Why I Walked Across Mount Bromo’s Sea Of Sand.

Indonesia Bromo Sea of Sand

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.

Indonesia Bromo Horses Tourism

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.

Indonesia Bromo Horses Responsible Tourism

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.

Indonesia Bromo Horses

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.

Indonesia Bromo Horse Riding

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!

Indonesia Bromo

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.

Disclaimer

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.

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The Bemused Backpacker Code Of Responsible Travel.

Wildlife Tourism.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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62 comments on “Why I Walked Across Mount Bromo’s Sea Of Sand.
  1. Oh dear that’s horrible! I didn’t even know about this. No way of have ridden these horses…

  2. Claudia says:

    It’s great to see that some people are taking an interest in animal welfare even when they travel, and that they are paying attention and advocating for a more responsible tourism. Needless to say, I was also deeply disturbed by the fact that in a huge group, only a few of us took notice of the conditions in which the horses were kept and clearly stated (each in our own way, but surely very strongly and firmly) that it was not acceptable that they were treated in that way.

    I wish others had not decided to turn their face the other way.

  3. alicesgapyearadventures says:

    Such a great article, you totally made the right choice in not riding those horses and I like to think I wouldn’t either if I was in that situation. That poor horse carrying that fat man in your photo!! It makes my heart ache! I wish more people made that choice instead of being selfish and just thinking of their own experience.

  4. John says:

    Well done, sir! It’s honestly really refreshing to hear a genuine, honest account of the experience there when all you get from the established guides like LP is that there is an option to ride. They should be ashamed of themselves for even advertising unethical practices and standing on the fence. It is articles like this that will start to change things!

    • Thanks John, I hope so! I know exactly what you mean. I always try my hardest to present an open, unbiased picture of any place, both good and bad, and the sugarcoating in many other travel blogs and guides does annoy me sometimes. The world is amazing enough without needing rose tinted glasses, but it isn’t perfect either.

  5. Stephanie says:

    I love your honesty in these posts and I really admire your choice not to ride the horses! It is such a shame more people don’t do the same. 😦 It sounds like the mountain was a bad experience overall.

  6. Kate says:

    Wow, what a real and honest post! It really made me stop and think whether I should actually go here (and given how the tourism doesn’t exactly sound responsible or ethical that is a good thing!) I really appreciate your honesty in your posts so thank you.

    • Thank you Kate, I’m really glad it has made you think. Indonesia is definitely an amazing destination, but I would absolutely avoid Bromo until the tourism there cleans its act up. There are plenty of other volcanoes to see.

  7. Paul says:

    It’s a shame you went all that way to experience something and it didn’t live up to your expectations. Good job on sticking with your principles though. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a massive animal activist but that doesn’t mean I like to see them mistreated either and it’s horrible that they are used like this just for money from tourists.

  8. OhDannyBoy says:

    I hear what you’re saying about animal treatment and stuff, but surely there are locals there who need to make money? After all if there are tons of tourists coming to see their ‘home’ why shouldn’t they exploit the tourists?

    • No one is saying they shouldn’t DannyBoy, in fact tourism is an excellent and lucrative form of income to locals when done right. But there are plenty of examples and studies now which prove RESPONSIBLE tourism can provide even MORE income to locals when they provide responsible, sustainable and ethical options for tourists, and this experience, both the tour of the mountain but especially the treatment of the horses was none of those things. Culture should never be an excuse for animal cruelty or neglect. Greed and a need to earn a living is never an excuse to exploit or harm wildlife.

      • Gemma McConnel says:

        This! Exactly! There is a lot of profit to be made on responsible tourism too, and it is up to locals to make that choice to either care for the resources that give them a living or exploit and ultimately destroy them.

      • That is exactly it Gemma, unfortunately most people won’t do the responsible thing out of the goodness of their hearts, so we have to show them that it is in their best interests to do so by plowing all our powerful tourism dollars into responsible tourism.

  9. Maria says:

    Thank you for writing an excellent post on this – a subject very close to my heart. I would have done the same. I recently cancelled what I thought was a ”dream” trip to a certain place in Africa…with a writing commission…because what I thought was an animal conservation park was more than likely just raising the animals for tourists. I was challenged by a former safari guide, and instead of getting defensive because I had already researched the park carefully, realized that any human interaction with wildlife intended for release into the wild is not good for them. There was more to it, but you’re right, if more of us spoke up, things would change. The animals can’t speak for themselves.

