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June 30, 2014

Ijen (Part 1) - Chasing the Blue Fire

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It was 1 a.m. in Paltuding, Banyuwangi, East Java. A big parking lot in that village is the starting point for the hike to Ijen Crater, the biggest lake caldera in the world which co-locates with an active sulfur flow spewing the dazzling blue flame into the darkness of the night. People from faraway countries travel all the way to witness that the rare blue flame phenomenon.  National Geographic reported that Ijen’s blue flame is one among only four blue flame spots on Earth. The two others are located at Mount Vesuvius and the island of Vulcan, both in Italy, and another one is located in Danakil Depression, Ethiopia.

Travelers around me murmured about the cold. I zipped up my jacket, feeling thankful that I had carefully read some travel blogs about Ijen and knowing that nights here could be very cold before I came here. I took a deep breath as I looked up to the sky. The scene was beyond amazing. Millions of stars dotted the solid black sky. I could also see the Milky Way clearly, where some bigger dots of sparkling stars made me wonder about their distance from the earth, and if they had names.

Mas Pendi, our driver, approached me and pointed out a warung, a typical Indonesian stall, where some travelers were sitting, waiting to meet their guides. “Please have some hot tea first. Your guide will meet you there.” I walked there with excitement and anticipation. I have never climbed any mountains before, and the idea of walking over two to three hours to the summit and staying up for at least six hours without any restroom around somehow got me a little bit nervous. I walked towards the warung. Soon a man in a red shirt and black jacket was introduced to us. “This is Pak Kaoli, your guide.” Pak Kaoli smiled as we shook hands. His lips were hidden beneath his thick mustache, but I could see it creased in the shape of a friendly smile. He is in his late 40’s, around 160 centimeters tall, looking friendly and confident. He was wearing a pair of Wellington boots.

Our travel agency gathered us in a group of five. Myself, my partner, and a Russian family of three. “You will walk a heavy two-first kilometer. After that, we will rest and continue with another one kilometer.” Pak Kaoli informed us as we started walking. The first 200 meters of the route was easy and flat. It was quite wide so that four-wheeler trucks could pass and park to load sulfur blocks. The flatness and the fine trekking path got me thinking that three kilometers would be easy, but I was so wrong. The rest of the three kilometers was full of steep slopes at 70° - 90° angles. It was quite a serious climb, especially for me, but Pak Kaoli walked as if he was charged with some kind of superhero power. “I have been working here for twenty-one years”, he said. “I know this route by heart, as I have been climbing up and down to the crater every day to mine the sulfur”, he explained.

Pak Kaoli is apparently among the miners who dig the sulfur in smoke-filled air and walk the distance carrying at least 50 kilograms of sulfur to sell. Starting around five years ago, as more travelers heard about Ijen’s blue flame and came to Paltuding to start their climb, he and some of his miner folks became part-time tour guides.  “A French documentary producer filmed me some years ago. He was making a movie on the life of a miner here. He shot me doing my daily work for days.” As Pak Kaoli spoke, I could not help but recall all the articles I read about Ijen’s sulfur miner. They all talked about bitter stories of how the miners worked in unsafe environments, breathing thick sulfuric gas as they did not have proper protective masks and carrying baskets of hefty sulfur blocks as they climbed up the steep, rocky path toward the edge of the crater, and paid severely. However, I could not recall any bitterness in Pak Kaoli’s words.

Finally, after countless stops, we reached the summit, the edge of the crater. The walks down the crater looked daunting. It was steep, and the path was narrow. Pieces of volcanic gravel and sand made some parts of it slippery. Down below, I could see flashes of torch lights from the climbers who searched for the way. The crater was immensely big. Beneath the dim light from the stars, I could see the dark edges of the massive caldera walls around me. “Do you want to continue?” Pak Kaoli offered. I was so stunned that I forgot my sore legs. I said yes, affirmatively.

The magical blue fire
Soon the magic appeared before our eyes. After some turns, Pak Kaoli pointed out some tiny dots of blue flame down at the crater’s base. “That is the blue flame.” I was, again, stunned.  The closer I got, the more breathtaking it looked. Pak Kaoli took as to a small flat landing around thirty meters from the flame. He reminded us to wear our gas masks, while he sat calmly and started to lit up his cigarette as he watched our amazement with happy eyes.

My heart overflowed with amusement and gratitude. I never thought that the blue flame looked that massive in reality. It looked like a world-class concert stage washed in deep blue spotlights that dissolved in thick smoke, where the blue spotlights shone from the very base of rugged rocks. The blue flame danced to the wind. Its edges swayed slowly through the air, and sometimes, suddenly, the sulfuric gas became so intense that the smoke got thickened and blew to the direction where we stood. It was beautiful, but as the smoke got us, we had no choice but to close our eyes and push the mask tighter to our nose and mouth as it hurt. To me, the whole things, the sight, the smell of the sulfur, the atmosphere, and the fact that people around me spoke in different languages for they came from different countries, felt beyond surreal.

The blue fire gradually fades in the morning light
It was already almost 4 a.m. in the morning. We stuck to the plan to stay there until the sunrise broke the darkness, to see how the blue flame finally faded. As the dawn came and the sky turned to light purple and pale orange, the blue light gradually faded. Sunshine washed the landscape around us, gradually revealing the amazing view. Around us was the thick sulfur smoke, so thick that it almost curtained the lake, and the sulfur flows. The crater’s edge stood steady like a giant, rugged wall, standing so thick and tall in brown hues. It was almost unbelievable that we walked down through it in the dark.

When the morning broke

The crater lake, the sulfur mine, the giant rocks, the hikers

Sulfur miners started to descend with woven bamboo baskets on their shoulders. They walked briskly at amazing speed, so fast that it looked like they stepped quickly, tip-toeing along the steep rocks as if their feet had eyes on their own. Some of them worked very close to where the blue fire was, exposing themselves to the thick sulfuric fume, digging the bright yellow sulfur blocks, and tossing them to the baskets. Pak Kaoli greeted everyone and each of them in Osing dialect – the traditional Banyuwangi vernacular – which to my ears sounds like the mixture of East Javanese, Balinese, and Madurese dialects. “I know all of them. They have been my friends for years”, Pak Kaoli explained.

It was only 6 a.m. in the morning but the miners had started to work

The top edge of the carter. We, human beings look so small.

Even though I believe there were over a hundred people in the crater, nature was so immense that it absorbed all the voices and conversation. I love such silence. It gave me a chance to cherish the view, the cold morning air, uninterrupted.
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