Indonesia: Mount Ijen

After chasing waterfalls and dodgy cocktails in Yogyakarta, we were up for a bit of a trek. We said goodbye to the group and walked back to the train station for the next leg of our Javanese journey: we were heading to the far east of Java to climb Mount Ijen. There are a few different volcano treks you can do on java; Mount Bromo and Ijen probably being the most popular. Conscious of wanting to get to eastern Indonesia before our visas expire, we felt we had enough time just to do one, and we decided on Ijen after meeting some other travellers who had done both and preferred Ijen. It’s supposedly more of an actual trek than Bromo (which you mostly ascend in a Jeep), and the blue fire is quite a unique spectacle!

There was still quite a distance to cover before we got to our jumping off point for Ijen, Banyuwangi (which is also the ferry port between Java and Bali). From Yogyakarta, we had an 8-hour train journey to Probolinggo – a small town with nothing much more than the train station, but the jumping off point for Bromo. We had dinner at our lovely little guesthouse (Clover Homestay) and hit the hay after our late night out in Yogya.

The next morning, we had an excellent breakfast and set off for the train station for the second leg of our journey to Banyuwangi. It was a shorter day, with a 4-hour journey – most of which was through torrential rain which made us a little nervous for our hike the next day! We arrived on time, were picked up by our guesthouse and arrived to a lovely little place with a great view over the sea to Bali – which is only 4.5km from Banyuwangi. I’d definitely recommend Panorama Homestay if you find yourself in Banyuwangi. They arranged and booked the Ijen trek for us, for 300,000Rp each – a fraction of the price quoted by some other places. They also drove us around to the port and to dinner places free of charge, the breakfast there (albeit not included) was good, and the pool was a real bonus.

We had a very laid back afternoon as our volcano trek was to commence at midnight – we tried to get a bit of sleep induced by Stephen Fry’s dulcet Harry Potter-narrating tones, but didn’t get an awful lot of kip before our alarm went off for us to leave. We pulled on our fleeces and hiking boots, packed some emergency biscuits and clambered into the Jeep that arrived to pick us up. There was a Dutch couple from our guesthouse who were also doing it, and over the course of the next half an hour we picked up 3 others from different guesthouses until we had a full house. It was a bit of a hairy journey to the base of the trek, very windy and quite bumpy in the back of the Jeep (plus we had a bit of a job on our hands trying to keep the driver awake…), so about 45 minutes later, we gladly tumbled out. We were introduced to our guide and given some gas masks – and Will and I whipped out our head torches. Huzzah! We were glad to be making use of one of the items from the ‘miscellaneous useful kit’ section of our backpacks.

Looking (and sounding) like Bane in our gas masks

Then we set off, rambling in the darkness up the trail. We passed a few local workers with little push carts they called ‘taxis’, asking us if we wanted a lift up – which was quite amusing given that we had chosen to go on a hike. We respectfully declined the 3,000 offers of these we had. It took us about an hour and a half to get up to the top, with whiffs of sulphur every now and again when the wind changed direction. It was a shorter and easier hike than I’d expected, so don’t be scared off if you’re feeling unfit! We arrived at the top of the ridge – which was a little chilly as it was exposed to the wind – donned our gas masks and started the descent down into the crater. It was very steep and rocky, and a little slippery at points, so I was glad of the head torch! When we got down into the crater the sulphur was quite overwhelming – the gas masks were quite difficult to breathe in but they were worth it as it really stank. Despite this, as soon as we saw the blue fires we forgot about the sulphur stink – they were so cool! There were three spots where you could see the huge plumes of blue flame – I can’t quite remember why it’s blue but it really was an amazing sight, I’ve never seen anything like it before.

The amazing blue fire in the Ijen crater

We took a few pictures and marvelled at the flames for a little while before we started the climb back up out of the crater, just as the sun was rising. As well as the tourist trekking groups, there were local miners lugging baskets of sulphur up the rocks. It really does look like awful work; they’re in the sulphur clouds without gas masks, doing 3 or 4 trips a day down into the crater and carrying loads of 75-80kg back up each time. Many of them have broken both collar bones many times, and when they stop healing properly, they become tour guides instead. They receive only 900 rupiah per kilogram they mine – a measly 4p – for such bone-breaking work. Our tour guide had been a miner for 15 years previously.

One of the Ijen miners

When we got back up to the ridge, it was light and the views were incredible. Over the crater, you had yellow plumes of sulphur smoke against the grey of the limestone and a bright aquamarine lake – which looks very tempting but is dangerously acidic! In the other direction there was luscious green vegetation against the grey volcanic rock and sand of the trail – so it was a very different walk on the way down to the way up! It took us about an hour to get down, arriving about 7:45am (and my shins really burning by this time) and we hopped sleepily back in the Jeep.

The view from the ridge after sunrise

We drove back to the guesthouse, swinging by a waterfall quickly on the way to go for a little paddle and take some snaps. We arrived and dunked our sweaty selves in the pool whilst we waited for our egg and sausage breakfast. The rest of the day was spent sitting by the pool with some Bintangs and summer songs to soothe our aching muscles.

Poolside Bintangs after the trek

When we arrived in Java we hadn’t planned to do a volcano trek at all, it was some guys we met in Jakarta who brought them to our attention and I’m really glad they did! Ijen was fab; not too difficult and like nothing I’ve done before – I climbed a few volcanoes in Central America in 2014, but they were very different. Certainly no blue fire! I’d definitely urge you to carve out some time for it when in Java.

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 7, including a German guy who sold everything he had and has been travelling for over a year so far. He was mid-thirties and gave up a house and successful insurance job to explore the world.
Interaction was: inspiring and fascinating – he’s perhaps seen more of the world than anyone I’ve ever met, and still had that very human fear about what on earth will happen when he finally goes home…

One Woman and her Backpack x

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