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: 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.


Lava on Top of Java: The Ascent of Mount Semeru

After a filling breakfast of nasi goreng (fried rice complete with a drumstick at 7 am) we headed with our guide Nadi to the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park office to pay entrance fees of about $20 each, which we soon felt bitter about as we walked past copious quantities of litter throughout the park, sometimes discovering large dump sites of garbage. There was not a single outhouse to be found so human waste was as equally abundant. Between the park office and the actual entrance to the park we passed farmland on the outskirts of Ranu Pane; many of the vegetable fields were planted in perfect rows on unbelievably steep slopes of at least 30 degrees. The agricultural terracing practices so common to other hilly areas were nowhere to be seen. Our hike within the park itself began on a stone path often shaded by tunnels of vegetation we sometimes struggled to squeeze through with our large bags. Before long we stood over a pretty scene of a bright green saddle overlooking a lake, but couldn’t capture it in a picture as the usual rainy season downpour had started and we had squirreled our cameras away in our bags hoping to prevent them from becoming as soaked as we were. Beyond the saddle we walked through a large meadow and made a tiring climb through a recently burnt forest stand, arriving at the Kalimati camp by two in the afternoon. On the way we saw large clouds of brown smoke following the distant rumbles of eruptions, our only indication of Semeru’s location in the thick cloud.

Most itineraries are built around camping at Kalimati and climbing another 5 hours through the night to reach the summit of Semeru for sunrise, but the camping area was full of ascending Indonesians and to our horror a few immediately approached us for pictures. Besides not wanting to be the centre of attention all night (or ever again after Borobodur), we didn’t want to sit around for the rest of the afternoon, especially when we could shave off a couple hours of the night’s ascent by continuing to the last camp, Arcopodo. Explaining this to Nadi however was a lot easier said than done. He had already made it clear that guiding us was the last thing he wanted to be doing, and we regretted hiring him even more as the trail was so clearly marked, unlike the descriptions in the overdramatized reviews which had persuaded us to hire a guide, something we rarely do. Finally, we made an arrangement for him to stay at Kalimati where there were sleeping shelters and planned to rendezvous with him in the early morning for the hike to the summit.

We had no trouble getting to Arcopodo with plenty of afternoon to spare and were relieved to get out of our drenched clothing and into the tent we had rented from our guesthouse. After spending the evening studying Indonesian and enjoying some (real!) chocolates Sean had sneakily bought me for Christmas during our last airport layover, we did our best to try and sleep despite repeated explosions from Semeru’s peak looming only a few hundred metres above us. The blasts were exponentially stronger and more frequent than they had been in the daylight, sounding like an unseen train barreling above us and making us both excited and nervous to soon be standing at the sight of their origin. The night itself was surreal; camped alone near the top of the active volcano.

After a fitful attempt at sleep we heard Nadi arrive at our secluded campsite at 2 am. Leaving most of our stuff in the tent we hiked up through deeply eroded trails illuminated only by our headlamps. The majority of the 3 hour climb to the summit was above the treeline, on a nearly 45 degree slope in deep volcanic sand; it was so steep and unstable at times I could only advance on all fours. In the pitch black we could see only a few feet ahead of us and the dark silhouette of Semeru’s peak directly above. It seemed exhilaratingly close but we hit false summit after false summit. Part way up we were surprised to discover the shimmering lights of Malang, a city of 800,000 people not far from the base of the volcano; apparently we had felt much more remote than we actually were. The few times we stopped for a short rest it was uncomfortably cold almost immediately, a strange sensation after putting up with the extreme heat for the last few weeks. The sand was so mobile it lacked a defined trail, and when I thoughtlessly steadied myself on one of the many sporadic “volcanic bombs” (large rocks/boulders thrown out of the volcano during previous eruptions) Nadi urgently motioned for us not to touch anything due to the danger of rocks coming loose and tumbling down on the long line of bouncing headlights streaming behind us.

