Think of one place in the world where you can ride a horse after climbing a mountain, scale a 2,800 metre-high volcano and do white water rafting - all in just five days.
Well, look no further as Indonesia has all of these outdoor activities you can explore.
Situated about 2,800 kilometres away from Singapore and a mere two-hour flight away to most states, Indonesia has a lot to offer in lesser-known places such as Batu and Banyuwangi.
Located in the East Java coast along with Jakarta and Bali, Batu and Banyuwangi are less popular cities in Indonesia that tourists would not normally visit.
The smiles that will greet you at Mount Bromo
Batu is located in the city of Malang, and to get there, you can first fly in to Jakarta and take a transfer flight.
In Batu, I was delighted to experience nature in an area away from busy Singapore, and where fresh cool mountain air and apples greeted me every day. Yes, apples. You see, the locals grow their own fruits, which include apples, guavas and strawberries. They are also a very shy group of people who would blush each time I asked permission to take their photographs, but were eventually open to the idea.
The highlight for me in Batu was the horse ride and climb to Mount Bromo, which is a four-hour drive from Surabaya and is situated in an area of many mountains and volcanoes, some of which are still active today. The mountain is a popular tourist attraction, where most people would set off early in the morning to climb and soak in a magnificent view of the sunrise from 2,776 metres above sea level.
To provide a little background of Mount Bromo, there was a group of people called the Tenggerese who came to live there in the 15th century. According to our guide, legend has it that the Tenggerese princess was supposed to sacrifice her son but her reluctance to do so ended up in her son sacrificing himself eventually. To date, the Batu people travel up the mountain to make offerings of fruit, rice, flowers and livestock to the mountain gods by throwing them into the caldera of the volcano. The last-known eruption of Mount Bromo was in January 2011.
On the way to the Pananjakan view point of Mount Bromo, the jeep ride was slightly uncomfortable as it was bumpy and cramp in the vehicle. It might be better to bring a smaller bag to create more room in the jeep for your 30-minute ride to the base of the mountain. Also, wear a thick jacket before climbing as the temperature during the climb can go to as low as five degree Celsius in the dry season.
My group set off to climb at about 2.30am in a jeep from Bromo Cottage, where we stayed for a few hours at night. Bromo Cottage is a lovely and comfortable place to stay in that's almost equivalent to mountain chalets in Switzerland as it has a funicular, or cable cliff railway, to bring guests to their rooms. Staff of the cottage will be available to help with carrying your luggage to your room.
After our jeep ride which took about 30 minutes, we walked approximately 100 metres to the rest area for our hot cup of Java coffee and tea before setting off for our climb. All in all, we reached Pananjakan in about three hours, just in time to admire the moments before and after the sunrise and capture those Instagram-worthy shots.
The island of Borneo cannot be seen from Mount Bromo but if you are at Pananjakan, you can see a few mountains and volcanoes that are near each other in the Bromo area. Some of these include Arjuna in the west, Ijen in the east, Semeru volcano (the highest peak of mountain in Java island) in the south and Madura island in the north.
After the climb, we headed to the horse riding area by jeep which took about 40 minutes. Each horse is attached to a horse guide, who will bring you to another mountain in the Bromo region. Climb to the peak and you will be able to see a panoramic view of the magnificent volcanoes and mountains in the area that you don't get to see every day. It was definitely worth it waking up at 2am to catch that scenery.
Besides the main route to climb Mount Bromo, there are several places that visitors can enjoy if they stay for more than one day in the area. For example, you can try exploring the Savannah and Teletubbies Hill that's located in the south of Bromo, the Desert of Whispering Sand plus Watu Singha (a rock that looks like a lion) in the east side of Bromo, Madakaripura Waterfall and Ranu Kumbolo Lake.
Kawah Ijen's magnificent crater lake
After we finished climbing Mount Bromo and cleaning ourselves up, we took a coach immediately to Banyuwangi, which was about 288 kilometres away from Batu. In Banyuwangi, there is a strong presence of their own culture, which is largely untainted by Western or other external influences. Yup, no McDonalds or Starbucks! This was what I liked about Banyuwangi and I was impressed at how the people manage to retain their culture in a world that's mostly very influenced by the West.
In Banyuwangi, tourists come here for a special reason.
