Ijen is a volcano complex that lies on the eastern side of the Indonesian island of Java. And those who have seen the magical blue flames at the crater of Mount Ijen can safely proclaim that they have seen one of the rarest natural phenomena in the world. I am proud to say I am one of them.
Indonesia is a haven when it comes to chasing volcanoes. Active or dormant, arduous or easily accessible, worthy of bucket list chronicles or not… you name it, and Indonesia has it. So it’s really no surprise that volcano trekking is one of the most unique and popular adventure activities in the country.
I tried volcano trekking for the first time in 2011, and as clichéd as it sounds – that one trek was was all it took to get me hooked, and there’s been no looking back ever since! One of my most unforgettable volcano adventures was trekking up to the crater of Kawah Ijen in East Java.
The easiest way to get to Mount Ijen is via the two largest cities of East Java: Malang or Surabaya. Singapore has direct flights to Surabaya, which is an 8-9 hour drive from the volcano.
In order to reach this crater, you need to complete a 3 km hike up a well paved path from the base of the volcano. It isn’t extremely demanding, except for the fact that the path is quite steep. Now that is actually a lot of fun when you’re heading back down since you can sprint down the slope. But while climbing up, the inclined path that varies from 40 to 60 degrees, as well as the thinning air, will sometimes make you wonder why you would put yourself through that at 2:30 AM!
Once you reach the caldera, you will know why. This is where you will witness one of the most surreal events of your life: the Blue Flames. The “blue flame phenomenon” is a natural fire that can be seen burning around the crater of Mt. Ijen, illuminating the sky with fiery and intense glow just before the break of dawn. The bright blue flames are the result of sulphur gases from the crater combusting, when they come in contact with air. And in Asia, this is the only place you can see it.
Of course, like most other volcanoes, Ijen also comes with the typical gust of heavy sulphur fumes and a strong stench. So it’s best to cover your mouth with a mask while at the crater.
The volcano is also home to a beautiful turquoise lake, which lies peacefully in its crater. Don’t go too close to it though, the path is treacherous and one misstep can result in a fall into what is considered to be the most acidic lake in the world.
Although magnificent, this trek generally leaves most people with a mixed bag of thoughts. On one hand, there is the awe of seeing a little known natural phenomenon which not many people beyond the Southeast Asian region are aware of. On the other hand, it is difficult to overlook the dismal sight of sulphur miners carrying large and heavy pieces of sulphur down the slopes of the volcano after mining them overnight in hazardous conditions. Each of these sulphur blocks weigh approximately 100 kg and the miners make several trips per day, with the purpose of selling them at bare minimal prices to make a living.
So if you see a sulphur miner carrying a heavy block down the hill, do your good deed for the day and buy a small piece of sulphur from him (the small pieces are carved into various shapes and sizes for sale). Not only will you help someone who is breaking his back (literally) to make a living, but also have a unique souvenir to take back home.
Have you been volcano trekking? Which treks would you recommend?