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Ijen crater and sulphur mine

  
   - darkometer rating:  10 -
 
A volcano in East Java, Indonesia, with a greenish blue acid lake and an infamous fuming sulphur mine inside its crater. Seeing Ijen crater in the dead of night to behold the fabled blue flames was something that I can only describe as infernally surreal – it stands as one of the top dark-tourism experiences of my life!   
  
More background info: Ijen is an active volcano on East Java, actually part of a larger caldera complex of volcanoes, but the crater lake of Ijen (Kawah Ijen in Indonesian) is the most famous part. This lake of deep turquoise colour is reputedly the largest sulphuric acid lake in the world, at over 700m (2300 feet) in diameter and with a depth of ca. 150-200m. At times it can get hot, even reaching boiling point. 
  
The crater lake is at ca. 2200m (sources appear to vary a bit) and the summit is ca. 2800m (9000 feet) above sea level. It is thus not the largest, nor is it the most active volcano in volcano-rich Indonesia, but it is one of the most famous ones. 
  
The reason for this is the sulphur mine inside the crater. Ijen emits a lot of sulphurous gases and leaves large amounts of solidified sulphur behind. Local miners “harvest” these sulphur deposits and carry heavy loads of 70-90kg of broken sulphur out of the crater. The work of the miners is extremely hard and hazardous. Hence they featured in the award-winning documentary film “Workingman's Death” of 2005 (together with Ukrainian coal miners, ship-breakers in Pakistan, Chinese steelworkers and Nigerian butchers).  
  
These are tough guys. Mostly the usual Indonesian size and of slight build, but they have to be strong. They carry the sulphur in two baskets connected by a bar or stick which they put on their shoulders. Then they climb the steep and precarious track up the crater wall while balancing their heavy loads and then transport it down a couple of miles to a collection point where they get paid their pittance. The pay for such extreme work is pathetic: less than 10 EUR (13 USD) for a full day's gruelling graft. The sulphur is then taken to a local factory where it is melted down for purification and moulded into more transportable shapes and sold, e.g. to the chemical industry for use in fertilizers, paints, preservatives and all manner of other products.
  
The working conditions these guys live with are amongst the most hazardous and unhealthy imaginable. They are often hardly protected against the sulphuric fumes – maybe just a scarf wrapped around their faces, and many wear only sandals or sawn-off wellington boots on their feet. And as if the sulphur fumes were not enough, they are all heavy chain-smokers – and that's kreteks, those typical Indonesian clove-spiced cigarettes that contain so much tar they are banned in many Western countries. You can't help but wonder what low life expectancies they must have … 
  
Since Western tourists have started to appear in larger numbers at Ijen, the miners have begun to expect a small fee or gift for being photographed with tourists, and handing out kreteks is the usual mode of payment.  
  
Ijen's other claim to dramatic fame is actually part of the mining operations: the fabled blue flames. The miners not only channel sulphurous gases by means of ceramic pipes to collection points where the sulphur drips out in deep red (it only is yellow when solidified and colder). To enhance the whole process the sulphur is also set alight – and at night you can see it burning in otherworldly blue flames (whereas during the daytime the flames are invisible). 
  
The spectacular blue flames were featured in a number of TV productions too and have been documented by photographers as well. The best source of such photos online that I know of is a series of images taken by Olivier Grunewald – see this external link (opens in a new window).
  
Besides all that it also has to be remembered that Ijen is an active volcano and as such hazardous. Eruptions happen quite regularly but usually only in the form of relatively minor gas and ash explosions. But there is always the fear that a larger eruption could drain the lake and inundate the land around in its acid contents. The last time a major eruption did result in the ejection of the lake was almost 200 years ago. But it could happen again.
  
  
What there is to see: At night a totally otherworldly, even “netherworldly” experience – like clambering straight into some kind of Dante's Inferno. Totally unique in the world and one hell (!!) of a travel adventure. For me it was one of the most outstanding things I've ever seen and done. But in order to get that you HAVE to go at night. Only when it is dark are those fabled blue flames visible! 
  
