The landscape of far eastern Java is dominated by the Ijen volcano complex—an over 15km wide ancient caldera of which the northern crescent-shaped rim is still clearly visible. Just to the southwest of the complex sits Gunung Raung (3,332m), while Gunung Merapi (2,803m) forms a part of its eastern slopes. In the shadows of Merapi, just to the west, lies the main attraction, the spectacular and other-worldly Kawah Ijen (2,350m).
Superlatives sit well with Kawah Ijen. Ijen’s crater lake is not just Java’s largest crater lake, it is also the largest highly acidic crater lake in the world. Ijen is also famous for its “blue fire” (sometimes erroneously reported as being blue lava) a natural phenomenon caused by sulphuric gas igniting upon contact with oxygen. Most importantly though, Kawah Ijen is famous for its sulphur mining, a dangerous and difficult undertaking where miners pipe the escaping sulphuric gas through ceramic pipes, allowing it to condensate and gather in molten pools. Once cooled, the sulphur is broken up and lugged out of the crater—all as the workers labour in clouds of the toxic gas. In all of Indonesia there is nowhere quite as breathtaking (often literally) as Kawah Ijen and it ranks along side Bromo as a highlight for many first time visitors to Java.
Kawah Ijen can be approached from both the east (from Banyuwangi) and the west (from Bondowoso) with the former being by far the more popular approach, perhaps due to the proximity to Bali, a drastically improved road surface and the fact that pretty much every man and his dog can arrange an organised trip to Kawah Ijen from Banyuwangi.
You can also approach it independently but for this you’ll need your own transport (a hired car or scooter) to reach basecamp. If you are planning on riding a scooter up, while reasonably well signposted, exercise care as some of the road, while resurfaced, remains very steep and is not well suited to novice motorbike riders. You have read your travel insurance policy right?
Unless you are planning on extensive hiking, or spending a prolonged period of time at Ijen, an organised trip from Banyuwangi is a reasonably affordable and efficient way to see the peak. A typical trip will pick you up from your guesthouse in Banyuwangi at around midnight for the one hour or so drive up to the basecamp. From here it is a roughly one and a half to two hour hike to the crater rim from where you can then either decide to stay at the rim, or climb down into the crater, which takes another 30 to 45 minutes, to see the blue fire and the mining up close. You then backtrack to climb to the rim to watch sunrise and then walk out, back to the basecamp, for the return drive to Banyuwangi, arriving in town between nine and ten in the morning (depending on how long you dawdled at the rim and in the crater).
An organised trip should include transport to Ijen and back, some bottled water, your park admission, a guide, and a gas mask (which is essential). Unfortunately the standard of the masks supplied can be very variable and having an ill-fitting (or broken) mask can have a severe impact on your enjoyment. Also note that if you wear glasses, because it is cold up top, when you wear the mask your breath may fog up your glasses meaning you can’t see. Take our word for it this is not an ideal experience.
If you plan to take a lot of photos and want to spend a significant amount of time in the crater, we strongly recommend buying your own mask (Scott is a reputable brand) and a protective visor for your eyes. Warm clothes and hiking boots are, like the mask, essential. While you should be provided with a handheld torch, a head torch is better (as it will allow both your hands to be free). Trekking poles are also useful.
The trail up is straightforward and simple to follow and if you are only planning to go to the rim, there is no need for a guide. Because the miners now sometimes use trolleys to move the sulphur, the track has been widened and is often quite well surfaced (though it is still dirt all the way to the rim). Miners will offer to push tourists up (or down) in the trolleys for a fee. We saw a few, though not many, taking advantage of this!
Officially, tourists are not permitted into the crater (you’ll see the signs saying no entry on the rim) and in the past you would need to tip one of the workers to get down into the crater. This appears to no longer be the case and on our visit there were well over 100 people making their way into and walking around in the crater during our visit in early 2018.
The trail into the crater is not very good—much is on bare and broken stone and, especially when wet you need to be very careful of your footing. The climb down is often made trickier by other trekkers who may not have quite enough consideration for people before and after them. Exercise caution, don’t be browbeaten into descending at a quicker pace than you are comfortable at, and try to keep a decent distance between you and other people. Watch out for falling stones.
It is important to emphasise that the clouds of sulphuric gas can be very large and move in an unpredictable but very fast fashion. If you get caught in a cloud, the gas burns your eyes making it very difficult to keep your eyes open and breathing can be extremely difficult—and painful. The crowds of other tourists, all bumbling around in near darkness while hacking up a lung and barely able to see makes for a very dangerous environment.
If you decide to go into the crater you need to exercise extreme care. Make sure you’re comfortable in your mask and try to keep a distance from other people. If you get into difficulty stay calm!
Standing on the rim looking towards the lake, you’ll see a trail running up to your right along the rim—this is well worth following after dawn for an even more spectacular view over the lake and the greater surrounds. Once you are done enjoying the view, the walk back out to basecamp is simple and easy—do take your time though as the scenery is terrific (weather allowing).
On the way out you’ll see the miners also prepare sulphur moulds and decorative pieces as souvenirs. This is a very easy way to make a financial donation to the workers and to get a great souvenir in the process. Note however, that sulphur can be used for explosives so your airline may flip out when you try to board with a large sulphur carving!
Another way to support the miners is by making a donation to Ijen Assistance who were the brains behind the trolleys and who also sponsor miner’s children through the local schools. See their website for more information and for a couple of very interesting videos outlining what they are doing.
Inclusive tours from Banguwangi go for 300,000–350,000 rupiah per person on a share basis and should include entry fees.
Entry fees for independent travellers are: Foreigners: weekdays 100,000 rupiah; weekends 150,000 rupiah; Indonesians: weekdays 5,000 rupiah; weekends 7,500 rupiah; motorbikes: 5,000; cars: 10,000.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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