In the ring of fire

With such limited time as 4 months to visit Indonesia, the last place in the country where I would have spent at least one second is in Bali. The mere idea of going there gave me chills. It is for this reason then, that destiny put the nearest bike shop where to buy and replace the broken component of my bike, where? Precisely, in Bali. So from Labuanbajo, we took the Bukit Tilongkabila, heading to Denpasar, the island's capital. Those were the last 32 hours that we would have to spend on a PELNI on this journey and like all previous times, it was a PELNI experience like the one described in the previous posts. Getting off at the port of Denpasar, was like getting off in another country. If ever in history, Bali was a paradise, now certainly it is almost impossible to imagine. Our stay was limited to going from the port to the bike shop, and from the bike shop, we cycled 140 km west to cross to Java. We minimized this nuisance to just 10 hours only. Shortly after midnight, we were already disembarking in Banyuwangi, Java. It was time to go up to see the Earth breathing.

In the lungs of Hell

Indonesia is the country with more active and dormant volcanoes in the world. Seen from above on a map, the south coast which stretches along Sumatra, Java, Nusa Tenggara Islands and Papua delineates one of the edges of what is known as the "Pacific ring of fire". The concentration of volcanoes that exists throughout these islands is overwhelming and Java has some of the most spectacular ones. We had already gone through Kelimutu, Inerie and many others here. Now, it was the time to climb the Ijen, one of the most amazing places I've visited so far, and where one of the most inhumane tasks in the planet is carried out (I will devote the entry that follows to the latter).

Leaving Banyuwangi, there were just 34 kilometers until Kawah Ijen, at the base of the volcano, but out of those 34 km, 17 km were a very steep from 0 to 1600 mts of altitude. What a climb! it took us about 4 hours and there were some sections where we had to push up the 18% slope on the loose pebbles of brand new asphalt.

We camped at the foot of the volcano, we ate and later went to sleep at 6 pm. The alarm clock rang at 2 am and in the dark, with a very weak battery flash light, we started the 3 km climb up to the edge of the crater. About 45 minutes later, we were already standing on the edge, at 2300 meters. Seeing the void in front of our eyes was almost terrifying, an abyss of almost 1 km in diameter, smoke emerging from the Earth and the stars overhead. Now we needed to descend 800 meters among loose rocks, toward the acid lake at the base of the crater, on whose banks, the Earth reveals its entrails releasing huge clouds of sulfur. The descent was neither easy nor safe. It was almost complete darkness and the batteries of my head lamp were already pretty much drained. We had to go slowly, treading through the loose rocks, trying to find a stable point in which to step on, not only the slope was steep but also nothing could be seen except something very strange in the distance, at the bottom of the crater. It was the reason why we had ascended in the middle of the night: the blue fire. We were told, this phenomenon is only visible here and in Alaska, and it's really shocking. It is a very strange feeling to see blue fire coming out of the Earth, as if it were cooking stoves.

Meanwhile, the miners kept passing by, coming and going, extracting sulfur rocks. I positioned myself near them to document their work. Sulfur clouds were so thick you could simply not see through them. As long as the wind was blowing from behind me, the clouds would stay away, but at times, the wind would change its direction and, I would quickly become wrapped in them (along with the miners of course) and let me say, that I do not recommend the experience of breathing sulfur to absolutely anyone.

 Sulfur is highly toxic, when you breathe it you can feel your throat and lungs literally burning, as though you were smoking a 1000 cigarettes in one drag. Even when covering my face with the fleece I was wearing immediately, it would still be unbearable. My eyes would burn badly as well and they wouldn't stop tearing. The smell stunk. Again and again I had to try to get out of the clouds as soon as possible, but it was very difficult and dangerous for nothing could be seen, regardless of being night or day. Only the out-of-control coughing of the miners and mine could be heard. One, two, three puff and I would almost faint away. So I spent about 5 hours shooting while trying to avoid falling in the clouds of sulfur, but it was useless, wind would change and I would come in and out of them, it was strenuous and painful. As I will write in the next entry, the task of these men is inhumane. For me, it was only 5 hours, but they breathe and suffocate in sulfur every single day of their lives without having much choice.

As the sun rose, the greenish-turquoise acid lake would begin to shine, and the ground would reveal its yellowish color dyed by the sulfur. At the same time, the vertical walls of the crater showed infinite mineral colors of the Earth's crust, stretching one kilometer further above, up to the edge of the crater.

The feeling of being inside the crater of an active volcano is intimidating in itself, however it was days later, when we were already in Yogyakarta, when we learned that the volcano was in "Alert 3" level of risk of eruption, and experience that I happily thank to have missed. The way out of the crater was much easier in daylight, but that's also when one becomes fully aware of how dangerous it is to descend during the night. Once again back at the edge of the crater, looking down at the mouth of this breathing monster was an experience that has been recorded in my retina forever. 

Extra-planetary lands

As I was cycling down from Ijen, I realized that my condition was deteriorating, without a doubt, many hours of breathing the fumes of sulfur together with the chill of the night had had an effect on me. I felt my lungs shrunken like two wet tea bags, but we had no time to stop our journey, so we continued heading east on the way to a new volcano, this time, the most famous of all them. But to get there we first had to descend every single meter we had ascended , for there was no direct roads. At least, the road downhill was along some truly spectacular coffee plantations that extended infinitely in the horizon. 

