Our all-night journey hiking into
an active volcano/sulfur mine/acid water lake with blue fire
The journey to Ijen was both completely surprising and other-worldly yet exactly the experience I had in mind for my travels. Located in the far eastern part of Java, Ijen may seem like another volcano on a large island packed with volcanic activity. But it's not- Ijen has the blue fire.
I, like many people, was so intrigued by this place. Although it's hard to reach (twenty hours from Yogyakarta and six from Ubud) it was one of those places I had to see while I had the time. Going to Ijen meant staying up all night in order to start the hike early enough to see the blue fire, which ends around 4 a.m., so we loaded up on fried rice and podcasts as we set out on our night-long drive.
We got to the ticketing office around 1 a.m. and had a tea while we waited for the park to open. Each morning, the park rangers have to assess the amount of sulfur gas in the air and determine when it's safe for people to enter. That day, they announced the park would open at 3 a.m. due to a higher amount of sulfur and weaker winds than usual, so we tried to nap in the car a bit before our guide came to grab us. Wearing coats for the first time in months and armed with flashlights and a headlamp, we started up the steep 3km climb to the top of ridge, stopping every now and then to catch our breath and catch glimpses of the glittering landscape below.
When we got close to the top of our climb, I started smelling a strong sulfuric odor. Our guide let us know that we should put on our gas masks to protect our eyes and lungs from the sulfuric gas, which can be poisonous in large doses. They're big, full-face 3M gas masks that made us look like meth cooks ala Breaking Bad. Breathe in, choo, breathe out, chooo. Darth Vader must be hiking here too. They greatly reduced the smell but negatively affected my peripheral vision which made hiking a little more challenging, especially since there were cliffs on both sides.
Part of what makes Ijen unique is the large sulfur deposit right at the hot air vent of the active volcano. It's what produces the blue flame, the strong odor in the air, and the fruitful mining business that's long been a job creator in the area. On our way up, we saw a lot of empty wheelbarrows being towed up to the top where the workers can access the mine on the other side of the ridge. One of them appeared to have started early and found himself some "yellow gold." The sulfur mined here is mainly sold to cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies.
Thankfully, we're fast hikers and got to the lookout point over the ridge before a lot of other people. For 3 a.m. in a remote part of the world, Ijen drew surprising crowds! That morning, the sulfur gas was especially thick and clouding the air, so when we finally settled in to see the flames, it wasn't more than a dim flicker. Between the bumbling flashlights and sporadic camera flashes, at times it was hard to focus my vision on the flame at all. We waited there for a bit, watching the miners venture into the near darkness below, and watched the two faint flames. We could see a little light in the sky and decided to continue up the ridge on the rest of our hike.
Once we'd hiked up a ways, I stopped briefly to tie my shoe. As I looked up and over the edge, I noticed the smoke had cleared and the blue flames were vibrant and shooting up into the sky! They looked about five or six feet high each, side by side, and were this bright celestial blue with hints of orange at its core. I was mesmerized by their movement, watching them wave about and lick the sky like temperamental rhythmic dancers. Dain was able to finagle his camera settings and capture a few shots that don't even remotely do this sight justice. What finally tore us away was, like Cinderella or Dracula, the blue flames had a curfew. I headed in the direction of the rapidly rising sun knowing that the next time I'd turn around, it'd be gone.
When the sun came up and illuminated the landscape, it was like I'd been swatting at a pinata for hours only to finally take off the blindfold and see what candy had fallen. The ridge we'd hiked was one side of the volcano's rim and below us, instead of darkness, was this milky turquoise pool and a churning tunnel of smoke billowing from the yellow sulfur mine. As beautiful as the lake is from afar, it's incredibly dangerous. It's an acid water lake with a PH of about 1.8 and a film of mercury on its surface. It was a little cloudy when I was there which means the sulfuric concentration is higher than usual. Our guide likened the water to a beautiful woman- enticing but deadly!
We wandered the lake perimeter in the dappled dawn for a while until our guide told us it was time to start the climb down. I couldn't believe how alert and awake I was- a few hours ago I didn't want to leave my nap spot in the car and now all I wanted to do was keep hiking! We got a closer look at the sulfur mine and grabbed a coffee. By now, a lot of the miners we had seen going up the volcano with us had already gone into the mine and dragged out bags full of sulfur. On our way down, the day was clear and two other large nearby volcanoes provided the backdrop for our hike's end.
Ijen was by far the most interesting hike I've ever done. Places like this just proves how wild this world can be!