I climbed up a volcano!

We rounded off April with a quick trip to the Ijen volcano at the easternmost end of Java.

I must admit, I thought of Ijen with a little trepidation; by all accounts the climb was arduous, and I’m no climber even in my wildest dreams. Tried to build up my stamina over the week, but it was never gonna be enough.

We flew from Jakarta, via Surabaya, to Banyuwangi – a town bigger than I had anticipated. They seem to have caught the tourist bug in Banyuwangi, with no less than 36 festivals planned for the year, starting with the Festival Toilet Bersih (clean toilet); as good start as any! The weekend after we were there was meant to be an international Tour de Banyuwangi cycling competition. One of the most exciting aspects of this town is that the island of Bali is in plain sight, and just a ferry ride across.

Seaside at Banyuwangi

Cutting to the chase, we had arranged with our driver to start from the hotel at 11 p.m., which meant a quick nap in the evening was in order. The drive to the ‘base camp’ took about an hour, and as they hadn’t opened access yet, we were able to catch another hour of much needed sleep. At 1.30 a.m. the gates were opened, and we started our uphill walk with scores of other enthusiasts. The weather was surprisingly chilly, good thing we had warm jackets and scarves among the other essentials – headlamps, sturdy masks, walking shoes and camera with tripod!

I quickly realised the futility of trying to match speed with the others. The road surface is good, but the gradient is steep and challenging. I begged my friends to go on ahead and let me carry on with my barely-there pace. One step at a time, a pause after every hundred steps, if not to catch my breath then to rest the burning calves. It was a physical struggle for me, but the mind was determined, and as long as I was able to pause, there was no question of giving up. There were hundreds climbing, and once I saw that other groups also needed to rest and I was able to catch up with some of them, I was encouraged.

My guide was a patient young fellow who let me set the pace without any complaint. Once we got to the top of the crater,  however, he drew the line at letting me climb down into the caldera to view the blue fire from up close. That terrain is very rocky and uneven, and I would’ve probably spent half a day getting back up.  I did spot bits of the blue flame from that distance, but the mind’s eye can see bigger than the camera can capture.

Hike to Kawah Ijen

After shivering up there for a while, we decided to chase the sunrise instead. More climbing, then some walking along the rim of the crater, and I was ultimately rewarded with some spectacular landscapes. (Must click on the images to see larger views!)

The unique feature of Ijen is the sulphur miners, who trek into the caldera twice a day, and carry back 50-60 kilos of sulphur to sell in town, for a paltry sum of around $5! They stop for a rest at the 2 km mark, to weigh their loads, have a smoke and sell some of their catch to us tourists.

Climbing down was much easier than going up. My monopod doubled up as a hiking stick, to take the load off my knees.

Afterwards, we had a bonus visit to a nearby waterfall. Note how green the water is, from the high sulphur content.Hike to Kawah Ijen

Hike to Kawah Ijen

Hike to Kawah Ijen

And fresh honey from a beekeeper.

Hike to Kawah Ijen

And a foot massage back at the hotel.

Just Another Gorgeous Sunrise at Borobudur

Going to Jogja and not to Borobudur? Next to impossible! I believe I’d covered most of the angles of the largest Buddhist temple in the world, except the one where you watch the sun rise from behind Gunung Merapi, and the temple emerge from the misty landscape. The day after Dieng, Sara and I thought it wise not to waste too much time catching up on sleep, but to rouse ourselves at another unearthly hour to make the short drive to Puntuk Setumbu behind Borobudur.

The ‘safe’ driver and my awesome climbing speed ensured that it was a race against time to the top before the sun appeared. The hill is as cute as its name. For a change, the local villagers have claimed the site, added some rudimentary ‘just right’ development, access to which is a paltry sum of Rp 15,000 (about a dollar). That’s a far cry from the sunrise tour at Borobudur from the hotel which costs about $35! This spot has got popular; we had a good sized crowd of sun worshippers.

Sunrise from Setumbu

After the mild disappointment from the day before, we were rewarded for our patience with a bright sunrise.

The landscape is magnificent! Merapi, furiously puffing up clouds of sulphur towers over Borobudur, and everything else in the vicinity. It’s a humbling sight.

After the sun was up, we enjoyed those famous mint-chocolate brownie treats as a mini-breakfast. At which point this guy rolled his tobacco and struck a pose that was too good to resist. I don’t ever endorse smoking, but it does look exciting in a photo!

The Hotel Plataran en route to Setumbu offers good views of Borobudur and an even better breakfast spread. We had a bit of both.

As profiles and silhouettes go, here’s some food for thought.

Sunrise from SetumbuSunrise at Borobudur

The Beauty of Dieng

There are some places whose names stick in your brain and don’t budge until you’ve tackled them head on. Dieng plateau has been one of them. While I’ve been to Jogja and visited most of the temples around there, Dieng has stayed on my list of must-visit since almost a year.

Not so much for the temple ruins, but for the sunrise, Sara and I took the long way out to Dieng: by train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta, then by road onwards to Dieng in the middle of the night. I’m loving these long train journeys across Java, where you just have to get to the train station in the nick of time, and then sit back and relax for the next 7-8 hours. There’s a bit of thrill in packing a nice breakfast and lunch for yourself, and a few sinful treats, like Sara’s mint-chocolate brownie muffins. Trains leave from Stasiun Gambir, but none of the local trains halt here, so you must have a taxi to drop you off, especially if you are lugging multiple bags. It would’ve been brilliant to hop on to the local train to Tanah Abang, then change trains to stop at Gambir, but I don’t suppose the town planners had commuter convenience on top of their minds while designing the local transport systems.

