Kawah Ijen, Eastern Java, Indonesia

Kwah Ijen is a stratovolcano (made up of hardened lava) that sits at its highest point at 2799m which is just short of 10,000ft. It last erupted in 2002 and has remained active ever since continually spewing out sulphur at one edge of the crater. This sulphur is mined by local folk who carry up to 90kg of the stuff up ridiculously steep and dangerous paths over a route of about 2 miles and get paid just $13 per day if they make two journeys. It is immensely difficult work and the miners are often poorly equipped against the fumes and elements with most suffering respiratory problems at some point and with just about all the long term workers expiring far before their years.

Author: Stuart Wilson

The Walk:
Length: 8km
Time: 4-10 hrs
Starting Point: Paltuding Kawah Ijen
End Point: Paltuding Kawah Ijen

Main Peak: Kawah Ijen (via Ijen crater) 2,799m or 9,183ft

Being a stratovolcano, Kawah Ijen is the perfectly clichéd volcano shape, it is exactly as though a child has hand drawn their vision, and save for the obligatory red explosion with scribbles of yellow and orange, Kawah Ijen really does look like the perfect volcano. But what draws people to the immense cone is not the shape (though it does look stunning set to a backdrop of golden sunset) nor the height which peeks high enough to see as far as Bali, but for the crater.

The volcanoes straddling East Java, Indonesia - A view as good as it gets?The volcanoes straddling East Java, Indonesia - A view as good as it gets?
Sulphur miner atop Kawah Ijen maing a living in the hardest possible conditionsSulphur miner atop Kawah Ijen maing a living in the hardest possible conditions

At its crater Kawah Ijen has a 1 kilometre wide lake filled with sulphuric acid (and the greatest acidic lake on earth) which glows brightly turquoise and is flanked by Gunung Merapi in the imminent distance. All things considered it is mooted as being one of the most beautiful volcanoes in the world offering up views which literally entice visitors from every corner of the globe. But there is good news for those concerned about wading through tourists whilst trying to catch a slice of natural beauty – And that is Gunung Bromo. Mt Bromo is another volcano just down the road (well, just across the plateau) and it is insanely easy to reach with horses plying the route and 4x4’s making most of the trip.

With that in mind, the masses of tourists head to Bromo and very few actually make the effort to reach Kawah Ijen bypassing it for the flatter and warmer shores of Bali and beyond the Nusa Tenggara. People generally make the ascent of Kawah Ijen during the daylight hours, but for those willing to make the ascent in darkness a rare phenomenon awaits them known as blue fire. (More later) and they also get to witness the sunrise and so of course, this was what we needed to do.

The climb through darkness was steepThe climb through darkness was steep
The route ahead?The route ahead?

Knowing it would be absolute darkness, freezing cold, desolate and sulphuric smoke would fill the landscape we bought a torch, face masks and packed our warm clothes and threw our boots on. Balancing getting onto the summit in time to see the blue fire and witness the sunrise, against getting to the summit too early and then sitting in the freezing cold for hours took some planning, and an element of luck and technology. Kawah Ijen can be reached from either Bondowoso or Banyuwangi with most people claiming Bondowoso being the most convenient, however – We were in Bali and so with Banyuwangi being the port of East Java it was where we began our quest.

We left Bali at 6.30pm and arriving into Banyuwangi in Java for 11.30pm, but due to time differences it was at 10.30pm. And, everywhere was closed. Pitch black and nothing opened I spent ages finding someone that could help with transport. Eventually I saw some bloke selling tea from a porch and I asked him if he could help us find transport. He knocked up his father who said he might be able to help, he jumped on his scooter and shot off into the dark returning ten minutes later with a driver and a price of 600,000 IDR. He asked if I minded whether he brought his 7 year old son with us and of course I did not mind, I encourage such things. Reports on the web say the road from Banyuwangi to Kawah Ijen is in state of disrepair and passable only by jeeps. It is not, we did it in a Toyota minivan and arrived about 90 minutes later in darkness, cold and at the foot of the volcano (Paltuding Kawah Ijen) under a stunning starry night sky scarcely illuminated by a half moon.

