Kawah Ijen or Mt Ijen has been the most spectacular part of my trips to Indonesia. Kawah is an Indonesian word for Crater. Kawah Ijen is famous for turquoise-colored acid lake and Blue Flames. The lake is recognized as the largest highly acidic Crater Lake in the world. Blue flames from volcano are produced due to ignition of sulphuric gas which emerges from crack with temperature up to 600 degrees Celsius. As the gas flow downwards from crack it appears like blue lava flowing from the mountain vents. This phenomenon can only be seen at night as faint blue color is not visible in day time. The active crater at Kawah Ijen has an equivalent radius of 361 meters and is 300 meters deep.
Sempol is the nearest village to Kawah Ijen. I reached Sempol after seeing an amazing active volcano Mount Bromo (Link opens in new tab) at 6PM and stayed in Arabica home stay. Guest house is located right in midst of coffee plantation.
Stroll in Coffee Plantation
I had a stroll in nearby coffee plantation. Popular coffee Arabica is grown in this part of Java. I bought some coffee powder from home stay for carrying back.
Coffee beans as plucked from the plantation
Milky Way Show
Just as I went out for dinner I saw a cluster of star, right in front of me. I could not really imagine so many stars in sky. This cluster of stars was elusive Milky Way and was distinctly visible from naked eye. So I had ample opportunity for clicking Milky Way. Since there was considerable light pollution near the guest house, I had to walk half a mile away from guest house and coffee plantation worker houses to capture some stars. I spent most of the evening capturing our Milky Way in dead dark coffee plantation. It was getting pretty cold as well. I was very scared in roaming around in lonely farm to be frank. I hung my torch on nearby tree and kept it on most of the time. My ultra wide angle lens appeared narrower while capturing Milky Way.
The Galactic core of Milky Way
Full Milky Way arc
My attempt to capture star trails failed terribly when moisture condensed on the lens glass and hood. I headed back to my room at 11 PM. I have been awake from 2AM last night. Generally I have observed that I don’t sleep much when I travel. I can easily sleep more than 10 hours a day, when at home. I felt more energetic, especially when I had so many photographic opportunities.
The climb to see Blue fire and sulphuric Acid Lake begins at 12:30. Let me catch up some sleep !
My alarm rang at 12:30 AM and I was ready again by 1 AM. I had a strong black coffee and left guest house to head to base of Kawah Ijen. My taxi left me right at the parking area where I bought entry tickets to the crater. Outside temperature was again nearly 9 degree. Woolen jacket was required initially. But I had to remove it after some time as I started trekking. It is advisable to carry enough drinking water as there are no shops on this route.
Entry Fees for Kawah Ijen
I was charged 30,000 IDR per still camera and 15,000 IDR per person as entry tickets.
I started climb to crater at 2 AM. First one and a half kilometre was a steep incline on loose black volcanic ash and sand, amid giant trees and ferns, followed by plain stretch at the top of crater. Climb needs some decent level of physical fitness and is difficult without a headlight or torch, so make sure you invest in a good bright torch and extra batteries. From the top one gets to see a huge vent of volcano. Many people stop at the top of crater to view acid lake and sunrise and go back. View from the top of the crater was mesmerizing. There was no protective grill on crater so I have to be very careful. I tried a couple of light painting here as it was very dark. Even an exposure of 30 seconds was not able to highlight the crater terrain. By now I had already started feeling sulphur in my throat. It was the similar feeling we get when engulfed by a firework smoke.
View of the crater from edge
The Edge of the crater. Huge plumes of smoke can be seen rising from the crater
Descending into the mouth of Volcano
There is a board on the crater which prohibits visitors to go down the crater. But no one really takes it seriously. Remember you are in Indonesia 😉
I decided to get to the bottom of the crater to view blue fire phenomenon. That was one crazy decision, which I will cherish for life long. There is practically no path to go down. It’s all rocky terrain and loose gravel/volcanic ash for nearly 300 m of steep descend. Path becomes very narrow at places that only one person can pass at a time. One miss will land you meters below on merciless rocks. Path down the crater was like walking into an alien land, yellow rocks all around with Milky Way over us. It appeared as if I were walking on a different planet. Taking my own sweet time, photographing blue flames from above, I made way to the bottom of the crater. Since it was dead dark when I descended, I was not able to take much pictures of route. Infact I even did not even realize how deep inside hell I was!
Rocky trails (photo clicked while returning back)
View of mining site after sun rise
Yeah, no trails. One has to walk over boulders to get down.
The Blue Fire
Seeing Blue flame of combustion of sulphur gas flowing like lava was an astounding view. Huge smoke made getting clear photographs very difficult. So I was able to take only few pictures. On days when volcanic activity is little less I.e. smoke is less, people have clicked some wonderful photographs. I was accompanied by few tourists at the bottom of the crater where mining work was being done.
