The Blue Fire of Ijen Crater

Location MapI must have screwed up my research because I completely overlooked the Ijen Crater in East Java. I didn’t remember it looking very appealing the first time I looked it up, but when I arrived in Probolinggo it became an instant must do.

It was actually the dodgy tourism shop that I was dumped at when heading to Mt Bromo that drew my attention to Ijen’s blue fire phenomenon. Of course the price was ludicrous, so I rode in to the Probolinggo bus station where Mr Toto sold me a transport only package for 300,000IDR.

This took me from Cemoro Lawang after Mt Bromo, to Ijen, to the ferry to Bali (which I would have taken had I planned to go to Ijen) and then back to Probolinggo. After Mt Bromo, I was transferred to another tour agency and there must have been a little confusion because they thought my package from Mr Toto included the 200,000IDR payment for a guided tour of Ijen.

Maybe it did and I didn’t realise, but my ticket clearly said I’d only paid 300,000IDR so I let it be. I only had to pay an extra 100,000IDR to cover the national park entry costs. Not bad.

Since we had to wake up at midnight to go and see the blue fire I didn’t bother getting a hotel. The agency said I could just sleep in the car which was fine by me – less effort to get up and go!

I met the driver and my new travel mates: Abi (England), Andrés (Colombia) and Carlos (Spain). We bonded over our driver’s psycho driving techniques during the crazy 5 hour ride to a village near Ijen. For this guy, speed was the mission. Estimated trip times were the thing to beat and were quickly slashed. No gap in traffic was too small, no motorbike couldn’t be run off the road and we were guaranteed to nearly rear-end someone every 15 minutes on average.

We arrived around 5pm at a colonial style villa in the middle of nowhere. Everyone skipped the nearby hot springs and pretty much went to bed. I settled down on the backseat of the car and caught some much needed sleep after waking at 3am the same morning for Mt Bromo. I took comfort in the fact that our driver was staying up late to talk to one of his three girlfriends.

A car door slammed and woke me up. Everyone else had crawled out of bed to hop in the car. I was a little surprised to see the driver awake and so fresh. It took about an hour to reach the starting point for the Ijen Crater hike.

When we met our guide he handed the other three their gas masks. He said something about me being a bad customer and gave me nothing. Maybe there was a mix up with the ticketing. So I paid the guide 50,000IDR to get a gas mask and it was probably the best $5 I’ve spent this whole trip.

It took about an hour to reach the crater rim. Despite me being such a bad customer the guide seemed very happy to chat with me on the way up and help me practice some Indonesian. Along the way we saw the miners hauling carts back and forth. We even saw a team of three dragging a cart up the hill with a young woman in it. I’m not sure if it was pure laziness, but there is no way they could have carried her down into the crater anyway. Apparently you can pay 800,000IDR to be carried like royalty.

On the way down there were dozens of miners hauling these huge bamboo baskets full of sulphur rocks. Back breaking labour and poor conditions that surely lead to a short lifespan. I felt sorry for them.

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Sulphur hauled by basket. At least 30kgs of the stuff!

As we descended into the crater we put on our 3M hardware store gas masks. It seemed to help filter the gas, but the miners wore nothing. We must have been some of the first to the bottom and there we saw the blue fire. The flames danced about in the smokey haze.

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Blue fire and sulfur dioxide gases shooting from the vents

The smoke bellowed and blew about. It was a bit hard to get close and take a photo as it was quite unpredictable, but Carlos shared this video with me. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon.

Suddenly though the smoke surged towards us. Maybe there was a change in pressure below or the wind changed or both, but suddenly we were all choking on the thick gas in a complete white out. Head torches only made it worse and we huddled low against a rock wall. The gas seemed toxic and burned your lungs and eyes. At this point I thought about my dive training and tried to breath smoothly and slowly without panicking.

Our guide was disoriented as well and went off to try and find the path. It must have taken us about 5 minutes before we got moving again. Crying and coughing we headed back towards the crater rim. Other tourists who didn’t seem to have guides pushed past us to get up.

Eventually we got clear of the majority of smoke and many bewildered tourists were heading past us to go down and get their first look. Hopefully they were OK… But we warned them!

We took a break at the crater rim for a few minutes, but the smoke kept coming and forced us away. Apparently the gas coming from the vents is sulphuric acid gas, but because it is burnt as a fuel it is converted into sulphur dioxide and becomes less toxic. So that was good to know.

Our guide took us to the crater lake some 20-30 minutes away where we could finally breathe easy. Dawn began to break but the lake was trapped in smoke and fog. Apparently the gas coming from the lake is toxic because it’s not burnt and converted so we stayed clear of that.

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The first cloudy views of the Crater lake

As seems to be the trend here, the warm sunrise chased away all the clouds and the view became clear. The lake was almost turquoise and it was much more beautiful than I’d expected.

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Sunrise reveals the vista

It didn’t take long to trek back down and then we hopped back in the suicide bus for the ride to the ferry point. I wished I hadn’t booked a flight from Surabaya to Bali because everyone else got off here whereas I had another 7-9 hours still to bus back. We stopped for lunch and said our goodbyes. They were serious goodbyes because I don’t think the others expected me to make it back to Surabaya given this guy’s driving.

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I enjoyed a last meal. Peanut curry, coconut chicken and tempe.

Actually I joke about the guy’s driving, but it was ok. You just kind of have to trust people know what they are doing and that road rules and culture aren’t the same as your own country. In saying that though, we did see a few cars that had careened off bridges or crashed on the road.

For instance, it’s totally ok to ride home made go karts on the road here.

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Crazy makeshift go karts

Rather than 6-7 hours to get back to Probolinggo it only took three and a half. Along the way we locked the wheels and were about 3cm away from rear ending a truck, but I figured since I was in the backseat that was more the driver’s issue than mine. I tipped him for the speedy service because I was just happy to be travelling for a few less hours.

I walked towards a bus for Surabaya at the Probolinggo bus station. A tout was trying to distract me from getting onto the bus and I ignored him (remember: distrust everyone), but then Mr Toto came running to me and I stopped. The bus pulled away to my dismay and he ushered me onto his “private bus”. I knew I’d be conned, but I figured there wouldn’t be another bus leaving for a while.

Mr Toto demanded 50,000IDR for his bus which was indifferent to the 30,000IDR public bus that just left. I gave up arguing and paid him. Afterwards though I realised there was a proper ticketing guy taking 30,000IDR from passengers and I couldn’t help but laugh. He didn’t ask me for a ticket so clearly Mr Toto had conned me and collected a commission for his 50m jog. You learn something new every day.

So I headed back to Da Rifi Guesthouse in Surabaya to grab my things.

The next morning I took an early flight to Bali which was really just a pitstop to get to Senggigi in Lombok.

You can read more about my Indonesian trip here

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