Climbing the smouldering live volcano Kawah Ijen in protective masks for sunrise over the sulphuric acid lake and blue flame crater, Indonesia!

After being on a packed bus for 15 hours, sleeping for 2 and heading up to the impressive Mt. Bromo on Java we could have been forgiven for taking a break! But no, not us! It was onwards and literally upwards to climb our second active volcano in as many days and with probably as many hours sleep! This time a 5 hour train journey brought to to a small town and some ramshackle “homestay” that was nothing more than a room with a bed in a garage! A 12am wake up call before beginning the 4 hour hike through clouds of sulphur was the order of the day! But what an unforgettable experience it turned out to be, if not a little strange too, but that’s travelling! Here’s our amazing Ijen volcano hike!

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Getting from Bromo to do the Ijen volcano hike

Getting from Mt Bromo over to Ijen is actually quite simple and takes less time than the trip from Yogyakarta over to Bromo. From Probelingo you can take the train 5 hours over to Banyuwangi Karangasem. The train cost around 80,000Rp (£4.50 / $5.92) each for the cheapest option in the lowest class seat. The train is quite a local affair, tightly packed but reasonably comfortable. The views along the way are beautiful and we were even bought a coffee by two lovely Indonesia women sat across from us, neither of us could speak the others language but we some how communicated!  The Ijen volcano hike was on! 

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Organising transport up to the mountain from the town

From Karangasem there are plenty of homestays, and by homestay what I really mean is a couple of very basic rooms attached to the homes and shops of people around the station. These are very cheap though and do the job. You will likely not be spending too much time sleeping anyway so one of these places will do for the sake of convenience unless you are a little more picky than us! But they are great for organising the Ijen volcano hike. 

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With our guide “Andy”

To tell you the truth the place we stayed was a little strange. It’s one of those places that at the time you don’t really feel 100% comfortable in, but you just go with it. Looking back at the fact that everything was perfectly fine you wonder if you are just being a little paranoid! We arrived and were swiftly checked into our very basic room in what was a little bit like a garage!

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Another random group of Indonesian’s who wanted a photo with the westerners!

The owner then asked us about the Ijen volcano hike and how we planned on doing it. We had got here without a tour we really just wanted to organise transport to and from the mountain. We had been told by a friend that he had paid 350,000 for this which included the 100,000 entrance fee for a shared bus. So when the owner offered us the same price for transport, entrance fee, gas mask and a guide in a shared bus we signed up to be picked up the following morning at 12:30am!!

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Confusion at 12am as we set off towards the mountain… we hoped!

12:00am rolled on sooner than we had hoped, around an hours sleep left us waking up almost as soon as we had gone to bed! We some how prized our eyes open and slowly got ready for the journey ahead of us. Waiting to be picked up in the dark, silent night we were still a little skeptical of our dealings the night before for the Ijen volcano hike. A bus finally turned up and the driver ushered us into the mini bus, we were expecting to drive around the town a little and pick a few others up as the owner of the homestay had been quite specific about this price being for a shared trip…

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But no, as I looked on my maps we were clearly out of the area where we would be picking people up and heading into the middle of nowhere, but at least it was in the vague direction of the mountain! Would we get to do the Ijen volcano hike or where we about to be chopped up!!! ha ha

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Beginning our 4 hour hike at 2am through the suffocating sulphuric clouds

After the hour long ride through winding roads in the dark we finally made the entrance to the trails. Our driver took us over to our guide and would be waiting in the carpark for our return which was expected to be around 8am.

After a coffee and some food at the base of the mountain we were given masks and off we were on our Ijen volcano hike. By this point we had of course realised that we were not in a group, which was a little strange but of course, we didn’t mind!

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It was 2am and it was dark, cold and we were shattered! We set off up the steep track that we were frankly ill prepared for! We’re good hikers thankfully but given our lack of food and sleep we knew we wouldn’t be in for an easy ride!

The walk initially was steep but not too bad, once we got our second wind we were flying as we usually do and even the guide was struggling to keep up! We were keen to get a good pace going so we could be sure to see everything we wanted, including the infamous blue flames before they vanish at 5am!

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Trying not to die!

As we pressed on we could increasingly smell the sulphur being pumped out of the crater above us, the intense winds would occasionally bring the dense hot clouds swirling around us for several minutes at a time. The atmosphere would become suffocating, enveloping us and choking your breathing. Wearing the mask blocked out the acidic air but given it’s quality and age made us gasp for air as we climbed the ever steeper tracks. It was a no win situation and at times it caused a heightened sense of panic being so short of breath and with no clean air to take in! This might not have been our most physically demanding hike ever but it was one of the most difficult in these conditions. The Ijen volcano hike was more challenging that we imagined!

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Reaching the summit crater in the dark before descending towards the blue flames

We reached the crater near the summit of the volcano in good time and whilst it was still pitch black, perfect conditions for seeing the blue flames. At this point however we really had no idea of our position on the mountain. Our guide was informative to a point but it wasn’t until the sun rose later in the day that we realised the treacherous pathway we were about to descend and just how dangerous it was!

