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1:30 am – middle of the night. In a simple wooden, mountain shelter we are getting ready for an expedition to the crater of Ijen volcano.
A petite, swarthy guide dressed in a windbreaker and rubber boots hands us masks with air filters. The post-nuclear world accessories cause mild heart palpitations. An expedition leader is trying to save the situation:
“No, no! Nothing to worry about! These are only in case you cannot breathe.”
Throughout the three kilometres long track leading to the volcano summit, we can only see narrow stripes of light falling from the flashlights attached to our foreheads. Whatever surrounds us is shrouded in the impenetrable darkness. Blackness plays with imagination. Innocent during the daytime sounds now cause a nervous glancing around and an accelerated walking pace. The night does not help conversations. No visual stimuli result in no topics to talk about. Our full attention, however, concentrates on watching stripes of light which guide our feet on a gravel path. Occasionally, we hear a thud sound of tripping and muffled curses of those who do not concentrate hard enough.
Two hours later, we stand at the top of the volcano Ijen. At least, this is what our guides tell us. Pitch-black night does not allow to verify the facts. The smell of sulphur drifting in the cold air, however, seems to confirm their words.
Sunrise – the reason for our trip – is still two hours away. The idea to spend this time idle in the dark does not appear attractive. Plus, we rack our brains over masks. The smell of sulphur is, in fact, noticeable, but the mask is probably a small exaggeration. Guide emerging from darkness interrupts our chain of thoughts.
“If you rested enough, we could go further.”
Further? An intriguing turn of events leads us to the crater edge, invisible in the blacks of night. Dani – the same petit guide who has handed us masks, grabs my hand and leads down. Floundering fingers can feel the sharp rocks of the volcano. Unstable stones slip from under the feet filling the air with clouds of sulphurous dust, which begins to irritate the throat and eyes. Mask put on face stained with streaks of tears brings immediate relief. The black depth in front of us starts to shine with purple-blue fires of burning sulphur fumes. We inch closer to the bottom of the crater and poisonous spectacle that captivates with hypnotic colours.
In pale lights of flashlights, between the flames and thick clouds of sulphurous smoke, dark silhouettes of sulphur miners move around. Bent in half, with long metal rods, they break off pieces of mineral dried into gold streaks. Miners tightly cover faces with scarfs against the acid vapours and load the gold-orange rocks into wicker baskets connected with a bamboo stick. Up to ninety kilos of raw material will come up out on their shoulders the same way we came. Steep, uneven, dangerous and disappearing into the darkness. Two courses per day will bring about 200 000 Indonesian rupees – a small fortune, which will ensure the survival of their families. Dani – today our guide – will get the same amount of money for leading the trip. Another 200 000 he will get as a tip. Tomorrow, he will return to the back-breaking work in the mine.
Sunrise finds us in the volcano crater valley. Warm rays cast a golden thread on raw grey walls of the volcano. Dani points something in between clouds of sulphur. From behind their grey-yellow vapours emerges an indescribably beautiful emerald lake – as beautiful, as deadly – filled with sulphuric acid.
Hell of a place.
The Ijen Volcano (Kawah Ijen) – the kingdom of sulphur
Ijen is one of the active volcanoes located in the volcanic complex in East Java (Indonesia). It owes its fame, among others, to the crater lake. This amazing turquoise geological creation is as beautiful as dangerous – it is filled with sulphuric acid. The lake is considered to be the largest of its kind in the world.
The so-called ‘blue fires’ also contributed to the tourist popularity of Ijen Crater. The fires are nothing else but burning at 600 ° C sulphur fumes with fantastic bright blue and purple colours. The flames can reach up to 5m in height.
The volcano crater is also a sulphur mine. Day after day, men from the nearby village in the Paltuding valley, walk over 3 kilometres to reach the crater rim. What waits for them, is another several hundreds of meters, of a steep, treacherous path to the bottom of the volcano. Here, armed only with scarves to protect them from the acid fumes, using long metal rods they shell chunks of mineral, dried into orange-yellow streaks. With bare hands, they load it to the wicker baskets connected with a bamboo stick. The cargo will leave the mine on miners’ shoulders. Each bundle contains up to up to 90 kg of sulphur rocks. Two courses a day bring about 200 000 Indonesian rupees – an equivalent of 15USD. A small fortune is the price of severe health problems due to body exhaustion and exposure to toxic dust and fumes.
Know before you go
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The 3-kilometers long track to the crater’s edge is moderately difficult. The major problem, however, is to get to the bottom of it. Several hundred meter-long descent is demanding both due to uneven, rocky surface of the volcano, as well as the air contaminated with sulphurous vapours and dust. On top of it, there is the lack of any protective barriers and total darkness, as the trekking takes place in the middle of the night. Highly recommended are good trekking shoes and protection for the nose and mouth. Best in the form of air filters masks, or at least disposable surgical ones or ordinary scarves. Guides of organised tours usually take care of masks for the tourists within their group. It is better, though, to check it in advance of the trip. People with respiratory problems should give up entirely the expedition to the bottom of the crater. The route may also be too burdensome for these who suffer from claustrophobia.
It is worth noting that not every descent into the crater can come to fruition. It depends on the density of sulphur vapours. Sometimes it is too high to descend safely into the mine.
Recommended clothing – warm and breathable. The nights are cool enough (approx. 15 ° C), but trekking exercise efficiently heats the body up, so it is good to have some short-sleeved t-shirts under the windbreakers. Sunrise brings awaited warmth and temperatures exceeding 25 ° C.
The only toilets are available in the base camp. Similarly, the small stall where you can stock up on water.
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Banyuwangi, Java, Indonesia
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Dry season: May – September.
The duration of the trip:
– From the base camp to the edge of the crater: 90 – 120 min.
– Descent into the mine: 30 – 60 min. depending on the fitness
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Prices of organised tours start from 400 000 Indonesian Rupiah /30USD. The cost includes accommodation in a nearby hotel, night-time transport to the base of Ijen, an entrance fee, guide and the return transport.