Fire and Brimstone in Ijen

After a too brief nap, we were awake at midnight and headed up to Ijen Crater in the now familiar 4×4. It seemed like this was going to be one of those places which is nice, but potentially spoiled by having to share it with a bunch of other tourists. Luckily we had been advised that if we headed out at midnight (most tours start at 1am), we would be earlier to the sights, and also have more time for the hike up the mountain as we didn’t want to be rushed. Surprisingly, even though we had disturbed our sleep schedules pretty well the past night, we were quite sprightly.

The first part of the path on the way up with quite steep and very very dusty, as they hadn’t had any rain in a few months. Chris had some theory about a “perfect walking rate” for him to ascend the slopes, which meant that he would race ahead and then pause for Anam and I to catch up. I eventually made him stick close, because slow and steady wins the race, yo. As we climbed we were again treated to beautiful night skies as the mountain has little human development. Chris got hot and had to strip down to his t-shirt, which our guide said was impressive as he would never take off his multiple layers (15 degrees is freezing for people here). We made it to a little cafe (closed at night, but where you can get coffee/tea during the day) where Anam showed us some photographs of sulphur miners in the window. Apparently there used to be over 300 sulphur miners here, but no one wants to do the low paying and back breaking work anymore, so now there are around half that amount. It is free for the miners to take as much as they can carry. They perform an important role in keeping the pipes which run down deep into crater clear so that there are no blockages and pressure issues. Anam said they recently have been allowed to use hand trolleys to transport the sulphur down the mountain. Oh goody. If this was in the West I’m pretty sure there would be some kind of mechanization of this process, and probably a huge plant. But then again, they probably wouldn’t allow tourists to wander around either.

Sulphur!
Sulphur!

The miners are divided into two shifts, a day and a night shift. Contrary to what you might think, the night shift is the preferable one, as A) it is way less hot – probably a better temperature for hard labor and B) if you are working at night and see one of the many tourists taking a picture of you, you can go harass him for money. Anam told us that we should probably just take pictures of the miners while they worked to avoid that situation. He also had brought a ton of tamarind flavoured candies hidden in his pockets. If we passed a hiker who seemed to be struggling, or a miner with a nasty cough, they would receive a candy.

After a bit of a slog, we made it to the top, a.k.a. the place where they have a sign telling you not to go there.

Uh oh.
Uh oh.

We had already put on the gas masks that Anam had supplied to us as we got close because the sulphur smell was quite strong, but the sign reinforced their mandatory-ness. We then started the steep and rocky descent into the crater to see the action. Chris was wearing his toe shoes (of course) but unlike any time he crosses a river, he seemed to maintain his footing. Anam fell once, but seemed more embarrassed when he saw our concerned faces than anything else. He told us that was the first time he has slipped. We passed a few miners carrying sulphur loads up from the crater floor on the traditional two basket stick thingy. Based on our careful climb down, I’d say climbing up with ~90kg of sulphur would be a pretty difficult task. If we passed a resting miner, he sometimes would offer us a carved piece of sulphur as a souvenir. Unfortunately, Anam was pretty sure pure sulphur chunks aren’t allowed on airplanes due to their inflammable nature, so we had to refuse.

Lookin' like ravers.
Lookin’ like ravers.

Once we started to near the crater floor, we could see blue flashes of light, partially obscured by swirling sulphur gas/steam clouds (I assume). This is the fabled “blue flame”. Sulphuric gases released from the volcano combust when they meet air, causing the intense blue colour. This is why we walked up a mountain all night (you can’t see the flame during the day). Apparently Ijen is one of like, two places in the world where you can witness this phenomenon.

A hiker approaching the famous blue flame.
A hiker approaching the famous blue flame.

We could see some miners hacking away at fresh bright yellow sulphur deposits (deposited by the pipes). In the dim light, with the swirling clouds and bright colours, it was a pretty surreal scene. The sulphuric gas condenses in the pipes, comes out as liquid and then rapidly cools, at which point it can be broken into transportable amounts.

A sulphur miner in the dark.
A sulphur miner in the dark.

Near where that is going on is a “sulphur lake”. The lake is water, but with lots of dissolved sulphur in it. Due to the geothermal activity, the deeper you go, the hotter it gets until it is something like 80 degrees celsius. We stuck a finger in at the manageable surface temperature. Apparently locals will collect bottles of the water and use it as a kind of facial cleansing solution, as it’s supposed to help with acne.

After turning back and snapping some more pictures of miners we started the rocky road back up out of the crater. Here, we realized the benefits to going earlier, as there were a ton of tourists climbing down the track now, like a lit up ant parade. It is so much easier to climb down when you aren’t waiting for the guy in front of you to finish fiddling with his camera, or fixing his trekking pole, or what not. It made us realize that perhaps the night shift isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – yeah you can hassle tourists for money, but it is a heck of a lot harder to carry your sulphur load up with the tourists clambering everywhere. We even saw a girl making her way down with a stereo backpack pumping the dubstep – until she fell on some shale.

A sulphur miner surrounded by many tourists.
A sulphur miner surrounded by many tourists.

After we again reached the summit, we turned and continued along scrub land, following little trails in the rock. Our plan was to watch the sunrise. As it had taken us about an hour to do the crater down/up, it was ~4AM – plenty of time. At one point, Anam stopped and started yanking on some giant desiccated tree across the trail. “For a fire”, he said. We were a little chilled so that sounded great. With some help from Chris, they managed to free the tree and Anam carted it a few more minutes until we reached the other side of the ridge. There were a couple run down walls here and a building with walls on three sides (no roof). I guess this was a Dutch fortress before, as it has an imposing view over the coast. While we huddled in the building, Anam and a couple other guides that arrived with their groups set to the task of making a big bonfire. A few well placed whacks with a machete made short work of the tree. Then we settled in with our cookie snacks to wait for sunrise. As we struggled to keep our eyes open, more of the tourist train arrived.

The sunrise was quite nice, although it was even cooler to finally be able to see the huge crater edge that we were standing on. Chris was basically asleep at this point but I made him get up to take some photos.

Sunrise.
Sunrise.
Morning at the crater's edge.
Morning at the crater’s edge.

Then we headed back down the mountain, where we were able to enjoy all the scenery we couldn’t appreciate in the dark.

Above the clouds!
Above the clouds!
Sulphur steam over the lake.
Sulphur steam over the lake.

Anam left a few times to answer the call of nature, but the path is so well defined (and such a dustbowl really) that wasn’t an issue. Several European guys jogged down past us, which raised plumes of dust that settled very slowly. Not very nice for the older people and other tourists beginning the hike up. And since it wasn’t nice for us either, Anam gave us surgical masks. This made Chris very excited as now we were proper Asians (you see people wearing these everywhere, especially on motorbikes). Except Chris’s couldn’t quite contain the beard haha.

Rockin' the mask.
Rockin’ the mask.
Christopher's beard is a little big for the mask...
Christopher’s beard is a little big for the mask…

After an uneventful descent and drive back, we had to pack up and go, as we were off! To Bali!

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