally broken through the cloud cover and despite the clear skies above a new challenge presented itself in place of the morning’s limited visibility: the unforgiving Indonesian humidity. Soon enough the exhausting climb up Bromo’s side slowed to a crawl as brows were mopped and water bottles downed in thirsty gulps.
In this state of semi-exhaustion, the landscape took on newer, odder dimensions.
Serene Batok, long since dormant, seemed to pulsate as it lay covered in casuarina trees, their verdant green swathes at odds with the surrounding shades of white and grey and somehow surviving despite the volcanic ash from its neighbour.
The impression was that of a long-forgotten alien moon, an effect heightened by the smoke pouring from great fissures at Bromo’s base, covering the jagged craters and extending out to the edge of the swirling sand sea.
After the final, lunging climb came to an end, it was easy for the visitors to stand overawed in the presence of these ancient monoliths. Under the gaze of the unceasing mid-morning sun, the volcanic trio offered only a glimpse into their ultimately unknowable natural power as the fog continued to move gently across the park’s floor.
(SJ says: Nice work, volcano correspondent. We’re not sure if we prefer this or the Lokon one. Does anybody have a preference?)