Climbing Mount Ijen from Bali; in search of the rare blue lava


Destination, Indonesia, Java / Saturday, November 24th, 2018

Gunung (Mount) Ijen, an active volcano on Java which last erupted in 2002 is famous for its very rare blue lava caused by ignited sulphur gas from the many sulphur vents. Not only is Ijen home to blue lava or as the locals say ‘blue fire’, it has one other extremely unusual occurrence… the worlds largest, highly acidic crater lake. After learning this, how could we not visit?!

Getting There

On the neighbouring Indonesian island of Java, to Bali’s West, climbing Mount Ijen for sunrise required us to set off a day prior. 

We decided to complete the climb along with Mount Bromo from Bali on a 3 day 2 nights tour. If you want to know how to climb Ijen independently from Java, Be My Travel Muse has some great info. 

In Ubud we compared many prices from the street tour agencies. Combined with Bromo, we were looking at around ~4,500,000 IDR. After further research online we found Bali Jungle Trekking who priced the joint trip at 3,625,000 IDR per person. Ijen alone would be ~1,750,000 per person. I’ll link their details below as I would highly recommend them and our driver Wayan who was brilliant and can organise a similar tour for you independently. 

Bali Jungle Trekking: 

https://balijungletrekking.com/

Wayan: 

(+62) 857 38644774

The Climb

After a sleepless night (thanks to a minor earthquake) I full well planned to be asleep on the 4 hour drive to Gilimanuk port where our ferry departed at 10pm. No sleep later, in the dark of night, Gilimanuk almost reminded me of Calais in France and all those campervan holidays.

Onboard, we arrived to karaoke on the ferry… you certainly don’t see that in Calais.

After a quick stop at the petrol station where two workers were singing karaoke via YouTube (?!) we sat down at a restaurant to the best Mie Goreng I’ve had, it’s a shame it was 11pm and both Alex and I were still stuffed from tea at 5pm. Wayan, our driver was right, Mie Goreng on Java is the tastiest we’ve ever had. From our ‘midnight’ feast we set off to Ijen, or at least we tried to. The car wouldn’t start and after many failed attempts of jump starting it and watching it roll through the car park I thought the sunrise dream was over. Until, at one last attempt of turning the key…. it came back on.

An hour and a half later we arrived to Ijen’s car park as one of the first and were told we had 1 hour to sleep. I was wide awake with excitement at the sight of the amount of stars outside the window. With all my research on Ijen I hadn’t read anything about the epic night sky until Wayan told us how incredible it was. In the end, while Alex was napping I got my stuff together, prepped the camera and tried to sneak outside, unsuccessfully.

After waking Alex up (accidentally on-purpose), we got out the car to the most amazing sky. I think even he woke up at this point. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life. It was insane. As we started the walk at 1am we couldn’t stop looking up.

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2 hours, 3 km and a long break later with a professional photographer teaching me how to capture the night sky (all of which failed… you’ll just have to go and see it for yourself!) we arrived at the top, at 2,386m.

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After seeing our first miner carrying yellow sulphur in his basket we donned our gas masks (which he lacked) and headed down into the crater. One of the life-risking miners stopped to talk to us and reached out his hand with a piece of sulphur. In the pitch black, I only realised a few seconds later it was sulphur carved into a turtle. For 20,000 IDR we bought that and a flower he had sculpted. Definitely a pressure buy.

From the top we could see only a few head torches in the crater below and could definitely make out the small patch of blue lava. After another 40 minutes and 800m down the slippy, gravel path we arrived to the strong smelling sulphur, probably the reason I’m still coughing… I’m not convinced the gas masks worked.

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The large plume of sulphur smoke kept distorting the blue lava, making it dance and blur until the wind changed and it engulfed us in it, leaving our eyes stinging and throats burning (even with the gas masks on). The poor workers!

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The way back up took longer due to the now large trail of headlights making their way down one by one… the path isn’t big enough for two.

Back at the top, we waited 30 minutes before the sun to started to appear. As it lit the sky around us it revealed more and more of our surroundings.

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The sheet of cloud below Gunung Merapi (Indonesia’s most active volcano), blocking our sight of Bali was incredible.

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Each second, the light revealed more and more, literally taking my breath away.

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Up on the top, it was cold, windy cold. Alex was frozen. You can see it in his eyes and his nose was practically purple. We seemed to have switched roles as I wasn’t too uncomfortable with my 4 layers but I think that’s partly due to being high off the excitement of the beautiful setting we were in.

Top Tip: Bring lots of warm clothes. While we got hot walking up Ijen, waiting around at the top is freezing work.

In the light, looking down into the crater you could clearly see the mined yellow sulphur.

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On this morning the sulphur smoke was obscuring our view from the bright blue, acidic crater lake, created by one of Gunung Ijen’s early explosions.

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Eventually, within our last 5 minutes, the smoke lifted and revealed the beautiful, turquoise crater lake.

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Confused with the 1 hour time difference from Bali, having to be back in the car park for 7am, at 5:30am we set off back. Panicking because we only had 30 minutes to get down the very slippy, steep gravel path. We were still on Bali time. 1 hour later at the Java time of 6:30am we safely made it down, no falls from us, but lots from the people around us.

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Top Tip: avoid the loose gravel on the way down and try to stick to the harder, rock areas or the total sandy bits. That goes for the blue lava trail too.

The breakfast place set in the car park of Ijen reminded us of the ones on the Everest Base Camp trek, with its wooden bench tables and plastic table coverings. Wayan delivered the goods, providing Nutella, orange juice, bread and a granola bar to go with the fried banana and coffee we ordered.

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Full and content with our morning adventures, we set off sleepily at 7am to Bromo, our next volcano sunrise. Before the rest of the journey we stopped at Ijen’s waterfall. The water runs from the Ijen crater and was so clear with a turquoise tinge, offset in the photo by my long exposure experimentations. It’s a stunning area just off the main road from Ijen, easily accessible, it’s well worth a stop off. 

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On to Bromo we go…

Lots of Pocket-sized love,

Jess

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