The sea of sand on mount Bromo is hailed as an adventure travel destination, with scores of jeeps, motorbikes and horses throwing up clouds of dust as they transport you across an alien landscape in search of the volcanic craters edge. But is that really a good thing?
Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, otherwise known as mount Bromo, is one of Indonesia’s most spectacular and unique natural landscapes, and has been a protected national park since 1982, but has been a site designated in need of protection since as far back as 1919.
This desolate, sandy plane is a popular spot for tourists who come down from viewing Bromo on the sunrise tour and want to climb to the edge of the crater.
So far, so awesome.
It genuinely is a unique and stunning environment, and one that is worthy of any tourists attention. The dusty wasteland is strangely beautiful and is a stark reminder that you are standing in the caldera of what is a very powerful active volcano. This is a truly beautiful area that should be managed to balance economic tourism with natural conservation.
The problem is that tourism here has been horribly mismanaged and has turned the whole experience into a very unpleasant one.
Arriving at the sea of sand in a convoy of jeeps that had brought us up the mountain, the clouds of sand and dust was already enough to make me cover my nose and mouth with a face mask for protection, but what emerged through the maelstrom made my heart sink.
Instead of being able to enjoy the natural beauty of the landscape, I was greeted with what was a cross between a manic dirt bike rally and a car show.
Scores of jeeps from dozens of other tour groups were parked up as far as the eye could see, and motorbikes and dirtbikes revved loudly across the plain with little regard to any pedestrians, kicking up a constant sandstorm of dust and pollution. Toxic exhaust fumes mingled with the dust from the sand and the faint smell of sulphur from the volcano. It was a continuation of the horrific cannonball run that had taken us up to view this very crater from a higher viewpoint earlier in the morning!
But then, just as I was fixing my face mask to offer my lungs at least some protection before I set off to the craters edge, our guides emerged through the dust with what was to be our transport, and my heart didn’t just sink further, it started to ache.
Dozens of horses and their riders milled around us, with touts beckoning myself and everyone else to climb onto the backs of these unfortunate animals and ride up to the craters edge.
But after seeing them and the condition they were kept in, I just couldn’t do it.
Apart from being far too small to carry my 6″2 tall, 240 something pound frame, these horses were obviously malnourished, stamping nervously, showing signs of mental anxiety and chewing on their bridles. Whilst most were cowed and standing still, others were visibly distressed.
I couldn’t in good conscience ride these horses and contribute to the miserable conditions they were enduring.
Now I love horses. I am in general a huge animal lover and am a very vocal advocate for positive wildlife tourism. I’m not wholly against horse riding, I have ridden suitably sized horses before in stables where the horses are kept in good, healthy conditions and are treated well, fed and watered well and are in perfect physical and mental health. I do however believe that to be able to offer horse rides, certain conditions should be met and there is a threshold of care that must be maintained.
I’m not a vet in any way shape or form, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I do know when things aren’t quite right.
We were being offered rides on horses that looked thin and emaciated, there were a good number of the animals where I could visibly see their ribcages. There was no evidence of readily available food or water, and there were what I suspect visible signs of dehydration in more than one horse that I looked at; quick, shallow breaths, dry eyes and gums and more than one horse was salivating and drooling quite badly.
Some horses were even showing visible signs of mental distress, weaving their heads from side to side and stamping their hooves.
There was no evidence of shelter that I could see either, that isn’t to say they didn’t have any because they may have had stables that I could not see, but I do know that I wouldn’t like to be out in that toxic environment with the harsh sun and pollutant filled air for too long myself, but these animals were being worked all day every day in it. And make no mistake they were worked hard. Carrying tourists fat carcasses up and down the mountain all day and whipped constantly.
I just couldn’t make their daily life any worse by forcing them to carry my excessive weight up to the crater. I decided there and then I wouldn’t follow the pack and clamber on top of the horses like the guides were beckoning everyone to do. I would carry the horse up the rest of the way myself if I had to, but I wasn’t going to ride.
The key thing is, I also explained to those in charge exactly why I was making that decision. I made my feelings very clear. Did it change things there and then? No. Of course not. But at least I ensured that those who did go, and those who were in charge of the tour could not say they weren’t aware of the issues.
I am more than aware of the fact that local people need to earn a living through tourism. It is one of the ways responsible tourism can ensure that it is a sustainable and ethical alternative to other forms of negative impact tourism or destructive resource exploitation. However, that does not mean that it is right for animals to be negatively exploited and harmed in the process. Locals needing to earn a living is not, and should never be, an excuse for animal or wildlife abuse and exploitation.
There are just too many examples now of ethical and responsible forms of wildlife tourism where the animals are looked after and cared for properly is significantly more profitable.
So as everyone else clambered onto their horses and set off in a cloud of dust, myself and a couple of other conscientious objectors set off on foot to climb the rest of the way to the caldera. It wasn’t an easy trek, it was a fair distance across a gradually increasing incline and each step was a struggle because of the dust. The crowds of people milling about, the dirtbikes racing across the plain as if it was some sort of hellish rally and streams of people on horseback pushing past an increasingly narrow trail the higher we got just made it all the more unpleasant.
I finally reached the bottleneck at the crater, out of breath, my eyes stinging and desperately wishing I hadn’t used up the last of my water a good distance back, and squeezed my way onto the edge to get the view everyone had come here to see.
And I have to admit it was impressive.
There is a reason why Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park is an extremely popular tourist attraction. The view, both from a distance and up close is frankly stunning. The view itself is a worthwhile addition to anyone’s bucket list. Hell, just the fact that you can say you have peered down inside an active volcano is worthy of that!
It is just such a shame that the authorities aren’t managing the tourism there better. Tourism should be a force for good and there are so many case studies now where well managed and controlled tourism has had a hugely positive impact on the natural environment, resource management and local human and wildlife populations. There is simply no reason anymore not to manage and control tourism to gain that positive effect. But that simply isn’t happening here.
But it is the welfare of the horses that I am most disheartened about. It is a shame many of the people who arrived onto the volcano with me decided to get on the horses and trek to the top, maybe they didn’t know any better maybe they did, I don’t know. All I know is that these workhorses are not being treated to standards that I would consider humane or ethical, and I urge each and every one of you to not ride them if you do go to Mount Bromo.
Because don’t get me wrong, parts of the ‘mount Bromo experience’ are wholly unpleasant, the cannonball run for the sunrise tour, the dust, the exhaust fumes and the pollution, the crowds and the atmosphere, but the views are spectacular. You have to decide for yourself if you think seeing those views are worth the experience.
But one thing there is no excuse for is wildlife abuse and exploitation. One thing you should never support is the mismanagement and profiteering of any animal for greed. So I urge you all if you do make the trip to mount Bromo, just walk, don’t ride. The trek is harder yes, it isn’t pleasant, but it isn’t for the horses either and by taking that trek yourself you are saving at least one horse the experience of lugging you up there.
If more people did that and explained why they were making that choice, then maybe those responsible for the horses would be forced to make their conditions and treatment much more responsible and humane.
What do you think about wildlife tourism? Would you have ridden those horses? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
This article was written in partnership with the Indonesian Ministry Of Tourism as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.