An Adventure in Ijen
Since the Israelis and I had the same itinerary planned, we decided to travel together from Cemoro Lawang to Mount Ijen to Bali.
Our van driver from the previous day had cut a deal with us and the Germans to pick us up from our homestay at 8:30am and take us directly to the Probolinggo train station; otherwise, we would have had to play the same waiting game for a full van later in the morning. Since we had already hiked to the crater the evening before, we easily finished our sunrise hike and were back in the village by 7am.
Getting to Ijen
After catching the 11am train from Probolinggo to Banyuwangi, I realized I had already booked a homestay in the next town over, so the Israelis and I decided to shop around for the best ways to get to Ijen and reconvene later in the evening.
They ended up meeting a guy at their stop who offered them an affordable room right by the Banyuwangi train station, as well as a van to and from Ijen, a tour guide, gas mask rental, and the entrance fee for 250000 IDR each. Since the entrance fee and gas mask rental would already add up to 200000 IDR, we decided that was a good deal and took it.
A few hours later at 1am (yes, we did two night hikes in a row; no we didn’t really get any sleep), the van pulled up in front of my homestay with the Israelis and a Swedish woman in tow, and our journey to Ijen began.
The Ijen volcano is known for its caldera, which contains a 1km acid lake and a sulfur mining operation. Each night, miners hike 2,799m up the volcano and then 1km down to the caldera to mine about 70-80kg of sulfur and carry it back up the mountain. They do this twice per night for only 140000 IDR per day—equivalent to about $10 USD. This is one of the highest paying jobs in Indonesia. Let that sink in.
If you are able to go down to the caldera at night, you can see the blue fire emitted by the burning sulfur.
The drive from the town to the trail entrance took about one hour, and once we arrived, Leo (our driver) brought us into one of the tents to warm up with some coffee and fried bananas. They distributed our gas masks to us, and at 2:30am, our hike began.
The Israelis took off in front while the Swede and I stayed behind with the guide. The climb up Ijen was on a steep and windy dirt road that didn’t really have any great places to rest. Several times I wanted to stop, but I found that stopping on the steep hill was a lot tougher than just walking endlessly forever…
We reached the summit by 4:00am and started our descent into the rocky crater. The miners were heading up the crater with the sulfur at the same time, so we had a time finding our footing on the rocks in the dark while letting them pass.
Eventually, we reached the bottom and reunited with the Israelis (who, of course, were the first to get there). The air was thick with sulfur and we couldn’t get too close to the lake without our eyes watering up.
The blue fire was tough to see between all the smoke, but I managed to get a legible shot.
The sun began to rise, so we headed back to the summit to watch it from the ridge.
The view is honestly the most breathtaking I’ve experienced in my life. Many people find the blue fire underwhelming, but I think the whole experience was simply majestic.
As we hiked back down, the Swede told me about her travels through Russia and China via the Trans-Siberian Railroad and how Asians loved taking pictures with her because many of them don’t really get to see white people. As if on cue, a group of Indonesian school children crowded around her and asked to take a picture with her.
This got me thinking about how in the U.S., we’ve started getting super sensitive about exploiting other cultures by using their photos in materials associated with poverty, and freaking out over appropriating others’ clothes and customs. At the end of the day, aren’t we all just exploiting each other? And why does it have to be considered exploitation? Why can’t it just be curiosity of the unknown? It’s going back to the question I get from everyone, everywhere, “Where are you from?”
And let’s face it, it is a little amusing watching a tall white woman tower over a group of short Indonesian schoolchildren.
Our group reconvened back at the hut for some more coffee and fried bananas. After sitting there for about an hour, we asked for Leo. Apparently, he was in the middle of an intense card game surrounded by heaps of cash.
Returning from Mount Ijen
Satisfied with his winnings, Leo eventually loaded us all up into the van and took us to a waterfall on the way back. The boys stripped down to their skivvies and swam in the stream, but I took one look at the garbage pile stacking up at the foot of the falls and opted out.
We arrived back in Banyuwangi by mid-morning and the Israelis and I decided to catch the next bus to Bali.