In the summer of 2018, I had an unforgettable experience, something I will forever remember and that I think many people should do as soon as possible as the secret is getting out. I took a trip to Ijen volcano on the island of Java in Indonesia. I have travelled around SE Asia a lot and Europe, and have lived in three countries outside my home country the UK, because I’m lucky enough to be an ESL teacher and writer. I enjoy unusual nature, overlooked spots, meeting new friendly and fascinating people and anywhere that gives me a sense of freedom. Indonesia has all of these and I’ve barely scratched the surface of this country.
What is the Ijen Volcano? Should I Go?
First off, this volcano is famous for its “blue flame”, an ever burning fire of sulphur, at the bottom of the crater, as well as the most acidic lake in the world which is a luminous blue, and it’s also huge. The crater has a 20 km diameter. If you’re someone who doesn’t mind a bit of mountain hiking, likes unusual nature and unique experiences, this is for you. In recent years, as we experienced, it has grown very popular. This is a very regulated trip now and the cost is growing because of the increase of tourism, so I recommend you do this as soon as you can. If you need some persuading, listen to my story, and if you’re definitely not keen on going into the heart of a volcano, at least hear my experience.
Getting There and Why I Decided to Go
At this stage in my life, I was living in Vietnam teaching English as a foreign language. I wanted to see more of Asia and to experience that proper tropical paradise of Bali I heard so much about. I went with my girlfriend, and we had spent some time there and were brainstorming activities. Unfortunately, due to an earthquake a few days before, a lot of our plans had to change. My girlfriend suggested Ijen volcano as she knew about it and it was “only” on the eastern most point of Java island, so apparently would be a doable trip for us. It was I suppose, but I recommend giving yourselves more time!
We were located in Ubud which is quite far inland and to the north of Bali. We drove from Ubud to the port to get a boat to Java. Once we arrived we meet someone to host us for a few hours before getting picked up to go on the hike within one day. Driving in Indonesia and Bali is relatively enjoyable, especially compared to other South East Asian countries. The journey was mostly on the main road and unfortunately has many big lorries speeding along. This can be quite nerve racking riding a motorbike. Nonetheless, after almost a whole day of driving the motorbike, with stops for coffee, naps (they have little wooden huts ---along the road----free for anyone to use for a rest you can sleep/hide from the rain under for a short period) and several changes in weather (nothing is stable in Indonesia), we finally made it to the port.
While taking a motorbike on the ferry is a very common and easily done thing, we didn’t have the official documents to take our rental off the island. Eventually we managed (after some conversations of broken English and Indonesian Bahasa with the guards) to leave our bike safely at the port. Thankfully the motorbike was perfectly fine when we came back. If you have a motorbike in Bali and wish to go to Java just for a day/night, parking it is a cheap and safe option.
Taking the Java Ferry
The ferry to Java is relatively standard and shuttles between the two islands. It is also very affordable ($2 approximately per person). There are fancier options available, but it seems like an unnecessary expense for such a short journey. The Java ferry leaves every 20-30 minutes, only takes anywhere from 30-90 minutes, depending on tides, weather and time to dock/undock. The weather of course can affect how enjoyable your Java ferry trip is, with waves sometimes getting choppy, so take some travel sickness pills with you if you tend to get seasick. On the Java ferry you can purchase overpriced snacks inside (well, they’re overpriced for Indonesia). Most people huddle inside the rooms, a few hang out on the deck if weather is nice. By the way, technically when we traveled to Java, it only took around ten minutes, because there was an hour time difference.
Arrival in Banyuwnagi Java
You dock in Banyuwangi, a city on eastern most tip of Java, and immediately you can see hotels, restaurants and supermarkets. I recommend anyone arriving in Banyuwangi to stock up on supplies as they can be difficult to find elsewhere. What strikes you if Bali is your first Indonesian island (as it was mine) and Java is your second, is that you are quite rapidly aware in Banyuwnagi that you are now on a generally more Islamic island, as opposed to the Hindu-Buddhist Bali.
Getting to Ijen Volcano
What you need to generally do, is contact a tour agency in advance (a day or two), though in our case we had a friend of a friend who helped us later on. A tour agency will arrange for a drive to collect you from either the port, your hotel or wherever you stay in the area of Banyuwangi. The best time to leave is around 1 or 2am in the morning and takes you to a starting point where you meet your guide. You must take a guide with you, it is absolutely impossible to do this trip without a guide (stories of previous travellers who did it without are painfully out of date).