Finally, after an exhausting and frustrating climb the ground hardened enough to quit slipping away beneath every other step and we triumphantly stepped onto the wide plateau of Semeru’s summit. At 3676 m, we were on the highest point on the island of Java. A faint blue light on the horizon in front of us indicated where the sun would soon emerge to warm the cold, windswept peak. Between us and the slowly rising sun the crater of Semeru was silhouetted just below where we stood. Before all the stars had disappeared we witnessed our first eruption, a billow of thick smoke emitted with a thundering rumble, and we even saw bright red magma shooting up out of the crater like oil in a hot frying pan. The long hike was more than worth it and bundled against the cold in all the clothing we had brought we watched a gorgeous sunrise illuminate a sea of towering storm clouds below us; eventually even the distant coastlines of Java were revealed to our left and right. We had the surreal sight and the whole plateau to ourselves for a long time. Behind us in the distance we could see the Tengger crater encircling an ever-smoking Mt. Bromo and a virtual fireworks show of camera flashes from the viewpoint where we had witnessed the previous sunrise. Suddenly the peace was shattered as Semeru came to life once more and we scrambled to take pictures of the second eruption. Shivering against the cold we waited in vain for one final smoke show as the vibrant colours of the sunrise faded and were replaced by other trekkers, all local, arriving on the plateau. We were slightly disappointed Semeru wasn’t nearly as active as it had been during the night, and we witnessed it’s biggest eruption about a third of the way into our descent. In the daylight we could see how impossibly steep our ascent had been and I was happy we had done it in the dark. We skied down it easily, the coarse sand so deep we sank past our ankles.

Back at Arcopodo we broke camp with high spirits, thrilled from our early morning adventure. After yet another helping of ichiban noodles (I never want to see another pack) we began to retrace our steps back to Ranu Pane. It should have been a leisurely hike had we not run out of water in the unrelenting heat. Still unaccustomed to such high temperatures, my feet swelled up like sausages, pressing against the sides of my still soaked boots and blistering badly. Ever-tireless Sean was completely dehydrated, plopping down in the middle of the path exhausted. We had hiked for ten hours from the time we left our tent to the moment we gratefully laid eyes on our guesthouse and were so worn we could hardly argue when Nadi, who had been difficult for the entirety of the excursion, suddenly doubled the price we had expected to pay him. It was our own fault for agreeing on the price with the guesthouse owner but not confirming it with Nadi himself, and we bitterly handed him an extortionate sum for his extremely poor quality of service before collapsing for a much needed rest.

Hail in Jurassic Park

We got up at 2:30 AM to catch the sunrise over the Tengger crater. Most tourists take jeeps across the Sea of Sand and up a 4×4 track to a high point on the crater rim to do so, but to save money we decided to leave earlier and walk there. The dark walk up the road and then onto a small, steep dirt path through the forest took a couple of hours and was a little unpleasant at that awful time of day, but turned out to be totally worth it. We found a grassy hill away from the tourist hordes that we only had to share with a couple of fellow backpackers we had met at the hostel the night before and hiked up with. Soon the sky began to turn brilliant hues of pink and orange and the stunning scene ahead of us was revealed. The Tengger crater rim stretched around in a giant circle into the distance on both sides and within it lay the smaller volcanoes surrounded at their bases by a thick, swirling layer of fog that totally hid the Sea of Sand. Bromo belched a continuous cloud of smoke and Mount Semeru in the distance erupted every 20 minutes or so, sending big plumes of ash and smoke into the air. Our pictures don’t really do it justice, as is so often the case.

After admiring the breathtaking view for an hour or two we headed back down the path and spotted an interesting looking stick insect on a railing beside the path. A little ways further we bumped into Norbert and Ula again who had watched the sunrise from a view point a little farther down the hillside. We had breakfast with them and then said farewell. They were headed back down the mountain to Probolinggo, then on to Yogyakarta and to Sumatra for the holidays. Emily and I had other plans to climb Mount Semeru, one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia. We grabbed our bags from our hostel and headed off hiking across the Sea of Sand. The landscape was really amazing, a barren wasteland of ashen sand dunes covering a huge area to the southwest of Bromo. It had dumped these new layers of ash during fairly large eruptions as recently as 2011, during which time the villages and farms in the area were evacuated. As we circled around the volcano our surroundings became lush and brilliant green with newly establishing ferns and other plants. The giant vertical crater wall circling around to our left made the whole scene look like something out Jurassic Park.