The rest of Ijen and its environs are also spectacular, especially the blue-green acidic crater lake in bright daylight, but if you come here only in daylight you'd miss the by far most incredible thing to see in all of Indonesia (in my opinion at least).
  
But let's begin at the beginning. First of all you have to make it to the foot of Ijen (see below for practicalities). Once you get to the base camp with the PHKA post (Ministry of Forestry and Nature Conservation) you have to pay an entrance fee to the Ijen area – something as low as a couple of dollars worth, and if you are on a tour the fee will be included anyway and your guide will see to it all (including registration). At the base station there are also a couple of shops, e.g. to buy more drinking water – you will need it! Here is also the chance to hire some protective gas masks for later at the sulphur mine – if you didn't bring any, then this is highly recommended (see below). 
  
Then you can set off along the hiking trail up to the crater. This part of the hike is comparatively harmless. The trail is well laid-out and partly even tarmacked. It starts quite gently but then come steeper stretches. So it does get a bit strenuous, but otherwise it is not difficult. As it was in the dead of night when we were there, we had brought torches. I even had one of those headlamps to strap to my forehead – but its battery failed halfway through the hike. Fortunately it was an almost full moon and we were soon above the cloud layer so there was still sufficient natural light ... just about. In the moonlight you could see the peaks of neighbouring volcanic cones poking through the cloud layer – magical! 
  
Eventually, some distance past the upper ranger station, you emerge into the open treeless final approach on the outside of the crater rim. On the crest of the crater you may get the first whiff of the sulphuric fumes coming up from below.  
  
In the half light the view down into the crater wasn't so spectacular yet – you could just about make out the shape of the lake, but no colour. The most noticeable feature was the column of steamy gas whirling up the inside of the carter wall. Fortunately the wind was in our favour and kept the gases away from our path, so we didn't need our gas masks just yet. 
  
But then came the hard bit: the climb down. Nominally you are not supposed to even attempt this. There is a large sign by a viewpoint on the crater rim that spells this out in Indonesian and in somewhat broken but decipherable enough English (although I found the wording “going down on crater” slightly amusing for its unintentional ambiguity). In addition there is also a small gate with another warning/forbidden sign on it that you have to pry open or clamber over in order to get to the beginning of the track down the crater wall. 
  
Nevertheless, we were far from the only ones ignoring all these signs. In fact there were quite a few other hikers already on their way down and more and more came after us, forming a long string of headlamps and torches like fairy lights leading over the crater rim and down its wall. I hadn't expected us to have the place to ourselves, but the numbers of other visitors was a bit of a surprise all the same. I reckon it must have been about a hundred or so altogether who made their way down into the crater. That's still nothing compared to the crowds at Bromo (see under Merapi – combinations) but it was still quite busy on the way down.
  
After a while you also get to see the first of the sulphur miners carrying their loads up the same track – and they have priority, of course, so you had to be careful to keep out of their way. But the main thing is not to slip and break a leg (or worse). The track down is hardly a “track” in the literal sense – it's just a route. Some stretches aren't too difficult, but others can get very precarious indeed, when you have to climb down rocky drops and along very crumbly edges. You have to take great care! (Again see the practicalities section below!)  
  
But the reward for all this effort and risk is almost indescribable in words. There they were: the magical blue flames of Ijen! 
  
Part of the time they were shrouded in the dense sulphurous fumes, at other times the wind blew open a view straight onto the blue flickering wonder. To get close enough for a good view it was necessary to put on the gas masks we had brought along from the base station. Without them you can't last more than twenty seconds in the biting fumes. And when you do get engulfed in these fumes it can take much longer than that before the wind blows them away again. The face masks we had didn't completely protect us. Some of the stench still got through – and as they did not protect the eyes at all the stinging burning feeling from the gases could only be alleviated by closing your eyes when the fumes got too thick.. Those who hadn't brought any protective masks had a hard time even getting a good look at the blue flames from closer up. And believe me, the closer you do get the more unbelievably otherworldly they look. 
  
