Trip to another planet: The sulfurous Kawah Ijen and the mystic Blue Fire

One year ago, my wife and I went to Indonesia for our honeymoon. While we were looking at where to go, I discovered the Kawah Ijen. It’s a volcano with a crater lake… but what a lake! The water is turquoise, and it is the largest highly acidic crater lake in the world. It looked pretty amazing, so we decided to go. We headed up there on our last week of a three-week trip… and well, we didn’t regret it!!!

It’s certainly one of the most amazing and astonishing sceneries I’ve ever seen, but definitely the most striking experience of my life!

Climbing a f*cking volcano in the middle of the night

We booked a local tour guide the afternoon of an eventful day (I’m sure my wife will tell you about it in a future post) in a “cyber cafe”.

Kawah Ijen, Indonesia, Cyber Cafe, Licin, Java, Java Indonesia, Jérémie André, Jeremie Andre
Cyber cafe in Licin

There are two kinds of tours available: a day option “just” to see the volcano and lake, or a night option, to see an amazing spectacle: the Kawah Ijen blue fire”. We chose the night one, which meant the guide picked us up at midnight! After a half-hour drive, we arrived at the car park at the bottom of the volcano and met another local guide who was actually going to show us around. We grabbed our gas masks (you’ll find out soon why we needed those) then started a three-kilometer walk.

The first kilometer started fine but as it was going steeper and steeper, we were wondering how worse it was going to get! I’ve got to admit, it’s really strange and scary to walk in a pitch black unknown environment with just a small torch, it adds some mysterious feeling to the whole experience. The second kilometer, that’s when “the actual fun” began, as you go from an altitude of something like 1900m to 2500m in only a kilometer! I’m not the fittest guy in the world, but I’m not the worst, and boy I can tell that was steep and hard! My wife almost died about 4/5 times, but she managed to make it eventually thanks to our support. After that, we finished with another kilometer pretty much flat. At that moment, we were thankful for wearing our good walking boots! This walk took us around 3 hours, so we had time to talk with our guide (well, he spoke most of the time as we were too busy catching our breath!) and we found out he was a sulfur minor before being a guide… at this moment I understood this “visit” was going to be special and unforgettable, way more than just a visit actually!

So here we are, standing on the edge of a volcano in the dark where we couldn’t see a thing. But there is one thing we could sense, smell to be precise… the smell of sulfur!

Kawah Ijen, Volcano, Indonesia, Java, Java Indonesia, Jérémie André, Jeremie Andre
Beware toxic gas

Going down a volcano crater while breathing poisonous air

Being on the edge of a volcano, it’s pretty cool, right? But in the middle of the night, where you can’t see a thing, well… not that great! So how to make it better? Going down into the crater!

That’s where our guide told us to wear the gas masks if we wanted to. Rosie did most of the time, but I couldn’t really breathe properly with it. Going down took around 45 minutes, it was not busy, but the “path” (if you can call it a path) was quite steep and unstable because of the rocks. This part was dangerous, even with good shoes, the rocks were pretty slippy and it was easy to fall (and obviously there wasn’t a handrail to hold on to). Before the lake, we reached a place where the sulfur was being extracted. And that’s where the show appeared in front of our eyes: the majestic Kawah Ijen blue fire! It was absolutely breathtaking!

Kawah Ijen, Volcano, Indonesia, Java, Java Indonesia, Jérémie André, Jeremie Andre
Kawah Ijen Blue Fire

At this point, being next to the sulfur mine, I had to put my mask on a few times as the wind was blowing smoke in our faces.  I tried to take it off a couple of times to smell and feel if it was actually that bad… and it was, I could feel my throat burning during every single breath! Then we carried on our walk down to the lake! Apparently, a can of coke would be disintegrated in a few minutes due to the high acidity of the water… so I decided to put my finger in it (for your information, the water is pretty warm… oh and my finger is still there, don’t worry).