Shortly after this section we began the long but gradual climb east on the road out of the crater and doubled back westward toward Ranu Pani once we reached the top. The main road to Ranu Pani was especially terrifying and I was glad we were walking instead of being in the hands of some crazy Indonesian driver. The road had been built right on the crest of the crater rim, a veritable knifes edge ridge of rock, and the drops down on either side into the jungle must have been about 100 meters. Still vehicles sped along in typical Indonesian fashion and we often had to step off the road into the tiny shoulder to accommodate for two way traffic on the single lane road. Soon thunder boomed over our heads and the skies opened up. We were drenched instantly, but still warm until it started hailing, something I never thought I would see in the tropics, but I guess at that elevation it is possible. We stumbled into the village of Ranu Pani looking like drowned rats at a funeral but were warmly welcomed by the elderly lady running the homestay recommended in our Lonely Planet. Despite a bit of a language barrier we managed to arrange to rent tents and hire a guide for our hike up Mount Semeru the following day.

Peering into the Guts of Mount Bromo

We walked about 300 meters down the road from our hotel to the bus station where we had read vans leave regularly to Cemoro Lawang, the village on the lip of the Tengger crater and overlooking Mount Bromo, Mount Batok and one or two other volcanoes. At the bus station we met Norbert and Ula, a German couple in their fifties who we ended up getting along great with. They were on an amazing sounding 9 month backpacking trip, both on sabbatical. They had started in Australia and were spending a few months traveling across Southeast Asia before flying into Buenos Aries and heading north through South America. Anyways, the vans to Cemoro Lawang only leave when full and Norbert and Ula had been waiting an hour and half or so for an additional 12 people to show up to fill the van, but only Emily and I arrived so far. Not knowing how long we would have to wait we agreed to just split the cost with them to rent the van ourselves and headed up the mountain. We climbed up and up through switchbacks, out of the sweltering lowlands and into cool, green terraced farmlands blanketed in fog. The respite from the heat was invigorating.

We all checked into a cheap homestay and chatted over lunch at a small warung down the street. It turned out Norbert used to be a geologist, a great sort of guy to bump into while visiting a volcano. Once we were done the great meal of nasi goreng and fried bananas we all walked right up to the lip of the Tengger crater and were able to catch glimpses of what lay inside through rapidly blowing masses of fog. The sheer size of the crater is mind boggling. It is about 10 km across from one edge to another, the walls looking themselves like mountain ridges, in places towering several hundred meters above the crater floor. The ancient explosion that created it must have been enormous indeed and would have been of the size to have almost certainly significantly affected the global climate at that time. In the millennia following that gargantuan event volcanic activity has continued in the center of the crater, leading to the formation of several smaller volcanic cones within it, including Mount Bromo and Mount Batok.

We hiked down a steep dirt path and emerged out of the vegetation onto the flat, sandy floor of the crater. The landscape was remarkable, like a grey moonscape of sand, ash and the odd weed, and as flat as a pancake.  As we were walking Norbert picked up a rock and tossed it high into the air. It hit the ground and came to a dead stop in the grey ash and sand, but amazingly made a loud echoing hollow sound as though we were walking on a thin layer with a vast expanse of nothing below it. He explained that the volcanic rock below, and even the sand particles we were standing on are filled with tubes and holes of all sizes and partially hollow due to the gases escaping the lava as it cooled. All these tubes and hollow spaces served to amplify the noise of the rock hitting the ground as the sound waves resonated through them. We walked past an elaborate Hindu temple at the foot of Mount Batok made of intricately carved volcanic stone, before starting to ascend the path up the slope of Bromo. The trail led though some little valleys of loose ash where it was apparent flash floods might race through when it rained heavily. Norbert pointed out many different layers of vegetation in the ash profile as we walked by, each indicating another eruption from the very active Bromo that covered the plants in thick layers of ash. Creepily, the locals had carved spooky looking faces into some of these areas.

