Have you tried hiking to a volcano crater at midnight, an uphill climb of 3-4 kilometers and at 11 degrees Celsius?
I have, in Kawah Ijen (Ijen Crater) here in East Java.
I can definitely say it’s been the highlight of my Indonesia trip so far, despite the early call time, the steepness of the slope, the sting of sulfur fumes, and the slightly dangerous trek going down to the bottom of the crater.
I’ve hiked up mountains countless times before, and some with similar challenges, but there’s a couple of things that set the Ijen volcano complex apart: its blue flame and the sulfur miners.
Miners have been harvesting sulfur blocks in Kawah Ijen (2148 meters above sea level) for a long time — much in demand in the oil-refining business and the production of medicinal soaps and fertilizers — but it wasn’t until 2014, when a French photographer, Olivier Grunewald, released photos of Kawah Ijen that tourists began flocking to the area at midnight to see the blue flame.
Unlike what other websites are saying, it’s not the lava itself that’s colored blue, though. Kawah Ijen’s lava is the same as any other volcano.
The blue flame is produced when sulfur gas erupts from the rock face and encounters oxygen. It immediately burns with blue flame, and when it cools, it hardens to yellow sulfuric rock that miners break up and carry up the mountainside.
Our group of Indonesian and international media influencers arrived at the campsite of Kawah Ijen at 2am. I was surprised at the number of people there; there must have been hundreds!
After our guide told us what to expect, I teamed up with friends to start the hike. I’m middle-of-the-packer, so I was soon left behind by the fast hikers, and left my slower friends behind as well.
It took me an hour and 45 minutes to get reunited with my faster friends at the rim of the crater, and we found a few men there renting gas masks.
We had been given dust masks — the thin, white ones similar to the ones used in hospitals — but if you want to go down to the crater, it’s highly recommended to get the gas masks. Rent is IDR50,000 (around US$4) and it’s totally worth it!
After asking several people around (by this time, we had already lost our guide; we assumed he was with the slower hikers), we then decided to go down to the bottom of the crater to see the blue flame up close.
The trail is rocky, narrow, and can be dangerous if you don’t have a light source. There were also hundreds of people going up and down, so rushing was out of the question.
Every now and then, we also met sulfur miners going up, each carrying two big baskets of sulfur, and cleared the way for them. If we were already having a hard time with just the clothes on our backs, how much more difficult was it for them with 75 to 90 kilos of rocks on their back?
My one regret was I didn’t bring extra money. I only brought enough to pay for the gas mask. I would have bought a few of the sulfur figurines that the miners were selling at IDR10,000 (US 75 cents) to at least help them out.
When we got to the bottom of the crater, just before the lake, we were almost overcome by the sulfur smoke that the wind tossed our way every now and then. My eyes teared up, and even with the gas mask, I had difficulty breathing.
Maybe it was because I was a bit sick (with colds and cough), but I couldn’t imagine how the miners could keep on working there without using goggles and gas mask. I asked one why he didn’t use a mask, and he just pointed to the cigarette he was smoking. Does smoking help with the sulfur fumes? Or was he saying that he was used to it?
Aside from the steepness of the slope going up to the rim from the crater, and the constant inhalation of the toxic fumes, there is one other risk that miners face every day just to earn around US$13 — occasional gas releases or phreatic eruptions (steam-driven explosions) that can kill, and have actually killed, miners.
With all these depressing facts, is it worth it to go hiking to Ijen Crater?
Looking down from the rim and into the crater gives one the feeling of being in another world. The beauty is stark, but it is there.
Seeing the miners lug those rocks up the mountain can also make you realize how strong the human spirit can be. No matter how hard the work, no matter how dangerous, people can do it to survive.
I didn’t get to see the turquoise waters of the Ijen lake — said to be the biggest highly acidic lake in the world — because we left soon after sunrise and the sulfur gases covered most of the area. You can probably see it if you stay until midday.
That said, here are a few tips to make your trip hiking to Ijen Crater a safe one.
Tips for Hiking to Ijen Crater
- Don’t go down the crater if you have respiratory problems. The gas fumes can be really strong, and if you have asthma or have difficulty breathing sometimes, it can be dangerous for your health to go down there.
- Get a guide. Sure, you can do this trek yourself by just following other people, but with a local guide, you can get a sense of history of the place, and have someone to help you figure out where to go and what to do.
- Rent the gas mask. Trust me, you’ll need it.
- Bring a head lamp or rent one. There is no light source anywhere in the area, so you definitely need a flashlight, or better yet, a head lamp.
- Wear appropriate attire. It can get quite cold there, so having a winter jacket would help. It’s also a must to wear proper hiking shoes. No sandals please!
- Have a hiking buddy. Make sure to team up with someone especially if going down the crater. You would want someone you know by your side if you trip and fall down the cliff! (Make sure though that it doesn’t happen to you!)