Kawah Ijen is a popular tourist destination where people come to catch a view of the turquoise crater lake, which is part of an active volcano. Although the volcano last erupted in June 1999, our guide told us that there were still signs of volcanic activity on the day we embarked on our climb. Talk about the real fear factor.
If you think the climb to Mount Bromo is difficult, you will be surprised to know that it is nothing compared to a rather arduous climb for Kawah Ijen in Banyuwangi.
Although most guides will tell you that the route to the peak of Ijen is family-friendly, the climb is not suitable for any one below 15 years old, in my opinion. This is because during the dry season, sand and dust blown by the strong winds will get in your way during the climb, and having to wear a mask to protect yourself from the sulphur mist will make it more difficult to reach the peak. The guides recommend climbing Ijen during the monsoon season from November to April as there is likely to be less wind.
Along the way, expect to see sulphur miners who will display the beautiful pieces of their hard work in the sun and perhaps ask for a tip too. Leaving the sulphur pieces in the sun changes the colour from orange to yellow in order for the miners to be able to sell the material. Depending on the quality, the workers can earn between 1,000 to 1,050 Rupiah (S$0.10) for one kilogram of sulphur they mine.
En route to the peak of Kawah Ijen, I was personally touched at the whole experience of the climb and this was probably my favourite part of the trip. The sulphur miners I saw along the way didn't display a hint of complacency in their high-risk jobs, whereas I was rather complacent as a first-time climber. Although it was physically challenging, I enjoyed the climb because I felt a sense of enlightenment similar to a spiritual zen attained when one is at peace with oneself. Call me dramatic, but the climb was a good time for me to think about the blessings in my life.
It was a pity though that we couldn't see Kawah Ijen's famous 'blue fire', which is the turquoise-coloured acidic crater lake that needs temperatures as high as 600 degree Celsius to ignite the sulphuric gases. When a blue fire is successfully ignited, it creates a visually stunning image, much like those you see on National Geographic. At the peak, there are notices of toxic gas to warn people not to go down to the crater. Sulphur mining is highly risky and damaging to health and special gas masks have to be worn for anyone to go down to the area where the sulphur miners are.
The entire climb to the top of Kawah Ijen and back down took about five hours. There are a few guest houses and homestays where you can stay at if you are planning to climb the volcano.
For tour packages and more information on Mount Bromo and Ijen, visit http://mandiritourstravel.com/.
The Red Island
In Banyuwangi, there is also a beach for you to relax and soak up the sun if you do not like physically strenuous activities.
Situated about two hours away from the city is Pulau Merah, or Red Island, which we managed to get to via a coach from our hotel in the city. Pulau Merah is a unique place in Banyuwangi that has a feature like no other. According to our guide, red soil comes from trees and grass that grow near the beach and is actually filled with green colour from the leaves that are on the beach.
The sunset causes the sunlight to create a red colour that makes the beach, literally, all red. This view, however, is best seen in the evening. In the day, Pulau Merah seems like an ordinary beach with hot sand. Pulau Merah is, in fact, a favourite beach choice among surfers where the waves can go to as high as five metres. According to our guide, the mayor of Banyuwangi would designate a day meant for an international surfing competition on this beach.
An additional tip our guide provided is that visitors can explore the beach by renting a fisherman boat around the island. The boat will circle around Pulau Merah and bring you to Rajegwesi Beach, Green Bay and Sukamade Turtle Beach.
White water rafting at Ayung River
From Banyuwangi to Bali, we took a domestic flight and reached Bali in about two hours.
In Bali, we tried our hands at white water rafting!
Unlike rafting in Telaga Waja River in Denpasar, the 10-kilometre route for Ayung River in Ubud is not physically challenging and anyone could do it. The river route falls in Class II-III, which means, in white water rafting terms, that it is the Beginner category.
While rafting, the quick rapids will cause an adrenaline rush and the guide's instructions have to be carefully followed or your raft might end up getting stuck on the rocks most of the time.
There will also be times when you can take a quick dip in the river or even attempt a small cliff jump. Just be careful not to hold anything valuable with you during your jump or you might lose them in the river instantly.
My colleague, who was with me on the trip, lost her mobile phone even though it was attached to a water proof casing. I also lost my sunglasses when I left it tucked under the life jacket. We both learnt expensive lessons to leave all personal belongings in the water proof bags provided by the guides or simply wear your sunglasses throughout.
The river journey took two hours to complete.