Kawah Ijen Volcano: Blue Fire and Sulfur Miners

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.

kawah-ijen-blue-fire

The Kawah Ijen Volcano’s Blue Fire

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.

rim-of-the-kawah-ijen-volcano-indonesia

Rim of the Kawah Ijen Volcano

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.

kawah-ijen-volcano-crater-lake

The Kawah Ijen Volcano’s Crater Lake

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.

  yellow-sulfur-kawah-ijen toxic-gases-kawah-ijen

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.

kawah-ijen-volcano-sulfur-miners

Sulfur Miners, Kawah Ijen Volcano

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.

mountains-around-kawah-ijen-volcano

Mountains around Kawah Ijen

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.

Erika Bisbocci

Erika Bisbocci

Erika is an avid traveler and explorer of over seventy countries on five different continents. Since 2011, she has spent time studying Arabic in the Middle East, teaching English in Namibia and working as a flight attendant for a major US airline. When not traveling overseas, she loves exploring her own backyard in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
Erika Bisbocci

About Erika Bisbocci

Erika is an avid traveler and explorer of over seventy countries on five different continents. Since 2011, she has spent time studying Arabic in the Middle East, teaching English in Namibia and working as a flight attendant for a major US airline. When not traveling overseas, she loves exploring her own backyard in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

48 Comments

  1. What an incredible experience!

  2. Beautiful pictures and narrative.

  3. Wow, what stunning imagery! I’d love to experience this for myself!
    Jamie recently posted…How to Start Language Learning (No Matter Your Level)My Profile

  4. Wow, that is some adventure travel. Your photos are amazing!! And it sounds like you planned this trip right…hard work first, then relaxation in Bali!

  5. That looks gorgeous! I wish I was fit enough to hike that. Looks like I need to start working out haha!

  6. My goodness, I’ve never heard of sulfur miners. Those blue flames were amazing!

  7. What an incredible experience you’ve had! That blue fire looks so cool…especially seeing it glow in the dark. I really love traveling through Indonesia, and exploring fascinating nature such as this. This is going on my list now. Thanks for sharing!

  8. This is incredibly cool. I find it hard to visit places like this. Did you find it hard going watching the miners do their job?

  9. Kathryn Burrington

    That sounds like quite the adventure! But it must be terrible for those miners, sounds awful for them. I’m sure they are glad they have a job but I dread to think how long term exposure it these fumes affects their health.
    Kathryn Burrington recently posted…Appetite inducing VancouverMy Profile

    • I can only imagine how hazardous the job is for their health. Unfortunately the job pays better than most jobs in the area (still only about $15/day), so miners are willing to put their lives at risk to support their families.

  10. It looks like this volcano was very scenic and the crater was beautiful. I climbed Mount Fuji in Japan and it wasn’t as scenic.

  11. I am so jealous!!!! I hiked Rinjani while I was in Indonesia, but never made it here! Seriously so amazing, congrats on making it!! 🙂

  12. This is so amazing! Absolutely breathtaking! Now THIS is on my bucket list! Thanks! 😉

  13. Those flames are amazing, and the turquoise water just perfect. What an amazing experience, and I love Human Planet!

  14. I have never hiked an active volcano before (I did Etna, but that doesn’t really count as everything is so well organised and modern there, including a cable car). It looks breathtaking and I can understand why those people are risking their lives to get inside twice a day… for their families.

  15. That hike must have been an incredible experience! Your photos are beautiful but what caught my attention the most were the sulfur miners. Seeing how those miners work must have left a big impression on you. Amazing how those people work in such circumstances. Do you know in what way it effects their health?

    • It definitely did leave an impression on me. I can only imagine how terrible the toxic gases are for their health, though I don’t know specifics about the longterm health effects.

  16. You are a brave one. I’m starting to hike more often but I honestly didn’t have a clue that you could hike an active volcano. After your exhausting hike I would’ve loved a few days in Bali too! Haha.

  17. So awesome! I only wished we knew about this before our trip to Mt. Bromo.

  18. Had no idea this place existed. I must of missed that episode of Planet Earth (a fave of mine). Blue lava, an acidic lake…what a bizarre volcano, making it truly unique. Definitely looked like it was worth the trek!

  19. This looks like an absolutely amazing experience! I’ve read a lot about trekking this road but I think I wouldn’t let this pass!

