It is one of my lifelong dreams to visit the site of an active volcano and East Java, Indonesia happens to be a good destination because it lies between the Pacific Ring of Fire and the Alpide Belt, in the world's most active seismic region with many active and dormant volcanoes. And of all the 41 active volcanoes there, there is one particular volcano that attracted my attention – Kawah Ijen.
Ijen volcano a.k.a Kawah Ijen in East Java contains the world's largest acidic volcanic crater lake, famous for its eye-catching turquoise colour due to the high hydrochloric acid content in the water. It is also the site of a labour-intensive sulphur mining operation where hardworking sulphur miners precariously hand carry heavy sulphur-laden baskets from the crater floor to the sulphur processing factory located a few kilometres away, only to be paid pennies. Talk about hard work!!
However, the main attraction and the sole reason of my existence there of course, is to witness the electric blue fire in action – one of Mother Natures' unique phenomenons which can only be seen in 2 places in the world: Ijen Crater, East Java and Iceland. The blue fire is not lava, but flames from the combustion of sulphuric gases that ignites when it comes in contact with the air, sending flames up to 16 feet (5 metres) high! Some of the gases condense into liquid sulphur that continues to burn as it flows down the slopes, giving the feeling of lava flowing.
Watch BBC's short documentary on the sulphur miners at Kawah Ijen:
A Traveller’s Home Sweet Home – Kg. Osing Inn
Our hunt for Kawah Ijen volcano made us travel hundreds of kilometres from bustling Surabaya to the quiet village of Banyuwangi, East Java. To read my iron horse journey, click here. There, my sister and I felt at home during our brief one night’s stay at Kg. Osing Inn. Its proud owner, Ganda warmly welcomed us at Karangasem train station with a huge umbrella and a smile. I was told it was raining heavily that night and a few nights before, therefore there is a possibility that we might not be able to see the electric blue sulphur flames later, but I was hopeful. A short ride in his jeep and we arrived safely at his humble abode.
Prior to our arrival, I had booked Ijen Crater’s Blue Fire Midnight tour for two with Ganda. He then arranged an experienced and friendly guide named Sim with five other travellers staying at the inn for our hiking group. Wasting no time, we ate a light dinner, took a cold shower and went to bed in preparation for our hiking adventure at midnight. *To read my review of Kg. Osing Inn, click here.
Kawah Ijen’s Magnificent Blue Fire Midnight Tour
At 12.30am in the morning, we were excitedly waiting for our jeep to pick us up. There were seven of us on the same tour which was good news! For your information, the more people joining in the same tour, the cheaper it gets because the cost will be divided equally among the number of participants. Ganda quoted us an approximately Rp. 400,000 per person (minimum four people in a group) for the Ijen Blue Fire Midnight Tour. The fee includes the rent of a gas mask, a bottle of mineral water, an experienced guide and entrance fee. Note: We did not receive any gas mask (which was not needed anyway, plus Ganda did not charge us for it, so there is no need to make a fuss about it) and paid the entrance fee and guide fee separately instead.
It took approximately an hour’s drive to get from Kg. Osing Inn to Paltuding Base, Kawah Ijen which was teeming with travellers alike and sulphur miners when we arrived. The rain had stopped and with good weather, the sky was littered with millions of bright twinkling stars that stretched as far as the eyes can see. No words could accurately describe how beautiful it was – I was left speechless, admiring the night sky and crisp cold, fresh air.
The entrance ticket was Rp.100,000 per person, collected just before we begin our hike up Ijen caldera @ Kawah Ijen. A camera fee was not imposed on us, unlike what I read on travel websites. There was a small shop selling hot drinks, chilled isotonic and carbonated drinks, biscuits and instant cup noodles a.k.a Pop Mie in local language to quench our hunger and thirst. Flashlights/torchlights, gloves, jackets, batteries, packets of cigarettes, sweets, etc can be bought there too.
