Mount Ijen, Java, Indonesia
Our driver came for us at 1:00 am for departure to Mount Ijen to see the blue sulfur fire. It is only visible in the dark and only in two places in the world, here and in Ethiopia. This volcano erupted a mere 66 years ago and is still active.
With our guide, we hiked three miles up to the rim of the crater and then three miles down to the sulfur lake. This is done in the dark. As we make your decent inside the crater on a crowded, narrow, rocky and slippery path, we can see the blue fire. It seems to have a pulse as it expands and contracts at the bottom of the crater. Technically, it’s the spontaneous combustion of subterranean gasses as they are exposed to air. The fire’s temperature can reach over 750 degrees Fahrenheit. At the bottom, we can catch glimpses of the miners. They use long poles to break off chunks of the yellow sulfur.
Sulfur clouds are in a constant state of movement. When the clouds arrive where we are standing, we must wear gas masks to protect our lungs from the fumes. Our guide provided these masks to us as we made the ascent. Goggles would have been nice as the clouds made my eyes water. This is Indonesia where the hygienic laws we’re used to in the West don’t apply. My watering eyes trigger a runny nose. The inside of my mask now included unpleasant body fluids. It’s at this moment that I realized these masks have probably never been cleansed. I had to push this thought out of my head before it became the focal point of my thoughts and rob me of enjoying the wonders that I’m seeing.
When we were descending down into the crater, we had to make way for the miners who were bringing sulfur up. It looked like a very difficult job. Each person carries over 175 pounds of sulfur in baskets affixed to a stick along his back. They carry the sulfur for miles to a rudimentary factory in the middle of the jungle where the sulfur is melted down into a liquid. Once processed, the sulfur is used to purify sugar and to make skin products and explosives. Once the sulfur has been delivered, they hike back up the exterior of the volcano and back down for another load. They are paid $12 per day to do this. I’m surprised that in addition to their heavy load, they have to maneuver around all of the tourists and their guides making the same trek. Oh yes, and this is all in the dark. I’m also surprised that somehow the miners don’t use masks or goggles. Their bodies must be used to the putrid air. When the sun rose, we could see the large sulfur lake at the bottom of the crater.
As with many places in Indonesia, there is little organization or safety measures on Mount Ijen.
As we hiked out, the sun began to rise and we were able to better see the sulfur clouds. They’re very ethereal as they sway in one direction and then another as if an invisible hand is guiding them. The lake itself has many shades of green and blue. It looks so inviting, especially after hiking all these miles, but to even touch this lake would cause skin to burn.
As we once again reached the top, the sunlight revealed the lush jungle that surrounds the crater. Amazing that just a few decades ago, this land must have been completely desolate from the volcanic activity.
Because of the strenuousness of the experience, there are many ‘taxis’ offering to take you up or down the outside of the crater via cart. Fortunately, we didn’t need one as the price for this service is expensive, even by U.S. standards. I believe the taxi drivers had an easier job than the miners and most likely, received more pay for doing so. There appeared to be a brotherhood among the taxi drivers and the guides. There is no doubt some sort of social hierarchy, I’m sure.
A fabulous and ultra-unique adventure.
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