Then going back!

After a while, we climbed back up to the edge of the crater, which was far from easy as at the same time plenty of other tourists were going down. The “path” was pretty narrow, so it was tricky sometimes to get through! Once up, we went the whole way around the other side of the crater to see a beautiful sunrise!

Sunrise, Kawah Ijen, Volcano, Indonesia, Java, Java Indonesia, Jérémie André, Jeremie Andre
Sunrise from Kawah Ijen

Now that the sun was up, we were eventually able to admire – after 5 hours – the view! It seemed like we were on another planet, the landscape was so chaotic like a moonscape. It was unbelievable to see that, I felt so privileged, that’s clearly something you don’t see every day! We need to realize how lucky we are to leave on such a beautiful planet!

Kawah Ijen, Volcano, Indonesia, Java, Java Indonesia, Jérémie André, Jeremie Andre
Landscape from another planet

Then it was time to go down… more walking!  And it was maybe the scariest part. Because the whole night, we didn’t see where we were walking, we just followed and trusted the guide and that’s it. But now, our brain actually realized it is on the edge of a smoking volcano crater!! Plus going down is not easier, it’s bad for the legs and knees.. and quickly we could feel our legs hurting (especially after all the walking before)! We eventually got back to the car around 7 am! We are quite proud of ourselves having done that, and certainly don’t regret it… at that point, we decided to drive for 6h and climb another volcano the night after (not kidding)… but that’s another story!

Oh, I forgot something…

Oh, I forgot to mention something. There are men working there, in the volcano crater, no, not kidding. This experience was amazing, I felt lucky to be there… until I saw them.

Kawah Ijen, Volcano, Indonesia, Java, Java Indonesia, Jérémie André, Jeremie Andre
Sulfur minor Kawah Ijen

And that’s when everything changed! I knew there was a sulfur mine, I knew men were carrying it, but seeing it really hit me hard in the face! I had the strangest sensation and feeling ever: me, the little French man on my honeymoon, going and paying to see a volcano with a gas mask, taking pictures of the scenery while some people are working dying in here carrying kilos and kilos of sulfur. What the f*ck am I doing here?!? This is the most inhumane and disgusting thing I’ve ever witnessed, I simply couldn’t (and still cannot) believe it.

Some pipes had been installed in the crater to collect the sulfur, then the minor goes in the middle of the deadly poisonous smoke to extract it. They fill up baskets with 60/70 kg then bring them back to the top. Obviously, without any gas masks, decent shoes or anything… a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, some sandals and that’s it. They do the trip 2/3 times, then they bring all the sulfur (so around 200 kg) back down the volcano.

Kawah Ijen, Volcano, Indonesia, Java, Java Indonesia, Jérémie André, Jeremie Andre
Sulfur baskets

And all that for what: around 13€ per day, 13 F*CKING EUROS! What the f*ck!!! They earn more than an average Indonesian salary, but is that worth their life?! I mean, they literally kill themselves every single day… to still live in misery. If you’re wondering what the sulfur is for: to purify sugar and also to make some cosmetics. PEOPLE KILL THEMSELVES TO MAKE SUGAR WHITE!!!!! I mean, we leave in the 21st century, we send robots to Mars, create AI… but some companies still send people to HELL every day!

Emotionally, this experience still remains the most intense I have seen, a strange balance between wonder and shame.

When we came back, I tried to find information online, to learn more about it and see what I could do. I’ve been extremely surprised by the lack of information about the subject… and I didn’t find any association to help these guys! I find that really strange, people fight some causes… pretty random sometimes, but apparently barely anyone cares about them. If anyone has information about that, leave a comment or email me, please.

Like I said in my previous post here, I believe we are – human – a very cruel species… and this example proves it right! I strongly believe it’s time to make a change, to save our planet and ourselves… rather than killing each other. We are living in a time where we have everything to make it happen… so let’s do it!

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