19 November 2014

Blue fire and yellow bricks

Crater walls in the morning light
Daria and I left Bromo almost in a hurry because we wanted to head immediately to the next volcano: Kawah Ijen. We knew the way would be long and climbing Ijen would involve a wake up way before dawn. We descended the same route as before to Probolinggo by minibus and at 11am already caught a bus to Banyuwangi for only 32'000 IDR (2 EUR). But here our luck ended. Or, better said, we got what we paid for. A slow, uncomfortable bus that we had to exchange half way for another even slower, more uncomfortable one. After something over six hours, our ordeal was finally over and we arrived in Banyuwangi. Together with a Spanish couple we met on the bus we caught a microlet to the seemingly only hotel the locals could point us to. The room we got for 200'000 IDR (13 EUR) wasn't the cleanest one, but clean enough and we were anyway tired from the trip.

Ijen crater lake
After reviving our spirits in a nice warung nearby who cooked us a delicious cap cay, we asked around in the hotel for cars or trips to Ijen. The hotel had plenty of guides on hand and soon we got all the information we wanted. To see the blue lights down at the crater lake and then enjoy the sunrise on the rim, you have to leave Banyuwangi at 1am. We quickly decided to wait another day, as we were too tired after the little sleep of the two previous nights (one in the night bus and the second one getting up at 3am). We spent our day in Banyuwangi relaxing, planning our next steps and with a failed attempt to visit the local beach. According to some other travelers, we didn't miss much. The local beach suffers the usual problem of Javanese beaches: too much garbage.

The blue lights of Ijen (burning sulfur)
But we found company to share the car up to the starting point of the hike to Kawah Ijen. So we managed to bargain the price down to 100'000 IDR (7 EUR) each. Rising at 1am after too few hours of sleep is only pleasant if you're positive that it's going to be worth it. Plenty of other guests at our hotel already confirmed us this. While driving for an hour up the mountain our spirits got dampened a bit, as it was pouring down for most of the way. But short before arriving at the parking lot, the fog lifted and the only thing visible above us was a spectacular star-speckled sky. Even though the hiking part is much longer than on Bromo, Kawah Ijen is not really less touristy. We ran up the 500 meters of altitude in a bit more than an hour, passing a lot of foreign and even more Indonesian tourists. The descent into the crater was steep and more strenuous than the previous climb, as the narrow path between sharp rocks prevented us from passing the slower hikers.

Sulfur harvest
But one of the highlights of Ijen waits at the bottom, almost on the shore of the lake. In this place, the active volcano emits large amounts of sulfur, both as gas and in solid form. The temperature of the emitting sulfur gases are so high that the sulfur immediately burns upon contact with oxygen, producing a spectacular and fascinating blue fire. And that's the reason why we had to get up so early. The blue fire is only visible in the dark. At 4am, the conditions were perfect. We strongly recommend you to take a scarf with you, as the sulfur gases are toxic and burn if you inhale them too deeply. Considering these averse conditions and the high altitude, it's remarkable that there are actually local villagers who climb the volcano twice a day to carry down 60-80 kg of sulfuric rock to be used in industries across all of Java. It's hard work and not too healthy, but even guys who have been doing this for decades look remarkably fit. Maybe it's time to reconsider if working in an office is not actually the worse choice for our health.

Sunrise on the crater rim
After exploring the open sulfur mine and gazing at the blue fire enough, we climbed back to the rim in time to enjoy the sun rise. We found a quiet spot to soak up the energy of the rising sun and celebrate the arrival of the new day together with some Indonesian guys who came here to celebrate their national holiday. It was an amazing moment. All along the crater rim people were soaking up the first warm sunbeams and waving their red and white Indonesian flags. I couldn't imagine a better place to spend a national holiday.


Coffee plantation on the lower slopes of Ijen
We got back to our hotel for breakfast and a refreshing shower. Having seen what we wanted in East Java, we set out for our trip to Lovina in Northern Bali. Even though this looks very close on a map, it took us most of the day. But more about this in our next blog post. In retrospective, Kawah Ijen was definitely one of the highlights of my six months in Indonesia. The only negative point worth mentioning is again, sorry for insisting, the high visitor fee. While 100'000 IDR (7 EUR) doesn't seem so much, it's still a lot considering the total lack of infrastructure (except the parking lot) and no protection of the environment. Heaps of people were simply destroying the little trees left on the crater rim in order to light a fire to keep them warm. The total absence of rangers makes you wonder what they would do in case this sparks a forest fire. It's not called dry season for nothing after all.

Find more pictures from Kawah Ijen here!

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