I never thought I would find myself hiking to the center of an active volcano at 2am in the morning, fighting off clouds of suffocating volcanic gasses, all for the sake of seeing some ‘magical’ blue flames. But there I was, doing exactly that. With a tour guide, five Europeans, and a couple of headlamps, we set out at 1am to climb Mt. Ijen, a volcano in the eastern part of Java. We sort-of knew what we were getting ourselves into, having previously researched climbable volcanoes and such. However, we were definitely in no way prepared for the actual situation. It’s not that Ijen is a hard trek. Climbing up is a bit steep and descending in a bit challenging, but it’s nothing like a 15-minute Amanda Russell workout. (Her free YouTube videos seriously kill me.)
What’s the difficulty then? Those suffocating clouds I mentioned. From an active vent in the volcano, gasses billow out. And when the wind blows, these dense fumes head straight for your lungs, leaving you coughing and anxious to find cover. At least this was the case for us. I think we might have been there during an especially windy day though after talking to fellow travelers who had previously tackled Ijen without the same experience. Regardless, it’s not something to be taken lightly.
The purpose of subjecting ourselves to such conditions was to see the legendary blue flames. At night, jets of sulfur gas burst out of the volcano, burning a fiery blue. It’s only visible at night, and only in certain parts of the volcano. Unfortunately, the conditions weren’t really ideal for taking photos, so our pictures don’t quite show the magnitude or beauty of the blue flames.
While the blue flames were pretty cool, they’re not what make Mt. Ijen so remarkable; rather, it’s the sulfur miners who work inside of it everyday.
Job description: hike into an active volcano, breath toxic gasses, extract sulfur deposits, and carry 150lbs of it on your shoulders back out of the volcano for barely enough money to get by. Who’s ready to sign up?
More specifically, the gasses inside the volcano are channeled through pipes that then produce sulfur deposits. The miners’ job is to break off this sulfur and carry backbreaking loads of it on their shoulders to a nearby refinery. And they do it for less than $15 a day. It is absolutely unbelievable the conditions that these miners work in day in and day out. After a mere hour, our entire trekking group was ready to leave the treacherous conditions of Ijen. Unfortunately, this isn’t really a choice for the miners that depend upon it for their livelihood. What’s more, during our brief time at Ijen we only saw one miner wearing a respirator. Only one.
After hiking Mt. Ijen, Dan and I had differing opinions on the experience. Dan thought it was cool, but not something he would necessarily recommend, in large part due to the gasses. I found it to be strangely beautiful, watching the dancing blue flames framed by smoke with a sky full of sparkling stars above. I felt as though we had descended into another world. However, we both agreed that if you decide to enter Mt. Ijen, do it at night. The experience is not nearly the same in the middle of the day, and you miss out on the beautiful sunrise that paints the sky behind the surrounding volcanoes.
There are plenty of tour groups that will take you to Mt. Bromo and Mt. Ijen. These tours can be organized from Yogyakarta or Bali, just be sure to clarify if Ijen is a day or night hike.
Have you ever hiked a volcano? What’s the most memorable hike you have been on?