  10. carolcolborn says:

    Hurray for you…braving the climb without a horse, seeing what you have come to see, and making the point about the way the animals were being treated. You did tell them, right?

    • Absolutely I did Carol, I made my feelings very clear and told them exactly why I wouldn’t ride. I think telling those responsible why you are refuing their services is just as important as abstaining, otherwise how will they learn and change?

  11. I definitely see this all the time here in the Philippines as well. Just a couple of months ago, I hiked Taal volcano and overweight tourists passed by us shamelessly as they “hike” ahead of us in their malnourished horses. I was wearing a mask so they couldn’t really tell my signature “are you fucking serious” look on my face.

    • God, it’s just so pointless and heartbreaking isn’t it? Exploiting and abusing animals just to make a quick tourist dollar. Thanks for the heads up though, that’s one more destination off the list.

  12. Climbing Mount Bromo was on my list when I visited Indonesia last year, but because of some scheduling errors I missed out on the morning climb up the crater and only saw it from the outer edge. I hope I can go back there someday and see the crater up close and I’m surely going to walk! If you need to take a horse to get up there, you have no business being there in the first place.

    • Don’t worry, read my post on the cannonball run of Bromo, you didn’t miss much on the sunrise tour! I’m glad to hear you won’t ride though! ;D The horse riding is in no way necessary, like the ridiculous bike rallies and the endless jeeps driving back and forth making the air thick with constant dust, they are just there to service tourists and exploit for a cut of the tourist dollar. I’d happily pay much more for conscientious and responsible treks where all that was gone.

  13. Thank you for writing this and sharing your opinion in an honest and thoughtful way. I would have done exactly as you did. People have such an uncanny way of ignoring the truth behind so-called bucket list experiences while traveling. So many don’t ask what has happened or is happening to these animals that allow me to have this experience. No one is denying the fact that locals should reap the profits that come with tourism, but when that money is directed toward experiences that are ethical and responsible, better practices result for the animals and the locals have a more sustainable income stream. I am an avid animal lover who chose not to ride elephants in Thailand or pet a tiger. As you said, I’m not a vet, but I know when something does not look right. I recently read that cultures who knowingly or unknowingly mistreat animals reflect the struggles and abuses the locals endure. While I sincerely empathize with them, if I, as a traveler, recognize the mistreatment of animals, it is my responsibility to not tolerate it and even call out such abuse. Posts like this, hopefully, help others develop the awareness to act as responsibly as you did.

    • I completely agree Jackie, and thank you for reading and commenting. So many people just want their experience and turn a blind eye to any negative effects, nothing matters as long as they get their experience and that all important selfie, right? As you say, I really hope this post raises some awareness to make people think twice about their actions.

  14. Gemma says:

    Ah this is a hard post to read, I hate hearing about potential animal cruelty. I’ve never been on a horse whilst travelling (even though it’s all the hype in some places) because you never know. Interesting post, we need these kinds to keep us questioning.

  15. hcura says:

    You did the right thing. It’s a shame how busy (and stunning) tourist destinations can be so badly managed these days. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this in other places.

    Horse, donkey or camel rides are very popular around the world. I’ve done it a couple of times and being a big animal and wildlife advocate, always take interest in the animals conditions and wellbeing.

    The economic factor is a big one. Most of the owners of the animals are looking for a quick buck and don’t care. Fortunately, there are places where these animals are well taken care of.

    Cheers!

    • Thanks Hcura, sometimes you can feel like a bit of a lone voice when taking a moral stand, so it’s always nice to hear words of support in these comments. I totally agree with you, it’s always about that quick buck, and to me it is just as important to teach those involved that they can earn as much if not more money by making their tours responsible, sustainable and cruelty free, as much as getting them to stop cruel and exploitative practices. I’m glad to say I agree that there are many places out there who genuinely get it right and take care of their animals first and earn a tourist buck a distant second. I just hope these places become more commonplace.

  16. Melody Pittman says:

    Way to go, Mike, I’m proud of you in declining to ride the horses. I, too, feel the same compassion and when in Greece (Santorini to be exact), I refused to take the donkeys up the hillside with us and all our luggage so I not only pissed my husband off, but we had a HUGE cab fare to get us all to our resort, but it was just too much for those emaciated animals. I often feel that less developed countries certainly do not truly understand the needs of animals and do not consider them in the same light as I do. (we Americans are saps for anything furry). I would have passed, too, because of all the dust, though riding the motorbikes and jeeps might have been fun with a different track.

