The next destination was to see the mysterious blue flames of the Ijen Crater (East Java, Indonesia).
It seems like a lot of times the biggest part of backpacking adventure in Asia is actually trying to make your way to places, figuring out how to get there, finding out if there’s REALLY no public bus and haggling prices. That could be tiring, but that’s part of the deal and fun.
Getting to Kawah (Crater) Ijen was no exception. I was still going to hike with Mitch and also later we ended up meeting hiker Harry from Bromo as well. We took a $3 bus ride back to Bromolingo, then another $2 public bus (overcrowded, stuffy and slow but oh so cheap) to the town of Bondowoso.
We arrived to Bondowoso kinda late and learnt that there was no bus to Ijen at this hour. However, we can get a little van, which for 600,000 INR ($50) will take us there and back, and also to the Arabic coffee plantations and hot springs and what not. Pricey but Mitch was leaving for home the next day and still had his millions to spend (ok ok in Indonesian rupees), so he just paid for the car. Skipping up ahead: he didn’t even use the ride back so after the hike I had the whole car with a personal driver already paid for all to myself. Ha!
First, you arrive to a place called Sempol. There were no cheap rooms available in the quest house and it was only like 3-4 hours left to sleep so we just decided to sleep in the van in the parking lot next to Ijen.
Every local would tell you, you need a guide to go down the crater. There’s also an entrance fee of 100,000 INR ($8). We skipped both. A Chinese group in gas masks (which I was laughing at…initially) had a guide, so when they set off, we just followed. So did many other people:) A bunch of locals also just strolled along, hoping to make some money on the way, so there’s no way to get lost. Our driver was trying very hard to make sure we paid the fee, but we walked past him, as well as past the two guys who seemed to be checking tickets at the entrance, and they didn’t even say a word.
So we started walking at 2.30-3am. First you walk 3km uphill. It’s a beautiful hike under a starry sky with all the constellations possible! And then it’s a 1km steep rocky descend into the crater itself. I was so psyched to hike there, as the pictures that I’d seen looked unbelievable. Basically, it’s a sulfur hotspot, with quite a few holes smoking down in the crater. I don’t know the whole science of it, but at night before the sunrise, the flames turn blue and it’s just a mesmerizing sight! Honestly, looks like hell with saturated blue flames. Everything is enveloped in thick smoke and you see large deep blue tongues of fire! My camera decided not to work at that moment (great!) but here is what we saw, courtesy of google images:
Well, it is sulfur though, and it is poisonous. As we were almost onsite, one of the locals told us to kneel down and hide behind the rocks, as the strong sulfur wind was blowing in our direction. Imagine what happens closer! We decided to go actually very close, to the very mines, and suddenly a strong wind blows, bringing sulfur to your face. I knelt down to the ground looking away, breathing into my buff but it wasn’t helping. I was already out of breath, but then another blow and another and I couldn’t catch my breath anymore. For a second there I had another ‘oh shit’ moment, getting weak and dizzy. But you go back up where everyone is standing and you’re ok.
Another highlight of Ijen are the mine workers. These small but very strong men make three runs a day to the hell crater and back up the steep and very rocky hill, carrying woven baskets of up to 90kg of sulfur. They have no masks or any protection whatsoever; they go all the way down inhaling the gas and spending quite some time in the mines. On top of that they chain smoke like badasses:)
I found out that they are paid 1,000 INR (8 cents) per kilo of sulfur they bring up. Never again complain about your jobs, people! Also a local PhD student told me that no, miners do not suffer from spine or lung diseases and they live long lives as they are strong and healthy. I’m still skeptical about it, but good for them if it’s true!
After the sun is up, the flames disappear and we start making our way out of the crater. Turns out, there’s also a huge lake Ijen right there. What a bonus for the view! And I get my camera back…
Mitch and Harry leave to Bali to catch their flights. As a farewell Mitch says: Now you have to find a new walking stick and a new hiking partner, both are hard to come by. True that:)
Now that I have the car with a driver to my disposal, we go to the local natural hot springs. Can’t say it’s the cleanest place, but hey its only $1.50 and a much needed relaxation after the volcano hiking marathon and waking up 2am-ish four days in a row.
Again, at this point everyone leaves Ijen area. Instead I ask the driver to take me to the local cheapest place, Arabica homestay. It’s a nice resort-ish place (well rooms are pretty shi**y by western standards but its all flowers and with a view to Ijen). I spend two more days exploring the surroundings.
I went to a local village. A Muslim prayer just finished so the entire village was on the streets, all staring at the ‘bule’ (foreigner) alien. Every group of women stopped to ‘talk’ to me, so we just giggled in our own languages. They all touched my skin and my face, one tried grabbing me on the crotch (that was weird!)
I went to another village, groups of kids chasing me. One invited me to their porch where I met like the whole neighborhood. Another group of boys invited me to play soccer with them in a school yard (unexpected:) but a sudden and brutal tropical rain started so I had to rush home. An older Muslim woman invited me under her umbrella and we had another ‘conversation’ in two different languages, still getting soaked.
Oh, and one last thing. Besides coffee they grow strawberries in that place. So I went on a mission to look for some. I found a fenced field with a guard. He didn’t speak any English and was so confused what a lone lost white girl was doing in this god-knows-where mountain village, that he just opened the gate and let me loose in the field of strawberries… You can only imagine what happened next:)