The dried lava was dangerous in the darkThe dried lava was dangerous in the dark
A golden flicker of sunriseA golden flicker of sunrise

Guides surrounded us, but once I pulled out my torch and face masks and I think they knew we knew what we were doing. I thought we were the only foreigners there, but a couple of girls and a guy came over and asked if a guide was compulsory. I told them it was not and they asked if they could walk with us as they were a bit out of their comfort zone. The guy who we had arranged our driver with was called Edi, and his son was called Yusuf, Edi asked if he minded if he and Yusuf accompanied us and so we all set off at about 1.30am in absolute darkness up to an opening in the trees which was barely noticeable. Despite guide books and web reports claiming you must pay entrance we were not charged going up, or coming back down. The way I dealt with the situation about not arriving too late or too early was to use an app called Endomondo on my phone. It is a GPS based route tracker telling you how far/fast you have travelled, I knew the route was about 3km straight uphill and so this meant I could pace accordingly as well as having water stops/rest stops at sufficient intervals. The route begins slightly steep, and after about 15 minutes becomes very steep, so steep in fact that coming back down was a comedy of falls and slips with Jack (my son) falling some fifteen or so times.

The route follows a well-trodden volcanic pathway which twists and turns up for about 2.5km to a rest house (which I think is a sugar refinery) We were walking only by our own torch and there were times we had to take serious precautions as the pathway splits and drops and is at times littered with bare tree roots. It was fun for the kids though, a real adventure in the darkness led by a single white strobe of light. But there was a real element of danger as roots randomly popped up here and there and the path simply falls away into huge ankle breaking holes.

The famed blue fire was amazingThe famed blue fire was amazing
High above the cloudsHigh above the clouds

By the time we got to the rest house we were dripping in sweat and stops of more than a minute resulted in us quickly getting very cold as the sweat lost its heat. In anticipation of this I had brought us dry T-shirts but I did not want to use them until we hit the summit. The walk was hard, and I don't care what anyone else says, not only is it at altitude and so the air is thinner, but the smoke is thick from the rest house onwards and the pathway was a grinding, merciless climb where every step taken was felt. After 3km we were supposed to be at the crater rim, but silhouetted against the night sky I could see the behemoth ahead distorted by plumes of a dark smoke which made the whole experience ever so surreal. After a few minutes at this level the smoke was overbearing and we donned our face masks and wiped the sting from our eyes.

After another 1km of a winding, relatively flat path along the side of the volcano and under sparse greenery and foliage we finally saw the route open up a few metres in front. From here we could see speckles of torches in the distance and so made our way literally toward the light. Still in darkness the ground was as bad as it had been, the ankle breakers had become leg breakers and we formed a close knit line walking at slow pace so to ensure we remained on the level and safe ground. We followed a path to where we could see the odd headlight moving slowly (these were the sulphur miners) and found ourselves at a view point which looked out into complete darkness except for some flickering and dancing of blue flames. It was one of the most bizarre occurrences the kids and I have ever seen and it literally looks like fire dancing around in the dark. My camera struggled to focus through the darkness and so the above photo is the best we got as we peered into the darkness of the crater: The blue flames are actually sulphur in the lake setting on fire and burning, this does not just happen at night, but obviously cannot be seen during the day. You can descend down into the crater and toward the flames for a close up look, but the track is dangerous and has claimed lives. Despite the assurances of a miner willing to mind us down I felt it an irresponsible and unnecessary risk to proceed with children in tow.

