Fire & Brimstone: Descent into Mount Ijen

During the evening after our return from Semeru, Sean had made several phone calls and arranged a jeep ride from Ranu Pane to Banyuwangi for the following day. At $55 each it was very expensive but our only other option was a precarious ojek (motorbike) ride through the mud and rain while balancing our heavy bags. Thomas, the son of the woman we were staying with, picked us up the following morning. The 6 hour drive was quite uneventful, save for a winding stretch of road where people squatted on both sides. We were wondering what on earth they were doing on the sides of the narrow highway until we saw coins flying out of the vehicles ahead of us, which the beggars would then dodge speeding traffic to collect. Upon arrival in Banyuwangi we booked a driver to Mount Ijen for late that night, keeping with our new whirlwind trend of “be on top of a volcano by sunrise.” The room wasn’t one of the better ones we had stayed in and I was relieved I had to rest my head on the blackened pillow for only 3 hours before rising again.

We awoke at midnight so exhausted that Sean even suggested cancelling, but we caught our ride to Ijen and were we ever glad we did. The reason we were heading to the volcano in the dead of night was to see the famed blue flame it emits; a product of the volcano’s sulphurous gases and only visible before dawn. We arrived at about 1:30 in the morning and in the black of night we began our hike up the path to the top. It was steep and sandy, which was somewhat difficult as I wore sandals instead of boots because of the blisters covering my heels, a souvenir from hiking in the rain up Semeru. I had no right to complain however, as Ijen is also famous for the horrific conditions endured by the men who mine sulphur by hand from its gaseous crater (if you’re interested you can learn more in this 10 minute BBC documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQULD1GRoGw.) Early into the hike we were accompanied by one of these friendly miners, who was on his way to the top with empty baskets for the first of his two daily trips into the dangerous mine. Speaking to him in Indonesian, Sean learned he was 33 years old, with a son and daughter. He carries up to 90 kg of sulphur per trip, and works until 10 in the morning every day. On the way up we could already feel our eyes and lungs prickling as the wind periodically wafted sulphur fumes our way, and we could only imagine how much stronger the fumes would get.  After about an hour of walking alongside him we came to the top of the crater, where we caught our first glimpse of the blue flame below. The walk down into the crater was steep and rocky, and despite how slow I was in my sandals the miner stayed with us, showing us the path and periodically warning us to be careful. Occasionally we stepped aside for a miner already making his way back up with a full load of sulphur balanced over his shoulders, painstakingly inching his way up the rocky path.

When we reached the floor of the crater we tipped our impromptu guide and watched him disappear into a thick cloud of sulphur smoke, behind which we could hear ghostly figures clinking away at the sulphur deposits. An inferno of tall blue flames streamed out of an unseen vent just beyond the miners in front of us with a powerful and ominous hiss. We had a good view of the whole scene through the dancing plumes of thick sulphurous smoke, until the wind changed and we watched the towering plume turn and head directly for us. With nowhere to go we watched it’s slow and inevitable descent upon us and as we were enveloped by the fumes we were immediately choked. There was nothing to do but wait for the wind to change again so we leaned on a boulder with streaming eyes and burning throats, coughing through our bandanas which offered little protection. It is really unbelievable that the miners of Ijen endure such miserable conditions day after day while performing back-breaking work. As the fumes weakened momentarily we gave up our ideas of approaching the flames closer and climbed out of the crater through still unbearably gaseous air as fast as the stream of descending tourists allowed. It was an insane contrast to see men burdened with nearly 100 kg of freshly mined sulphur, for which they would be paid a pittance, struggling against the crowds of tourists toting expensive digital cameras. Some pulled small yellow carvings they had moulded from sulphur out of their pockets, which we declined only because we feared what would happen if we tried to take them on a plane.

As we reached the lip of the crater we gratefully gulped fresh air and continued further up to the look-out point. We reached the highest peak of the crater just as the first rays of sunlight began to reveal how enormous it really was. We watched the crescent moon rise quickly behind a hill silhouetted behind us as lightening illuminated tall storm clouds in a scattered pattern all across the horizon. The accompanying thunder was interspersed with the echoing booms of rock falls from within the volcano. Standing on a sandy lip dotted with shrubs and small trees the rising sun revealed the vast crater lake directly below us, streaked in places with a yellowish-green. We had read that during high volcanic activity the lake visibly bubbles. Rising straight up out of the lake was the jagged crater; one eroded section perfectly framed a second volcano emitting a stream of smoke in the distance. From our secluded vantage point the yellow sulphur deposits where the miners toiled away looked miniscule in comparison to the giant volcano, but the opaque clouds of smoke constantly emitted were of a scale impossibly larger than their source. We took our time relishing yet another surreal experience and realized how lucky we were to have glimpsed the lake at all as it was completely enshrouded from view as the smoke plumes settled over it while we began our descent.

In the daylight we discovered the path we had taken up to the crater wound through a recently burned forest and much of the rocks and sand we walked on were vivid hues of pink, purple and yellow. Along the way we caught up to several miners shuffling down the path carrying mountains of sulphur in their baskets. One fellow even had fresh blood soaking through his jacket at the shoulders where the wooden bar that supported the immense load must have been tearing right through his skin.  The trail was extremely steep and sandy and we saw a few of the hundreds of tourists lose their footing and shriek as they hit the ground. We even got a peek at some long-tailed macaques feeding in some trees alongside the path before returning to the jeep.

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