Hiking Up Ijen Volcano
When you arrive you quickly get placed into a group, you’re given a mask and torch, meet your fellow group travellers and start your journey. Preferably, unlike us on two hours of sleep and after a four-hour bike drive. Please remember the name of your guide, as it is easy to lose track of your group. Then we walked as quickly as we could up the volcano. It starts off as a trail banked with trees and life, seemingly like anywhere else in the world. But as you get higher, the landscape gets more desolate and you can begin to get whiffs of sulphur. At this point you realize you’re going up a volcano. You can pause at points if you really must, but keep pushing on as much as possible, and it is for a good reason. In order to complete this journey you should be in relatively good health, comfortable with hill walking and dressed appropriately (bring boots and warm clothes). There is a toilet stop on the way, but honestly, use the bushes. No one can see you or cares. Some people do hire guys to push them in wheelbarrows if you’re really struggling but it will cost you some extra cash and is really for those unable to hike rather than just a bit lazy.
Reaching the Ijen Volcano Summit
After a while, you approach the summit and for us at this point, the sky was getting lighter. The rocks become grey and dusty and the smell of sulphur gets more intense. This is good point to begin using your gas mask. You walk up and eventually along the crater rim for a while. Breathtaking! Here is when you can finally see the acidic blue lake and the sheer size of the volcano. If it is very busy, some guides will offer to take you to watch the sunrise rather than the blue fire but we chose to stick with the fire as that was the main motivation for us.
The Ijen Volcano Crater
When we started the descent, the light was just beginning to creep in, but as it got lighter and lighter we saw how many people were on this trip down to the crater. There is an actual lengthy queue down initially along a path. This is good in terms of giving you a chance to recover but it’s bad in terms of speed, with each moment passing the less likely you are to see the blue flame, as once the sun has risen the light doesn’t stand out against the darkness. Eventually, the queue breaks away at the end, people get restless and form their own paths and some guides simply tell people where to meet in an hour. Once you are in the bottom, you will struggle to breathe without your mask due to the sulphuric fumes (and by the way, be prepared to smell of eggs for a while after this excursion is over). Inside this crater, you experience a clash of colours, the blue lake, the yellow rocks, the pink sky all clash with each other, to make you feel as if you’re in another world. We rushed to the burning sulphur blue flame, which at this point was pretty small but still visual. As the light from the sun grew stronger the flames faded, and we took the opportunity to explore the crater, see the blue lake, take some photos and soak up the atmosphere, all while trying to dodge the thicker plumes of sulphuric smoke.
It is worth pointing out, the guides do not wear masks at all. They seem relatively unfazed by the fumes and are happily smoking cigarettes in the crater and talking to each other, while all the tourists stumble about the crater barely able to breathe in parts with masks. These guides earn a good wage for the area, but unfortunately their life spans are significantly reduced from the sulphur and they only live until about forty. You do see some men ferrying loads of sulphur and also making sculptures. Ijen was once a properly functioning mine (as you can see in a National Geographic documentary), where for $7 a day, which was a good wage for them at the time, they mined the sulphur and carried it by foot out. Tourism however brings even more money, so now it’s mostly, if not entirely, done for tips and as a performance.
The walk back is of course the same way, but once you make the steep hike back up, the hike down is considerably easier than the way up. It’s downhill and now you have more freedom to go at your own speed away from the group. Once you’ve bottom you can have a coffee, some breakfast and generally decompress
Overall, this is something I recommend to anyone physically capable. Some things I will always remember include the routine and life of the guides, the eerie feeling of being inside a smoke-filled volcano, the magnificent beauty of the lake and blue flame and the spectacular view from the top were inspiring and unforgettable.
A Little Advice Before Your Ijen Volcano Exploration
I’ve explained my story in brief, and ultimately, to experience this volcano, you have to go yourself. I’ll summarize my recommendations now:
- Wear: Warm clothes, boots, a waterproof top for rain
- Take: glasses, sunscreen, cash, lots of water, food for snacks before and after
- DON’T: think you can go without a guide, forget to wear your mask in the crater, walk slow, drink a lot of alcohol the night before
Remember to expect changes and uncertainty in Indonesia, have a plan but be prepared for things to go wrong.