Kawah Ijen: Fire on the Mountain

Nothing makes you want to see a place more than a sign like this.
Nothing makes you want to see a place more than a sign like this.

Blue flames everywhere – and not small ones either. We’re talking flames to cover a house, to dwarf a crowd, to light up a forest in flames fit for a gas stove, fit for a steel-cutting torch,  fit for a Bunsen burner. Fit for anything except a huge, stinking pile of rock on top of a crazy mountain in East Java.


I’m talking about Kawah Ijen. This little guy was why we hadn’t slept more than a handful of hours all weekend. It’s like this: aside from phantom dinosaurs and soil fit for growing anything with roots, Ijen specializes in a certain cone that fires bright blue flames to the starry heavens all the dark night.

The show's on at Kawah Ijen--sulfur burning bright blue
The show’s on at Kawah Ijen–sulfur burning bright blue


There ain’t many such places on the planet—spots where sulfur gas seeps so thick from the earth, and so hot, that it burns a healthy, fishy blue. Some of them spout up once in a blue moon. Others almost never. Most just waft a little sulfur in the air. But Kawah Ijen goes all out, blasting flames over five meters tall and dripping liquid sulfur to bubble and boil in blue pools all around your feet.


And the show’s on every night after dark.


Giant blue flames atop a mystery mountain in the middle of a land spilling over in jungles and volcanoes? Tourists love that kind of stuff. Heck, everybody loves that kind of stuff—and since we were both tourists and…um, bodies, we found ourselves at the trailhead at midnight, headlamps on and a boasting grand total of two hours of sleep, yawning and stumbling out of the jeep.

It's not a small little fire by any means.
It’s not a small little fire by any means.

The gravel lot was crawling with shifting shadows and flitting beams of light sweeping across backpacks and water bottles, shoelaces and groggy faces, cold breath fogging the headlamps’ beams. Yudi yawned, climbed out of the driver seat, and led the way to the ranger office: a plank-and-dust shack smelling of cigarettes and sweat and coffee. At the far end, at the head of the swirling crowds of grouchy tourists, framed in a halo of glow from a dust-covered light bulb, a pair of sulking trolls in sock caps grunted good morning.


They also grunted a ticket price three times what we were expecting.


“What? That’s not correct. We know the price—it’s published online.”


“Uh-uh. Not for foreigners. You pay more.” He waved to Yudi to tell us in English.


“No no no. We’re not foreigners. We have work permits. We’re residents.”


“You’re white. Get out of here if you don’t want to pay.”


And that was it.

In case you forgot what those giant blue flames look like
In case you forgot what those giant blue flames look like

Frenchmen and Swedes and islanders floated through, forking over their cash, and taking off on their hike to blue flames of glory above. The ticket troll lit up a cig and jabbed an evil eye our way every few moments. His yellow nails flipped through the yellowed scraps of paper that would let us through the checkpoints.


The smoking troll held the blue fire from us.


We huddled and shivered in the corner and weighed the options: go home and sleep, or pay up and march on.


Ticket prices in this part of the world are never fair: there are always two prices, sometimes three. Locals pay less; foreigners pay more.

Entering the crater of Kawa Ijen
Entering the crater of Kawa Ijen

It’s the unforgiving reality of economics at work: a guy from Europe jets in on thousand-dollar ticket, pays to stay for weeks in hotels and hostels, cashes over at every meal, and, well, surely that guy has more than enough for an entrance ticket, even at that gouging price tag. Surely he has the means—especially if he came here especially to see the smoking sulfur flames in the middle of the best spot on the planet. Right?


Locals, well, they earn a lot less. They pay taxes for the park system. They, well, they’re local. It’s kind of theirs.


It’s a system foreign to us Americans and our all-men-pay-equal mindset, I guess, but the same thing happens in Malaysia, the same in Thailand, the same in Sri Lanka (remember Sigiriya?). Locals pay cheap; outsiders foot the lion’s share of the upkeep and the maintenance. Someone’s got to cover that stuff, and most locals might never get to see their own nation’s wonder if you charge a flat Euro price for everyone.

And that's exactly what burning sulfur looks like.  If only I could show the smell as well...
And that’s exactly what burning sulfur looks like. If only I could show the smell as well…

So, as economics would have it at ancient Ijen, the outsiders pony up the Rupiah.


But not us: the rule is, if you’re a resident, you get the local price. Our tiny orange resident card has saved us hundreds of bucks over the past two years.


