Majestic views and sulphur mining | Volcano Ijen, Indonesia

On the highest summit you will witness the view of a lake within a crater, a colourful landscape and the sea in one picture

marc_casolani
Marc Casolani
10 March 2017, 8:00am
What makes Volcano Ijen stand out from the crowd is the turquoise-coloured acid-filled crater lake and the famous blue flames
What makes Volcano Ijen stand out from the crowd is the turquoise-coloured acid-filled crater lake and the famous blue flames
The Ijen volcano complex, a group of stratovolvanoes in the Banyuwangi Regency of East Java in Indonesia, has been on my bucket list for a while as it is rich in natural beauty with lots of adventure.

As with many places with their peaks in the clouds (nearly 4,000m above sea level), the views from the summit are incredible, but what makes Volcano Ijen stand out from the crowd is the turquoise-coloured acid-filled crater lake and the famous blue flames, which result from ignition of sulphuric gas, which emerges from the cracks at temperatures of up to 600°C. 

To witness the blue flames, you need to get there before 4:45am
To witness the blue flames, you need to get there before 4:45am
Trekking up to the crater of the volcano is possible regardless of your level of fitness, however to witness the blue flames, you need to get there before 4:45am and because there are guards preventing tourists from making the climb in the middle of the night (there is a safety element involved) only the fittest climbers make it up the steep volcano in time. 

Though the sight of the blue flames from the sulphuric gas is phenomenal, it does pose dangers and can cause damage to the lungs of trekkers and even death, which was the case for two unlucky hikers early in 2014. 

Trekking up to the crater of the volcano is possible regardless of your level of fitness
Trekking up to the crater of the volcano is possible regardless of your level of fitness
The trek up the volcano itself is a lovely experience since you walk upon a jungle terrain with volcanic geological features. Wildlife does thrive in this environment and do not be surprised if you come across some Gibbons and other species. Once you get to the crater, which will take between one and three hours depending on your level of fitness, you’re faced with a tough decision; go down into the crater to the sulphur source by the lake, or keep trekking along the volcano’s summit. Both treks will take around an hour each and both offer stunning sceneries. If you wish to have a close inspection of how the sulphur is exposed within the crater and view of the gas being emitted from its source then climb down the crater. Otherwise trek to the highest summit to view some stunning landscape around the volcano as well as the crater itself. You will witness the view of a lake within a crater, a colourful landscape and the sea in one picture. 

The blue flames from the sulphuric gas is phenomenal, but it does pose dangers
The blue flames from the sulphuric gas is phenomenal, but it does pose dangers
But Volcano Ijen isn’t just a tourist destination. It is the livelihood of sulphur miners who climb the cliff face twice a day in search of sulphur rocks, which they then have to carry three kilometres down the volcano to Pultuding Valley to get paid. What the volcano gives them in return is a meagre salary of €7.34 per day and a huge risk of respiratory ailments as well as death. 

The volcano is the livelihood of sulphur miners who climb the cliff face twice a day in search of sulphur rocks
The volcano is the livelihood of sulphur miners who climb the cliff face twice a day in search of sulphur rocks
Some 800 miners have been doing the job for 80 years for a Chinese mining company. Around 30 of these miners trek up to the crater every day for 27 days at a stretch, sleeping just below the crater in a bare cabin with just a couple of rags to keep them warm. Each trip takes them around four hours, one hour up, one hour down and time for mining the rocks. They then carry two baskets weighing between 60 and 100kg balanced precariously on a fortified bamboo rod. The terrain they travel is difficult with loose stones and air thick with sulphur hindering their progress. The stronger ones manage two trips but not all can make it to the sulphur source twice. Once these miners are spent the next team of 30 make their way up to the crater. 

The miners carry two baskets weighing between 60 and 100kg balanced precariously on a fortified bamboo rod
The miners carry two baskets weighing between 60 and 100kg balanced precariously on a fortified bamboo rod
Holik, a 37-year-old miner who has been working Volcano Ijen for 10 years, says he carries 90kgs every day and when you look at this man I can assure you, that even though he is 5ft 3ins, he looks like a mini Hulk. When I asked him about his job and its dangers he says “my wife wants me to work in construction because she fears for my life every time I set foot on Ijen, but I am not afraid of dying, I am afraid of hunger”. They work through the dangers every day just to feed their families, yet when you see their pay slip you will be appalled. For every trip that they do, all they earn is a mere €3.67c. That means they make €7.34c per day, if they can manage two trips. Even though the cost of living in East Java is not very high, their earnings are barely enough to support themselves, let alone whole families.  

Foreign hikers have donated their masks to the miners, yet the miners prefer to pose for photos with these masks
Foreign hikers have donated their masks to the miners, yet the miners prefer to pose for photos with these masks
Death is a reality for the miners, and on average one miner per year dies from the sulphur gas and when this happens the rest of the miners gather around the lake and throw a goat in as sacrifice. They say that they cannot afford gas masks yet over the years foreign hikers have donated their masks to the miners, yet the miners prefer to pose for photos with these masks rather than actually use them to protect their lungs and teeth.

Horik says he carries 90kgs every day
Horik says he carries 90kgs every day
A local NGO has helped teach the miners English so that they can work as guides, taking tourists up the volcano so that they can make a decent living for themselves. Though foreign interest in Ijen is steadily climbing, numbers are still not yet sufficient to give these miners a stable income. 

Trekking up this volcano really opens your eyes to the privilege of being born into the western world. Despite living in such natural beauty, these miners are always one bad step away from death. It is my wish that more tourism will offer these people a way out.

How to get there

Emirates offer regular flights to Bali. Flights departing from Malta on 16 March and returning on 30 March were priced at €1,616 including tax. Total flying time is approx. 20 hours.

From Bali you can get a ferry to Ketapang, which is a good place to stay before making the climb to the top of Volcano Ijen.