On the 9th March, 1998 the Indonesian Rupiah fell 17% against the US Dollar. The Chinese Indonesian staff nervously glanced out the office windows as if anxious to start for home before the approaching storm. This was not however the monsoon season.
I was in Surabaya in Eastern Java on a fortnight’s business trip with two colleagues from Hong Kong. Initially we had been concerned with the effects of the devaluation of the Rupiah on the health of our business but soon there was a growing realization of the accompanying social and political effects. This led, two months later, to the horrific riots and politically motivated pogrom targeting Chinese Indonesians, of whom some 1,500 perished and over 160 raped. On 21st May 1998, after some 32 years in power, Suharto resigned. Many ethnic Chinese, who make up some 5% of Indonesia’s population, fled the country together with their wealth causing irreparable damage. Surabaya mercifully was spared the rioting.
These cataclysmic events however were yet to fully unfold and that March weekend, amidst the oppressive atmosphere, we decided to venture out to the countryside. Almost 50 miles south to be precise to the Tengger Caldera.
What an extraordinary place it is. An almost unearthly experience as we looked over the caldera from Mount Pananjakan. Within the caldera itself there are actually five volcanoes or technically “post-caldera cones”. These are surrounded by a vast area of sand called the Tengger Sand Sea, which in turn is surrounded by the steep Tengger Caldera wall. Mount Bromo (7,641 ft), Mount Batok (7,879 ft), Mount Kursi (8,233 ft), Mount Watangan (8,489 ft), and Mount Widodaren (8, 453 ft). Mount Batok is the only volcano that is no longer active, and is green in appearance being largely covered in grasses and Casuarina trees. On a clear day Mount Semeru can be seen to the south. At 12,069 feet this is the highest mountain in Java and is one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia. At the time of our visit clouds of volcanic ash and dust were billowing from its summit – an awesome sight.
I might add that whilst the heights are impressive, to a Brit certainly, very little climbing is actually involved in scaling Bromo. Before ascending Rinjani many years later our guide asked me where I had climbed before and one of the places I mentioned was Mount Bromo which he dismissed as being no trial of strength. Rightly.
Having driven almost all the way up to the Tengger Caldera rim at an elevation of about 6,700 ft you can hire a pony or jeep to take you down the caldera slopes and across the sand sea. Despite my fear of all thing equestrian I thought that the pony would be the more romantic mode of transport. We soon were trotting across the sand sea towards Bromo and Batok kicking up clouds of dust behind us. I’d like to think we were the image of misplaced gauchos on the high East Javan plain but really Scarborough beach pony ride would be more accurate. The scenery is utterly moonscape but with a blue sky. To add to the sureality of the environment a Hindu temple hove to view at the foot of the twin peaks. Then one arrives to the only bit of climbing, a 250 step path leading up the side of Bromo. The mountain was mercifully free of people on the day of our visit but it is heavily visited by the local Tenggerese. Workers mine the sulfur inside the crater – this surely must be included on anyone’s list of “The world’s most dangerous jobs” and there is a continuing tradition of throwing sacrifices into the volcano to appease ancient gods. Notwithstanding the danger, some furthermore risk climbing down into the crater in an attempt to collect or indeed catch the sacrificed goods.
At that fateful time in March 1998 we were standing on the brink and staring into the terrible abyss.