Here at the foot of Ijen, though, under the stars in a smoke-filled room and with two surly monsters wrapped in cruddy blankets and smoke pouring out their noses, our magic resident cards had been rendered useless. Time was ticking by. Yudi was fidgeting. Dozens of grumbling hikers were getting restless in line behind us.


Andy was fuming. “I’m not giving them any of my money.” This was no longer about an argument and a headache and an extra ten bucks each. This was about blatant discrimination. They were charging us illegal prices because we were white.

Kawah Ijen -- not as big of a deal as it ought to be
Kawah Ijen — not as big of a deal as it ought to be

“Look,” I barged back into line and tried them again. “We’re not new here. We pay local prices at Borobudur, at Bromo, at Prambanan, at…”


“That’s nothing. You’re a foreigner. You pay the foreigner price.”


“I’m not a foreigner, though. I’m a resident. I…”


They laughed. “Look at yourself and tell me again you’re not a foreigner.” Their surly eyes were bleak and bloodshot, cigarette smoke trailed out their nostrils. The blankets they wrapped themselves in smelled horrendous.


Ijen was a big deal, a huge deal, possibly even bigger than Bromo. Our friends, our world-traveler friends who have chalked up dozens of countries over the years, and months in Indonesia alone, claimed that Ijen’s flames were one of the highlights in all their travels in all the world. We had rushed and scrambled and gone sleepless and smelly just to arrive here, this night, at 2 AM, to hike for hours and catch the mystic blue fire of the Java night.

Our group--surviving the sulfur
Our group–surviving the sulfur

But we couldn’t get past the squat little toads holding the faded ticket-book.


“I’ll pay,” Yudi suddenly offered. “You can still go. I’ll pay. You wait outside.”


To this day, I have no idea what Yudi told the trolls in there. I had no idea he carried the kind of cash necessary to fork over the foreigner ticket fare. All I know is that we stomped out the door into the chilled mountain air, stood a moment under Java’s swirling stars, and breathed deep. A moment later Yudi’s slim frame was beside us with the tickets. “Now hurry,” he told us. “Don’t miss the fire.”


He hustled us off, grabbed us a mandatory guide, and sent us hoofing up the ragged incline of Ijen. We were on our way, headlamps swinging with the steps, banter of the tour guide’s introduction, and soon the rhythm, steady, deep rhythm, of the climb—breaths in, steps up, breaths out, steps up. More steps, more breaths.

Getting caught in the sudden shift of wind
Getting caught in the sudden shift of wind: a surprise facefull of brimstone

His name was Rami. He was indeed from Ijen. Married with a couple kids of his own, plus one they adopted from a deadbeat dad. We told of ourselves, of Bromo, of how we came to Indo. All the while the incline slid past in the wafting light of the moon and the headlamps. Thighs and lungs began to burn. Conversation strangled. Words came now in gasps.


The trail is wide and well-smoothed, is no stranger to foot traffic, and boasts a hefty but not impossible incline. Ragged blue flames towering from a fissure in the earth’s skull ought to be reason enough to hike the bad boy, but if you need another, consider the hulking, grunting, muscle-rippling phantoms brushing past you in the dark.


The bulging masses slip in and out of the headlamps’ shine. You may catch a glimpse of a foot thick as a hoof, or of a wrench of muscled twitch in the thighs, or perhaps a splintered old contraption hanging from its bulky shoulders, halfway between an ox yoke and an Inquisition torture device. Gruff and clumsy, they brush past a speechless crowd of Taiwanese tour-goers and huff off into the dark.

Daylight reveals the secret of the Ijen night-walkers
Daylight reveals the secret of the Ijen night-walkers

“What was that?”


“You will see,” Rami grinned cryptically, “and I will explain. For now, let’s hurry to see the flames.”


Ijen’s trail climbs steadily through the dark, and on a weekend morning, expect to find the path littered with hikers from all over the world. We hustled through the dark and savagely passed anyone slowing for a break: Poles, Japanese, Chinese, French. We needed a spot for a tripod pics of the blue flames, and we couldn’t let the I-phoned masses get to the best overlooks first. So with stinging thighs and rasping breaths we pressed on up the hill.


Christian doggedly marched on; Thibaut told me one more time how he really needed to quit smoking.

A glimpse of the trial--in the daylight, of course
A glimpse of the trial–in the daylight, of course

About two miles in, after a series of harrowing scrambles around darkened rocks-falls and overcrowded bottlenecks, the trail levels out and begins a long, slow, left-hard curve around a peak. “We’re close now,” Rami insisted, “we’re very close.”


You can’t actually see it at that moment, but the trail is hugging the upper ranges of the cone next to the blue flames. What remains from here is to round the cone, traverse a gentle saddle, and then climb down into the crater.