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Luckily we were near the front of the line of head torches making taking the steep trail right into the heart of the smouldering caldera. Looking across the acidic lake later on towards where the flames were burning we could see that this pathway lead harrowingly down the sides of the crater walls and right next to the dangerous lake. The road down consisted of large boulders and rubble roughly made into steps at an almost impossible angle. It was probably a good thing at this point that is was so dark for the hardest part of the Ijen volcano hike.

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Finally reaching the bottom of the crater we could see were this active volcano was burning, an intense and bright blue flame licked into the dark night sky in a mesmerising dance. It was an unbelievable sight and in an almost unimaginable location. Here we were, in the centre of a burning active volcano that last erupted back in 1999! The magnitude of it was both terrifying and awe inspiring.

The arduous journey back up to the rim of the crater was probably one of the most hellish experiences of the Ijen volcano hike. As we began the trek the wind turned sharply and blew the sulphuric smoke straight off the burning volcano and surrounded us. Down here the clouds were much more intense and given the gradient of our walk even more suffocating. Our eyes burned with the sting of the acidic air that had swallowed us up and we gasped for air like fish desperately clinging on to the last moments of life. This felt like hell on earth and for most of the trek up I wondered why we had brought ourselves to such a wicked place.

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This is where we went down to, looking at it in the day I am so sure it was a good idea!

Finally making the sulphuric acid lake as the sun began to peak over the horizon

Breaking over the edge of the rim and into the clean air at the top of the crater was such a relief. The sky by this point had begun to turn a beautiful subtle hue of pink and the other worldly landscape around us began to reveal itself. There we were, finally stood at the top of the 2,799 m (9,183 ft) active volcano surrounded by a lunar like terrain that was like nothing we had experienced before. Gnarled bare tree branches, stripped of life by the harsh atmosphere clawed into the misty air as we made our way to the other edge of the crater. This was the highlight of the Ijen volcano hike for sure!

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The burning red sun rose slowly over the vast landscape we stood proudly above in one direction. Behind us was the deep turquoise lake, made of sulphuric acid and supposedly recognised as the largest highly acidic crater lake in the world. Up here is was cold, we shivered away as we waited for the sun to come up and illuminate the crater summit, ill prepared for the conditions given the heat and humidity down in the town! 

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The view over the milky lake of acid and the surrounding volcanic terrain has to be one of the most wonderful and mind blowing we’ve ever experienced. It’s times like this that you look back on all we have seen over our travels and feel like the luckiest people on earth! There is often this feeling of transcending reality when you find yourself looking out over such wonderful and unreal views, a pinch yourself moment to wake from a day dream still sat in that office you thought you’d never escape… but here we were, doing the Ijen volcano hike!

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Discovering the story of the sulphur miners 

So now was the time for the long and slow walk back down the mountain after the immense experince at the summit. As we walked back around we saw many men with huge yellow rocks in little wicker baskets on their shoulders. We inquired with our guide what they were doing. This was sulphur and it was heavy, we tried lifting just one of the pieces up and it was back breaking. These men climb up and down the mountain every morning, day after day, to mine this material. The journey is hard and the conditions dangerous and tough. Considering how we felt just walking up with small backpacks it was hard to imagine doing that everyday with no mask, very basic clothing and such a huge weight to carry too.

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Our guide told us of how he too had been a miner for 20 years until an accident damaged his back to the point where we could no longer carry enough sulphur. He said most miners carry loads of between 75 kilograms (165 lb) to 90 kilograms (200 lb) and do this twice a day. They are employed mostly by nearby Chinese owned refineries that pay as little as they can get away with and provide no protection to their workers who they consider expendable. Workers are paid for the weight of sulphur they bring back down, putting increasing pressure on them to over burden themselves, an average daily wage is around £7.50 / $10! 

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There is something quite sobering about coming up here for pleasure and sight seeing when hundreds make this perilous journey to make a living. What is a once in a lifetime experience for us is a daily recurring nightmare. The 9000ft trek to the crater rim and 3000ft descent into the belly of the beast for this precious material we take for granted in everyday items like batteries, rubber, cosmetics, matches, insecticides and more. The miners of miners to Kawah Ijen suffer a range of ailments and often die prematurely once again due to the greed of others. 

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How much it costs to climb Ijen

A tour from the nearby town will cost in the region of 350,000 Rp / £20 / $25. This should include transport, entrance fee to the national park (which is 100,000 itself) a guide and mask.

These are easy to organise with your accomodation in the town as this is the only reason pretty much every tourist who visits Banyuwangi/ Karangasem. 

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Accomodation can be booked online a day or two before but there is usually lots of availability and prices are very cheap, expect to pay around £5 / $7 a night for a basic room.

It is entirely possible to do the hike yourself, however you will probably find it difficult to organise transport up to the mountain at that time in the morning. There is the option of renting a scooter but the road is quite dangerous. All things considered, price and ease wise I would suggest organising the trek through your accommodation.

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Have you ever seen blue fire or a sulphuric lake?

Read about our two other mountain treks we did around the same time as this:

The amazing Mt. Bromo, Java

The 2 day trek up 13,500ft Mt. Kinabalu on Borneo

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Climbing the smouldering live volcano Mt Ijen in protective masks for sunrise over the sulphuric acid lake and blue flame crater, Indonesia! > https://theroamingrenegades.com/2017/11/ijen-volcano-hike-blue-flame-indonesia.html

Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.