It will be a cultural experience, our mate Shane said – and he was right.
The public bus from Bali’s capital Denpasar to the Port of Banyuwangi had as much culture as a cheese factory and the smell to match from the passengers being motion sick into plastic bags.
Thankfully that was all smothered by the chain smokers sitting either side of me with the windows shut.
They say hell is other people, and we had certainly descended into one of the circles of the damned as we drove at an alarming clip around blind corners and on the wrong side of the road in a metal tube so packed with people that a pregnant mother and her two children were crowbarred into the aisle and given a stool to sit on.
But it was an adventure, and an even bigger one lay ahead of us – we were off to hike Ijen – the huge volcano complex on the southern tip of Java. (Also known as Kawah Ijen.)
There was I and Carmen, Shane from the US, Alain from Italy and Keith from the UK, an intrepid band for an intrepid task.
An epic adventure to hike a volcano
Ijen. Java. Volcano.
Those names conjure up the high romance of travel and they were all that kept me from having a claustrophobic fit on the bus, screaming like a madman, yelling things like ‘”for God’s sake the bus is full, why are you stopping for more passengers? Why are you smoking and eating prawn paste from a tube?”
Finally, we reached the docks at Banyuwangi and the bus drove onto the roll on, roll off ferry with its front ramp leaning against the mole like a marauders ladder on a castle battlement. It started raining and everyone inside the bus decided that was a great time to shut the windows tighter and smoke more – so we made our escape and took our bags up to the passenger box on the ferry.
There, just over the mist shrouded water channel, was Java – the main island of Indonesia where Ijen looms dark above the southern coast. We stood on the outdoor rail, sucking in crisp sea inlet air as the ship shuddered its engines and separated us from the Hindu bubble of Bali and carried us across the currents to the mosque dotted coastline of Muslim Java.
Arriving in Java from Bali
Once ashore, we hopped in a little collective bus and bounced a long for a couple of minutes to our mostly deserted resort hotel where we settled in and started to make our plans – for we had none.
Hiking Ijen involves getting up at one in the morning, driving to the foot of the mountain, paying for entry and getting your ass up the steep path and then down into the bowl where sulphur smoke, blue flames and an acid lake await. It needs at least some organisation… but we just rocked up, trusting everything to work out.
Which it did – we chatted to a big group of Japanese photography enthusiasts who said to just hire a guide and driver through the hotel and it would all be fine. There’s lots of advice online saying you don’t need a guide, but we decided it would be better to have one, so we negotiated a good rate, ate a quick dinner and went to bed to be up again in four hours.
Up in the wee hours
Carmen’s alarm buzzed and I wished it were a joke. I got up dragging sleep with me into the shower where I washed it away with cold water and drunk-like scrubbing. Now very awake, I put on my hiking trousers, hiking boots, a thermal and jacket and a backpack with water snacks, sunscreen, hats, pocketknife, band aids, matches and an extra layer. Be prepared!
We met in the lobby and piled into the four-wheel drive that would take us up the steep, narrow road to the deep north where the base of Ijen was packed with other cars and tourists all huddled in their jackets against the cold. It was weird to be cold after so many weeks in the humid heat of Bali, but five minutes into the walk up the volcano the chill was banished by a layer of sweaty effort.
The Ijen Volcano hike
The path up Ijen is not particularly hard, there are some steep sections but generally the grade is steady and the ground well kept. The pressing thing is the time factor – you want to be inside the bowl while it’s still dark so you can see the blue flames that burst from the rocks where sulphur bubbles out. You also want to be there for sunrise, so the pace against the fading dark can be quite quick.
We reached the top in just under two hours and then began our descent down the rocky path deep into the volcano. This part requires a lot of caution, one wrong step could mean a nasty tumble and you definitely need a torch to mark your progress.
Miners on Ijen
Tourists aren’t the only people on the path – there is a constant stream of miners who carry loads of sulphur from inside the volcano to a collection point near the car park and they do it all by hand – balancing loads of up to fifty kilos in baskets connected by a bamboo shaft balanced on their shoulders.
They walk in an exaggerated manner, almost skipping, so that the load bounces slightly and helps propel them along – and most of them wear flip flops, which made me feel slightly ridiculous, stumbling around in the dark with my high tech boots and hiking gear and backpack weighting about five kilos.
These hardscrabble workers earn about eight bucks a day (if they carry enough loads of sulphur) which is apparently a good wage, and lots of them supplement their income by selling trinkets made from sulphur to passing tourists.
But it’s dirty, dangerous and tiring work – they also have to deal with the sulphur gases that belch from the volcano and itch your eyes and sting your lungs and probably shorten their lives by a few years. Amazingly, lots of them chain smoke. Our guide told us the burning sensation of the sulphur can be addictive and they want to maintain the buzz…
Going into the crater of the volcano
As we descended down and down into the caldera, the hissing heart of the volcano belched long clouds of sulphur laced steam that twisted with the changing wind and every now and then we’d have to stop and shut our eyes and breathe shallowly.
We were promised gas masks – yet all we got were those paper masks you see people wearing sometimes in smoggy places. To paraphrase what Radioactive Man once said in The Simpsons, “Ze mask, it does nothing!”
Once the smoke had temporarily cleared, we headed down again, deeper and deeper, darker and darker, toward a scene that looked like a crashed airplane swarming with rescuers.
Thick curtains of white smoke swept aside in the wind and revealed pillars of blue flames roasting along the rocky caldera. It was an amazing sight from high up and the closer we got the more brilliant it became. The blue was as pure and steady as a gas burner on a stove and people jostled to get the best view, some daring souls getting as close as they dared.
Sunrise on Mt Ijen
Gradually, then surely, the light came up and revealed a cloud soaked sky and a sick green looking lake inside the caldera – the acid lake, which reflected the bowl of the caldera in perfect symmetry. It was a peaceful and destructive place of great contrasts and as we trudged back up to the lip and made the long walk back down again I craved my breakfast, a hot shower and my bed.
Many month later, whenever I put on the shirt I wore that day on Ijen I can still smell the sulphur that’s embedded deep within its fibres, and I think of the blue flames, the stinging eyes and the men still toiling away inside the volcano to earn a living. Shane was right – it was a cultural experience, and more.
Have you ever been up at the crack of dawn to experience something awe-inspiring? What was it?
What you need to know:
When to go: You set off at about 1am for the hike and won’t return until nearly lunchtime that day. Take some snacks, wear good walking shoes, and bring something warm as it can get cold up on the mountain. Also bring some waterproof gear in case it rains.
How to get there: From Bali, you have to make your way to Java. We got a bus from Denpasar and I think we were overcharged a little. You should pay between 100,000IDR – 150,000IDR (AUS$10 – $15), one way, after bargaining. This includes the ferry from Bali across to Java and the Port of Banyuwangi.
To get to the beginning of the hike, you will drive for about an hour from Banyuwangi up to the trail head.
How much: We paid 500,000IDR (approx. AUS$50) per person for the tour. This included a guide, transport to the head of the trail, our ‘gas’ mask and a packed lunch.
Things to note: If I could do it again, I wouldn’t have got a guide. He didn’t really tell us much and it’s very clear as to where to walk, so I don’t think you need one. You just need transport to the start of the trail, along with payment for the entry fee (150,000IDR), and you’ll save yourself money if this is all you buy.
You can also hire gas masks (proper ones!) for about 50,000IDR (AUS$5) at the trail head, which is a much better option than the flimsy ones we were given.