Kawah Ijen – A Journey into a Volcano

By January 13, 2017

Panoramic view from Kawah Ijen

My light bobbed in the inky night and black, ash sand slipped under my feet on the almost vertical slope. The darkness was only disturbed by the specks of light from others also making the long climb. It was cold; around 5 degrees, unexpected from Indonesia, but when climbing Kawah Ijen the heat is left well behind.

Kawah Ijen, one of the many active volcanoes of Indonesia stands at 9,183ft and towers over East Java. Great forests of lushes ferns and trees surround a well beaten, hairpin path that weaves its way up the side of the volcano, but the true splendour waits at the top.

We left our hotel at 2 am and entered a race against the sun. The jeep did most of the work, climbing up the steep roads with a vocal engine, whining and growling at the sharp corners and strenuous hills. Soon came a point where the jeep couldn’t go. Bleary eyed, I stumbled out of the car. Gloves and scarves I thought I wouldn’t see before winter appeared and my body shivered at the night air. Unlike us, our guide Cahyo was ready. Practised at cold, early, mornings and tough exercise he smiled, laughing at us as we shook into our jumpers. Telling us to put our head torches on he started into the jungle, warning us about the tough climb ahead of us.

Ladened with food, water and cameras we began the climb. The brisk walk got our hearts pumping as our breath came out in great plumes. As my light swept round my surroundings it became apparent that I wouldn’t see anything but the vague outlines of trees and fallen logs that were scattered upon the trail.

But suddenly the easy bit was over as the path shot upward. Though the winter clothing warmed us initially, we found ourselves sweating into the layers of wool. Our ragged breaths were laboured as we trekked up the almost vertical paths. Cahyo lead us easily, asking questions about British life and marvelling at the differences between our cultures. Mercifully he called for a break and we slumped on the fallen log that served as our bench.

For the first time since the arduous climb, I could truly look at my surroundings. Though much of the greenery was the same, the sky beheld wonders. Stars blanketed it. The black sky became a rarity against pockets of light that shone through. Moving ahead of the group I switched my torch off. The clouds became a thick covering that rested below us like snow, lit up by the millions of stars that appeared. With no cloud or light pollution to block my view, I could see the night sky in all its glory. Leaving the others, Cahyo joined me, pointing out the multiple shooting stars that streaked the across the galaxy and the various constellations that decorated the sky like paintings.

With the rest over we were on our way again. As we climbed sulphur baskets started to appear. They were left on stumps or wedged between trunks. Copious amounts of sulphur are bled from Kawah Ijen’s crater, harvested by the locals and carried back down the strenuous pathways. Two baskets rest upon the shoulders of the miners, with each carrier taking 75-90kg per trip. Most take multiple trips as day, and each basket earns them a mere Rp 50,000-75,000 (or £2-3)

Before long the sulphurous stench became too strong. The smell of rotting egg burrowed itself into our hair and clothes as we pulled dust masks on, relieving us a little. It burnt our throats, making it hard to breathe, but that didn’t deter us. We had come too far to turn back.

Slowly more and more people appeared as we reached the stop; people who had been there for hours and others who were struggling in behind us. With a brief stop, we started into the crater itself. Passing the sign which banned visitors from entering we joined the stream of people who picked their way down the rubble littered slopes.

Sulphur baskets Kawah Ijen

Still, in the dark, we slipped and fumbled down the non-existent paths. Cahyo, took our hands and lead us down, forever checking we were safe and guiding us out of the way of the sulphur miners as they carried their loads expertly up the hills we had found so challenging. They made their journey without masks, some wearing nothing but flip-flops on their feet. Though they had a long day ahead of them they were undeterred, singing as they worked, wishing us good morning in a few practised phrases.

Daylight was catching up with us. We threw caution to the wind as we became used to the treacherous paths. At last, through the stumbling and slipping, we reached the base of the crater and saw the reason for our early start. A great river of blue flame surged over the burning sulphur, sending our great plumes of pungent smoke. The deep blue shone, lighting the volcano like the river Styx from Greek mythology. We stood captivated by this rare, natural wonder that had become an everyday occurrence for the miners who continued to chip away, undeterred by the closeness of the flames and rising sun.

journey into a volcano

Soon light flowed over the edge of the basin, streaming into Kawah Ijen bit by bit. The dark world that was only highlighted by the tiny spots from head torches was suddenly revealed in a matter of minutes. The enormity of the crater was unbelievable. Although Cahyo had told us the facts, they didn’t translate in our minds until we were able to see it for ourselves. The edges reached for the sky and like a giant’s bowl the base seemed to stretch for miles. The vastness of 950x600m became clear as we stood in awe of the massiveness that surrounded us.

More than half of the crater is the acidic lake that makes Kawah Ijen so famous. The rich turquoise beckons, almost pleads, for you to jump in. However, the still peace hides the danger of the lake. Kawah Ijen is one of the most acidic bodies of water in the world with a pH of 0.5 and can easily dissolve human flesh. But that doesn’t deter visitors who squat next to the waters edge to get a good photo. The scene is so idyllic, it would be a crime to not to capture it. The pastel colours of the surrounding rock, lake and sulphur, plus the slightly grey smoke create a scene that is almost too perfect to believe.

Climbing rocky path Kawah IjenWith the bright sun shining into the crater the sulphur is obvious. Pale yellow rock decorates the rock face around black pipes that rest on the volcano’s wall. Molten sulphur flows down the pipes, dark and orange before it stops and dries in the sun. The workers mine tirelessly before heading back up the rubble that makes the paths, trying to finish before the heat of the day peaks. They are much more sombre on the way up. The sulphur weighing them down, both physically and mentally until all they can do is concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.

There was a great sense of pride looking down Kawah Ijen from the peak. It is only from the top you can truly grasp the vastness of the volcano and how far you have climbed. But isn’t only the crater that is awe-inspiring. All around the volcano is cloud, resting delicately atop the trees. The volcano slopes plunged downward disappearing into whiteness, as Kawah Ijen stood proud; a floating island on top of the world.

At the summit of Kawah Ijen

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