The Famous Blue Fire of Kawah Ijen
A miner breaking solidified sulphur from the ceramic pipes
Enormous amount of sulphur smoke coming from the crater can be dangerous if inhaled. My guide Sam arranged for gas masks — more generically known as respirators. Remember the mask used by Walter White in “The breaking Bad”? So make sure you are well equipped before you plan to go down the crater. Or use a wet handkerchief as a mask. There was an instance when I was engulfed with sulphur smoke. My eyes started burning, had burning sensation in throat and had trouble breathing, even with a respirator. I had to run away from smoke. Whole day I could feel the smell of sulphur in my clothes. If you are allergic to sulphur, please refrain from visiting the bottom of crater.
Wow someone has courage to stand near the vent
Blue fire of Kawah Ijen was introduced to me by a National Geographic episode. See some pictures here (Link opens in new tab)
Sulphuric Acid Lake of Kawah Ijen
After seeing the wonderful and amazing Blue Fire of sulphur mines, I went to see the acid lake. Turquoise blue water of the lake was an amazing sight. It was really hard to believe that this was a huge pool of sulphuric acid. The acidity of lake is 0.5 on a pH scale and 0.13 towards the center. Lake water was a bit hot. I have read incidents of cloths decomposing if acidic water touches them, so one needs to be careful(also shown in video below).
Its a Huge lake. Unfortunately not fully visible due to smoke the day i visited.
One lady touched acidic water in front of us. Her hands were not much affected but her finger ring turned black. Locals tell that birds die if they touch this acidic water. Full view of the lake was obstructed by the clouds of sulphur. I waited for a while to get clear view, even climbed nearby mountains but strong winds made clear view impossible. On a nice clear day lake appears in its full glory.
Touch at your own risk
While returning back, I saw many people starting their trek to Ijen crater. What a waste of effort it looked to me! I have read accounts of people going to Ijen and not seeing Blue fire and sunrise. Please don’t miss this! Hiking the volcano in star filled sky is a different experience.
George Kourounis (of Angry Planet fame) took a small rubber boat out onto the acid lake to measure its acidity. The pH of the water in the crater was measured to be 0.5 due to concentrated sulphuric acid. See his video here(Link opens in new tab)
Sulphur Miners, Unsung Heroes of Kawah Ijen
Kawah Ijen is a site of sulphur mining. Still very traditional manner of mining is being used. Volcanic sulphur gas is channelled through a number of ceramic pipes, resulting in condensation of molten sulphur. Miners throw water on ceramic pipes to keep them cool. Molten sulphur is deep orange red in colour when it pours from ceramic pipes and turn bright yellow on cooling. The miner breaks the cooled sulphur chunk using an iron rod and carries it in wooden baskets. Normally each miner carries 80 kilograms of load up 300 metre to the crater rim and then 3 kilometres downward. Most miners make this journey twice a day. It makes sense to give way to miner first while going down or coming up from the crater. This sulphur is sold at rate of 800 IDR per kilograms. So each miner makes nearly 10-15 USD on daily basis. This amount is very petty as compared to the health hazard these miner face. These miners work in a very inhuman and hostile condition. Since there is no association or governing body these miner are at mercy of nature. They often report of respiratory diseases. I met a miner aged 63 and he was not the oldest of lot. With no gas masks and any other protective gear their life is always under threat here. There are nearly 200 miners working here. Sorry state of miners made me feel bad but that’s life. Miner will be happy to pose for you, if you offer him a cigarette or tip. These sulphur miners are unsung heroes of Kawah Ijen.
Each basket weighs nearly 80-100 kgs. The real heroes of Kawah Ijen.
Some miners cast sulphur into souvenirs and sell them to tourists. I bought a crab and tortoise cast out of sulphur right from the mine.
Miner getting ready for first climb of day. Normally each miner undertakes two trips a day.
A miner readying his basket for the climb
How to Reach Kawah Ijen
From East Java
Take a public bus from Bondowoso. Public buses are slow and generally overloaded. Be prepared for a two hours of rough ride. There is no public transport from Bondowso to Sempol after 4:30PM so make sure you reach early. Alternatively you can book a taxi as well.
If you are coming from Bali, you can catch a public ferry from Gilimanuk to Ketapang. And from there a bemo will drop you to Banyuwangi. You may either hire a taxi or Ojek to drop you to Kawah Ijen base.
Where to Stay in Kawah Ijen
Unfortunately not many stay options exists in Sempol. I know of only couple of them.
Rooms were clean considering the pretty bad trip advisor reviews. Bathroom was quite okay and had running hot water also.
Dinner served was actually pathetic, further cats eating the leftover food right from the plates in restaurant really pissed me off. At 50,000 IDR per head buffet, food was highly overpriced. There is no option of À la carte. Home stay offers free Wi-Fi.
is the other stay option, and I have not heard good thing about this option as well.
You can also stay in home stay in nearby village which will charge third of the guest house.
So ultimately it boils down to deciding what is not too bad 😉
- Sempol and Kawah Ijen are really cold and windy at night. Carry a woolen jacket.
- Give way to miners while you ascend or descend the crater.
- Do not forget to buy fresh coffee form plantation if you like coffee
- Do not forget to tip miners if you click their photos.
- Buy some sulphur souvenirs. Always keep them in air lock packs as it may spread sulphur smell otherwise in your clothes and others stuff.
Why not head to Gili Trawangan (Link opens in new tab) off the coast of Lombok for serene beaches all for yourself?