There is one volcano in East Java, whose reputation surpasses all others – Kawah Ijen (Ijen Crater) in East Java’s Banyuwangi Regency that is beautiful, mysterious and dangerous at the same time. Looking down from the caldera’s rim, you see the blue-green waters of a huge lake, with the smell of sulphur in the air.
Descend into the caldera before dawn and you might see the oxidation of sulphur gases emitting a blue flame.
Be around long enough for the sun to come out and the clouds to clear away, and watch the transformation of this lake into a cyan-coloured body of water with sulphur clouds pouring out of the pipes close by.
Climb To Ijen’s Rim
Our last day in East Java saw us outside the homestay entrance at 12:30am waiting for our driver and Ijen guide to take us to Paltuding base camp, the starting point of Ijen’s trail. We were to be accompanied by a very experienced Ijen guide, Anto, who was himself a sulphur miner for 7 years before calling it a day.
The asphalt road leading to the base camp was unlit, deserted and winding – barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass one another. The drive took about 40 minutes to arrive at Paltuding base camp which was jam-packed with hundreds of other climbers arriving in Jeeps. After purchasing our entrance tickets at IDR100,000 per person, we walked through an archway that marked the start of our climb.
The 2900-metre trail itself is well-worn, used daily by both hikers and Ijen’s famous sulphur miners. In the dark, the trail appeared pretty straight forward with no huge rocks to navigate. Unfortunately, I had underestimated the 17-degree incline across the 500-metre elevation and within 15 minutes of climbing, I was already out of breath. From then on, I had to take a short break every 8-12 minutes to recover.
Many sulphur miners were heading up in the same direction with their empty trolleys. Some were waiting on the sidelines, offering to take hikers to the summit on their trolleys (Ijen taxi) for between IDR600,000 – IDR800,000 one way. I didn’t take up the offer, of course. Stopping a while to catch my breath is one thing, but it would have been unthinkable to tell the folks back home that I went up Ijen volcano in a trolley!
It seemed like eternity to even reach the halfway point, where snacks and beverages are sold. Anto kept the momentum going by sharing his stories as a sulphur miner, greeting everyone in French, Spanish or Japanese, and inviting amused glances from others by singing at the top of his voice. Some of his miner friends even accompanied us for part of the way up with their empty trolleys in tow.
As we got higher, the tropical foliage gave way to barren rocks. The air became thick with sulphur fumes and some hikers started to put on their gas masks. We turned on our headlamps but visibility was still poor despite the direct beams from our headlamps.
The last 500 metres was less strenuous as the steep trail levelled off to a plateau. We had finally arrived at Ijen’s rim after 2.75 hours of climbing!
Descent into Hell
I didn’t take much notice of my surroundings until Anto gestured towards an enormous opening next to me. With barely any time to react, I found myself joining the others in making the 200-metre descent into the caldera.
It was so dark that the only way I could tell that there were people down below was from the lights of their headlamps, making the walls of this massive caldera look like it was lit by fireflies. The way down is narrow and treacherous so we had to take things slowly. There are handrails in some stretches of the descent but for the most part, you can only hold on to the boulders as you make your way down the winding, jagged steps.
We shared the steep path with at least 300 others, as well as with the sulphur miners. There is only enough space for one person at a time, so we had to follow the person directly in front of us. Whenever we encountered people coming from the opposite direction, someone had to step aside or lean against a boulder overlooking the abyss below to create enough space for the other person to pass. It was pretty scary.
Our eyes were fixed to the ground. There was no time for taking photos or other distractions. Each step was carefully calculated to make sure that we got safely around the huge boulders, and that we did not trip or get our feet caught between the rocks. When standing between hard rocks and a dark place, it is absolutely essential to have an experienced person to help you navigate through the cracks. Luckily for us, Anto lived up to his promise – “Don’t worry. You are coming to my home” and led us safely down to the heart of the caldera.
Three-quarters of the way down, we managed to spot the volcano’s blue fire flashing through the dense sulphur clouds. The wind was in our favour, blowing the fumes away from our direction so there was no need for a gas mask. We stood there watching the unusual sight of blue flames shooting out sporadically from the rugged walls of the caldera.
Ijen’s Sulphur Lake
Ten minutes later, we continued down to the sulphur lake to have a closer look at the mining operations. Measuring 1 kilometre in diameter and 200 metres deep, this surreal-looking body of water is the largest acidic lake in the world.
Sulphur Mining at Kawah Ijen – One Hell of a Job!
Kawah Ijen is home to one of the world’s most dangerous sulphur mining operations in the world.
The sulphur miners begin work shortly after midnight with a long hike up the volcano and work straight through until around 1:00pm when the clouds roll in making it impossible to get round the plateau.
Miners walk up the flank of the mountain and then descend dangerous rocky paths down the steep walls of the caldera. Then, using steel bars, they chip away at the hardened yellow cake across the crater floor while being exposed to massive plumes of volcanic sulphur erupting out of the pipes. The sulphur ore is loaded into pairs of baskets attached at opposite ends of a long bar of wood. Each miner must make sure that the load is evenly balanced as he needs to haul his basket up the treacherous trail that leads to the top of the crater’s rim. Miners make two to three trips per day carrying up to 70 kg. to 100 kg. of sulphur each time. Payment is based on weight and the going rate for sulphur is about IDR12,000 for 10 kg. of sulphur.
The work is demanding and hazardous as it requires agility and strength to walk up and down the volcano’s steep slopes. Many miners suffer health problems from prolonged sulphur exposure. Deformed spines and bent legs are disturbingly common and the average life expectancy of a sulphur miner is around 50 years!
Descent to the Base Camp.
We were one of the last few to leave the acid lake and make the arduous climb back up to the crater’s lip.
Standing on top of the summit during daytime, we got the chance to have a better look at the surrounding landscape and terrain covered earlier on. All I can say is that it’s a good thing that it was too dark that morning to see how steep some of the gradients were!
It took us 1.5 hours to the base camp and we got to see some beautiful savanna views and rugged panoramas along the way.
The trek down Ijen’s rocky slopes took a toll on my legs. By the time we arrived back at the base camp my feet felt like they were on fire!
Do I have any regrets in climbing Ijen Crater? Not at all. It was one hell of a climb and the experience was frightening yet exhilarating. If there is a next time, I may even try out an “Ijen taxi” for part of the way so that the miners can earn some extra cash!
Trekking shoes: A sturdy pair with good traction, preferably a size or two bigger so that they won’t pinch.
Gas mask: An essential item if you plan to descend into the crater. These can be rented at the base camp. If you go through a tour agency, gas masks are usually included in the package.
Headlamp: These are essential for night trekking to Kawah Ijen as there is no lighting along the track or down into the caldera. A headlamp is preferred to a torch light leaving your hands free for climbing purposes.
Drinking water: You can get easily dehydrated from climbing and the low temperatures. Water should be taken sparingly so that you don’t need to look for a toilet. After Paltuding base camp, there are no toilets unless you don’t mind visiting a “bush toilet”.
Trekking pole: Useful in navigating the steep slopes.
Experienced guide: This is one visit where you need a competent and experienced guide to lead you up and down safely.
Insurance. The rocky, steep terrain and reduced visibility especially at night increases risk levels.