It was still very early in the morning when I clambered into the sweltering bus that was heading to Banyuwangi from the Ubung bus terminal in Bali. Still bleary-eyed from the lack of sleep, I paid the IDR850k for the bus ticket - a rate that seems to have been standardised amongst all the bus services, and included the cost of the ferry from Gilimanuk to Ketapang - and squeezed my way through the narrow rows trying to find an unoccupied seat next to the window. I knew we would be travelling west on the coastal road, so in order to get the views of the coast, I made sure that the seat was on the left side of the bus.
Up to Pos Paltuding
The hour-long ride up to Pos Paltuding (the start of the hike up to the Ijen Crater) was very straightforward. I rode southwards down Jl. Bachuki Rachmat and then turned right to head west along Jl. Jaksa Agung Suprapto, and just continued following the signs that pointed their way up to Ijen from there.After passing rice terrace-lined villages, the road got narrower and windier the higher up the mountain it went. I was surprised at how pleasant the ride up was as other online accounts that mentioned how steep and windy the road was had somehow left me expecting the worst. The road was instead shouldered by forests with gorgeous trees and huge ferns that fanned up and above the road, leaving intricate shadows on the road cast by the light from the sun. Monkeys hooted down from the tree canopy and at one point, I even thought that I may have heard a hornbill (Bucerotidae). Friendly people rode by in the other direction with beaming smiles on their faces, and the occasional wink and wave, excited to see a foreigner making his way up the volcano alone.
Directions to Pos Paltuding
When I finally reached Pos Paltuding, I found, to my dismay, that all the rooms had already been booked. Fortunately, there was a lone tent that had been set out, and according to the tout was the only option that was left. The tout asked for IDR150k but after a little bargaining, I managed to get it lowered down to IDR125k. I found out soon after that the amount did not include a sleeping bag and that if he were to include one, there would be an additional charge of IDR25k. Sigh, so much for the bargaining.
I was told then that the trail that lead up to the crater only opened at 03:00 – apparently the time was changed from 01:00 to 03:00 after an incident where some poisonous gas was released that had left several workers hospitalised – and so decided to try to sleep early. It was late afternoon by then and thunder rumbled off in the distance, so I figured that there wouldn't be much to do anyway. Sleep did not come immediately however as I ended up finding out that Indonesians really love to sing, and absolutely sang the night away at the top of their lungs. If a group was not singing along to the melodies of a guitar, another group somewhere else would be blaring music from their phone and singing along to that instead, sometimes in Bahasa Indonesia and sometimes in Javanese. Things seemed to quieten down a little around 21:00 (either that or I was just too exhausted to let the singing keep me up), and I managed to drift off...
Still groggy from the few hours of sleep that I had somehow managed to squeeze in, I repacked my bag in the light of my headlamp and paid the IDR100k entrance fee (for foreigners; IDR10k for Indonesians), before walking towards the gate that marked the entrance of the trail. The walk up to the crater rim was supposed to take an hour with an additional half an hour or so for the descent down to the lake. It was only 04:00 then and sunrise was apparently around 06:00, so I figured that I had more than enough time to see some 'blue fire'. The trail was not as steep as I had expected it to be, but it was definitely a constant uphill walk, at least until reaching Pondok Bunder (elevation : 2214m), a small hut that was located 1.79km in. When I stopped to adjust the altitude reference on my Suunto Ambit, I realised that it had taken me about 30 minutes to reach that point.
The trail began to zig-zag from there on, switch-backing up the mountain for a while before leveling off and following the contour of the mountain around to the right. I caught the whiff of sulphur as I rounded the mountain, just before the path cut in to meet the rim of the caldera. The massive 320 lumens from my LED Lenser P7.2 torch lit up a large, bright cone in front of me as the sulphur fumes wafted in from over the edge of the rim.
The occasional glimpses of a scarred, desolate terrain off to the left were fleeting and barely visible in the pre-dawn darkness, and the deep lines and ridges lead my gaze down to the dark, nether regions of the lake below. The sun had yet to rise then so the terrain was still monotonous, but as I ascended up the rim, bits of colour started to creep in and lighten the sky, casting a silver sheen on the terrain in front of me.
The touts that were located at the gate entrance just before the descent down to the lake insisted that I would need a guide in order to descend. It was all just a scam however, and they stopped pestering me after a while when they realised that they weren't going to get anywhere with me. Fortunately, I managed to locate one of them who was renting out gas masks for IDR50k. My partner had insisted that I use a gas mask if I were to descend down to the lake, which was very wise of her as the buff that I had been planning to use would not have offered adequate protection at all. The mask allowed me to keep breathing as the sulphurous fumes occasionally billowed towards me, leaving my eyes watering.
Down to the Volcano Caldera
The path was wide and easy to follow, zig-zagging down the volcano caldera, and towards the turquoise lake that lay shimmering below. I had to step aside fairly often to allow the workers to pass me by, as they carried up huge blocks of solidified molten sulphur in baskets connected by a plank of wood on their shoulders that weighed far more than they did. They would load the baskets down at the base, then walk back up to the rim and then back down the volcano to the trail head. They would return for more, making several trips a day, day after day after day. The fact that they smoked cigarettes all the time and were breathing in noxious fumes every single day, yet were still going strong, left me a little perplexed.
I carried on walking down towards the lake, down to the base where the workers were digging up the sulphur. The lake simmered as the gas escaped from the surface of the water, faint wisps hovering just above the surface of the unnaturally turquoise lake, a colour that reminded me of the lakes of Gokyo in Nepal, and the smell of sulphur reminding me of Bromo.
There were ceramic pipes that ran down the cliff that helped to channel the smoke outwards and caused the molten sulphur to condense. The smoke would constantly engulf me and shifted at a moments notice every single time there was a slight change in the wind. After a while, the sun began to light up the edge of the crater on the opposite side of the lake, making me realise that I had been there for quite a while, so I decided to turn around and make my way back up to the junction.
Hike to the Peak
At the junction, I turned left and started to follow the path uphill towards the 'peak' (or rather the highest point of the rim). It was a very easy climb and a very easy one to follow, since it was remarkably well-trodden. The path wound its way around the caldera rim to the opposite side, and looking across over the lake, one could see the vents churning out smoke.
I passed by blackened, skeletal trees and watched the gas emissions shift and ripple on the surface of the lake below. These emissions would often meet and merge into little whirlpools that would swirl and dance for a while before dissipating soon after. The patterns that these emissions made were far more obvious from this height, and reminded me of the whisps of steam that are created when water vaporises as it reaches its boiling point.
I sat at the summit for a while basking in the warmth of the sun on my back and soaked in the glorious views as volcano swiftlets (Aerodramus vulcanorum) circled and flitted around above my head. These swiftlets are endemic to a few sites in Java and are known to only have active volcanoes as breeding sites! The views were spectacular here and I found myself drifting off in thought and losing track of time. I snapped out of it after a while as clouds had rolled in and had left me in the middle of a whiteout, so I decided to just head back down the volcano and head straight back to Banyuwangi.
* The journey back from Banyuwangi to Denpasar turned out to be cheaper as all it cost was IDR20k for the bemo to Ketapang, IDR7.5k for the ferry to Gilimanuk, and IDR40k for a 'travel' (basically a bemo that travels over long distances) that stopped in Ubung terminal in Denpasar. The breakdown of the costs can be found at the bottom of this page.