Obviously almost everybody tried to take photos – which actually made taking pictures more difficult than it already was. Naturally, in such light conditions, autofocus is pretty much useless. You have to go manual to stop the autofocus whirring in and out hopelessly. The downside of so many people trying autofocus was a Christmas light show of focus-assist lights in red and green flickering through the haze. Some idiots even used flash (come on ... what's that to achieve when photographing blue flames in the dark?!?). 
  
Some better prepared photographers had brought tripods, which naturally are a great help in such adverse conditions. But everybody struggled to get decent pictures – me included. At this point I really regretted not having been able to bring a tripod (I hadn't known we would actually get to Ijen at night, otherwise I may have considered packing it, despite the weight restrictions on some of our flights). At least I was able to stabilize the camera on some rocks for longer exposures. (And I was shooting in RAW, as the in-camera white balance was completely off the mark.)
  
In the end I only managed a handful of halfway decent shots – which you can see in the gallery below. But I do recommend you also take a look at the high-quality professional photos linked to above to get a better impression. (These photos are excellent, if perhaps a little too bright – in reality everything is darker down here than those photos suggest.)   
  
As mesmerizing as the blue flames are, so that it is hard not to just keep gazing at them, they weren't the only thing that was otherworldly down here. Seeing the dripping, deep-red molten sulphur was similarly eerie, almost Dali-esque in its surrealness. Watching the sulphur miners at work as they hack blocks of sulphur apart with iron rods only added to the infernal atmosphere. The whole time hardly a word was spoken by anybody, miners and visitors alike, making for a kind of solemn mood all round.
  
Eventually the first indications of daylight began to appear signalling to us that it was time to start the climb back up the crater wall. This actually turned out to be much easier than going down, but this time there was also a lot more traffic of miners carrying their sulphur baskets. 
  
Every so often we took a break to look back down and take in the view of the lake as it was slowly emerging from the twilight – while at the same time the blue flames became less and less conspicuous. It didn't take long for them to become altogether invisible as daylight got brighter. 
  
Back at the top of the crater rim the first few hikers who were coming for the sunrise were appearing. I couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for them – as cool as a sunrise over a crater lake may be, it cannot begin to compete with the wondrous spectacle of the blue flames at night. On the other hand, if everybody came at night at the same time, it would get too crowded … Maybe I shouldn't be singing the praises of the blue flames too much? Well, hopefully the considerable effort and risk of the climb will suffice to keep visitor numbers down. 
  
In any case, up at the crater rim at daybreak it was getting a bit too busy for my taste. Now the selfie-takers were joining the ranks of serious photographers and lots of posing for grinning holiday snaps hammered it in that this was still tourist territory after all. Or at least territory slowly being claimed by tourism. 
  
That was only a small dampener, though. Just a few steps away from the huddles of visitor groups you could still get silent and magical views – of the vistas around slowly being lit up in pink morning sunlight, as well as down to the Ijen crater lake now beginning to show its true colours, namely an eerie bluish-greenish turquoise, which is characteristic of sulphuric acid lakes. Soon swirls of gases were rising from the lake and dancing around on the surface as if choreographed by some  invisible hand (cf. also Aso). 
  
Morning clouds were rising up to the crater too and were already shrouding neighbouring peaks. It was time to move on and start our descent. All the way more and more miners were there too – and now they played their part in the touristification of Ijen, if only in the form of posing with tourists for pictures and receiving small change and kretek cigarettes for it. 
  
But they were also selling rather unique tourist tack! They had sulphur moulded into the shape of hearts with “I love Kawah Ijen” on them, and even adorned with little kitschy animal shapes. It was so tacky that even I was briefly tempted – but then I remembered from my trip to Aso (Japan) that you can't take such raw sulphur onto a plane. I presume it would make sniffer dogs go wild – after all, sulphur is also an important component in some explosives! 
  
