Trekking: Blue Fire at the Ijen Crater

 The edge of the Ijen Crater at dawn. 

The edge of the Ijen Crater at dawn. 

Rising wearily from our beds as our alarm went off at 12:15am, we quickly dressed, collected our bags, and headed to meet our guide in the parking lot. Soon we were asleep again in the car as we made our way towards the Ijen Crater. Arriving about an hour and 15 minutes later, we gathered ourselves together and began the hike up. We had no real sense of how intense the hike would be, we were unable to get a clear answer out of our guide and the descriptions we’d read online months earlier were vague. But let me tell you, it was steep. Very steep. Admittedly I've no gym membership to speak of, but I’m a seasoned hiker and I was struggling up the steep pathway. It was also very dark and only our guide had a headlamp. That’s not to say we were alone, there were tons of other people there with us. It was a holiday weekend in Java and there were loads of locals as well as international tourists. We often had to bob and weave our way through the throngs on our way up.

The higher we got the stronger the sulfur smell. Breathing heavily (I have mild asthma and of course the hike is not recommended for anyone with asthma), the back of my throat could feel it in the air - as could my lungs. A tip for anyone thinking of going here, it gets chilly so bring a hat, gloves, and a warm layer - also, the sulfur smell can be tough to get out of fabric. Since the hike I’ve washed the clothing twice and still smell a lingering tinge of sulfur. 

More than once, our guide told us it would flatten out around the next bend. So, I’d excitedly trudge my way to the curve ready for sweet relief, only to find yet another steep hill. All and all, the hike up only took around 1.5 - 2 hours- but with about 6,000 feet of elevation gain.

As we got closer to the crater our guide handed us our gas masks. I’ve done a lot of things, but never have I ever hiked with a gas mask. If felt so bizarre but also increasingly necessary as the drifting puffs of sulfur gas made it harder to breath regularly. 

It was still quite dark but also very crowded as we approached the rim. It was decision time, to hike down into the crater or not… We’d been told it was a tough hike down on a steep narrow path with a drop off on one side, slippery with loose rocks and lots of people moving in both directions - not to mention puffs of sulfur gas occasionally blowing into your face. On average the Ijen Crater gets about 300 visitors each morning, with this being a holiday weekend it could have been 10 times this amount. There were a lot of people. At the start of the pathway down, impatient people ready seemed to be pushing and throwing elbows, caught in an anxiety inducing bottle neck. My friend firmly opted out. I begrudgingly agreed to accompany my boyfriend and guide down into the cater. In the end, I’m glad I did. 

 A view of the pathway down into the crater

A view of the pathway down into the crater

The pathway wasn't as scary as it had been described and the overall pace was slow and calm in comparison to the madness at the start. Our guide proved to be excellent at crowd control and comfortably told all others what to do, yelling “Up stop! Up stop!” to folks trying to climb out and thus blocking our way down. With equal ease and force at other intervals, he told all of us heading down when to start and stop as well, so we could make way for those going in the opposite direction. 

Ijen is an active sulfur mine. Our guide also craftily (and falsely on many occasion) shouted at those in front that a miner was trying to pass so they’d step to the side and let us pass. When miners did actually pass us, they were carrying around 60 kilos of sulfur in baskets on their shoulders, wearing flimsy flip flops and no gas masks - not an easy job. I quickly, and respectfully, scuttled out of their way whenever one came near. 

 A miner's baskets, full of sulfur. 

A miner's baskets, full of sulfur. 

As we approached the bottom, the wind shifted and the infamous blue flame appeared through the puffs of sulfur gas. It really was pretty cool looking. A quick google informed me that the blue fire is ignited sulfur gas with a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. With the wind on our side we got close enough to see a miner at work, chipping away at the yellow sulfur in order to fill his basket for the trek back up.

Our guide warned us that if the wind shifted in our direction we could be temporarily blinded by the fumes if we didn’t shield our eyes properly - we didn't stick around to test that theory. After a short visit and some photos (the battery on my Canon dslr was, embarrassingly, dead so all I have to show for my efforts are iPhone photos) we turned around to climb back out as the sun began to rise. 

An hour and 45 minutes later, back at the top we reconvened with my friend and waited for the sulfur puffs to clear just long enough for us to get a glimpse of the beautiful (and very acidic) aqua lake filling the crater below, beside the mine. It was breathtakingly beautiful, worth the climb and the wait. Amazingly, our guide had tried to rush us back down the mountain before we saw the lake. He seemed eager to be done with us, which was a frustration for me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my experience and would highly recommended the hike. The terrain was so different from anything I'd ever experienced before and the view spectacular. Though tough on the knees, the hike back down the volcano to the parking lot was also beautiful, with the sun still low in the sky, filtering softly through the mist