Having my kids stand on the rim of an active volcano had been my idea, but I was rapidly losing confidence it was a good one. After a magical solo visit to East Java’s famous Mt Bromo a few years ago, I’d had it in mind I’d love to bring them. The chance came up, and here we were. But things weren’t as I remembered.
The thrilling but unthreatening white smoke plume of my last visit was replaced by a thick, stinking sulphurous cloud. The mountain itself — silent before — was roaring like a jet plane. There were so many tourists crowding the thin path around the crater it seemed like one wrong encounter with a backpack could send you toppling in. The stairs and railing that were in pristine condition just three years were disturbingly damaged from eruptions since.
All those school and backyard projects over the years — neat diagrams of magma, vent, lava sketched on cardboard; eruptions of bicarbonate and vinegar, sand and water — had not quite prepared me for the fact volcanoes are volatile and deadly. Watching my kids peer into an angry crater fixed that.
So after months of plotting to get them there, within minutes (minute, singular, if I’m honest) I was shrieking at them to get down.
The Bromo experience is iconic in Java — hundreds of thousands of (mostly local) tourists a year visit the Bromo Tengger Semuru National Park and it’s easy to understand why. The scenery is otherworldly. Bromo sits there smoking away in the middle of a landscape from the time of the dinosaurs, surrounded by other strange volcanic structures and all in the middle of the caldera from an ancient volcano, filled with black sand and mist.
But my mind wasn’t on the landscape as we made our way back down the mountain. Rather, I was furiously Googling: ‘volcanic activity Bromo’ ‘Bromo eruptions’ ‘Bromo closures’ ‘Bromo deaths’ — all proxy searches for my real question, was I dreadful mother for bringing them here?
I’d heard of Bromo being closed to tourists before due to volcanic activity, the latest was early 2016, so I just assumed if it was open it was safe. Safe enough anyway, in the scheme of active Indonesian volcanoes.
But my after-the-fact googling revealed that the scientific body that monitors the volcanic activity only advises local Tenggerese authorities — and the current official advice was to keep one kilometre away. Oops, too late!
I guess there’s two ways to travel: do your research in advance and make an evidence-based risk assessment on potential threats to your health and safety; or throw caution to the wind and embrace adventure in the moment.
I took an unsatisfactory third path — boldly embracing adventure in the planning and collapsing into panicked too-late-to-be-useful research in the moment.
Further Google searches during our spin through Indonesia included ‘Dengue fever in Gili Islands’ (err, yes, quite a lot actually and look there’s a mosquito biting your child), ‘Dengue symptoms’ (fever, headache, vomiting, rash), ‘Malaria in Lombok’ (yes — but I already knew that, this one was just to ramp up the guilty anxiety). Clinic staff at the snorkeling idyll of Gili Meno threw more fuel on the fire with the casual observation that lots of tourists contract salmonella after swimming in the crystal blue, but not actually very clean, water.
As it happens, both kids got temperatures and tummy bugs in the last days of the trip.
I remember my mother telling me once that when my brother was a toddler, she briefly lost him on the beach when they were on holidays at her mothers. Her first panicked thought wasn’t for baby Jimmy but for how on earth she was going to tell her mother she’d lost him.
And so I foresaw my own maternal shame — taking my kids on holiday and bringing them back with Malaria. How reckless!
The doctor at the Sydney Children’s Hospital was less taken with my fears of blood borne viral infection (hadn’t she even read Google?!). Just a touch of gastro as it turns out.
Phew, I was off the hook. That could happen to anyone, right? But riding on horseback to the crater of a live volcano — that was really something.