We only had a short break at the upper ranger station for a warming coffee and tea and then ambled all the way back to the base station. Here the party atmosphere had taken over. In different ways. The returning hikers were having a snack and comparing photos (or the stories thereof), while the locals were engaged in card games … very engaged that is! Almost as if they were putting it on for a movie or play.
  
Then we got back to our jeep … which promptly broke down only a hundred yards into the drive home. So we were treated to the spectacle of half a dozen Indonesian amateur mechanics performing an impromptu show of ingenuity. They did manage to get the car going again after a while – and I admit I was relieved that this meant we could finally get back to bed to catch up on all the sleep lost that night. 
  
But the lack of sleep, the at times strenuous hiking and risky clambering down rocky paths, the stinging in my eyes from the sulphurous fumes (it lasted almost 24 hours!) and the post-Ijen stench of our clothes … it was all worth it and a small price to pay for one of the most stupendously awesome memories I have ever taken away from my travels anywhere. 
  
  
Location: in the far east of the island of Java, Indonesia, some 14 miles (22 km) to the nearest town (Banyuwangi) and about 12 miles (20 km) to the ferry port connecting Java with Bali.
 
Google maps locators: 
  
[-8.0602, 114.2441] – the crater itself
  
[-8.0737, 114.2236] – starting point of the volcano hike
  
  
Access and costs: quite remote  and with hardly any public transport connections, so it's best to go on a private tour, really. These are obviously not exactly dirt cheap, but not necessarily excessively pricey either – and anyway it's worth every cent!
  
Details: The Ijen Plateau in Eastern Java is one of the least densely populated parts of the island and thus transport options and tourism infrastructure are more limited too. It is in theory not impossible to make it to the starting point of the volcano hike at the PHKA point at Pos Paltuding by some forms of public or hired mode of transport from the nearest larger town, Bayuwangi. But the effort and uncertainties involved hardly make it worth it. For Ijen a guided tour, with a chartered jeep and driver to get to the starting point of the hike, and with a guide as an escort on the hike, really does make more sense and doesn't have to cost the earth.  
  
Some of the places offering accommodation in the area can arrange their own tours. The top pick has to be the swish Ijen resort . Not only does it have high-standard rooms and a (somewhat overpriced) restaurant, it is also the closest place to Ijen. That  makes the night tours much more feasible to start from than from anywhere else … and afterwards you can come back to a nice place to relax and recover. The views are glorious here too. Alternatively there are also some hotels further away as well as a couple of coffee plantations offering rooms. (The website ijenplateau.com has some details.)
  
When I went in August 2014 it was as part of a longer itinerary, in this case with a guide and driver taking us from Surabaya (see under Sidoarjo) all the way to Bromo, Ijen and the ferry to Bali. The night tour of Ijen started from Ijen resort. But the resort also offers their own packages – including combination tours of Ijen and Bromo. You can even get 2-day/1 night packages from Denpasar, Bali, including flights, accommodation at the resort, meals and the tour from under 300 USD per person. 
  
Should you make it to Ijen independently then you'll still have to pay the admission fee to the Ijen area – but that's only something like 15,000 IDR or so. If you're on a tour this should be included and you don't need to bother with registration either. Your guide will do all this for you.
  
Note that most standard tours to Ijen aim to get there for sunrise, not at night. In order to be able to see the blue flames, however, you have to arrange to get there long before daybreak (the flames are invisible by daylight!), preferably make it around 1 or 2 a.m. to begin the hike to the crater rim, so that you don't have to rush the precarious climb down and then have a decent amount of time to take in the visual spectacle before clambering back up. 
  
More practicalities: you will need decent footwear, ideally proper ankle-length hiking boots, and layers of clothes – it can get chilly at this altitude, especially at night. Most people also bring torches or, better still, headlamps to strap to your forehead, so that your hands remain free.  
  