We were destined to do this trip at an easy pace, with our Jogja driver not willing to go even a little faster than 40 kmph on the highway. The journey of about a 130 km took almost 5 hours (route). We stopped at the Dieng village to pick up a guide. Sunrise tours are popular here, it was no hardship to find a guide at 4 am!

We got to Gunung Sikunir, and headed off to the top of the hill. Sara was smart enough to have packed a head-lamp, which she planted on mine, coz I insisted on tripping over all the big stones. Hiker I am not, and we needed a number of breathing breaks on our way up. We did make it in time before the sun came out!

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

Though the sun sent out a ray from behind the mountain, it chose to stay out of sight, denying us a glamorous sunrise shot! The clouds and the mist swirling around the hills was a beautiful sight, and we had to get creative for our photos.

Whatever forest might have existed in this region before has now been cleared for plantation, potatoes mainly, and some other vegetables too. We drove around a little to catch some of the other sights.

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

There was another short walk up to spot the Telaga Warna (changing colors lake). Thanks to the absence of the sun, we could see just the one color.

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

There was a perfect spot from which to admire this landscape:

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau

As for the temples? Almost as an after-thought, we stopped over to see the ruins. There are only a couple of them left standing. What is most striking about these temples is their location, surrounded by the hills, enveloped in the mist. The ‘touristification’ of the site evokes mixed feelings in me. It’s nice to have access to facilities, but the aura is lost.

Sunrise at Dieng Plateau Sunrise at Dieng PlateauSunrise at Dieng Plateau

A hidden city tour in Jakarta

This year, I went on a second Hidden City tour with Ronny, having done the first one a couple of years ago in East Jakarta. This time we went to the more familiar and ‘touristy’ area of Kota Tua in North Jakarta, to meet some of the people that were impacted by the recent floods in the city.

Ronny and his team do a fantastic job taking you to places you might never venture on your own. No wonder that their tour is rated amongst the best in Jakarta.

Photo walk North Jakarta

Not the typical sights you would expect on a ‘tour’, but these are eye-opening. People live under bridges along the river, and everything they possess gets washed away every time there’s a downpour. They save their meagre possessions in surprising nooks and crannies, and what might look like a pile of trash to some might be another person’s treasure.

It gets reinforced time and again that the less ‘stuff’ you have, the less you have to lose. And it doesn’t cost a penny to smile, or to pose with attitude!

A day on a boat.. with plenty of time to sit and stare

Sundarban… The name entered my brain during a book club reading of The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh… and stayed there doing in some dark corner, doing nothing, waiting to be forgotten.

Then, with all the Kolkata planning, I thought, why not use the opportunity to travel a little further – Darjeeling? Sikkim? Agartala? Thanks to the internet, the mind can travel without any constraints. As it turned out, all my potential travel partners had to leave right after the wedding, and I only managed to convince my parents to stay on a couple of days longer, then frantically tried to find some places near Kolkata to visit.

That’s when (aided by Google and some other sites) Sundarban jumped right out from that cold storage of my brain right to the forefront. It made perfect sense to fit it in our West Bengal travel – Baba likes his art and architecture, so we had Shantiniketan – and Mummy likes nature and wildlife – Sundarban made just the right balance. There is only one good place to stay if you want any chance of spotting the Royal Bengal Tiger; that is the Sunderban Tiger Camp, situated inside the protected area of the forest. But, good luck with trying to get them to respond over a simple email from overseas. I had none.

Quick facts: Sundarban is a protected area of dense mangrove forests that straddles the south-eastern tip of West Bengal, India and parts of Bangladesh, and is one of the largest reserves of the Bengal tiger. It derives its name from the Sundari trees that are present in abundance in the region.

We settled for another tour company that were much more responsive. Their resort in the village bordering the Sundarban was neat and comfortable enough.

Tour around Sunderban

There’s no electricity in the village. The power in the evening comes from generators. And the villagers choose to use that power to blare long music all evening. It may have been a way to scare off man-eating tigers, now that I think about it. Not much crowd in the middle of the week, but we had some Baul geet entertainment until late at night. This kid seemed to be quite popular, he makes appearances on TV, and some of the audience had him sing requests too.

Tour around Sunderban

The first afternoon we set out to the Watch Tower, which was actually a tiger (protected) area. No tigers in the wild, a couple in enclosures, the less said about that the better.

Tour around Sunderban Tour around Sunderban

A disappointing start, but we had some lovely sunset views to enjoy.

The next morning, we set out earlyish, along with another family from the resort, on our boat cruise.

Tour around Sunderban

Tour around Sunderban

Our timing for visiting the Sunderbans was off, most of the animals are to be spotted early morning or evening, and we were wandering about in the middle of the day. We did see a few deer, monitor lizard, crocodiles from a distance, but for the most part we lounged on the boat, chatting and eating.

I wish I’d planned the excursion better, but as a means to bond with parents (who often complain that I’m forever running off), this one was perfect!

Tour around Sunderban

And as I was writing this post, I remembered a painting by Rabindranath Tagore. Was the scene above the inspiration for that painting, I wonder?

tagore4