A Great Escape to Java


Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park

A STORM IS BLOWING over the Tenggerese mountains, and the landscape looks a bit like a painting of Doomsday. Tungsten-grey clouds scud across a plateau of black sand; the forms of volcanoes appear with each flash of lightning and the echoes of mighty thunderclaps ping-pong around the craters. Seen in any kind of weather, this is a place to make a visitor feel rather small and ever so slightly vulnerable. But visited in a storm it is especially forbidding.

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Java is the most volcanic island in the most volcanic nation on Earth. Javanese volcanoes have toppled dynasties of kings and destroyed cities with their eruptions. Even today, their rumbles are read as messages from gods and their explosions have rattled the furniture on Indian Ocean islands some 3,000 miles away.

Deadly though they can be, these peaks are at their most eerily beautiful here, in Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park: a high plateau in eastern Java where a veritable supergroup of volcanoes aligns in a series of sweeping vistas. Dominating the horizon is Mount Semeru: the tallest peak on the island and the most regal-looking volcano of all. Almost as dignified is the retired Mount Batok, a marvellously symmetrical volcano long since dormant, swathed in mossy greens. And finally there’s the volcano that you can smell before you can see, the tantrum-prone Mount Bromo, sending plumes of pungent gases spiralling into the air.

Soon after scaling 250 concrete steps to the rim of Bromo’s caldera, walkers are hit by eggy-flavoured sulphurous clouds, setting the eyes watering and the throat wheezing. Fortunately it’s not long before the winds scatter the gases, and the crater is visible in the mist – a great steaming, belching hole that looks like it could be a highway straight to the Earth’s molten core. This is not a volcano to be taken lightly: roughly every 10 years, Bromo erupts, volleying ash and rocks over the surrounding area, and shutting down the national park to visitors.

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‘The eruptions are a blessing,’ says Harian Tokok, sitting atop his trusty horse, Manis, and adjusting his poncho in the driving rain. ‘The volcano makes the soil around here fertile, and the crops grow stronger. I know I am very lucky to work in such a beautiful and holy place.’

Harian is one of the Tengger, a Hindu people in predominantly Muslim Java, for whom Mount Bromo takes on a particular spiritual significance. Though Harian earns his living carrying visitors around the national park on his horse, he occasionally gets uncomfortably close to the volcano. The festival of Kasada sees Hindus climbing down into the crater to present offerings to the god they believe inhabits Bromo, an event as dangerous as it is spectacular. Participants inch their way down near-vertical slopes of loose scree to throw flowers, vegetables, money and (in moments of profound generosity) live goats into the big, steaming hole.

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Harian and Manis

‘I can only climb down three or four metres,’ says Harian (who prefers to offer flowers and vegetables rather than livestock). ‘And even then my knees are shaking. But in a way I know the volcano is always protecting me. It is looking after me wherever I go. I am never afraid of it.’

With a broad smile, he climbs aboard Manis and canters over the black sand and towards the billowing white clouds.

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Red Island Beach

Meru Betiri National Park

IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT IT IS better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Rarely is hope more necessary than when attempting to reach Meru Betiri National Park. The odyssey starts off deceptively easily, with paved roads stretching south from the town of Genteng, near Banyuwangi, passing twinkling rice paddies and villages of whitewashed cottages with shady verandas.

Then, bit by bit, the Javan jungle closes in. The road turns increasingly potholed, until at last it becomes one long, continuous pothole. The final and greatest hurdle involves fording a shallow river to reach the park office. At the peak of the rainy season (when water levels are too high for cars), transport comes in the form of an entrepreneur with a bamboo raft, an optimistic grin and wet ankles.

But the difficulties of getting here are worth it. All around is thick impenetrable jungle, a home to myriad species, including Javan hawk-eagles, reticulated pythons and wild boar. It was here the last footprints of the now-extinct Javan tiger were found (though some whisper the animal still lurks deep in the jungle). It is a place that steadfastly resists human exploration: forest footpaths are soon blocked by mighty tree roots that burst out of the ground, while the mocking calls of macaques sound from the swaying canopy overhead.