It's also a very good idea to bring a gas mask of sorts – not the full ABC-weapons-grade ones, only nose-and-mouth masks with filters. That way you can get much closer to the blue flames and the acidic, sulphurous plumes of gas that the fumaroles emit all the time. It's hard to breathe when you get engulfed by these plumes even with a mask. But it's still better than just those flimsy cloth face masks that many Asians wear in traffic (and that some of the other tourists turned up with). They offer virtually no protection for yourself – they are intended to keep others safe from your germs, but don't help when it comes to such nauseating gas plumes. 
The exposure to these gases also means that you may not be able to wear the same clothes you had on here ever again. The stink is extremely persistent and doesn't wash out in a regular washing machine. So consider wearing things you could afford to trash afterwards (or see if they can be dry-cleaned). 
  
Do note that there are health & safety risks involved in going down Ijen crater! The gases may be nauseating, but their source is also toxic, so don't breathe in too much of the stuff. Remember also that the Ijen crater lake is acidic! A few years ago a French tourist fell in and died in it! The main risk, however, is the climb as such. It's steep, the ground can be crumbly, and in the dark it's difficult to see where to place your feet. It is also a good idea to wear gloves for the climb down the crater to get a better grip on the rocks. And carry your things in a rucksack, so that you have your hands free and nothing dangles off you as you negotiate the steep crater wall.
  
The main thing to bear in mind is: take great care – and take your time! Do not rush it. It's actually astonishing that there aren't more accidents happening here all the time – the way some other tourists were “frolicking” down the steep crater path was at times heart-stopping to watch. It's a wonder that they all made it there and back, given the risky balancing acts they nonchalantly engaged in and the speed with which they were racing downhill. Do not let that be a model for you (nor the miners – for them it's daily work). By the way: climbing back up is a lot easier than the way down.   
  
Whether or not you can go at all – and see the flames – will also depend on the weather. I heard from my guide that only one day after we had been up at the crater it was engulfed by clouds and it was raining so that climbing down was as good as impossible (and pointless anyway). And that was when it was supposed to be the dry season. In the rainy season, this will be much more the norm than the exception, though you may still be lucky and get a clear day. The altitude of the crater also means that it is often above the clouds. On the other hand it is not really high enough to cause much risk of altitude sickness as for most people this only becomes an issue at altitudes above 3000m (10,000 feet). 
  
Finally, it also has to be remembered that Ijen is an active volcano. As long as it is only venting sulphurous gas through its fumaroles things may be fine, but there is always the slight risk of a proper eruption. And at Ijen this would most likely be explosive. The last time before my trip in 2014 that the volcano was too restless to be visitable was in 2011-2012, with earthquakes and emissions directly from the crater lake. 
  
  
Time required: half a night and a good part of a morning – if you go to see the blue flames, that is. Daytime hikes just to the crater rim can take less time, but still at least four to five hours in total, depending on your departure point. The hike from the  PHKA point at Pos Paltuding to the crater rim takes between one and two hours (depending on fitness and general speed); the climb down to the crater lake can take another 45 minutes to an hour (do TAKE your time here). The way back will be a bit faster. 
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing much in the vicinity; the nearest dark sites covered here are on Bali (Kuta and Trunyan) to the east, and Sidoarjo to the west near Java's second largest city Surabaya. Both would require a day's worth of travelling, at least if going overland (flying into Banyuwangi, e.g. from Denpasar, speeds things up, of course). 
  
If you wonder what happens to all the sulphur mined at Ijen you could try and take a look at the local sulphur factory at Licin – this is where the Ijen sulphur is prepared for being sold on to buyers from the industry. It's a similarly infernal job as the mining is in the first place. Sulphur is molten down to purify it and is then either poured into cylindrical shapes or spread out into sheets. All by hand and without much protection. How easy it is to go and see this, I cannot say, however. If you go with a guide, ask. I failed to do so, being simply too knackered after the night-time Ijen climb. But it may be possible. 
  
