Kawah Ijen Volcano crater is one of the most beautiful yet dangerous places in Indonesia. An active volcano, constantly spewing sulphur smoke, the world’s largest acid lake, blue fire and a sulfur mine. What else was there to do but climb down into the crater to see it with our own eyes (Although you wouldn’t believe how much the gas cloud stung our eyes, and we could only open them when a gust of wind blew from the right direction)
The previous day Deirbhle and I had caught a ferry from the island of Bali to Java to climb volcano Ijen.
It was only a short ferry ride and from Bali you could see the top of the volcano that we would be climbing that following night peering out from the clouds.
Once the ferry docked we were collected and taken to a hotel to await nightfall. At midnight a driver and guide came to collect us from our hotel to take us on the 90 minute drive up the volcano. From where the driver dropped us it would be another couple of hours hike in along a path that had been cut into the side of the volcano.
The hike in is about 3km and you gain around 500m of elevation during the hike. In places this climb is very steep with 45 degree inclines. At about the 1.5km mark there is a shack which sells pot noodle, coffee and tea. Thnakfully, after this point the walk is much less steep than the first half.
We arrived at the crater rim just before 4am and as volcano Ijen is an active volcano which constantly emits a cloud of sulphur we had to don gas masks before descending into the crater.
The breathing mask is to prevent damage to our lungs caused by the sulphur cloud which engulfed us when as we descended into the crater.
The sulphur miners who worked in the crater had built themselves a rocky path which they use to haul out their bounty of sulphur. At 4am in the pitch black this was a pretty precarious descent. As we descended we could see blue flashes of sulphuric gas, which emerges from cracks in the rock, being ignited.
The glow is quite weak, so it can be seen only at night and hence why we started our descent into the crater in the middle of the night.
When we reached the sulphur mine next to the crater lake the conditions that the miners had to work in was like something from a different planet. The miners were stood in the middle of the gas cloud and used iron bars to smash slabs of sulphur off the side of the volcano
Some of the miners work without the breathing masks that we were wearing and every so often they would emerge from the sulphur cloud coughing up their lungs. Even with a breathing mask being engulfed by the toxic gas cloud was bad enough.
The breathing mask is to prevent damage to our lungs but they can’t protect your eyes from stinging though and I can’t describe how much it stung. You could only open your eyes when a gust of wind blew from the right direction !!!!
Once the miners had collected enough sulphur they would carry it over to baskets.
In each basket they placed around 35 kg of sulphur. The miners would then carry the baskets on their shoulders back to the rim of the volcano. How they managed to carry 70kg up the path that we had just descended I had no idea.
After 20 minutes of being engulfed in the gas cloud our eyes could take no more so we moved back up the crater wall out of reach of the sulphur gas. Luckily for us, and the miners, the wind direction that night was from over the crater rim behind us and not over the acid lake. This meant that as long as we stayed upwind of the sulphur vents we were out of the main flow although the air was still heavy with sulphuric gas. How the miners worked in these conditions I had no idea.
We had planned to come back up to the crater rim for sunrise but had spent too long at the sulphur mine and when we only halfway up the sun rose over the crater rim to reveal the huge plumes of sulphuric gas that the active volcano constantly produces.
Now that the sun was up the wind was blowing quite hard and so even though we were still in the crater we were safe from the gas cloud and could remove our masks. The view around us was stunning and the vivid colour of the turquoise lake was amazing.
I attempted to lift one of the baskets that the miners carry from the lake shore to the crater rim
I could just about lift the 70kg load of sulphur but there was no way I could walk up to the top of the crater with this weight on my back. Our guide though was one of the miners and he picked it up like a matchstick and was even able to walk with it whilst smoking a cigarette.
The photo below will give you some idea of just how far the miners had to walk with the 70kg load on their shoulders. (The little dots on the crater rim are people)
Once we reached the crater rim we could now fully appreciate the vista that daylight had reveled in front of us. It was so beautiful that words really can’t do justice to the sheer piece of theatre that is volcano Ijen.
Some might say that it was even more beautiful without me in the way
On the rim the miners were busy sorting out and bagging their nights production ready to wheel it back down to the base of the volcano where we had hiked from.
Here is a video I shot to record the night we spent on volcano Ijen (3 minutes of the video may be very dark as my camera is not very good at night)
A couple of selfies on the crater rim and then it was time to head back down the volcano for breakfast.
On the way back down we passed miners as they were pushing their nights haul of sulphur.
Our guide said that on each trolley was about 270 kg of pure sulphur and this guy had to wheel it about 4 km with some of the descents at a 45 degree angle. Once at the bottom he then has to push the empty trolley back up and repeat the process of descending into the mine and collecting the slabs of sulphur with an ironbar. If this wasn’t back breaking enough he would have to do all this inside a sulphur cloud.
Miners have been extracting sulfur in this way for more than 40 years and our guide told us that they prefer to work at night as the temperature is cooler. During the day you not only have the hot gases to contend with but heat from the sun plus the temperature of the worlds largest acidic lake is around 50-60°С at the surface, and in the depths over 200°С !!!!
Incredibly, the miners are only paid about 10p per kilo of sulphur that they haul up from the crater floor. By local standards though mining is seen as being highly paid, and as Java is the most populated island on earth a lot of people unemployed.
After a shower and a quick breakfast it was time to catch the ferry back to Bali and pick up a taxi that would drive us to Ubud which was our final destination for the holiday. At least we could catch up on a bit of sleep during the 4 hour taxi ride.
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