The Ijen Volcano in eastern Java is famous for many things: burning sulfur that emits blue flames at night, a turquoise crater lake, and the tough-as-nails miners who chisel out the sulfur and haul it down the mountain. I had to see it for myself.
After waking up at 1am and driving through the dark to the trailhead, we started a steep and steady ascent up the active volcano. As if hiking in the dark wasn’t eerie enough, we hiked through a brushfire and gale force winds to get to the summit. If the wind were not blowing so hard, I could have taken some dramatic photos of burning trees and flying embers in the night sky. Frequent gusts of wind blasted us with ash, dirt, and burning embers, forcing us to stop, close our eyes and cover our faces until the gusts subsided. It was a miserable slog and I questioned my sanity a couple of times on the trek.
After reaching the crater rim, we debated climbing down to the blue flames when a sign emphatically warned all visitors against it. We noticed that all the tourists with guides were going down, so we followed. The uneven trail was hard to find in the dark. It was hard enough to do in sturdy shoes while carrying a light backpack; I can’t imagine doing it with a load equal to my body weight.
And that is exactly what the badass miners of Ijen were doing.
Our rather strange idea of a vacation activity is a way of life for the DIY miners who chisel off chunks of sulfur mere meters from the burning flames and haul the rock first up the crater on a rocky goat path, then down the mountain in two baskets suspended across their backs by a bamboo pole. The weight of the load, between 60-80 kg, or 135-175 pounds, is heavier than most of the miners.
These guys are beasts. Most of them were working in flimsy rubber boots and wore only a scarf to protect their faces from the caustic fumes, although some did have respirators. A miner let me carry his load. He rested it on two rocks so that I could get under it, kind of like a squat rack at the gym. It was at a little bit of an awkward angle, but still, it took all my strength to get the basket/pole onto my shoulders and up in a position to walk. I have strong legs (from hiking in Alaska and carrying around 25 extra pounds of body fat) but carrying it out of the crater and then down the mountain, well, that would have been impossible.
“You are strong!” I said as I grabbed the arm of the willowy miner. His arm was half the size of mine but 10 times stronger somehow.
When we first made our way down to the blue flames, the wind changed and a toxic cloud blew into our faces, sending the tourists scrambling up the hill. The sulfur assaulted my tastebuds and scalded my nose. I was coughing and gagging. It was the taste and smell of hell.
“Have you ever been tear gassed?” asked a Dutch guy who has worked in Pakistan, Cairo, Bangladesh and east Africa, you know, places where tear gas gets used with some frequency on crowds.
“No, I have not,” I replied.
“Well, it is a lot like that, maybe a little worse,” he informed me.
Back at the crater rim, we watched the most surrealistically beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen, with a pink sky, the turquoise crater lake, flaming bright yellow sulfur emitting the toxic smoke, and multicolored rocks in the crater rim changing colors with the emerging light. I also saw something else mind-blowing: Kristi was nearly black with dirt.
“YOU ARE FILTHY!” I exclaimed. All of us hikers were dirty, come to find out. My ear had enough fertile volcanic soil in it to start a rice plantation; my face was so dark I looked like a different race. Back at the parking lot, hikers took turns washing their faces and hands. I accidentally scratched my head and discovered dirt and ash packed in my hair.
“DON’T TOUCH YOUR HAIR!” Kristi admonished me.
We took a bus down the mountain, a ferry to Bali, the slowest minibus of all time to the beach at a laid-back town called Pemuteran on the northwest coast – the closest beach to Ijen. Kristi left me with the bags and went to check on the affordability of the nice looking hotel we were by. They had a pool that looked absolutely exquisite. She returned with sort of good news.
“It is rich white people heaven over there,” she declared. Not exactly our sort of place, ordinarily. But they had a room we were willing to splurge on.
At reception, they gave us a welcome drink and a cold towel – A COLD TOWEL! I guzzled the orange juice in about 3 seconds, my straw causing a violent sucking sound when it ran dry. I wiped off my face with the gloriously cold towel causing it to turn from blue to black. I looked at Kristi, she was covered in dirt, a far cry from the other couple at check in: the lady had on a huge sunhat, a summer dress and an absurdly oversized purse, the guy was wearing a white fedora. We were not the normal clientele.
We hadn’t eaten anything all day, we were dehydrated, in need of a shower and some sleep. After a cold shower in which I washed my hair twice and my face three times, an overpriced lunch by the sea and a dip in the pool, I was almost human again, and Kristi once again was a fair-skinned blonde, a different look from the mocha skin and rust colored hair she was sporting at check in.
“Let’s walk by reception again so they can see what we really look like,” she said.
So, in summary, what some people do for vacation, others do for work. And climbing up the Ijen crater was so hard on us we had to bust our budget to recover at a nice hotel, yet these super tough miners of Ijen do it for a job.
Next time I am not so happy at work, I will think about the Ijen miners, and I won’t complain. Okay, maybe a little.
Have you ever climbed an active volcano at night?
Questions, comments? Add to the conversation by leaving a note below.
Jeff the next time someone says I am crazy for doing some adventure or another I will send them directly to your blog for perspective. I hung on every word of your description. Wow! Amazing what some people do in this world to survive.
