Blue Flames And Sulphur Lakes

We ended up catching an oven on wheels from Probolinggo to Banyuwangi, the latter of which is an absolute delight to say. “Y” over here is pronounced as a sort of “dj” so it’s Ban-dju-wangi. Love it. Love it less when you’re trying to catch a bus there from Probolinggo when you’ve read that they’ll try and get you on a bus they’ll tell you goes all the way through and will charge you accordingly before leaving you in a place called Jember. What you need to do is either walk a bit north of the bus station and flag a bus with Banyuwangi written on the front that goes via Situbondo and pay the conductor. If you have to change there it’s not the end of the world, just make sure you only pay until there. If you have to deal with touts just insist that you very much do not wish to go to Jember. You don’t ever want to see Jember. You could die happy having never visited Jember. There were seven of us by this point so we were herded to the correct sweat box where we were overcharged accordingly, because touts, and settled in to sweat profusely for the ensuing thousand hours. I’ve never been on a bus so fucking hot in my life. I was wearing trainers so my bunions didn’t decide to spontaneously cripple me and my feet were roasting like a fucking lamb shank. A couple more hours and you could have served them up with gravy and a side of veggies. I’m not saying you should, it’d be the least appetising meal in the world even if you were a starving cannibal. I’m just saying you could.

When I grow up and get a house I’m painting it blue and green. Though I live in England, not Indonesia, so it’ll have to be a very small house. Or a shed. Yeah, I’ll get a shed.

So a quick scan of the various accommodation apps on my phone told us there were a few budget options around Stasiun Karangasem and that’s where we headed. One couple got off earlier and after strolling around the tiny area the other three opted for Anggun Homestay but me and Tarrant opted for a room with a Western toilet and Wi-Fi at Gandrung Payungan Inn. This is possibly the best accommodation decision we’d made so far. Just walking around Stasiun Karangasem, even at night, we could tell it’s a beautiful place and the guest house is so lovely and amazingly priced. But it’s the couple that run it that make it. They’re so so genuine. We were plied with tea and papaya, and they allowed the others to come and use the Wi-Fi even though they weren’t staying there and looked after them too. I’ve no idea what the rest of Banyuwangi is like, we didn’t have to venture into the town at all, but we ended up deciding not to rush to Ijen that night with the others in favour of some sleep and a much needed chill out day amongst the banana trees and rice fields.

Banyuwangi. I could stare at it all day except I’ve got shit to do. Like climb a fucking mountain in the dark.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Banyuwangi but it wasn’t the lush, green haven that we got. The boys, José and Matt, couldn’t rest until they’d found transport to Ijen for that night so we let them get on with it, there’s no shortage of places offering a vehicle-only option and absolute kudos to them, they found a great deal. Most places charge Rp600,00 for a van which you just split with whoever you can get a hold of but they’d asked in a shop opposite the station itself and got one for Rp400,000 including gas masks. It would never have occured to me to ask in a shop. We still didn’t join them that night because sleep is better but we strolled down the next day to book the car that night and managed to rope a French couple in from the guest house to share the cost.

Obligatory gas mask selfie. These things are about as easy to breathe through as jam.

Kawah (crater) Ijen is another sunrise hike where you hope to catch a glimpse of blue flames shooting out of a sulphuric acid lake in the dark before it gets light, but you leave Banyuwangi at midnight. Midnight isn’t actually an awful time to be awake without being six Jägerbombs in and gyrating away on the dancefloor to Britney in what you perceive to be a seductive manner but in reality you’re only one thrust away from being arrested and put on a register. But I digress. It was raining as we walked to the station to meet our driver. It rained the entire one hour drive. It was so foggy that even our experienced Indonesian driver had to slow right down for fear of hitting something or veering off the road. We arrived at 1am and grabbed a cuppa from one of the warungs and waited until the ticket office opened at 2am. It rained continuously.

The blue flames of Kawah Ijen. It’s a lot better if your’re actually there…

The French couple were talking about maybe hanging back until the rain stopped because if it’s like this there’ll be no blue flames and no sunrise. I even considered fucking the whole thing off but we were here now and what if it did clear up and hashtag FOMO hashtag YOLO whatever. The ticket office opened bang on time, we parted with Rp100,000 each because that’s a reasonable price to pay to torture your entire lower body at unholy hours, and began our ascent. It’s fucking steep but it’s pitch black so you can’t see how steep it is. We just put one foot in front of the other and slowly slowly made our way up. It wouldn’t stop raining and the beams of our headtorches were bouncing uselessly off the fog. We couldn’t see shit and we were wet and miserable and it wasn’t the best way to find out that Tarrant’s waterproof jacket was actually about as waterproof as kitchen roll. Not that value shit either, that posh quilted stuff you could absord a lake with. We wondered why the fuck we were bothering.

Sky on fire.

But bother we did. After about an hour of incline we got to a little tea shop where you could buy drinks and snacks and, apparently, rent gas masks if you didn’t already have one. It was still raining. Everyone had been told they couldn’t go further until 3am, something to do with high toxicity levels in the crater at 2am? I’ve no idea but they’ve been doing this since March and we’d already read that we wouldn’t be allowed down to the crater to get close to the blue flames. It was 3am by the time we gasped our way to this point anyway so we just carried straight on, struggling up the last hour to the crater. I didn’t think my respiratory system would ever forgive me for this.

