Get a whiff of this

The next stop on our Java-volcano-tour was Gunung Ijen. It is located at the far eastern end of Java, near the town of Banyuwangi. The town is split into three parts; all of which have train stations and accommodation but only the last/northern one has a ferry port (connects to Gillimanuk on Bali). We stayed in a small guesthouse in the middle one of the the parts. Our host was very nice and friendly and we ended up booking our Ijen tour with her together with the other guests: a French woman and a German couple. That being sorted, we went for an early dinner and to bed to catch some sleep before the mountain trip.

A volcano view from the harbour

Unlike Bromo, Ijen is a long way out of town. The car park at the National Park entrance was 31 windy kilometres away from our guesthouse. Our driver picked us up at 12:45am. The road was well sealed but also quite narrow and steep in places so it took us over an hour to get there. As we rolled into the car park we found it already fully packed with cars and vans and there were a lot of tourists and locals everywhere. Our guide Jamal awaited us and with an hour to wait we sat down in a café while putting on all our clothes due to the low temperatures. Each of us received a gas mask as protection from the sulphurous gases inside the crater. We learned that we had to share our guide with 14 other people and that he had to stay with the slowest. We immediately knew we would not see him for very long. At 3am the gates to the park opened and our group lined up for counting and ticketing. The path was crowded with people making their way up the mountain. After less than 100m we were shocked to hear locals shout ‘Hello taxi!’. Who needs a taxi up a mountain??? It turned out that locals armed with wheel barrow-like trailers lingered along the path waiting for a tourist to fail and give up the fight to climb Ijen themselves. With one person per ‘taxi’, it took 2-3 locals to push and pull them up the mountain. We thought it utterly ridiculous that people attempted this trip if they were so unfit.
Soon the gradient ramped up and walking became tougher. Some people started to struggle, but all kept on going. We were lucky to have an almost completely clear night so the light from the nearly full moon mixed with all kinds of torches made it light enough that we did not need our lights.

3am at the entrance to Ijen
An Ijen taxi for lazy people

The main difficulty with the path was the layer of lose soil and dust on top which made it a bit slippery in the steeper sections. As we closed in on the crater the wind became stronger and stronger until we were basically heading into galeforce gusts. Together with the sand and dust this was not particularly pleasant. Every now and then we also got wafts of sulphurous gas, so we knew we were getting closer. The wind also started to pile clouds around the peak so we started to worry about our sunrise views.

The train of torches coming up the path

When we hit the edge of the crater we did not stop but continued straight down into the crater. This path is much narrower, rockier and trickier. It is only about 500m long and decends 140m to the edge of the turquoise lake. The reason this path exists is the sulphur which gets ‘harvested’ by locals and sold to factories. Tourists descend to see Ijen’s famous blue fire caused by the sulphurous gases which spontaneously ignite when the comes in contact with the open air. This phenomenon is unpredictable and does not occur every day. Descending into the crater also got us closer to the sulphur clouds which the wind blew around. We made it about two-thirds down when the wind settle and decided to keep blowing the smelly gases straight up the walking path. Our gas masks protected mouth and nose, but we still smelled it and eventually we decided we did not need to go all the way down. Blue flames were visable so we were content and returned upwards to find a good spot for sunrise.

Blue flames from Kawah Ijen (photo by Olivier Grunewald for National Geographic)

It seems that unless you walk up really fast there is not much time down by the lake shore with the flames, if you want to see the full sunrise show. We were in for a disappointment: the crater rim and surrounding mountains were densly packed in clouds by the emerged from the bowels of Ijen. Keeping all our fingers crossed, we walked along the edge. Eventually, luck was on our side and we saw the last act of the sunrise. The sun had already risen but was still setting clouds on fire in red and orange. A great view despite the chilly winds.

Dawn over Ijens sulphur mine and crater lake
One of the most acidic lakes on earth
When the sun sets the clouds on fire

Soon it was time for us to return to the park borders to meet our guide and driver for a side trip to some nearby waterfalls. We were surprised to still meet lots of people coming the other way. The path was now even slippier on the steep parts, but somebody had poured water over them to give the surface more grip. We also had to constantly pay attention to the ‘taxi drivers’. Their vehicles had brakes, but they did not seem to be very good because they were always running downhill.All five of us (from the guesthouse) reunited at the bottom on time. All of our other group members and guide were spread out along the path and soon we gave up waiting for them. None of us was really interested in the waterfall anyway and four of us had a long travel trip across Bali that day and needed every minute. The waterfall is only special because nothing grows in it, the water comes from Ijen crater and with all the sulphur the water can be as acidic as ph0.5. Luckily we managed to convince our driver not to wait for the group and to drive us back. After a quick breakfast we jumped into a taxi and rushed to the ferry.

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