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Sukamade beach

Meru Betiri is one of the last chunks of wilderness on Java – the most populous island on Earth – and its inaccessibility is what has guarded its natural abundance. The park’s greatest treasure, however, emerges unexpectedly from the jungle just behind the ranger’s office: Sukamade beach, a glorious sweep of golden sand bookended by green headlands.

It is one of a great many spectacular beaches that stretch along this coastline; nearby is the surfers’ haunt of Red Island Beach, where colourful bungalows line the shores. Closer still is Teluk Hijau (Green Bay) – a sandy cove hemmed in by craggy cliffs. Both of these places see regular visitors. Sukamade, on the other hand, is often rather empty by day, but welcomes another kind of visitor by night.

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Suharto Hartono

‘Sometimes I recognise the individuals that come here,’ says Suharto Hartono, swinging idly on his chair in the midday heat. ‘However I am sure they don’t recognise me.’

For three decades, park ranger Suharto has worked as a midwife-cum-bodyguard for nesting turtles, which come here to dig through the night in cool sand to bury their eggs. Among them are the olive ridley turtle, the hawksbilll, the mighty leatherback and – most commonly – the space-hopper-sized green turtle. All species are vulnerable or endangered; Suharto is charged with catching the many poachers who come here to kidnap the turtles and sell them on until they end up in a soup in China.

Next to his office is the most important part of the conservation effort – the hatchery, where eggs collected from the beach are incubated until tiny turtles pop out. Inside, a handful of freshly hatched infants are frantically circling their sandy enclosure like wind-up toys. It won’t be long before they get their first swimming lesson: visitors can join rangers releasing these turtles at Sukamade, cheering babies on as they instinctively waddle into the foaming waves and salty spray of the Indian Ocean.

‘When I see these animals walking into the sea, I am optimistic about their future,’ says Suharto. ‘I often think about the great journeys they will make.’

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Outside the hatchery, Suharto points to a large map showing the turtle highways the infants will soon take – north through the Makassar Strait to the scattered islands of the Philippines, south to the technicolour reefs of Australia, eastwards to the remote coastline of New Guinea. And, one day, some of them will retrace their journeys through those same fathoms and leagues, dodging tiger sharks and trawlers’ nets, before returning to Sukamade to give birth to their own young.


IT IS EARLY ON A SUNDAY morning in Yogyakarta, and a small group of teenagers is assembling at the city’s 18th century palace. In a cavernous hall, they start applying colourful makeup and changing into elaborate costumes – beginning the transformation from 21st century adolescents with iPhones and One Direction hoodies to princes and princesses, demons and demigods from the earliest days of time.


Lesti Ana

Among them is Lesti Ana – a student and amateur dancer of six years, checking in a gold leaf-ornamented mirror to see if her makeup has smudged. She and her fellow dancers shuffle into the sunshine, and, before a small audience, perform the classical Javanese dance of the Ramayana – the ancient Sanskrit epic from India – the stage quickly turning into a mass of tiptoeing legs and twitching arms.

This transformation is a weekly event here in Yogyakarta, the place where Javanese culture is most strongly guarded. Yogyakarta has always been something of a maverick city. The capital for dynasties of powerful sultans in the 17th century, it fiercely defied Dutch colonial rule and still has a special political status in Indonesia – a sort of nation-within-a-nation. A walk reveals that much has changed since its heyday, but many rhythms of life continue: cycle-rickshaw drivers peddling through monumental gateways; squares where the smell of sizzling satay drifts through the air. It is also a place where traditional Javanese crafts thrive – most notably batik, the art of fabric dying – but silversmiths, puppet makers and basket weavers also ply their craft in and around the city.


