Despite travelling Mexico, Central America and so on, I’d somehow never actually set foot on a volcano, let alone climbed one. So, not missing out this time, I steered my course for Java, to hike Kawah Ijen by night and descend down, through thick sulphurous gases, to the beautiful turquoise crater lake and mysterious “blue fire” within.
Getting to Kawah Ijen
Java is a hotbed of hundreds of volcanos – Semeru, Bromo, Merapi…to name a few – but the real jewel in the crown is to be found in the naturally beautiful and sparsely populated Ijen Plateau, which can be reached from either Bondowoso to the east or Banyuwangi to the west.
What I didn’t know before I arrived is that Java is the most populous island on earth! Expecting natural beauty, I was confronted instead with a string of “megacities” – home to way more rats, cockroaches and people than I cared to make acquaintance with. The road network is not equipped to handle anywhere near the volume of traffic it does and, as a result, travel on the island is unbearably slow. After 10 days on stifling buses, amidst stand-still traffic, dust, pollution and general greyness, I can say that Ijen is – for me, at least – by far the most impressive thing in Java. Of course everyone has a different experience while travelling, but most people we met on Java were trying to get out again. My advice? Rent a scooter on Bali and take the ferry over to Ketapang (Banyuwangi).
Arriving after dark at what turned out to be Banyuwangi’s Karangente bus terminal (on Jalan Brawijaya) (careful, there are at least two more major bus stations in Banyuwangi: Sri Tanjung and Ketapang), we walked to a place called Hotel Baru on Jalan MT Haryono, but you shouldn’t need to know that as it’s a shithole and if you read this, you’ll be able to do Ijen by yourself.
There’s no guaranteed way to get to Ijen by public transport, so it’s scooter or tour, I’m afraid. We booked a guide and driver through the hotel for 600,000 rupiah (£15 each for two), but you don’t actually need either. With a scooter, you can get all the way up to Ijen and, once there, you can just follow everyone else.
If you do fancy a guide though, Nizar was actually really good. Feel free to contact him directly and I’m sure he’s got a friend who’d drive you for less than 150,000.
The guide we were originally set up with told us we weren’t allowed to go down into the crater and that he wouldn’t take us down (thus, rendering him completely useless). His English was bad (because Indonesians have to learn Bahasa Indonesia as well as their local language – in this case Javanese – the level of English is noticeably poorer here than anywhere else I’ve been on this trip so far), yet he was confident and loud and kept telling us to “listen!” as though we were at fault for not being able to understand. I hate tours. I wasn’t looking forward to this at all.
We were due to set off after midnight, so decided to get a couple of hours’ sleep. Unfortunately a centipede had had the misfortune to die in our room and a swarm of ants were in the process of engulfing him and carrying him off into the bathroom at speed. The sheets were dark with sweat stains, a wet, moldy plastic bag in the bathroom made it clear no-one had even been in to check the room since the last guests, let alone clean it. A weak fan didn’t reach the bed and there was no shower (unless you want to wash yourself with the same filth-brown bucket that you use to flush the toilet).
In the early hours, when we went to meet our guide, we got our first piece of good luck. He couldn’t take us. He had another, more lucrative group and had appointed Nizar to take care of us. He said they didn’t want to share a vehicle (in other words, he wanted to get as much money out of us tourists as possible) but assured us we’d “meet there” and “go up together” (more bullshit).
We hit it off with Nizar from the beginning and the three of us, plus our trusty driver, set off into the night, first for supplies (water, snacks, cigarettes for the sulphur miners) then up an empty winding road, perfectly signposted at every turn for “Kawah Ijen”, hence why I say you’d have no trouble doing it by scooter, several of which actually out-performed the 4WD on these mountain roads. You’ll pass through an arch and the road thins out considerably, rising and falling in the cold mountain air, and eventually coming to the car park at Pos Paltuding.
It was freezing cold as we waited for the PHKA post to open at 2.30 am. Ijen (especially the night hike) has only appeared on the tourist circuit in the last few years, but due to how bloody amazing it is, there were a lot of other travellers about. There are public toilets, but there’s a charge to use the lights. Luckily I have no issues pissing in the dark…though the girl who followed me in may have had a few. Mercifully, they actually opened it at two, at which point you sign in and pay 15,000 rupiah per person. (If doing it without a guide, you can skip this – I know I would – but bear in mind that no-one would know if you fell to your death.) You have to pay considerably more if you have a camera. Twat-guide insisted we’d have to pay this, but luckily Nizar checked and phones don’t count. Digital cameras do. Either way, I’d just say you don’t have one.
What to Bring?
- Warm layers
- Scarf, mask or spare t-shirt
- Drinking water
- Gloves, if you have them
- Cigarettes for the miners
Climbing Kawah Ijen by Night
In pitch blackness, just the light of the head torches (which Nizar kindly lent us) to guide us, hands shoved in pockets against the bitter cold, we started up a gravelly path. It reminded me of my recent night hike up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, only much colder. The incline was gradual at first, but soon we were working our hams and warming up as it got steeper and steeper. Nizar was great, considerately offering to stop whenever he thought we might need it. Not that we did.