“To the right,” Rami gestured out into the dark, you can see Bali on a clear day.”


Nearing the saddle, we saw the eerie light wafting up from the crater below. Hikers had stopped their march to scramble up a little embankment for a premature view of the fires. “Perfect!” Andy started smiling, “Let them look while we get the best picture spots.” We hunkered down and pressed on.

Looking down into the crater--is there any wonder why hiking down there takes so long?
Looking down into the crater–is there any wonder why hiking down there takes so long?

The hulking, shadowing masses lumbering down the trail were becoming more frequent. Shuffling steps, labored gait, heavy breaths, bent backs—they may well have been zombies from an 80’s B-list thriller. I grabbed Rami’s elbow, “Hey, when will you tell us…”


“Ah, yes, yes. Very soon I show you.”


You know you’re at the crater when you see the huge white sign saying VISITORS ARE PROHIBITED… DANGER.

Staring down into the crater--after sunrise, of course
Staring down into the crater–after sunrise, of course

“Here,take these as you enter,” Rami was handing out respirators, the kind you normally use for spray painting. I didn’t even bother asking when they last changed the filter; the burning smoke of sulfur was already pouring over the wall before us. “And be careful here.”


The hike down from the crater rim is not long, but it took us nearly as much as the three-mile hike up. The paths constricts from a 10 foot boulevard to a 2 foot alley carved between jagged mounds of rock on one side and bone-cracking drop-offs on the other. Sulfur clouds billow past, fogging your vision, yes, but also singeing your eyes in the chemical burn. I blinked and squinted and cried like I’d just chopped a bushel of angry red onions.


But that’s not even the most hazardous part.


No one is watching where they are going. All are mesmerized by the blue fire raging below.

Just one reason those trails are tough to navigate.
Just one reason those trails are tough to navigate.

In the pit of the crater, past the fumes and the jagged trails, roar flames blue as an a arc-welder’s burn, and taller than a tree. Spread over a knoll of noxious heat-vents, the blue fires spew forth their mystery light in the smoke of brimstone and the heat of the planet’s guts.


Chemically speaking, the blue results from the combustion of sulfur gas leaking from the super-hot vents alongside the eastern wall of the crater. The remaining gas condenses into liquid pools of molten brimstone that pour in blazing blue rivulets down toward the crater lake, and the solid mass that eventually congeals and hardens is the heavy chunks of nearly pure sulfur.

Waitinf for sunrise to reach inside the crater walls
Waitinf for sunrise to reach inside the crater walls

The miners break these chunks into rugby-ball pieces and toss them into a brace of baskets fixed to either end of a thick rod. They then shoulder the load, which tips the scale at nearly 150 pounds, and plod off up the ridiculously steep trail to the top of the crater, past the no-entry sign, and on down into the face of the tourist stream, to sell their ore at the bottom. They will earn between $5 and $6 for their pains. These, if you haven’t guessed, were the groaning, panting monsters of the dark hike up.


In any case, the hike down into the crater becomes a mad little circus hammered thin and stretched through the winding ribbon of switchbacks. Tourists stop at all the worst places to gawk at the fires, and then they want to take pictures. Miners shuffle up the opposite direction with thirteen dozen pounds of rock on their backs and won’t slow their forward momentum for anyone. Guides scramble to shout warnings to tourists. Flip-flopped guests in beer-bellies struggle with finding footing over the crags. And through it all flows the poison smoke of the abyss streaming up into your eyes.

We make toxic gas look cool.  Right?
We make toxic gas look cool. Right?

Picking my way down the haphazard steps, in stinging tears and premonitions, I reflected that it’s one thing to see Ijen from the eyes of science—today even fifth graders know about sulfur and volcanoes, and even children under twelve, given a brief bit of info, could explain to you how these shocking flames erupt from the heated stones. But take yourself a few centuries back, place yourself in a village on the jungle slopes of Ijen, surrounded day after day by the smoking cones of the volcanic plateau, knowing that up there, among the steep peaks, lies the blue fire.


How could you possibly explain it? What sort of accounting could you offer for why these rocks pour out fire and smoke? What could you offer, other than an appeal to supernatural forces?


And when the Europeans showed up with the books and their muskets, and a foreign team climbed Ijen for the first time in forever, did they immediately sit down to take soil samples and gas analysis? Or did they chalk it up to the mysteries of the East, to the strange, implacable gods of East Java?

Yep, I had to give it a shot.  If you can tell by my grimace, it didn't last long.
Yep, I had to give it a shot. If you can tell by my grimace, it didn’t last long.