The seven of us in a group - all eager and excited to start our hike at Kawah Ijen, East Java
*My sister and I doing our best impersonation of the minions*
Survival of the Fittest – A Hike of Endurance & Extreme Determination
Wasting no time, we began our 3 kilometres, approximately 2.5 hours hike up and down Kawah Ijen to reach the foot of the acid lake where the fiery action took place. I must say, it was exhilarating to hike in the dark with only the light from our headlights guiding us. Be warned that the path leading to the rim of Ijen crater can be very steep and slippery at certain elevations, therefore it is wise to wear suitable hiking shoes to minimise the risk of accidentally slipping and falling (off the cliff!). The hike itself is very physically demanding – my sister and I, and even the other hikers experienced some breathing difficulties while hiking and had to stop regularly to catch our breaths throughout entire journey, no kidding! Please take note, if you are a couch potato or is physically unfit, it is best for you to give this feat a miss. Do not say I did not warn you beforehand!
At one point, it even made me question why on earth I wanted to do this in the first place, but I did not give up, straightened myself up and carried on – which I am glad I did for the reward was worth it! In other words, we huffed, and puffed, and managed to be one of the few to witness Mother Nature's exquisite blue fire natural phenomenon in the world!!
At all times, we must watch our steps as we walked on the steep and narrow trail
Hiking in total darkness with nothing but the light from our headlights guiding our way
Making way for the miners carrying huge blocks of sulphur on their shoulders to pass safely
Stop, breathe, and strike a pose!
Slowly and steadily, we made our way nearer towards the electric blue sulphur flames below
YOLO! Get as close as you can to the flames and take a photo or two
My sister and I did not miss out the opportunity to take a photo near the phenomenal electric blue sulphur flames too!
10-feet High Electric Blue Sulphur Flames, Sulphuric Acid Lake & Sulphur Miners Reaching the rim of the caldera @ Kawah Ijen is only half the journey and challenge; the other half is to get down to the foot of the crater in one piece – not kidding! After a brief’s rest the rim of the crater, we begin a precarious descend into the crater with our guide carefully guiding the way, one step at a time. Believe me, it was not easy to balance ourselves on the narrow, steep and slippery track, and make way for the miners steadfastly going up and down the crater; one wrong move and we risk plunging several storeys down, possibly to our deaths!
The hike down to the foot of the crater took us about 45 minutes. There, we spent about 2 precious hours in the crater, observing the sulphur miners at work while admiring the beauty of the electric blue sulphur flames from a distance. With the right conditions, the electric blue sulphur flames soared up to 15-feet high into the sky to our amazement!! It was truly a sight to behold! Some even went too close for comfort for the sake of a perfect shot, which is not advisable due to safety reasons – think of highly toxic gases and smoke. Not only that, the risk of a sudden gas explosion is high due to the flammable conditions.
We were lucky that the wind was blowing against our direction, thus blowing the hazardous clouds of suffocating smoke, toxic gases and scorching hot sulphur flames away from us, keeping us safe from harm. I took the opportunity to capture Kawah Ijen’s sights, sound, and moments in amateur, but memorable photographs and short videos.
The humble and friendly miners hard at work
Cooled sulphur gas condenses into liquid sulphur, then solidifies into hard sulphur
Yellow sulphur everywhere
Ceramic pipes help to direct the sulphur gases down the vent's sloping mound
A miner breaking and collecting the cooled sulphur mats for transport
A wall of electric blue flames burning in the distance
Go close to the blue fire, but not too close - the suffocating smoke is hazardous to health!
A breathtaking, spectacular natural phenomenon at Kawah Ijen, East Java
Captured and immortalised - the 10-feet high electric blue sulphur flames in action, from a safe distance of course!
From Kawah Ijen, East Java with love
Up next: An unforgettable sunrise at Kawah Ijen, along with the spectacular views of the crater and its turquoise acid lake, its breathtaking surroundings, and the incredible, resilient sulphur miners