It is amazing what some people will do! I read that despite the horrible air quaility, the miners suffer from few health problems probably because they are so fit from climbing up and down the mountain. It is really, really hard work that is for sure.
Likely some of the fittest people on earth by the sounds of it but one has to wonder about long term lung damage.
So what’s next? Base jumping into an alligator swamp?
We aren’t that crazy! I am afraid of heights so I will never do that, but maybe my wife would. We are climbing another volcano in a few days, but after that we will spend a few days on the beach to recover.
I would say a few days on the beach might be called for especially after a second volcano outing. 🙂
Incredible experience you and Kristi had! I have great admiration for you both and NO I’ve never been near an active volcano ever and now don’t think I will.
If you don’t want to climb an active volcano, then I’m glad that at least you got to live vicariously through us 🙂
Absolutely fascinating! What an adventure. Great job on the pictures. It looks amazing!!
Thanks Lucy. It was a really incredible place to visit and the light was perfect for photos after sunrise. Getting the blue flames was a challenge though!
You did fantastic! Thanks for sharing!
What a dangerous job – amazing picture
Thanks for this great post, Jeff. It really puts things in perspective – I read somewhere that the miners consider themselves lucky because they earn double compared to the typical farmer around Ijen. And yet it is still a paltry sum considering the enormous health and safety risks they take!
Just wondering, did your camera have any problems while in the crater? It might have been a Nat Geo photographer who said the sulphur clouds killed two of his lens… another blogger reported that his camera stopped working after a few hours there.
Your experience of checking in at Pemuteran reminds me so much of what happened after climbing Rinjani last year. Bama and I showed up at a beachfront hotel in Senggigi and the moment we arrived, the staff at reception gave us a long, unsympathetic look. “You’ve just come from Rinjani?” They even said it with a bit of a sneer.
We had sweat-crusted brows and dirty faces, hadn’t showered for the past 2+ days and there may or may not have been an ant crawling across my forehead. Several well-dressed (and totally clean) guests walked past us at the time, and I felt completely out of place!
HAHAHA! Your experience was just like ours then, minus the ant. That is great. I didn’t have any issues with my camera and I guess I was lucky. I got one good direct hit from the cloud then retreated a bit but still got some minor hits after that.
Clearly, Bali doesn’t have a version of OHSA. I couldn’t imagine doing their job. You must have been glad when you got to breathe clean air again!
No kidding. In the states OHSA wold be all over that! Yes, I was glad to move away from the cloud and breathe again. It was toxic.
Life is hard for the miners despite the fact that they are paid relatively better than some other people in their village. I’ve read an article saying that their life expectancy is quite low compared to the national average, that’s because of the toxic gas they breathe everyday of course.
Speaking of your magnificent blue flames photo, I do have the same curiosity with James about the camera. I myself am thinking to bring only a small pocket camera or just my cellphone when I go down the crater. Did you use your normal camera?
Enjoy the hotel, Jeff. Rinjani is quite tough. But after that, enjoy the clear blue water of southern Lombok beaches.
Bama – I used my regular camera but I had no idea that it was a risk. I got pretty close at first but a toxic cloud sent me away. After I retreated, used my 50mm lens so I was back aways. A couple of times smoke wafted over me but nothing as serious as the first time when I got tear gassed! I will be looking forward to that beach and pool after Rinjani!
Such an amazing and enlightening story. Thank you.~S
Jeff, happy new year and best wishes beyond 2015.
Thank you. Have a great 2015 as well.
Thank you Jeff
Pretty surreal pictures. Remind’s me of the door to hell in Turkmenistan!
The door to hell looks really cool. Have you been there?
I see you just posted the blog but when did you actually visit. I read that white bubbles of toxic gasses had formed in may 14 and access had been restricted.
Was your visit before or after May2014?
I have asked about visits in mornings to see blue flames and the people I asked said we can do it but they did not mention the restrictions so not sure if they are still current or not.
Hi Paul. We went in mid-October and there were no restrictions at that time. The fumes were really intense down by the flames and not bad farther away. I imagine it is something that can change without warning. Even if you can’t get down to the blue flames, a hike to the crater rim is special. The view of the lake and burning sulfur down below is fantastic. I hope this helps!
Yes Thanks for the reply. Cheers.
Hi Jeff, did you do it with a tour? Do you know if it is possible to hike up alone?
You can do it alone. We did go with a tour but they were walking too slowly for us so we went ahead of them. We almost never do tours – we like to be independent – but we did do a transport/hotel/tour of the volcano package that was a good deal, in my opinion. We bought it at the Lava Hostel in Bromo, it included transport to Ijan, a night at the hotel, a guide up the volcano, then the ferry to Bali. It saved us a day of travel because of the good timing on the connections. I can’t remember what it cost for sure, but it was very reasonable and well organized.
If you do Ijen on your own, you will need to at least arrange transport to the trailhead. It shouldn’t be too difficult to do this.
Cheers Jeff, sounds good …. I hope I can go there sometime soon ….
We too were in awe of these guys. Funny, we also ended up unexpectedly splurging in Pemuteran after a horrible stay in a place near Ijen and suffering from stomach ailments during the early morning hike. The cold towel was heaven!
After a brutally difficult night hike, a nice hotel is a great splurge. We were filthy afterwards. I still find sand in my shoes and bag.
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