- Bring money in small denominations. Those miners only earn $13 or so per day, by carrying heavy sulfur rocks up and down the mountain. Some of them sell sulfur figurines. For the love of God, buy at least one! If you also ask a miner to pose with you for a photo, give a tip.
- Drink hot chocolate, coffee, or tea at the canteen almost halfway to the rim. When going down, stop at the canteen and order some tea (only IDR5,000 or less than 40 cents) or a bit of snacks. You’ll be helping the local storekeeper.
If you want to know more about Kawah Ijen and the sulfur miners, watch this BBC documentary.
You can also read here the health effects of repeated and long-term exposure to sulfur dioxide: Public Health Statement for Sulfur Dioxide.
Have you gone hiking to Ijen Crater (Kawah Ijen)? Would you want to?
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Wow, what a nice experience, would really love to go there ad take photos my self. Thanks for sharing this
Wow what an experience to hike a volcano crater! Especially one that requires a gas mask. Thank you for sharing this unique activity!
Blue flame – wow. This is absolutely incredible and I was thankful for the explanation about how it came to be. I would love to do this, having climbed Mt Etna in Sicily (an active volcano) but at the same time, I’d be a little apprehensive about going down into a volcano. I’m also allergic to sulphur so would definitely need to hire a mask! A bargain at $4. Loved your comment about buying something from the local shopkeeper, this is the type of thing we always do.
This is terrific! You went on even with your eyes tearing up and difficulty in breathing? Kudos to you.
Wasn’t a volcano crater, but I did the summit of Kilimanjaro at midnight and it was coooold!! As you said, despite the difficulty and the discomfort, it was a highlight of my trip at the time. But wow, what an adventure to have ventured into the crater of an active volcano! I can’t even imagine how overwhelming the sulfur smoke must have been – gas masks were a wise purchase! I too am amazed at how the miners go into that everyday without googles or masks.
I’ve never seen anything as surreal as that blue flame – what an experience!
This looks like an amazing experience hiking the Ijen Crater the blue fame is beautiful. I didn’t know there were even volcanoes like this! I would love to see this, but don’t if I could cope with sulfur smell!
This is totally crazy! I have actually climbed an erupting volcano called Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands in Italy. Red, molten lava shoots up in to the air but to see it you have to be on the ridge after dark. I didn’t really notice any sulfur gases or smells though when I did the trek.
Those poor miners working with those toxic gases everyday have to be shortening their lifespan. And for such a little wage.
It seems like such a once-in-a-lifetime experience. How incredible. We have been wanting to go back to Indonesia ever since we had a day trip in Bali from a cruise ship last year. How effective are the gas masks? My daughter is allergic to sulphur (a pity, because I think she is both the most able and the most eager to do something like this) and can’t even visit New Zealand’s Rotorua for long periods of time.
What a lovely post. I may never go there but you virtually took me there. I would love to buy those sulfur sculptures & they are so cheap. Do you get them outside of the mining area or crater?
Wow! What an adventure! I just came back from Indonesia. Unfortunately, we did not have time to hike up this volcano. I found Java Island much more interesting and auhentic than Bali. Hopefully, I will get to go back there soon enough to use your tips! How crazy is it that they ask you to wear a mask, but local miners seem not to care about their lungs…
OMG, what an adventure! You are a very brave woman. That sulphur cloud does look pretty toxic. But the 11 degrees must have been bliss, no? I always think that Indonesia is a little bit too hot. 🙂 I have been thinking for a while if I would do the hike myself. If I would get a chance to see the blue flame then definitely yes. Otherwise, probably not. Quite the experience!
I love your blog! I didn’t know there was a tourist attraction such as this in Indonesia.
The photos of the place were breathtaking! Although you really need to wear a face mask because sulfur really is dangerous. But there is a saying, “Some beautiful things do come with danger”, though.
It amazed me that the miners didn’t wear masks or goggles. I can’t imagine how they could take it day in and day out.
Yes, buy something from the locals and tip them when you take photos with them, please!
You are doing things I can only imagine. Way to go.
It bugs me when people ask the miners to stop and pose for a photo but just say thank you. Even a few US cents would already help them!
Bongga! Want to visit Indonesia too. Hope to join next time mukhang masaya 😀 #CommentPaMore
You would definitely enjoy Indonesia, Mica. Aside from Ijen, I loved our time in Lombok too.
What a place to have that unique experience Aleah!
Now I wish I go there whenever I go to Indonesia next. 🙂
Thanks for this exhaustive post. Your pictures say a lot.
Thanks, Nisha. I hope you can take the hike too. It’s not so hard a hike and there are a lot of realizations to be had there. 🙂
What an amazing experience!!!
It was. Thanks for dropping by my blog!
Unique experience to have … when I make it back to Indonesia, I’ll have to check this out!
Definitely a good experience!