– By Greg Sutton, ETA in Gondanglegi, East Java –
It’s three in the morning and the Jeep is kicking up dust from the desert behind us. As the driver nimbly navigates the twists and turns up the mountain, I look down at the valley below. I can make out a long line behind us, a convoy of hundreds making their way up the precipice in the dark, pilgrims seeking solace from their daily routine. The beams from the headlights cut through the dust as they mirror the sky above us.
Yogi, our driver, is just a kid as far as I can tell. But the way he expertly drives up the mountain with a kretek in his right hand shows he has done this many, many times before.
The vehicle comes to a halt, and he steps out. “Milky Way,” he says, matter-of-factly, pointing up. I get out and look up: an expansive black canvas freckled with white dots, speckled with millions of constellations I never knew existed.
As we continue along the bumpy road, I shuffle our belongings around in an attempt to give more space to my companions. Leg room is a privilege here – there are nine of us packed into the Jeep. Being the people that they are, my Indonesian friends have left me with the most, and their contagious generosity has left me with a perpetual sense of guilt.
The women in our group wear bright orange and pink hijabs. Along with our neon blue Jeep, it’s one of the few colors from the pitch-dark evening that stick out in my mind. I can’t help but wonder if they coordinated in anticipation of the majestic sunrise. In any case, these warm colors hint at what is to come.
We arrive at 4:00 a.m. It is freezing cold. All along the hill, there are hundreds of Jeeps parked along the side of the road. Motorcycles, scooters, people are weaving through what has become a traffic jam. Some are sitting smoking cigarettes, others snacking or having drinks. Everyone is killing time as we await the sunrise. The top of the hill is noisy – Jeeps rumble along, motorcyclists honk, sellers advertise the names of sundries. You could impose the same scene on a busy parking lot before a concert and nothing would look out of the ordinary. But on the side of this mountain, after a three-hour drive squeezed in a rickety old Jeep, I know that today is no ordinary day.
After about an hour, we find a good spot above the throngs of tourists. We climb a steep ledge up a narrow path like awkward mountain goats, our ankles bend to accommodate the angle of the hill.
Sunrise. First, pitch-black all around us, and only a fiery ball of red in the distance. The sun peeks out from the horizon as if making sure it is safe to come out. It tosses lazy rays of light over the clouds, turning them a pinkish hue. Soon, the sun gains confidence and projects its power upon the world, rising high into the air. The landscape is saturated in warm hues of yellow and orange. Pink and purple flirt where the sky meets the horizon. Inspired by the brightness, the clouds seem to breathe, and everything comes to life. Having built trust with our surroundings, the valley below us slowly reveals itself, like an intimate secret.
The panorama is stunning. We are above the clouds, which roll sleepily over the hills in the distance. To our left, mountains stretch out for eternity as if to embrace Earth’s curve. To our right, the desert valley which we had traversed an hour before. Above the valley, I count four craters. In the distance, Mount Semeru, a hulking giant that dominates the entire horizon, casts a protective shadow over its little brother, Bromo. It is one of those rare sights that leave you speechless. We are on a viewpoint called “King Kong,” and it is not until the light floods into the valley that I understand how it earned this name: it is truly a view of mighty proportions.
Later, we will descend back down the valley in a caravan of rumbling Jeeps, leaving this beauty behind us. For the rest of my life, I will remember the beautiful warmth that this indelible experience has gifted me.
Video edited by Elena Dietz, ETA in Malang, East Java.