    • Thanks Melody. I’m glad you decided to take the better (albeit harder) option too. Your husband may have been pissed off but I bet those Donkeys were silently thanking you. 🙂 And if it was a genuine made for purpose track I have no doubt dirtbike racing or whatever would have been great fun, I would have even given it a go! But not on a mountain that is designated a protected area of outstanding natural beauty.

  17. Dave says:

    Such a shame that what could have been a wonderful experience turned out to be memorable for the wrong reasons. The sad fact is though, that the majority of countries in the world are very far behind the Western standards of animal care (which in itself isn’t perfect, and was non-existent even 50 years ago). It takes time to change these things, and so articles like this hopefully will change consciousness and attitudes for those people in positions of power and influence in Indonesia in regards to animal welfare, and responsible tourism.

    • I know, I was really gutted because I had been looking forward to seeing Bromo after failing to do so on previous visits, but the tourism industry that had built up around it really soiled the experience. I couldn’t agree more that nowhere is perfect on animal welfare, but at least now there are places that are trying. Hopefully as you say more people will start to take not and start changing things for the better.

  18. Sonal says:

    It’s good to know that you decided to walk. You know, even in India there are some animals that are mistreated and trained to put on a show for other tourists. Specially, elephants and monkeys.

  19. elenasonnino says:

    Such an important issue. Responsibility is going to be the only thing that drives sustainability…and sadly too many people want the big experience regardless of what it means for wildlife (and locals). Hopefully more people will start to speak up and voice concerns and do what you did.

  20. Mar Pages says:

    It is very sad. Unfortunately indinesua and other parts of SEA have too many situations like that and I do hope they wake up soon before it is too late. Be it wildlife or nature it is disappearing at dramatic rate. Especially the Indonesian forests. More people should speak up And change the course

  21. Wow, how horrible. Thank you for sharing the reality of what goes on there, and for not taking the horse ride yourself. Honesty is important when partnering with companies and tourism boards, and I applaud you for doing so 🙂

    Thanks.

  22. Nancy says:

    Such a tragic situation – there is no way I would have ridden the horses. I am a passionate animal welfare advocate and my heart breaks when I read about animals is such obvious distress.

  23. Karilyn says:

    Great post. I know just how you feel. So often in developing countries we see such poorly treated animals. I know that our one instance isn’t helping stop it, but spreading the word like this just might! I didn’t even know about this opportunity to peer down into a volcano. It is now on my to do list, but I will go prepared that I will have to hoof it up myself just like you did!

    • There are plenty of other volcanoes in Indonesia too, this is just touted as one of the best (it isn’t, there are many just as good) which is why they have such a busy tourism industry around it. Good to know you wouldn’t ride them though

  24. Megan Claire says:

    Thanks for writing such an honest post Mike, I really would love to get there to visit the area, but it’s a huge shame to hear about how they’re mins managing the tourism, and even worse to hear about the treatment of the horses. I agree with you that is more people make a stand and explain why they choose to not ride, we can perhaps start to make a difference.

    I commend you on walking the horse up and refusing to jump on top.

  25. Ellie says:

    It is such a shame that there were seemingly still so many people happy to ride them. 😦

  26. Samantha says:

    But what about horse riding in general? Isn’t that accepted as an okay thing to do all ove the world?

    • Yes but it is all about context. There is a vast difference between a stable where horses are well cared for and treated well, and a place such as this where the conditions they are kept in are harmful and the treatment they endure is exploitative and abusive.

  27. John says:

    Good on you! I feel that if more people did what you did those people running the tours might start thinking hold on, maybe something is wrong here and change!

  28. Djong Timoer says:

    This artcile is wonderful to have opened my mind. I will not offer my customers to ride horse anymore in Mount Bromo.

    • Really? Wow that is fantastic! Believe me it is best in the long run and there are so many alternative things you can offer them, adventure hikes and fitness challenges to name just two. Well done and serious kudos.

  29. Sam says:

    This is an amazing post and you should be really proud of yourself for doing the right thing. I wish more people would do just that. It is just a shame that there are so many who don’t.

    • Thanks Sam, but I really didn’t do anything special, I just acted on my conscience. I think more people would do that if they knew the issues involved. That’s why I wrote this post, to try and raise awareness and hopefully things will change little bit by little bit. 🙂

  30. Vicki Paige says:

    Yes! I love this post and think it is so amazing that even though most people don’t think about the consequences of their actions and just do whatever they want, there are some people who do. Thank you for this post and for doing the right thing.

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