The slopes of Bromo were dull and gray and not quite like anything either of us had ever seen, the thick layers of soft ash shaped into a haphazard arrangement of steep sided valleys and ridges by the erosive forces of wind and water. Surprisingly, the locals have built a staircase through this area, all the way up to the edge of the caldera and a cement fence right along the lip. We ran up this in no time and found ourselves looking down into a funnel shaped grey caldera with a giant round hole at the bottom billowing out sulphurous smoke. Masses of plastic bags and other garbage festooned the sides of the crater and I mentioned to Emily that it seemed as though the locals had devised their own waste management system. She informed me that she had read the garbage is actually thrown in for religious reasons and is not garbage at all, but rather offerings to the volcano in an effort to appease the gods and keep it from erupting. At certain times of year the locals throw everything from bags of food, to live chickens, to money into the smoking crater. Apparently poorer local people will actually climb down into the pit and run around trying to catch any money that is thrown in. We made our way along the caldera to a higher point with an even better view into the guts of the volcano. Emily and I were shocked to see a small orange and brown butterfly fluttering about in this blighted place. As we watched and wondered what the small creature could possibly be doing up here on the edge of a volcano the fast moving wind brought a thick bank of cloud to us. It hit the slope just below us and was forced swiftly up and past us, leaving behind condensation on my beard and mustache. We couldn’t see very far in the now thick fog so we descended to where Norbert and Ula were. On the walk back across the sand to Cemoro Lawang we got caught out in a big thunderstorm. Lighting flashed with tropical consistency, thunder boomed and cracked right over heads, and the downpour of rain had us soaked and muddy in no time.

Freak Show Scammers

We headed toward Tengger-Bromo-Semeru National Park from Yogyakarta on the morning of December 14th. The park houses the 10 km wide Tengger volcanic crater, Mount Bromo, Mount Semeru, and a few other volcanoes. Many people book whirlwind 3 day minibus package tours from Yogyakarta to Mount Bromo, then to the Ijen Plateau on onward to Bali but we had done a bit of homework and couldn’t help noticing all the very negative reviews on Tripadvisor and on several blogs warning travelers not to partake in such a tour. Apparently the route is fraught with unscrupulous tour operators that take no shame in grossly overcharging and scamming tourists via a plethora of ridiculous tactics. Some reports talked about mysterious breakdowns in the night in the middle of nowhere beside a conveniently placed, grungy hotel with extortionate prices. Others referred to hidden charges, bags being rifled through, belongings being stolen, and to people being dropped off somewhere other than where they were told they were going. One particularly irate fellow from the UK wrote a rather hilarious, lengthy review of a nightmare trip from Yogyakarta to Bali that we would be soon to recall. Apparently his minibus stopped in an unknown city before Bromo at an “information center” where a very short, squat man and another man with one eye promised him and the other tourists amazing adventures and great times over the next few days. From there his trip descended into what sounded nothing short of chaos involving all of the scams and annoyances I mentioned above and more.

With all this in mind we booked only the minibus transfer from Yogyakarta to Bromo and hoped opting out of the package tour would save us some grief. We were delighted to find that our minibus was only about half full and we had loads of room to stretch out (kind of), that the AC worked (a little bit), and our driver was friendly (sort of) if I talked to him in Indonesian. The other tourists along for the ride had all booked full packages to Ijen or Bali. About 9 or 10 hours into the trip our driver informed us that he was tired and that we would soon stop at an information center where we would be briefed on all the amazing adventures and great times that awaited us at Mount Bromo, and then transfer to another van driven by his friend for the one hour long drive up to the village of Cemoro Lawang inside the national park. Needless to say Emily and I got a little suspicious at that point. We managed to decipher from road signs that we were in the city of Probolinggo, an hour from the park. We pulled up to the “information center,” piled out of the minibus and waited in the insect infested office for a few minutes. We were tempted then to walk across the street to a hotel we could see and just take public transport to Cemoro the next morning, but seeing as how we had gotten friendly with the other tourists on board we decided to wait and see how things would unfold.

It was then that an assortment of odd looking characters, otherwise known as tour company employees, graced us with their presence. Emily immediately motioned at a couple of them and whispered something to me about the funny Tripadvisor report we had read. There in front of us stood a man that looked strikingly akin to a short, fat hobbit and another who was short one eye. It was like seeing the pages of a book come to life. After a useless spiel about what we could see at Mount Bromo we piled into a new van and took off into the night. About 10 minutes later the driver stopped, turned around and sped back to the tourist office without saying a word and told us that we now needed to unload our stuff again and pile into yet another van, this one already crammed full of another group of tourists. I asked him in his native tongue why, and he told me smiling that the electronics had broken on his van so we needed to get in this other one. I’m not sure what the scam was going to be exactly – maybe saying we got there too late to check into our hotel of choice and being dropped off at another terribly expensive one in the middle of nowhere  – but when Emily suggested maybe we grab our bags and say goodbye to our new friends I gladly obliged. We ended up staying at the very nice and reasonably priced hotel right across the road from the tour office circus.