The heart of Mt Ijen and the mystical blue flames

The heart of Mt Ijen and the mystical blue flames

I’ve posted a few snippets and photos about my experiences in Ijen on my instagram @renzze recently and I’ve had an overwhelming response from people either wanting to go or wanting to know more about this place and my experiences there. Forgive me if I haven’t replied to every single DM but I’ll share my trip and my experiences as well as some information on getting there in this post.

Mount Ijen or Kawah Ijen is essentially a volcano where sulphur is still mined daily from the crater. Slightly off the beaten path for tourists traveling to Indonesia, it does require you to put in some effort to get there.

There are a few ways to get there but I’ll be sharing the route I took personally. I flew in to Denpasar in Bali (you could spend a few days in Bali first if you wish) and then head west of the island to the ferry terminal at Gilimanuk. I had a chartered car take me as I was exploring some places in Bali pior to my journey to Mt Ijen. There are buses you can take from Denpasar (Ubang Terminal) and the journey if you are heading straight from the airport to the ferry terminal, is about 3 hours.

The day I was there, the weather was a bizarre fusion of rain and stormy seas on one side and clear calm weather on the other.

From here, you can buy a ferry ticket to get to Banyuwangi which is the eastern-most point of Java. The ferries which are able to take both passengers and vehicles leave every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day. Once you have cleared security and boarded the ferry, the actual crossing only takes 40 minutes. I’ve heard that the fares can vary depending on who purchases the tickets but the prices when I was there was Rp 6,000 per person, Rp 95,000 per car and Rp 22,000 per motorbike (you won’t have to pay for up to 2 people if you pay for the motorcycle.)

Spend the day in this small town, grab lunch and maybe pay a visit to the local coffee places.

We visited Kopine Coffee to check out the local coffee scene and even though they were a traditional coffee shop serving the typical local ‘Kopi’ , they offered filtered V60 coffee as well which was quite a surprise.

Just be sure to check into a local hotel to sleep early so that you have enough rest for your Mt Ijen climb.

You can choose to rent a motorbike and head your way to the entrance of Mt Ijen or get one of the tour operators to take you there. A tour arranged from Banyuwangi can cost around Rp 400,000 and includes transport to the Ijen Entrance.

You should be prepared to leave your accommodation just after midnight. After reaching the entrance to Mt Ijen, you will be hiking your way in the darkness. Bring torches or head lamps to help lit your way. Somewhere around 1850m above sea level you will reach a resting point where there is a shack selling hot drinks and instant noodles. That pretty much made up my delicious morning breakfast before continuing my hike up to the peak (2380m).

The view at the peak of the volcano is pretty incredible though I didn’t get to appreciate it until my trek back as I was trekking in darkness to the crater. There are many loose rock and soil and there is very little traction so it can be a bit tricky to climb (especially when going downslope). At some points, you might even need to climb over sharp rocks.

At all times, make way for the miners who are going about their daily business balancing on their backs, heavy 40 to 50kg of sulphur slabs in each of their reed baskets which are hanging over the ends of a thin bamboo pole.

As you near the peak and head down into the crater, the smell of sulphur will get stronger. It is not a pleasant smell but bearable until the wind changes direction and and in an instant, you could find yourself being surrounded in a sulphur fog. The bad news is that it does get difficult to breath but the good news is that you can easily rent a gas mask from any of the miners who will be touting it to you.

If you can, I’ll recommend that you bring your own gas masks as most of the gas masks there do not have clean filters since the miners have no opportunity or money to change them. Many of the gas masks are left behind by travellers who pity the plight of the miners who use wet rags to cover their faces when they head to the source of the sulphur to mine. However, instead of wearing them, most of them much prefer to rent them out to other tourists to earn a little bit of side income.

Mt Ijen produces one of the highest grades of sulphur and most of these miners who have signed their lives away to work here in exchange for a chance at sending children to school and giving their families a better life. It’s a tragic story but a fate that the miners have resigned to. They don’t even feel unhappy or upset about their poverty. They just accept it as their lot in life.

Coming to Ijen is like coming to another dimension where time stood still, untouched by the progression of the rest of the world. Modern technology and human rights have not penetrated these parts and physical labour resulting in burns and deformity of their spine from the crazy weight are still the widely accepted ways for them to earn a living.

Most of the miners work barefooted or in flip flops as they claim that they can feel the rocks better beneath their foot when they climb. They also prefer to work in the darkness to prevent the sun from beating down on their backs. Diligently they work in silence through the stifling heat, breathing in all that dense acidic toxic gas in large amounts that results in most of them having a shortened life expectancy of about 50 years.

While I’m admiring the eerie glow of the blue flowing flames of the burning sulphur in the moonlight, the miners at the pit wait for the liquid sulphur to drip and solidify on the mats before breaking them up and putting the solid yellow sulphur into their baskets to carry out. Carrying about 100 kg each trip, two whole trips will earn a miner about USD 5 a day.

As the sun comes up, the blue flames vanish from visibility and a beautiful greenish hue lake appears. At 220m deep, this crater lake gets its colour from the hydrochloric acid (a combination of the hydrogen chloride gas that is emitted from the volcano and rain water) and is the world largest body of such water.

The view is extraordinary and I can spend hours trying to capture the many subtle shades of the gases and fumes while the change of winds engulfs me in sulphur fog ever once in awhile.

As we make our way back down from Mount Ijen, the miners who have made solid sulphur flowers, turtles and other shapes out of moulds try to sell it to tourists. I buy some to help supplement their income but other than writhing out my experiences to show others their predicament, I’m not sure how to draw more attention to the harsh reality of these workers and how exploited they are.

Thanks for reading,


1 Comment

  1. December 27, 2017 / 10:44 pm

    that’s an awesome story, thanks so much for sharing it with us! We’re glad to read your trip experience. Thanks for trusting travel with us.

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