Two very famous types of coffee we drink in the West have their origin here, Arabica and Robusta, to our delight, there were these small shacks in the middle of the plantations were they sold just brewed coffee for cents! It was a real treat for the senses. I haven't tasted such delicious coffee since Colombia back in 2005. The good coffee and weather helped me feel better but my health kept increasingly deteriorating. We finally lost all the altitude we had gained, cycled 40 km of flat road along the coast to later turn once again inland and start a new ascent, this time even harder and steeper. 25 Km of very steep slopes at approximately 18-20%. The morning before starting the climb I woke up with high fever and I felt terrible and my whole body was aching, but we did not have too much time left for our visas were expiring soon and we still had to get to Yogyakarta first in order to extend them.

Those who have been reading me for a long time know very well that I am a very tough nut to crack, and I was not going to miss the Bromo for this, so I decided to postpone falling sick, jumped on my bike again and pedaled uphill as I could. The high fever together with the tropical heat made me sweat my life away, all my bones were aching and my nostrils were fully blocked, but I had already decided I was not going to fall sick until using the very last drop of energy I had to get to the volcano. 

It took me a hell lot of effort, as I climbed higher and higher it began to get very cold and I was already soaked in sweat. I had to push very, very slowly, the last 3 km on a ridiculously steep slope took me forever. It took us the whole day to climb the 23 km that took us from 0 meters to 2230 meters.By the time I arrived I was torn to shreds, but instead of falling apart, the fact of having got there actually filled me with strength. When I saw the huge caldera from where the tiny Bromo volcano rises, surrounded by two other volcanoes that are at the same time surrounded by a desert , the setting was so freaking spectacular that for a moment I felt I had temporarily healed. A scenario so stunning that I could have contemplated it forever. The Bromo is the most popular tourist attraction of all of Indonesia, mainly among Indonesians themselves but also package tours of westerners. Sadly enough, this has fatal consequences for the village of Cemoro Lawang. Situated in the most idyllic location, right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the massive crater, it became a village of hungry sharks that all they want is to take as much money from you as possible, in the shortest possible time. Everything is blatantly overpriced, 10, 20, 30 times more the regular price and they are unforgiving. Since most tourists blindly pay these ridiculous steep prices ( still cheap for the average package tour tourist from the rich world), no shark will even accept bargaining to a decent price. As a result, everything has a price on this region. Those wonderfully photogenic old villagers walk around in all their appeal, and as soon as you approach them to engage in a conversation that would lead to a photograph, they will make the money gesture with their hands right away. No money, no photo, forget it. Why would they, when these days, thousands of Indonesian photographers flood the region and pay them for this "service"?. Therefore, I ended up leaving the place disgusted, without any single portrait taken, for I do not believe in paying for portraits.

The effects of mass tourism are despicable, destructive, local people turn into starving vultures hungry for money. We left this stinking town where they would charge you for breathing if they could, and pitched our tent on a remote trail, few kilometers up in the mountains. We woke up again at 3 am to start the trek up to the viewpoint and I felt relatively better already. We started the hike along a steep trail of mud in the middle of the night, to reach a viewpoint that it is not visited by the masses, who ascend by jeep paying a shit lot of money. It took us about two hours of climbing in the dark to get up there and find ourselves dazzled by the scenery. The views were simply memorable. Three volcanoes within the huge caldera, the desert and the "savanna" surrounding them and the whole crater also enclosed within the cliffs. No picture, no matter how great it is, can do justice to such a magnificent views, you just gotta be there to feel its power.

As dawn broke, the play of light and shadows became more and more dazzling, the clouds coming and going filled the whole place with mysticism. The Bromo, tiny but constantly smoking, the Kursi, the Batok and finally, right behind all of it, crowning the horizon with its 3676 meters, the Semeru. The views are priceless.

 The whole terrain seems to have been taken out of a sci-fi movie set. 

After contemplating the sunrise and having been left speechless, standing in awe at the beauty of this place, we set off toward Malang. Leaving the caldera was an equally amazing experience, on the way out we first took a detour to climb the Bromo crater, and then we had to cross the enigmatic Laotian Pasir desert. The experience of cycling in a desert at 2200 m of altitude, surrounded by volcanoes with extra planetary shapes, right in the tropics, is hardly comparable to anything else. 

 We cycled around the three volcanoes, first through the desert and then through the green mantle called "savanna". From there we climbed the slope out of the caldera until we got the junction with the 43 km downhill road that would lead us to Malang. The descent was no less steep than the previous day's ascent. At times, the steepness was such that both hands and tendons started to hurt badly due to the hard pressing of the brakes levers for so long. The scenery did not stop to amaze us.

In the Philippines, we had seen how, over the centuries inhabitants had masterfully sculpted the slopes of the intricate geography of the mountain range, in order to achieve flat farming space. Here, however, they saved all that work and planted everything right on the slopes, which are so vertical that when viewed from across the valley, one believes to be facing a wall, drawn with fabric patches at different angles and styles. It is hard to imagine how difficult it must be sow and cultivate in such vertical slopes. People is seen moving up and down around the crops, and it seems as though they were ants living in those glass boxes. I had never seen anything like this before.

In this incredible landscape of textured vertical walls we continued the long descent. The landscape turned later into thick jungle, full of colonies of monkeys jumping acrobatically up there in the canopy, making noises calling each other, and running away whenever we stopped to see them. We arrived at Malang at the end of the day and from there we started our way to Yogyakarta, to meet Sardi, our Indonesian friend who would sponsor us for our last visa extension. In the end, I never fell sick. Doctors recommend resting when one has fever, sore muscles, congestion, etc. My recommendation is: continue pedaling!