A few years ago, while watching an episode of the BBC’s Human Planet, I remember being struck by a scene that featured sulfur miners undertaking a treacherous journey into Indonesia’s active Kawah Ijen Volcano. The video footage was breathtaking, but the hike into the crater seemed so perilous that I figured I would never be able to see the volcano’s turquoise lake with my own eyes.
While researching things to do in Indonesia, however, I learned that not only could I visit Kawah Ijen to see its turquoise lake, but I could also witness one of nature’s most incredible natural phenomena–a firework display of blue flames rippling up the walls of the volcano’s crater.
I immediately knew I had to incorporate the Kawah Ijen Volcano into my three-week Indonesia itinerary.
Courtney and I visited Kawah Ijen on the morning following our Mount Bromo sunrise tour. Like the hike I’d done a few years prior in Italy’s Monti Sibillini National Park, we planned to begin walking in the middle of the night so that we could reach the crater’s rim by sunrise.
It is possible to hike Kawah Ijen without a tour and, for the second time in as many days, Courtney and I debated the merits of participating in the organized hike versus traveling independently. And for the second time, due to the very little difference in price, we betrayed our personal preferences for independent travel and opted for an organized excursion instead.
Our tour included transport from Bromo to Ijen, accommodation near the Ijen Volcano for one night, a guided crater hike the following morning and onward transport to the Ketapang ferry terminal near Banyuwangi.
After we took a short nap at our hotel, our van driver picked us up at midnight and brought us to the trailhead. From there, a guide provided us each with gas masks and led us up a well-marked trail to the lip of the Ijen Crater. Then, in complete darkness, we descended down a steep and rocky path toward the billowing smoke.
Though I was having trouble breathing amidst the noxious fumes, the flickering curtain of blue fire lured me closer and closer.
The Kawah Ijen Volcano is famous for its lakeside solfatara that emits sulfuric gases. These gases ignite in electric blue flames as they enter Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. The flames are difficult to see during the day, but they illuminate the landscape at night.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first caught a glimpse of the fire. The display was spectacular. I’d never seen anything quite like it in my life.
I knelt down near the flames and attempted to take a few photos. Winds blew the smoke in all directions and nearly suffocated us on numerous occasions. Even with my gas mask, there were moments in which the toxic fumes enveloped me so intensely that I had the temporary fear I might die of asphyxiation.
In moments when the smoke subsided, however, my fear gave way to amazement. I knelt by the fire and attempted to record a video of the flickering cobalt flames.
We only spent a few minutes by the fire before making our way out of the crater and away from the smothering smoke–coughing and gasping for air. The poisonous gases were just too overwhelming.
Once we reached the top of the crater, we perched on a rocky outcrop for sunrise and admired the 360 degree views around us.
From the volcano’s rim, we could see Kawah Ijen’s spectacular turquoise lake. The volcano’s lake is the world’s largest highly acidic lake. With a PH level of .5, its mineral-rich water is more acidic than battery acid.
As we watched the sunrise, we admired the yellow sulfuric gases that rose from the lakeside solfatara.
When the sulfuric steam rises out of the fumaroles and into the cold air, it condenses, falls to the ground in liquid form and eventually solidifies into mineral sulfur.
Each night, sulfur miners work in the dark, using metal poles to break large chunks of yellow sulfur off the crater floor. Few jobs in the world are more hazardous, for the clouds of gray and yellow smoke that belch out of the crater are suffocating and poisonous.
And yet, the miners often descend into the crater with little more than a rag over their mouths and noses. They carry up to 200 pounds on their backs and make the arduous trek in and out of the crater twice a day. It is a back-breaking journey. Literally.
We watched the sulfur miners ascend out of the smoking crater, until our guide summoned us back down the mountainside.
As we walked back down the mountain toward our van, we were amazed by the beauty of the scenery we had unknowingly hiked through during the night. The trail hugged emerald mountainsides and passed alongside mist-shrouded volcanoes.
From the Kawah Ijen Volcano, we began the last leg of our journey across Java. It was an epic adventure that kept our eyes peeled open and our adrenaline pumping. From the thunderous roars of Mount Bromo to trekking into the depths of one of Earth’s most dangerous craters, our cross-Java road trip was an adventure I am unlikely to ever forget.
But, after our seventeen hour bus journey from Yogyakarta, waking up in the middle of the night on two consecutive days nearly broke us. We were tired to the point of exhaustion and craving a clean bed, a hot shower and no morning alarms.
Needless to say, we were ready for a few relaxing days on the island of Bali.
Note: For more information on hiking the volcano without a tour, visit Lili’s practical guide to Kawah Ijen.