The city’s cultural headquarters remains the sultan’s palace: a jumble of whitewashed courtyards, shady gardens with corridors full of ticking grandfather clocks, ceramic pots and Grecian urns. Still inhabited by a ruling sultan (who can periodically be spotted cycling around Yogyakarta) the palace is administered by his small brigade of elderly volunteer retainers – a sort of Dad’s Army of personal protection – all of whom sport turbans and carry large knives (though a few confess to never having unsheathed them).They oversee a busy schedule of performances here: singing, poetry recitals, gamelan music (Javanese percussion) and traditional dancing.


A palace retainer

Today’s performance comes to a close, and the members of the dance group step back into the hall, slowly transforming back into ordinary teenagers.

‘It’s very tiring to dance,’ says Lesti, who has just played the lead character of Sita, as she slurps from a cup of tea. ‘You need a lot of energy, you must practise twice a week and you learn to be comfortable with the heat under the costume. But we do it because it is important we preserve our traditions in Java. Otherwise we will forget where we come from.’



BOROBUDUR IS THE world’s biggest Buddhist temple – a religious monument on the scale of Cambodia’s Angkor, Burma’s Bagan or India’s Taj Mahal. According to Buddhist belief, its shape symbolises the order of the cosmos: its uppermost echelons are said to represent the state of nirvana. So it is rather peculiar to think that many people’s first experience of this place involves squinting at their own feet.

In the hours before dawn, a trickle of visitors stumble through the gloom, up the higgledy-piggledy steps to the top of the temple. Occasionally, the lights of torches drift to pick out a detail from the blackness: a growling lion, perhaps, or a bas-relief of a Javanese ship on a stormy sea. Only when they reach the top does everyone look up, and the performance begins. First the eastern horizon turns a violet hue, and bats can be seen circling about the dawn sky. Then the silhouettes of stupas emerge, cascading in rows down to the foot of the temple. Lastly, the sun’s first rays clear the horizon, and the grey mass of Borobudur is fully revealed: a two-millionstone monolith dwarfed by two volcanoes that flank it – Merapi and Sumbing.

Unbelievably, for much of Borobudur’s history it lay abandoned, thanks in part to said volcanoes. Thought to have been built from 750–840 AD by a dynasty of Javanese Buddhist kings, Borobudur was forgotten soon after completion when Islam took hold across Java. Buried by volcanic ash and overgrown with jungle, the temple was only rediscovered in the 19th century, beginning a period of restoration that has continued in fits and starts to the present day, despite being interrupted in the past by episodes of state-sanctioned looting. The effects of this looting are still apparent. Right across the temple are hundreds of decapitated Buddha statues, their heads now looking out at museum walls from London to Bangkok.

But Borobudur’s greatest treasures remain intact: its meticulously carved bas-reliefs. Some show scenes from the life of Buddha, others vignettes of ninth-century Javanese life: kings and deities, elephants and courtiers, the subtlety of their expressions undiminished by centuries underground in the company of earthworms.


A half-hour drive north from Borobudur, through a landscape of rice paddies and meandering rivers, takes you to the town of Magelang, where the tradition of stone masonry continues.

‘The carvers at the temple were skilful,’ says Suseno, a stone carver of two decades’ experience, currently working on a scale replica of a bas-relief at Borobudur. ‘I wish my copies were as good!’

Though Suseno is a Muslim like most locals, he often visits Borobudur to find inspiration – the structure has become a symbol of Javanese identity for Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus alike.

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Suseno at work

‘I see the temple with the eyes of a stone carver,’ he says. ‘Every time I visit I will see something new.’

Suseno says the rock he works with is volcanic, the same basalt quarried by the builders of Borobudur centuries ago. They too would have spent months tapping away until figures emerged from the grain. And it is the same basalt formed aeons ago from lava flows, born out of the volcanoes that rumble all over Java. Their summits still loom over the holy stones they once created.