It was 1996 and I was travelling through Indonesia - one of several countries I planned on visiting in the Far East on a three-month trip. A night train had taken me from the capital to East Java, and my first adventure was in sight - I’d decided to hike up Mount Bromo, an active volcano with a crater inside that regularly spewed out sulphurous smoke. I’d been told the views were stupendous. I couldn’t wait.
After some asking around in Cemoro Lawang (the nearest town to the mountain) I’d found out that I had a choice - the easy option (being taken up the mountain in a jeep and climbing for 20 minutes) or the harder one (a 90 minute trek with a group of more adventurous travellers). I was adamant I could hack the tougher option - I was young, fit and up for fun. The tour guide told me that we’d have to rise at 2am but I didn’t bat an eyelid. Turning early for the night was a small price to pay for this kind of adventure.
At 2am the following morning, we stumbled, bleary-eyed from our beds, dressed warmly then drank scalding hot tea to fortify ourselves. Soon we’d been dropped off at the path and the nine of us began walking, in silence, surgical masks over our faces to avoid swallowing ash. It was freezing and as we trekked on, I could feel myself making considerably more effort to breathe. No surprise of course - Mount Bromo stood at 2,292 metres.
I’d eaten nothing before I’d set off (I hadn’t felt hungry) and whilst I was sipping at water, felt strangely lethargic. Struggling to keep up with the group, I told myself that it was just a question of mind over matter and once we got to the top, I’d be able to buy breakfast from an entrepreneurial local and start stripping off my layers because the sun would be rising. Determined not to be the Achilles Heel in the group, I soldiered on.
At just after 5.15 am we arrived at the summit. And we’d made it in time too - sunrise was expected in ten minutes. I was in good spirits, the difficult trek and my lack of energy almost forgotten. We stood reasonably close to the edge, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness - slowly I begin to see the silhouette of the crater beneath us. The sun was beginning to rise.
Twenty seconds later, I opened my eyes with a start. I realised I was lying on my back, looking up at an dawn sky, my group peering over me with some consternation. One of them produced a bottle of water; another some hot tea. A third took off his fleece and put it over me. I still didn’t realise quite what had happened…only later would I be told that, without warning, I’d fainted, without warning, extremely close to the crater’s edge. As luck would have it, I’d fallen backwards.
Anxious to get up and see the view, I protested that I was fine and that no-one should worry, but my fellow trekkers weren’t having it. Within a couple of minutes, a local villager had arrived with his trusty horse - one of my group had flagged him down and offered him a few dollars to take me down. Without hesitation, he grabbed me and hoisted me into the saddle, before climbing on and gesturing at me to hold on to his waist. It was pointless to argue.
And so I descended the mountain on horseback, arriving back at the bottom long before my fellow trekkers. They, I later found out, had enjoyed a spectacular sunrise, then travelled on to visit a Tenggerese Hindu temple and a nearby waterfall. In stark contrast, I was lying in the back of a jeep, being fed basic Indonesian fare from a local ‘warung’ (restaurant stand) and being scolded by a local tour guide for being foolish enough not to have eaten breakfast at 3am.
I'm still not entirely sure what it was that caused me to faint (lack of carbohydrates, excitement, exhaustion from the trek) and I'm sorry I missed the sunrise. But then that's part of the lure of travel for me - being prepared for things not going as planned. Mishaps and setbacks...combined with acts of random kindness from strangers. Next time, though - I'm carrying a few bananas with me!