Ijen Crater: Blue Fire in the Night

by Michael

This post is Part III in my series: Jumping Around Java. You can see the Preview with index here.

As soon as we saw photos of Kawah Ijen we knew we had to go. Kawah Ijen is a volcanic crater with sulphur vents located inside the crater. Some of those vents burn, producing a blue flame that can only be seen at night. Other sulphur makes its way through pipes installed by locals and form sulphur deposits. Miners break these deposits off of the rock and carry them up the crater, up to 90 kilograms at a time.

Because the flames are only visible at night, tours leave just after midnight. Since we arrived in Banyiwangi late at night, we ended up spending a down day in town to rest a bit in preparation for our all-night adventure. We booked our tour via WhatsApp with Blue Flame Tours (for real), and breathed a sigh of relief when they showed up on time. Yea for technology! After about an hour’s drive we arrived at the base of the volcano where our guide handed out flashlights and gas masks. Yep, that’s right, gas masks. The sulphuric smoke released from the vents inside the crater is not exactly good for your lungs. Luckily, it turned out that we never needed the masks because the sulphuric smoke was blowing in the opposite direction during our visit.

The hike quickly revealed that the batteries in our head torches were basically dead, so we ended up using the flashlights provided by our guide. The hike up from the parking lot to the crater rim was easy by our standards, and the hike down into the crater wasn’t too difficult either. It was a bit tricky with a flashlight (not hands-free like we’re used to), and would have been better with hiking poles. But don’t believe your guidebook if it suggests it’s too difficult — this is a safe hike if you know how to hike. It could easily be done without a guide, however getting to the volcano is a challenge and we found that our guide did provide additional helpful context.

When we arrived at the crater’s rim we got our first glance of the blue flames below. The flames were simply amazing. Photos don’t really capture how it looks, but we got some amazing pictures anyway.

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The miners are often completely engulfed in the sulphuric smoke as they work.

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Our guide Arif was very protective of us. In addition to providing the gas masks, he offered that we could wait at the crater rim and he would go take photos, but we were not going to pass up the hike down for better views. Once down in the crater, he took us to a good viewpoint (where Elizabeth took the photos above). Then he offered to take our camera down into the smoke for some close-up photos. We had him take my phone instead — we had just watched a BBC Human Planet video about Ijen, including a sort of “behind the scenes” film about making a video about Kawah Ijen (you can watch the final segment here) and knew that the sulphuric smoke can ruin cameras. I figured the phone was more sturdy because it is solid state and if it died, oh well, it’s an iPhone 4S so even the Indonesians have newer phones. In any event, his photos give a sense of what it’s like in the gas, but are not the same photo quality.

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Miner collecting sulphur inside the smoke. Note: no gas mask.

After this we hiked up to a viewpoint and waited for sunrise. Yes, we are avid anti-sunrise hikers, but we were already here so we were going to wait. Unfortunately, because we hiked faster than the planned pace, this meant about a 45 minute wait in the cold (the only time Elizabeth used any of the extra layers that we brought). Time for a little nap. Fortunately, the sunrise was quite beautiful and revealed the lake in the middle of the crater.

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From viewpoint in the dark.

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Getting some light.

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With the sun up.

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Proof we were there.

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Panorama.

On the way out we got a couple photos with miners and their baskets of sulphur. These men carry up to 90 kilograms of sulphur, twice a day, and are paid between $10 and $14 per day. They do not use gas masks — I was told that some tourists give gas masks to the miners, but the miners can’t afford to replace the filters. By some accounts, their life expectancy drops to 45 years. Our guide Arif, who was about the same size as Elizabeth, worked as a miner for two years. He told us that the pay as a guide is about the same, but the work is preferable.

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Interacting with miners reminded me how fortunate I am, and made me a bit uncomfortable about tourists like myself watching these miners as they struggled to bring their loads up to the crater’s rim. I’m not sure I would have gone just to see the miners — I was more drawn to the natural phenomena — but the miners seem to appreciate being able to make a little extra money selling photos to tourists.

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Basket full of sulphur.

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Sulphur up close.

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Another close-up.

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Carved sulphur. Not our thing. Also, this stuff smells. I can’t imagine what would happen if you packed it in a suitcase.

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Full baskets.

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Carts to brings sulphur down from the crater rim to the parking lot.

On the way home we saw some coffee farming and a waterfall, then got back to our hotel in Banyuwangi at around 8am and slept through much of the day, before heading out on our next adventure.

[This blog post describes our trip to Kawah Ijen (Ijen Crater), Indonesia, January 11, 2017.]

One thought on “Ijen Crater: Blue Fire in the Night

  1. Pingback: Jumping Around Java: Our plans (or lack thereof) for 13 days on Java | two backpacks, no plan

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