  20. This is no doubt an incredible experience, and it is a very dangerous job to be a sulphur collector.

  21. What an experience! Don’t think I’d be so brave but I’m so glad you and your camera made it out to share.

  22. The Kawah Ijen Volcano looks amazing – especially the Blue lake. But, indeed traveling is also a way to discover things that are sometimes left out or not so familiar worldwide. Those toxic gases are definitely not good for the workers.
    Lori recently posted…Mickey Mouse on an airplane at the Aviation Museum in BucharestMy Profile

  23. What an adventure Erika!!
    I spent the last month travelling around Indonesia, and Kawah Ijen was on my list, but didn’t have the time to do it. I went all the way to Borneo and Sulawesi, with some serious climbing and hiking, but I’m sure nothing compares with Ijen, the blue flames and the view from the acid lake! Well done!
    Cheers,
    Nat
    Natalie Deduck recently posted…Tanjung Puting National Park » An Incredible Trekking Experience with Wild OrangutansMy Profile

  24. Beautiful photos of an area that looks like it should be alot more well known than it actually is. I’ve been to other parts of Indonesia but had no idea this region was so lovely.

  25. What a beautiful part of the world! Stunning photos, thanks for sharing 🙂
    Carmen’s Luxury Travel recently posted…5 US Road Trips That Are Highly RecommendedMy Profile

  26. What an incredible place! Loved reading this. Thanks for sharing and happy travels 🙂
    Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren recently posted…3 Beautiful Towns To Explore In San Diego County [+VIDEO]My Profile

  27. What a rough, but incredible journey! I want to spend a month in Indonesia when I’m all finished with my contract. This would be an experience to remember. I’m so overwhelmingly interested in volcanoes!

  28. Looks like an incredible experience. Loved your pictures too :). I hope to get to Indonesia one day…
    Cristina recently posted…A backpacker’s dream – Jericoacoara, BrazilMy Profile

  29. Wow. I absolutely want to do this. Volcanoes have always been my on my cool list (with tornados and dinosaurs). Actually taking a trek into an active volcano would completely entertain the little boy in me. I want to go NOW!!! (says the little boy in my). Loved the subject of this piece and your telling of the story.

  30. Almost all of active volcanos erupts with yellow and red fire but Kawah Ijen volcano is blue which is very unique. This is my first time hearing about this. This Indonesian itinerary is worth reading for. Thanks

  31. What a beautiful place. Blue fire wow. What a trek, it makes me want to explore volcanos…great adventure, great post!

  32. Wow. what an incredible experience! So astonishing that it erupts with blue flames. But it sounds like quite a trek. I think I need to work on my fitness levels before I can undertake this. In fact i don’t think i have ever climbed a Volcano… hmmm. Need to add that to my Bucketlist

  33. It looks so beautiful and like such a great challenge. Are you happy in the end that you went for the guided tour? I know you said that there wasn’t a big cost difference but did you find it was worthwhile in terms of adding to your experience?

  34. Indonesia has been towards the top of my lists to visit since I haven’t been yet. Great post, you had an amazing adventure!

  35. Amazing blog Erika! traveler myself and love to read about other people travels! keep blogging and good luck!

  36. What hard work those miners have to do. I like the looks of the place but l don’t know if l would have liked being near the fire. Brave of you 🙂

  37. I can understand that the gases were totally overwhelming. I love volcanos, it is absolutly amazing experience but the smell can be unbearable 🙂
    Anita Zych recently posted…Israel / Palestine Conflict – Trip to PalestineMy Profile

  38. Hiking the volcano sounds incredible and terrifying at the same time! The pictures and the narrative are beautiful. Great post!

  39. I feel so sad for the miners. How much they risk for their daily bread! Just a rag to cover their noses. 🙁
    Beautiful scenic views.

  40. This does look like an awesome – and dangerous – experience!

  41. What an incredible experience! Those blue flames would have been even better to see in person. You’re very lucky!

  42. Wow!! SO cool!! When I go to Hawaii, I’ll be sure to go here!!!

  43. This truly looks like an amazing volcano. The pics of the blue fire are incredible! Indonesia has been on my bucket list for ages and now this has reinforced its place on there!

  44. Lia @ Practical Wanderlust

    What a unique hike! I’ve visited Lassen Volcanic Park in California but it was nothing like this. Wow!

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