Kawah Ijen Crater at sunriseKawah Ijen Crater at sunrise
Skirting the rim of the craterSkirting the rim of the crater

After we had sat in awe (and were so cold we just had to move) I checked my clock and it was 4am, the walk had taken us about 90 minutes, but we had a further 1 km to climb up to the craters highest point. This was the point at which the walk became dangerous and the point at which we walked along the rim of the crater, in darkness we had no way of knowing how far the drop was, or how steep it was. We walked in single file slowly up across the cooled and dried lava and headed what looked like towards the stars. The walk was amazingly exciting as every step we took was in a landscape we could not see, to a backdrop of scenery we had not yet witnessed. But, after some 30 minutes we reached the summit of Kawah Ijen and after checking my compass we planted ourselves facing east and watched in awe and anticipation as the horizon began to glow a fire like golden yellow. Starting at around 5am the landscape slowly and almost cautiously came into view, it was like you imagine the surface of the moon to be like, dusty, dry and devoid of life other than those who had made the effort to witness nature at its absolute best and most exciting.

We shivered and huddled together and we made up half of the people who had made it to the summit to see the sunrise and this only confirmed to me just how much effort we had put in (as we descended we noticed several tourists who had simply not made it in time) After there was sufficient light we snuck a peek over the crater rim and it rocked me to the core and the kids almost in unison vocally extended their awe at what lay before us. No image I had seen did the view justice and I simply don't have the vocabulary to describe what a phenomenally spectacular view it really was. We were completely mesmerised by not just the view, but the landscape in which we could now see. It is lunar-esque, baron and like nowhere else on earth outside of a volcanic region. And as we made the walk back across the rim I told the kids how proud of them I really was. We had been up for over 36 hours, had travelled some seven hours and walked all night up a mountainous volcano that is extremely steep for 90% of the way, we had done it wearing face masks and in darkness led only by a torchlight and a bit of hope. We had made the effort to summit Kawah Ijen and it had rewarded us in a way which I can’t imagine could ever be beaten. We had felt every step of the climb, had transversed a crater in which a wrong footing could've resulted in serious consequences and through my pride of the kids I wondered if I had perhaps gone too far this time. But it was difficult to balance risk with what filled our minds and the kids were really in their element, Jack was skidding in the dusty lava and every now and again Abi would do a fake fall which she swears was not fake.

The strongest sulphuric lake on earthThe strongest sulphuric lake on earth
The descent was in the lightThe descent was in the light

As we made the descent it became apparent just how high we were as the clouds lay thousands of feet beneath us. We looked in amazement at what had previously been nothing but blackness set to a stench of sulphur, we were faced with a vast volcanic range that lead all the way to the East tip of Java. A sea populated with ancient boats all plying the trade between Indonesia’s archipelagos – Clueless that we watched them in a state of euphoria some 10,000ft above them peering through the clouds beneath us. In retrospect the ascent and descent would be near impossible if it was muddy, it is simply at too steep a gradient and would be extremely difficult to climb. If you did somehow manage to make the climb then you risk serious injury on the descent as in the dry season it was a seriously slow and cautious descent. In mud you would have your work cut out.

As I now think about what is a beautiful memory I reflect on just what we accomplished, I think about how every step I take is two steps to Jack (my 6 year old son) and yet he persisted through the darkness clinging to his inhaler for the first time of the entire year. I think about how my timid little 8 year old girl looked at me reassuringly as she followed my every footstep around the rim and I feel absolute pride that she continues to do something every day which scares her. And then I think to Charlie (my 11 year old son) who throughout not just the climb, but the entire summer has been an absolute workhorse. He carried around 5 litres of water and plenty of food and clothes up that volcano. Every step he took was against gravity and with a bag so heavy most adults I know would have given up. Yet with a cheeky smile and a will to succeed to he pushed himself past his bodies own abilities. Every one of us involved in ascending Kwah Ijen put in nothing short of maximum effort and as we descended back down the volcano I saw many tourists heading up in daylight looking at the kids and wondering how on earth their tiny legs had defied what even they felt was impossible.

Kawah Ijen rewarded our efforts with the most spectacular sunrise we have ever witnessed, draped across the most amazing view we have ever seen and contributed to one of the most amazing nights of our lives.

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