But there was no time to think too deeply—Rami was politely bustling me out of the way of an infuriated miner struggling to pass. The miner shouted at Rami; Rami shouted back, and the slope erupted in a blaze of brilliant profanity.


Further down, a miner’s basket snapped, spilling a hundred-plus pounds of rock across his feet and ankles, and peppered over the drop-off to the hikers on the switchbacked path below.


Photo ops grew more intense as we neared the source of the flames—trekker silhouettes framed against the blazing blue and bright gray clouds; liquid pools of liquid fire, the clink of picks and crow-bars breaking up the ore at its source, the masked men tramping through the poison to heft a load of brimstone over the rim and to the waiting world beyond. It sounds great, but it turned out tough—sulfur-filled eyes were hard to aim through the viewfinder, or keep open in the portraits. The dim light kept shutter-speeds blurry. The swirling crowds inadvertently photo-bombed everyone else’s pictures.

That's quite a load to carry quite a way.  But at least it's got a nice view.
That’s quite a load to carry quite a way. But at least it’s got a nice view.

The next things we knew, the light of dawn had sifted throughout the scene, washing out the blue majesty of the flames, leaving us with faces full of sulfur and a lake of battery acid.


Yeah, the lake at Kawah Ijen is massive, and sports a stunning turquoise hue, but taking a swim is definitely not palatable: the pH balance is nearly zero—acidic enough to burn your skin and serve as your pick-up’s battery acid. And there are literally millions of gallons of the stuff, all naturally occurring, sitting right at the top of this crazy mountain burning throughout the night.


The daylight offered a chance to get to know Rami—and let him take some pictures. We got to contemplate the ceramic pipes a mining company had rigged into the crater wall a few decades back—pipes designed to aid the sulfur gas condensation and collection and mining. Rami took more pictures. We sat back on a ridge well away from the sulfur-laden winds, took off our gas masks and kicked off our shoes, leaned back on the rocks, and relaxed.

Photo framed up by Mr. Rami himself.  Not bad, huh?
Photo framed up by Mr. Rami himself. Not bad, huh?

“My beard smells like sulfur,” Christian mused. Rami took a picture of his beard.


“I’m sleepy,” I yawned. Rami snapped a picture of that too.


“The lake is gorgeous now that the sunlight hits it,” Andy marveled. Rami framed that up for a shot as well.


“I got a nasty blister on my foot,” Thibaut moaned. Rami restrained himself, thankfully, from that picture.

So the gas condenses in the ceramic pipes; the liquid drips down, solidifies; and the congealed chunks get chopped up and hefted off. By this guy.
So the gas condenses in the ceramic pipes; the liquid drips down, solidifies; and the congealed chunks get chopped up and hefted off. By this guy.
Sun's up, and here's still at work.
Sun’s up, and here’s still at work.

He was a curious guy, that Rami, friendly enough all along the hike, but as soon as the blue flames came into view and Andy whipped out the DSLR, his eyes grew wide as cookies and he started offering photography services.


All throughout the darkened escapades of the sulfur vents, Rami stayed right beside us, shooing away miners and other tourists, always offering to take more shots of us. His favorite ones were when he got a chance to kneel or crouch or climb a rock, to lean over or down or someway, somehow, contort his body to take a slightly different angle.


Once, framing a portrait of Andy and me in front of the acid lake, we had to keep from laughing as he was halfway between the splits and a hernia trying to scootch himself a few inches lower for the shot. “Once again. Once again. Very good!”


Andy offered her phone. “Can you get some pictures of the miners?” she asked him. “They don’t seem to like smiling for the foreigners. Or they’ll ask for money.   Can you please go over there and take some for us.” Rami vanished in a second.

Starting the long trek back down.  Lots more to carry.
Starting the long trek back down. Lots more to carry.

“He’s stealing your phone.” Thibaut opined, shoes off and scratching his beard in the mountain air.


“He’s not a bad photographer,” Christian mumbled, glancing through the shots on the Canon.


“Why do you think they do it?” I asked.


“Maybe they like to take pictures,” Andy offered. “Maybe he dreams of buying a camera one day and taking pictures—like for the Ijen Jazz Fest. Maybe he has artistic dreams beyond just tour guiding.”


“Maybe he gets a bigger tip,” Thibaut offered.


“What? No. Not that. I meant the miners.” I gestured to the crater full of ragged men hacking at the yellow sulfur and crawling out of the crater. Most of the tourists had left with the sunrise. Now it was time for nitty and gritty and sulfur in your eyes. Sweat in opening pores and sulfur rushing in and nothing more than a wet cloth covering mouth and nose. “Why are they carrying this stuff out on their backs?”

