We decided as we were planning our trip to Bali that, if at all possible, we’d like to go to neighbouring Java Island and climb Mt. Ijen, which is an active volcano with a sulfur lake in the crater. Having read up it a bit, it sounded really cool and something a bit different, which we’re definitely a fan of. The feature of Mt. Ijen is it’s ‘blue lava’, which doesn’t happen on most volcanoes, and is caused by the amount of sulfur that it’s in the ground. Full disclosure: the last time Mt. Ijen erupted was in 1999 and it’s not actually blue lava that you see, but rather burning gas, which is not something that is highly advertised. Still a pretty neat site to see however!
We did a ton of research prior to getting there, and there were really mixed reviews from people on whether or not to get a tour / tour guide, or to just do it on your own (which is allowed). You can probably save a few dollars doing it on your own; however, we had a group of 6 of us doing it, and we decided we’d pay slightly more for the convenience. Now having done it, I’m glad we paid because 1. it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare getting there, especially if you’re coming from Bali like we did, and 2. you climb in the middle of the night and the path is pretty sketchy in places, so it was nice to have a guide to tell you where to step and what to look out for.
As stated, we were coming from Seminyak in Bali, which means you have to get across the island and then take a ferry to Java, before another drive to the base of Mt. Ijen itself. After looking at a few different options for a tour, we finally decided to go with Bali Jungle Trekking as they were a good price and they were willing to pick us up and drop us off in separate places. As a bonus, they gave us a discount as well once we told them we had a group of 6 people. All in all, we paid rp 1.3 million, which is roughly $90 USD and included was:
- Private transport from Bali to Mt. Ijen (including separate jeep to get up the mountain to the start point)
- 1 dinner
- 1 breakfast
- 1 lunch
- Entrance Fee
- Ferry to and from Java
- Gas mask
- Drinking Water
We got picked up at roughly 4pm, and we were dropped off just after 2:30pm the next afternoon. To see the blue fire it needs to be dark, so our walk started at about 1:30am and we watched the sunrise from the top before walking back down the volcano for breakfast. Having been up for over 24 hours, the drive back was one of the bits where I was so glad we hadn’t done it on our own, as we all crashed and it would have been terrible either driving ourselves back or being on public transport.
If you are going to do it on your own, I would definitely look into staying on Java at the base of the mountain for a day before heading over to Bali, as that would give you time to sleep, eat, and get your bearings before making the journey across.
The ticket office doesn’t open until 1:30 in the morning, and as we arrived just after 1, we had a little while to stand around before we were allowed to start the climb. It is cold (I’d say between 1-5 C), especially compared to Bali (and Australia where we’d come before that); however, if you’re coming from a cooler country or winter, you should find the temperature okay. I only noticed it whilst we were waiting at the bottom, and whilst we were sat down at the top waiting for sunrise – other than that I found it warm enough to climb in just my shirt.
Mt Ijen is about 2799m high, and the distance you travel from where you start until the top of the crater is about 3.4 km in total. The first kilometre of this isn’t too bad with only a slight incline; however, at kilometre two it becomes significantly more steep and continues like this until the final 900 m. The path is rocky with lots of loose gravel, and even without rain it was very slippery, and those of us who had proper hiking shoes as compared to just normal trainers had a much easier time coming both up and down.
Once you get to the top of the crater, you have to make your way down into the crater where there is a sulfur mine and the lake. From the top of the crater all you can see looking down at this point because of the darkness is a few torches of fellow hikers as well as the lights from the miners themselves. The miners start work this early as sulfur gets hot very quickly in the heat and they can’t mine it long after the sun has come up. They get roughly rp 1000/kilo (about 10 cents a kilo) of sulfer they mine, and they can carry around 70-100 kg in their baskets, so they try to go up and down the mountain a few times each night. It’s an incredible hard job with very little reward, and it reduces their life span significantly due to the toxicity of the sulfur gas they breath in constantly.
The climb down into the crater can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your speed and how many other people are there at that point. You’re climbing down in complete darkness with only a little head torch to lead your way and you’re on a very steep, narrow path that requires you to climb over rocks with, at times, long drops to either side of you. This was the bit that I found hardest (and scariest), as one wrong placement of your foot and you’d be tumbling down the mountain, and it was great that we had a guide to show us the way down. As you near the bottom you can start to see great billowing clouds of sulfur gas, and depending on what way the wind is blowing, you put your gas mask on around here. The gas mask serves 2 purposes – to keep you from breathing in the toxic gas, as well as preventing you from smelling the disgusting air, and I was happy to have it.
We were lucky and there was very little wind when we went, which meant we could get very close to the blue flames without too much fear of the gas cloud (not only does it smell terrible, but it stings your eyes a lot). We were also lucky in the fact that everyone in our group were all pretty fast, which meant we were some of the first people to the bottom and didn’t have to content with everyone else trying to push us out of the way to take a picture. The blue flames come out at different places on the rock face, as they are liquid sulfur reacting to the oxygen in the air, and once the sulfur burns out, the flames stop.
We started to notice the amount of people gradually increasing, and we decided to hike back up the crater so that we could get a good spot to watch the sun come up over the volcano and the lake in the middle. Climbing up was easier than climbing down; however, there were still a number of people coming down, which made it slow going (but easier on the lungs).
We made it back to the top and plonked ourselves down in front of some rocks which acted as a great wind break. After getting a bit of a sweat on, it was a little cold sitting uncovered at the top, so we were grateful for any little help. Once there, it was just a matter of sitting back and watching the glorious site in front of us appear as the sun rose above the horizon.
Once it got light enough, we headed back down the mountain towards the car park and breakfast, and were treated to some amazing views of the Indonesian countryside. Indonesia sits on what is called the “Ring of Fire”, where a bunch of tectonic plates converge, which means that most of it’s islands are comprised of multiple volcanoes (both dormant and active), and makes for a stunning landscape.
After a quick breakfast of boiled eggs, banana fritters, and some fruit, we were back in the car and driving towards the ferry port once again. There was much more to see during the day time; however, I fear it was mostly lost on us as we all struggled to keep our eyes open for much of the journey back to Bali!