Situated within the vast volcanic region of the Ijen Plateau and last in line along Java’s mountainous spine, Mount Ijen is one volcano that has a reputation surpassing most others, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to exciting most outdoor enthusiasts. Although some will argue that it may sit first, its geographical position on Java soon becomes a mere footnote when you begin to uncover the compelling nature of Kawah Ijen, its crater lake and the fabled blue flame. And if that has not yet quite caught your attention, there is also a very unique story that emerges from the depths of the crater that might just be able to do that!
Hiking Mount Ijen
Whilst the combination of its unique occurrences and rare beauty is what attracts so many visitors, the unworldly sight of its 'blue fire' phenomenon is what dictates your timing. Visible only in darkness, there is a need for an early start, a very early start. In a race with the rising sun, a 2am climb is fairly common and will just about guarantee your chances of making it to the top before any sign of light. For those who struggle with the concept of “having an early night”, this may all start to look a little like an all-nighter rather than that early start.
At a height of 2368m and surrounded by some fairly steep terrain, there is no quick and easy means when it comes to climbing Mount Ijen. Whilst a wide beaten track and a fairly placid start offers a gentle introduction, the climb will soon become a challenge as the tracks ramp up some considerable gradients. An hour and a half of continuous climbing is by no means a walk in the park to even the most seasoned climbers, however it is one that most can endure as the anticipation drives you up the volcano. With no real distractions bar the sound of your own panting, little more can really be said about the ascent as the surrounding darkness masks such an impressive landscape/ offers little immediate excitement.
Whilst we probably have not quite sold you the dream hike, a night climb of this nature is actually an enticing prospect when you consider what you are about to witness and the fact that there are only a few places on the planet where you can witness such an occurrence.
The Blue Flame
Just shy of Ijen’s highest point, as you make it onto the wide open expanse of the crater rim, you soon catch sight of Kawah Ijen’s prominent ‘blue flame’; the result of burning sulphurous gases. Driving through the crater fumaroles at soaring temperatures, the relentless stream of these flammable gases continuously ignite with the oxygen rich air, producing an unusual display of electric blue flames throughout the dead of night. Whilst an admirable glow is visible from a distance, a climb down into the crater is recommended if you are wanting to fully appreciate the size, colour and definition of these mystical flames. Faced with a steep and uneven rocky path, getting into the crater can be a little sketchy but with most visitors having a guide, they will have no issue in offering some assistance.
Slightly different from traditional volcanos which spew out characteristic cascades of red lava and black smoke, some have branded these flames as the “Blue Lava” and is easy to see why. Its fluid form and mystical dancing display is one that is truly extraordinary and slightly hypnotic.
Whilst left a little dazed and bemused, it is however worth remembering that you are also heading straight towards the accompanying dense clouds of gases. With it almost impossible to catch a breathe when momentarily engulfed in such plumes of toxic gases, fitting a filtration mask is probably a wise move. Not only does it make visiting the blue flame much more pleasant but if your image is of importance to you, will also look like quite a badass too!
World’s Most Acidic Lake
As the sun begins to rise and the flames begin to fade, the electric blues are soon replaced by slightly warmer shades on a considerably larger scale. Cradled within the heart of the crater and at almost a kilometre in length, a cloudy iridescent turquoise lake soon transforms the landscape at the sight of daybreak. Constantly fed by hydrothermal waters infused with a rich brew of volcanic gases from the chambers below, the extreme acidity of the water is what creates it’s artistic blush and one that would be worthy of any palette/ offers is unique appeal. With a pH of near enough 1 and what is supposedly classified as the world’s most acidic lake, it is probably one you want to give a miss when it comes to going for a little dip.
Whilst some may hang around in the crater for some epic photo opportunities and soak up the pungent smell of sulphur, most don’t hang around for too long as they look to quickly escape the suffocating gaseous environment and dart for some slightly fresher air. The climb back out the crater is again quite the scramble, however this time you can begin to appreciate your surroundings and the enormity of Kawah Ijen. Surrounded by the towering heights of the sheer crater walls, the contrasting nature between these sterile faces and the vibrant lake paints the perfect picture for a worthy sunrise and one that offers plenty of reprieve for such an early start.
Whilst the unusual nature of Mount Ijen offers a unique beauty with an undeniable attraction, it is however the story of the world’s most dangerous sulphur mining operation that is incredibly captivating/ truly remarkable. An active scene for now over half a century, it is one of the few remaining places on the planet where sulphur is still obtained via artisanal miners. Despite the fact that in today’s day and age the majority of the world’s sulphur is produced via manufactured processes, a coincidence of local demand, minimal costs and a relentless flow of sulphuric gases does continue to support the deprived neighbouring communities.
Visible from almost every angle, an untidy display of ceramic pipes down by the lake is a strategic setup used by the locals in order to cover the natural vents and effectively capture and condense these gases. Instantly cooled and reduced to liquid sulphur, these pipes direct the desirable characteristic yellow residue to the flatter grounds as it quickly solidifies and is ready for the picking.
Amidst the thick dense clouds of gas and with nothing more than a simple metal rod, local men continuously hack away at the mounds of solid sulphur in order to fill their basic baskets with as much as they can physically carry. Scaling the uneven crater walls with anything up to 100kg, all will slowly head down the steep slopes to the base of Ijen to sell their heavy loads. With each worker paid around 5pence for every kilo, most will earn little more than a few pounds per trip and will therefore make at least a couple of journeys a day. Although Incredibly fit and strong due to the tough terrain and demanding nature of the work, their excessive exposure to the such high volumes of toxic gases, without gas masks, does however mean that most eventually suffer from long-term health issues. With the work unregulated and carried out in some of the harshest conditions, it is without a doubt one of the world’s toughest jobs and one that highlights a slightly darker side to Mount Ijen.
Surrounded by dense alpine forests intertwined with pockets of coffee plantations, this thickly forested highland region is thinly populated and offers no surprise when Mount Ijen is translated from Javanese as the ‘Lonely Mountain’. Although it is today one of the more peaceful volcanoes across the island, the combination of its raw beauty, unusual occurrences and touching reality does however make it one of the most captivating, presenting a very powerful experience.
Offering quite a contrasting experience to that of Mount Bromo, it is a pairing that most can’t resist as there are few duets across Indonesia which will offer such as an impressive exhibition.