Sunburned and standing over a super-poisonous lake -- exactly how we like our mountain hikes.
Sunburned and standing over a super-poisonous lake — exactly how we like our mountain hikes.  Looking back… we probably shouldn’t have been leaning on that rail.

“How else do you want them to do it?” Christian asked. “It’s not like they’re going to put in a huge sulfur mine in the middle of a tourist, uh… goldmine.”


“Why not? It’s not tough. Just get a little conveyor belt up to the crater rim, and haul the ore from there in donkey carts. You can even have the donkeys power the belt from up top—no electricity needed. Or bring the donkeys down into the crater and get these miners wheelbarrows to go down the hill. The ponies they had at Bromo are good for the rocks, and the sulfur doesn’t seem to bother them.”


“You’re going to fix their problems in an hour after showing up?” Thibaut stretched and took off his cap “You think they haven’t thought of these or tried any them?”


“I don’t know. Maybe not. But as far as I can tell, these guys need something.”


“Yes,” he nodded, “and you’re the one to solve everything an hour after showing up?”


“Why not?”


“No wonder they made you pay the foreigner ticket price.”


Sigh a long, heavy sigh on that one, because it may be truer than I want to realize. Who was I to show up and snap a few pics and then go to overhauling a system that’s been in place for decades? Surely, surely, they’ve tried other methods of sulfur extraction, right? Would a conveyor really kill the natural feel and keep the tourists away? Would the donkeys somehow be too expensive, or wheelbarrows somehow impractical? Even if the sulfur-owners had to buy masks for the men and train them in some new equipment, wouldn’t the increased productivity outweigh the costs?

Weighing it out, cashing in on the ore.
Weighing it out, cashing in on the ore.

What if they hadn’t thought of any of this?


What if they had but the miners hadn’t wanted it?


What if, what it, what if a million other what-ifs? The point is that I didn’t know anything. I just came in shooting off solutions first, without knowing anything.


Maybe I’m not so much different than the Dutch who sailed in, saw Java, and decided they could overhaul it in their own image. They scrapped the local rice crops and set up their Cultivation System featuring money-makers like coffee, tobacco, and sugar.


Tens of thousands starved when trade commerce failed to get food stuffs to the villages.


I knew, but I didn’t know. I was the outsider cruising in for a morning of blue flame and sunrise.

Backpacking out some sulfur?  At least stay long enough for a silhouette.
Backpacking out some sulfur? At least stay long enough for a silhouette.

And I was still mad about having to pay the foreigner price for my entrance.


Rami eventually came back with the phone, we shut off the time lapse photos of the sunshine streaming across the lake, and we packed up to head out. Along the way up and over the craggy switchbacks, I stopped to put my shoulder to a load of sulfur—it lasted about seven seconds. It wasn’t pretty.


We let Rami snap more pics of us with the warning sign up top. We gazed long into the bank of Javanese clouds, hoping for a break through which to see Bali. We turned our backs on the blue-flamed furnace and trudged back to Yudi and the jeep.


That afternoon we would soak our sleepy bodies in the hotsprings and wonder again about the miners, about the drivers, about the guys who ran the guesthouse, and all the Jazzers in the Fest. We ate fried rice and soggy noodles, and drove out of Ijen to the steamy jungle sun, windows down, wet swim trunks tied to the roof, and me already crashing into sleep—the pile of ungraded exams flapping under my hands.

Grading papers along the route--that's how we roll.
Grading papers along the route–that’s how we roll.

Six hours back to Surabaya, payment for Yudi—including reimbursing his ticket costs at Ijen—and a midnight flight back to Jakarta. The sulfur mementos we purchased from a passing miner were confiscated at the airport.


Our clothes—and possibly Christian’s beard—would smell like sulfur for weeks. Thibaut returned to France to spend Christmas with his family.


The Ijen miners still trudge 6 miles roundtrip with loads weighing as much as their bodies. They sometimes go barefoot.  The pay for their day’s labor is almost enough for a McDonald’s value meal.


I would love to know if our Ijen photojournalist Rami has managed to get his own camera yet.


Kawah Ijen still burns its ghostly blue flames into the night, still belches sulfur to the mountain heights and the crater lake. It has done the same for centuries; it will do the same long after the last tour group crests the rim and tramps down through the gentle saddle and wind its way back home.

Yep, the sulfur and the fire and the smoke on the mountain.
Yep, the sulfur and the fire and the smoke on the mountain.  Ijen all the way.


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