See also under Indonesia in general. 
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Part of the Ijen experience is already not really proper dark tourism material but rather extreme tourism in the sense of adventure and hiking. Moreover, the scenery at daybreak around Ijen is extremely beautiful to behold. And if you stay at the Ijen resort you can see classic (almost over-cliched) vistas of impossibly green rice paddy terraces that are as picture-book beautiful as it gets anywhere in Indonesia (including those popular viewing spots on Bali!). 
  
Indonesia's top tourism hotspots in south Bali are also within fairly easy reach. In fact you can visit Ijen as a package tour of two to four days from Bali (see above). So if Bali's beaches, the party scene of Kuta or the serenity of the interior are your thing, then it's easy to combine. Mind you, though, the Ijen experience (provided you do go at night, that is) couldn't contrast more with what Bali typically is associated with.  
  
Closer to Ijen some less mainstream non-dark attractions may entice a niche market – such as staying at the local coffee plantations and watching the processing of their produce. There are also some of Indonesia's less well known national parks in East Java, such as Baluran, featuring an almost African savannah-style landscape, or Alas Purwo National Park that boasts the unusual combination of wildlife trekking and prime surfing opportunities on the coast. Other than big waves, many species of sea turtles come to these shores too.
  
And last but not least, East Java's top tourism draw, Bromo, is also frequently combined with tours to Ijen. See under Merapi > combinations – and under Indonesia in general (also for Bromo photos!).  
  

 

  • Ijen 01 - setting off in the middle of the nightIjen 01 - setting off in the middle of the night
  • Ijen 02 - as we climb down, sulphur miners climb upIjen 02 - as we climb down, sulphur miners climb up
  • Ijen 03 - yours truly at the bottom of the crater engulfed by sulphurous fumesIjen 03 - yours truly at the bottom of the crater engulfed by sulphurous fumes
  • Ijen 04 - molten sulphurIjen 04 - molten sulphur
  • Ijen 05 - watching the fabled blue flamesIjen 05 - watching the fabled blue flames
  • Ijen 06 - blue flamesIjen 06 - blue flames
  • Ijen 07 - magical blue flamesIjen 07 - magical blue flames
  • Ijen 08 - blue flames flickeringIjen 08 - blue flames flickering
  • Ijen 09 - mysticalIjen 09 - mystical
  • Ijen 10 - but it is only sulphur set alightIjen 10 - but it is only sulphur set alight
  • Ijen 11 - sulphur mine by night with blue flamesIjen 11 - sulphur mine by night with blue flames
  • Ijen 12 - very tricky to photographIjen 12 - very tricky to photograph
  • Ijen 13 - climbing back upIjen 13 - climbing back up
  • Ijen 14 - the sulphur mine inside the crater at first lightIjen 14 - the sulphur mine inside the crater at first light
  • Ijen 15 - in daylight the flames are invisibleIjen 15 - in daylight the flames are invisible
  • Ijen 16 - sign at the crater rim that all the adventurous tourists ignoreIjen 16 - sign at the crater rim that all the adventurous tourists ignore
  • Ijen 17 - rising mist at sunriseIjen 17 - rising mist at sunrise
  • Ijen 18 - on the crater rimIjen 18 - on the crater rim
  • Ijen 19 - the largest acid lake in the worldIjen 19 - the largest acid lake in the world
  • Ijen 20 - swirling fumes over turquoise acid lakeIjen 20 - swirling fumes over turquoise acid lake
  • Ijen 21 - hiking backIjen 21 - hiking back
  • Ijen 22 - the miners carry up to 90kg loads of sulphurIjen 22 - the miners carry up to 90kg loads of sulphur
  • Ijen 23 - these miners are tough, chain-smoking guysIjen 23 - these miners are tough, chain-smoking guys
  • Ijen 24 - sulphur moulded into tourist tackIjen 24 - sulphur moulded into tourist tack
  • Ijen 25 - another volcano in the morning lightIjen 25 - another volcano in the morning light
 

    

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