As I fumbled my way through the darkness – vertical drop-off to my left, prickly forest to my right – my eyes searched desperately for a path forwards. With only the Man in the Moon for company, and a glimmer of guiding light courtesy of the stars, my decision to explore the crumbly rim of an active volcano – solo and without sunshine – suddenly seemed questionable. One thing was certain; I’d successfully reached the outer limits of my comfort zone. But, while my heart was beating towards a crescendo of panic, I couldn’t wipe the stupid smile off my face. This was living.
18 hours earlier…
It was a brand new day, open to possibilities. While I knew where I wanted it to end, my journey was far from pre-determined. Java’s “Blue Flame Volcano” (a.k.a. Kawah Ijen) was calling, but Google seemed a little stumped on directions, especially coming from my starting point: a guesthouse in Bali. Ever the optimist, I took this as a good sign. Kawah Ijen was off-the-beaten-track, a challenge, a mystery. It was the adventure I’d been craving.
So, with a belly full of nasi goreng and a backpack filled with camera gear, I hit the pavement and started my quest into the unknown. Fingers crossed, the sun-kissed beaches of Bali would morph into the misty mountains of Java before nightfall.
Logic told me to visit the local bus depot and catch a coach to Western Bali. A sucker for cheap thrills, I jumped on the back of an ojek (motorcycle taxi) and put-putted my way to Ubung Bus Station. As my driver zigzagged his way through the traffic – polluted air whipping at our skin, car horns assaulting our eardrums – he managed to spot my ride as it was pulling away from the station. Choosing the ‘obvious’ solution, he swerved across six lanes of traffic and parked in front of the moving bus to stop it in its tracks. Ticket prices were negotiated, commissions were exchanged and, before I could say thank you, my ojek driver had disappeared into the traffic without a glimpse back. His morning was off to a good start and so was mine.
Despite the lack of air-conditioning and pit stops, the four-hour journey to Bali’s West Coast was rather pleasant. Unwittingly, I’d chosen to travel during the quietest time of the week. Beyond the odd hawker and sleepy local, I practically had the whole coach to myself. While the Indonesians were absorbed by a karaoke marathon on TV, I turned my attention to the scenery whipping past my window. Bustling villages, deserted beaches, green paddy fields and wild jungles – it was a glimpse into Balinese life untouched by tourism.
My traveller’s reverie was finally broken once the Bali Strait – a narrow stretch of water separating Bali and Java – came into view. The bus driver seemed to time our arrival at Gilimanuk Ferry Terminal perfectly. Before I could say, “Bye Bye Bali!”, we’d boarded a vessel and started the gentle chug towards the world’s most populous island (Java is home to more than 145 million people!).
I decided to skip the karaoke session on the ferry’s main deck, opting to soak up the views from the top deck instead. Indonesia’s iconic volcanic massif sat peacefully in the distance, engulfed in a cloudy halo. The possibility of reaching Kawah Ijen suddenly seemed very real – visually so close, yet logistically still so far.
Once the ferry had made it to land, it was time for the real adventure to begin. I stuck with the tried and true and asked the nearest bloke with a bike for a lift to Kawah Ijen (as the saying goes, everyone in Indonesia is a taxi driver for the right price). So, we zoomed off and headed for the hills.
My driver sidestepped Banyuwangi City to show me humble Javanese life away from the ‘big smoke’. As he navigated a maze of back roads – most of which were no wider than his bike tires – I soaked up the raw imagery and relished the thrill of bush bashing. There wasn’t a trace of tourism or Westerner in sight.
Before long, we were climbing into the mountains. Indonesia’s tropical warmth ebbed away with each metre of ascent. Suddenly, we were winding our way through a misty wonderland and had been transported to another world. My driver started to shiver. He was as tiny as they come and didn’t have a whole lot of natural insulation. So, I wrapped him up in a giant bear hug to keep us both warm.
As we climbed up, up, and up, our rickety ride protested against the brutal incline. At one point, we lost all momentum; it was time to put my feet to use. I walked alongside my slow-moving companion until the road levelled out. The sudden plateau could only mean one thing: we’d made it to the official entrance to Kawah Ijen and my home for the night.
The Paltuding Guesthouse was a little on the rustic side. My room was a concrete shoebox complete with a mouldy ceiling, dusty floor and peeling walls. The only piece of furniture was an oversized bed, which looked as though it’d seen more guests than it had fresh sheets. The air was pregnant with musk – a smell so thick it was practically tangible. I had to laugh; not only because things couldn’t get much worse, but because – being the weirdo that I am – the situation made me happy. I was off-the-beaten-track and it felt great.
I spent the rest of the evening chilling out at the local convenience store, the heart and soul of the Paltuding micro-village. Home to a weathered community of sulphur miners and a mangy cat (which I later discovered had given me the gift of ringworm), it was the perfect place to sit, soak up my surroundings, and be present.