The fog kinda helps. You can’t see how terrifyingly close to the edge the path is thus avoiding unsightly nervous breakdowns.
Probably the best view we got of the sulphur lake despite it clearing up a bit. See the trees? I do like the trees.

By the time we made it to what we thought was the edge it had stopped pissing down but a thick fog enveloped the crater. It sucked. We were basically slogging up a fucking hill for two hours in the relentless rain for exactly fuck all. But again, might as well finish off the misery and carry on to the so-called blue flames view point then onto the sunrise point. As we approached the first lookout the fog lifted. It fucking lifted. And right there, below us, distant but clear, were the blue flames. It was really fucking cool. I do really wish we were allowed down into the crater, you could see the light of the sulphur miners bobbing around down there and I guess the last thing they needed were hoards of tourists getting dangerously close to a lake that could probably kill them in minutes.

Contrary to the slightly horrified look on his face I did ask permission to take his photo and tipped.
He’s just carried that up a hill I probably couldn’t walk down without crying a bit. It’s around 70kgs.

We sat there for about 15 minutes and stared at them and took photos which weren’t going to win any NatGeo awards any time soon but they made us happy. It’s not far up to the sunrise point from there, there was still quite a bit of cloud and the sunrise was more of a case of a strip of visible sky turning a fiery shade of orange which was spectacular in its own way. So heading back down is an experience then, you don’t realise how fucking close to the edge you’re walking when it’s dark which is probably a good thing because I’d probably have clung onto one of the eerie black trees and demanded someone send a helicopter.

Sulphur gets smashed up and put in these bags which are loaded onto those trolleys and rolled down the hill, and all without collapsing into a useless heap, please.
You can buy bits of natural sulphur or little suphur carvings to take home and treasure forever assuming they don’t break in your bag and scatter tiny yellow shards throughout all of your belongings.

But these trees. There’s some awesome looking vegetation up here, it’s like stuff has tried to grow before realising that a sulphur environment isn’t conducive to sustaining plant life. It wasn’t too bad, we only had to break out the gas masks a couple of times but it’s near impossible to get up a hill, breathing like a phone pervert with a brand new copy of the Yellow Pages, with one of these masks strapped to your chops. I’ve heard it can get unbreable if the wind blows a certain way though. We took our time shuffling down, we wouldn’t have minded some better views of the gorgeous turquoise sulhpur lake but the fog was swirling back in so we grabbed what shots we could. Shame about the weather but I don’t think I’ll come back here again. Not because it isn’t awesome, it really is, but you only need to do that bastard hill once in your life unless you’re a double hard miner.

Kawah Ijen
Kawah Ijen

These guys. They work at night to try and get a couple of trips up and and down the hill in before it gets too hot. They go into the crater to mine the sulphur which they then have to carry out on their backs around 70kgs at a time. Oh my god. All of my muscles recoiled in horror when I heard that. One big strong looking white guy was invited by his guide to try and lift a load. He managed it but he didn’t then try to get out of a volcanic crater with it on his back, and he said it was stupid heavy. Once it’s out of the crater it’s smashed into smaller pieces, put into bags and strapped to a trolley to be wheeled down the hill we’d just come up. You can take their photo, they’ll ask for money in return but guys, that’s only fair. One guy was getting on with his job as people snapped him without permission and just wandered off. I felt bad for him and chucked him a few rupiah. Another bloke looked up to see people taking photos and, quite good naturedly with a smile said, “Ah photo photo! Money photo money photo!”

Kawah Ijen

He’d been mining for three years and they don’t get paid a lot, sulphur is worth very little so he, like a lot of them, supplements his income charging tourists for photos and selling blocks of interestingly shaped sulphur or little sulphur carvings. They also offer rides to tourists up and down the hill in their trolleys. I’m not going to lie, I did kind of judge the people who allowed these men to cart them up that hill. I really can’t stress how fucking awful that hill is. That hill will haunt my nightmares for years to come.

Well the walk back down wasn’t too shabby despite being all too aware off the sheer drop offs at the edge of the path.

It’s a three man job; two pulling and one pushing and they do charge a fair whack for it. But they do offer, all the way down we were offered a “taxi” and when we declined they seemed genuinely disappointed. They must earn a shit tonne more carting tourists up and down than they earn carting sulphur up and down but I feel like I weigh the same as an elephant with a penchant for cheesecake when I take a becak, a cycle rickshaw, no way would I feel good being pulled around in a trolley. Unless it was a shopping trolley and I was drunk.

The lovely couple who run Gandrung Payungan Inn.

Well it didn’t look like it was going to get any clearer any time soon and we knew it’d take us a good chunk of time to get back to the car park with our various injuries. Tarrant has bad knees anyway and she’d managed to slip at Bromo and really twist her left knee thus making downhill her arch nemesis after slugs and biting insects. It took us an hour and 20 minutes to get back down where we rewarded ourselves with tea and promised ourselves that we wouldn’t be climbing up any more fucking volcanoes in the dark for at least a week.

Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia
Stayed at: Gandrung Payungan Inn, Stasiun Karangasem, Banyuwangi

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