The stars were overwhelming! All the constellations were there in plain sight and the curve of the milky way spread across the crisp night sky.
Soon the sheltered path opened out into exposed mountainside and we were only vaguely aware of the steep drop and the great void beside us. Here the surface – now very steep – became soft and slippery with the layers of volcanic ash. The silhouettes of Gunung Raung and another smaller peak were visible through the darkness. Merapi lay somewhere behind us, not to be confused with its more famous namesake in central Java. (“Merapi” means volcano in Javanese and Bahasa Indonesia so, as you can imagine, there are quite a few Gunung Merapis in these parts.)
We reached the sulphur weighing station, where several baskets were already waiting in the faint, misty twilight. We stopped here to rest until we got cold again, then set off on the last stretch, up to and along the crater rim. The crater! My first volcano! We couldn’t make it out in the darkness, couldn’t get perspective. I just can’t describe such a surreal feeling. I had never been in a landscape like it.
“I just can’t imagine it!” said Ruth.
Descending into the Crater
We began our speedy descent into the crater, into pure darkness, stepping on loose rocks and gravel, slick with ash and sulphur dust.
Soon the blue flames, which had been a distant flicker, were burning and smouldering right in front of us – some of them reaching up to five metres in height.
Noxious gases blew in sheets across our path and we donned our scarves. Nizar used his expert knowledge to time photographs, reading the smoke patterns and the wind and yelling “smoke’s coming!” just in time for us to shelter behind the rocks and watch all the other parties choking and spluttering.
The sulphur smells strong, gets into your chest and throat, burning and causing shortness of breath, but the best thing to do is stay calm and breathe normally, he said. If in doubt, just look at the sulphur miners, who were already at work among us, completely indifferent to it, some even smoking cigarettes amidst the smoke!
He told us this was one of only two places in the world (the other being Iceland) where you can see these blue flames, which are caused by the igniting of sulphurous gases as they emerge from the volcanic vent. They are constantly burning, but just can’t be seen by day.
We made our way, past patterns of liquid sulphur frozen into the ground, to the edge of the acid lake. Still dark, we couldn’t yet make out its size, but we cold see its turquoise colour and bubbling, steaming surface and knew better than to strip off and go for a swim.
We smelt the sulphur and felt its warmth with our hands – fresh out the earth. Many of the miners, whose fathers and grandfathers had also been miners, have started to turn their hands to carving handicrafts and souvenirs out of the sulphur, which I imagine is a more profitable profession.
We climbed back up the steep loose rocks, amongst queues of people, Nizar in a hurry to get us there in time for the sunrise.
Reaching the top, I felt a shudder as I heard my name. It was twat-guide, bunkered down in a little cave. “Stay with us,” he said. “You have plenty of time until the sunrise.”
Nizar and I looked at each other dubiously. Though I’m anything but a morning person, I’ve seen enough sunrises to know how quickly they come up once it’s light. I was going to kill this fucker if he made us miss it. We waited a few minutes, but still no sign of his group, who’d had to go down into the crater alone.
“You know what,” I said. “I think we’re going to make a move. I just don’t want to miss it.”
“You won’t miss it.”
“Better safe than sorry,” and we got going, marching quickly along the crater rim as the light began to give everything shape and perspective and a whole new sense of awesomeness. Huge channels ran across our path where lava had not so long ago cut through. Now for the first time we saw the turquoise lake below in all its glory, a square kilometre in size!
We made it to the best spot just in time for the sunrise. (There’s no way the others made it.) The sun cast a deep red glow over the scene, turned the sky pink and brought out the deepest turquoise in the lake. Clouds hung all around us, the view rivaling those from our recent trip to San Marino, and dotted with the occasional cones of nearby neighboring volcanoes.
The climb down was harder than the way up. Our legs were exhausted but our sense of awe at what we’d seen – and the beautiful landscape that was continuing to unveil itself to us now by the light of day – kept our spirits high.
Back at the sulphur weighing station, the miners were busy trading in their hard-earned sulphur for cash. We’d passed many of them on the road. These guys get up at two in the morning, dig out the sulphur from the crater floor, amidst the noxious gases, carry 70, 80 kilos of it on their shoulder, back up the steep, slippery track (a round trip of three hours) two or three times a day, and earn almost nothing for it. The bone structure of their backs and shoulders are clearly warped (though it has to be said that the exercise keeps them relatively fit and healthy). We tried to lift a load that had just been brought up and literally couldn’t. It weighed in at 96 kilos! And the little guy who brought it up! I gave him the whole pack cigarettes we’d bought.
If you’re interested, some of these guys were featured on the BBC’s Human Planet series.
On the drive back, Ruth and Nizar soon started to nod off to sleep. I watched at one point as Nizar dozed off and fell onto our driver, causing us to almost veer off the road. He woke abruptly to find me in hysterics in the backseat.
Back at the hotel we ate breakfast and slept…or tried to: twat-guide was banging on the door trying to get our Facebook details. When we didn’t answer, him and and his friend from the hotel sat right outside chatting. I went out bleary-eyed and told them to fuck off.
Then we did sleep.
Then we got the hell out of Java.