As I slurped down a bowl of salmonella-free packet noodles, I watched the miners play cards and sing along with the karaoke on TV (it’s official: the Indonesians are karaoke-crazy). The village “Mama”, who didn’t speak a lick of English, gestured for me to join her while she made pisang goreng (fried banana) for the lads. Her kitchen built cast iron stomachs. A thick film of grease coated the walls and the ramshackle rubbish bins had spilt their guts over the floor. Neither running water nor refrigeration made an appearance.
Despite the petrie dish before my eyes, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to give the local fuel a go. The miners devoured a mountain of pisang goreng every evening before their shifts. I could understand why; it was completely moreish. Encased in a light, crispy batter, the banana turned into into sweet, gooey goodness once deep fried. With each bite, the deliciousness collapsed into my mouth and I hoped to God the food poisoning didn’t kick in until after I’d tackled Ijen.
With my midnight wake-up call creeping awfully close, I decided to call it a night. Stretching a scarf over my bed, I tried to fight the feeling of being cold as I fell asleep. Just as my body surrendered to the land of nod, I was brought back to life by a loud knock on the door. “Bangun! Bangun!” (“Wake up! Wake up!”). It was game time.
Tourists were starting to arrive at the Paltuding by the minibus load, so I grabbed my backpack and raced to the track entrance. The full moon was my guiding light, as I started the gruelling climb towards Kawah Ijen’s crater. Before long, I’d caught up with a sulphur miner who was starting his shift. In between stomps and struggled breaths, he explained the local mining operation and it sounded pretty hardcore. From what I could understand, volcanic gases were being channelled through a network of pipes to produce condensation in the form of molten sulphur. Once this liquid was cooled on the ground, it it became solid and yellow – like dense honeycomb. Breaking the sulphur into manageable chunks, the miners then carried it away in baskets and sold it to various processing plants, where it was used for sugar whitening, cosmetics, detergents, fertilisers, and weaponry among other things.
The miners transported loads weighing up to 90kg at a time – that’s practically twice the average Indonesian’s body weight! The 4-hour return journey up Kawah Ijen’s steep flanks and down into the depths of its crater was as brutal as it was dangerous. Most miners wore limited protective clothing (if any), despite working around toxic fumes, molten sulphur and a highly acidic lake. Respiratory afflictions and accidents were commonplace. Life expectancy was cut frighteningly short. The average income was $5-$15AUD a day. Thank goodness Kawah Ijen was my bucket list moment, not my livelihood.
One I’d reached the volcano’s rim – legs completely spent, heart pumping out of my chest – I was ‘handed over’ to another miner who eagerly claimed his role as my guide. I could see the infamous blue flames dancing out of the corner of my eye. It was time to get a closer look.
Placing a gas mask over my face, my guide took me by the hand and started the descent into the crater’s blazing belly. Even without 90kg of sulphur on my back, the journey was treacherous. The barely-there path was a moving beast; unstable rocks forced us to chop and change our route with each step. My guide was well worth his humble fee (a few measly dollars), acting as my hand rail, safety net and photography assistant for the entire trip.
Like moths to a flame, we ventured tantalisingly close to the blue light. It was completely hypnotising, flickering wildly against its own clouds of smoke. We took a moment to sit down and appreciate the view – a view of the world’s largest body of blue flames. The result of ignited sulphuric gas, it was only visible under the cover of darkness and could crack temperatures of up to 600 degrees celsius. It was otherworldly; like a nebular from outer space, not planet earth.
Bottom photo: Photograph by Olivier Grunewald.
Once I’d ticked the blue flames off my to-do list and made it back to crater’s rim, I discovered a wave of tourists were hot on my tail. Wanting to reach the sunrise vantage point before the masses, I sped off along the the volcano’s precipitous edge posthaste. I soon discovered I’d been running on naive confidence up until this point. As the moon’s light was smothered by clouds, I became all too aware of the situation: I was alone, I had no clue where I was going, I couldn’t see, and I was metres away from a fatal drop-off. Thanks to my stubborn determination, this moment of fear was quickly silenced. With my senses on high alert and an iPhone torch at the ready, I pressed on.
Battling a relentless maze shrubbery and sporadic clouds of volcanic gas, I suddenly heard voices in the distance. A couple of Indonesian blokes had wild-camped on the crater overnight. Obviously, they weren’t concerned about sleepwalking.
My new friends and I completed the final leg of the track together, eventually reaching a clear plateau which marked the sunrise viewpoint. As a lip of orange light appeared on the horizon, other travellers started to trickle in. We sat together in silence, proud of what we’d achieved and eager to see Kawah Ijen without the veil of darkness.
By day, she was a glorious sight – a true wonder of the natural world. Her silver contours and mammoth lake – the largest acidic crater lake on earth – sparkled under a powder-pink sky. This view was the stuff of dreams. Naturally, I photographed the heck out of it.
After a long morning on Ijen, it was time tackle the return journey to Bali. Before I left the Paltuding, there was one thing left for me to do…stuff my face with fried banana, sulphur-miner-style.
Just in case you’re looking to complete the same unguided journey from Bali to Kawah Ijen, I’ve attached my detailed itinerary (including costings) here. Note: I don’t encourage you to hitchhike like I did without considering the safety risks. You can use official taxis instead of ojeks and the additional cost won’t be too wild.