The view from a volcanic edge
By Dwi Oblo
I’ve known about the annual Hindu Kasada Festival for some time now.
For years, I’ve been planning to go but for the past two there have been conflicting events that I needed to cover so this was my first time attending the festival. As I wanted to provide extensive coverage, I decided to arrive a day before the festival started. Along with four colleagues, I headed to Mount Bromo from Yogyakarta. It took us nine hours to drive the 500 km (310 miles) route.
On the morning of August 15, the sunshine slowly warmed me as it reached 16 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit). Coming from Yogyakarta, this was cold for me.
Once arriving in Ngadisari, the last village before Mount Bromo, we decided to rent a four-wheel-drive Jeep. These vehicles were provided for visitors who wanted to reach the volcanic crater of Mount Bromo on foot. After the last eruption in December 2010, the track heading to the crater became sandier, which made it even harder for non-4WDs to navigate. I wore a mask and sealed eyeglasses as strong winds made volcanic dust fly everywhere. My photo equipment also had to be securely protected from the dust when it was not in use. This was the exact same situation I was confronted with when I covered the 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi.
Dust was everywhere! I brought two cameras, each with a wide angle lens and a standard lens. I also had a small flash with me. I assumed that this would be enough equipment. With the two cameras I could make overview pictures as well as portraits without having to change lenses all the time — something I wanted to avoided in a dusty and sandy place like Mount Bromo.
I continued my journey by horse to the foothills of Mount Bromo, a trip which took about a half hour. Everyone had to stand in line since the trail could only fit one person and the slope was about 45 degrees. The long line allowed me to take deep breaths as I leisurely counted the stairs. Yep, there were 250 stairs!
When I reached the top of the crater, many people were already there. They included some photographers, but most were local villagers who were going to throw offerings into the crater. This ritual is part of the ceremony of Kasada for the Hindu people in Java. They usually bring livestock, crops or any belongings which are then thrown into the crater during the annual festival. This is a form of sacrifice, in hopes that their life in the upcoming year will be better.
What I found interesting was that while some people threw offerings into the crater, others had walked about 50 meters down from the top to catch the offerings being thrown.
While some people caught the items with their bare hands, I saw a handful who had creatively equipped themselves with make-shift nets (similar to those for catching butterflies). Others had created a big pocket by tying a sarong to their neck and holding the other end.
“They are totally crazy,” my mind cried out as I watched them stand on 70-degree angle slope to catch the offerings. After the eruption in December 2010, the crater’s slopes became even more unstable and eroded. The safety fences also seemed to have been crushed by that eruption.
This ritual is the moment a photographer can’t miss, especially when live chickens and goats are included in the offerings. My colleagues and I had been there for more than an hour but I didn’t feel I had taken a strong enough picture yet. All of a sudden, about 50 meters from where I stood, I saw a middle-aged man carrying a few chickens. To photograph the man’s offering, I needed to pass some people standing on the crater’s edge, which meant that I only had about a 30-centimeter wide space to walk, with chasms on my right and left side.
For a few moments I hesitated, wondering if I would be able to catch up with him in time, since I was not sure if the path was safe enough to walk. Within those few seconds, my eyes caught hold of some women wearing kebayas (traditional outfits) and I saw they were able to walk on the path. “What makes me think I can’t do it? They can! In school, I used to be a climber, and I faced even riskier situations,” I thought to myself.
Yes! I finally got the picture; a man throwing the chickens as an offering, along with people struggling to catch them. For me, this picture was the strongest one.
I guess there are similar hopes between the person throwing the offering and those trying to catch it — and the photographer who catches that moment: to obtain the best, there are great stakes in doing so.