Hiking Ijen: Miners, sulfur and sore legs

Near the end of the spectacular (and spectacularly-steep) hike up Kawa Ijen

It’s 6 am in East Java, Indonesia. The sun is just starting to warm up the cool mountain air. I’m standing at the edge of the Ijen Crater. The impossibly-blue crater lake below me is shrouded in mist. Beside me, a sulfur miner drops his 90-kilogram load to take a smoke break. I’m sleep-deprived, my legs feel like jelly, and I’m dreaming of the breakfast waiting back at my guesthouse. Still, at this moment, I’m thinking: hiking Ijen was worth it.


That doesn’t mean it was easy. So if you’re considering adding this mountain to your Indonesia plans, let me tell you what hiking Ijen is really like.


(Want to read more about the logistics of hiking Ijen and Bromo without a tour? Check out this post.)


The journey begins: Scammers in Probolinggo


The most beautiful sunrise I've ever seen
Bromo was beautiful, but it set me up to be exhausted before I even started hiking Ijen


My journey to Ijen started nearly 24 hours earlier. I had just hiked up to a spectacular viewpoint to watch the sunrise over Mount Bromo. While it was invigorating to climb my first Indonesian mountain, and it was probably the most beautiful sunrise I’ll ever see, it was also an early morning. Like 3 am early. So by 9 am — when I hopped on the first of a series of buses to Ijen — I was already exhausted.


My trip started smoothly, but I ran into trouble in Probolinggo while changing buses. I strolled into the station, looking confident. I was surrounded with touts asking “Where are you going? Take my bus, very fast!” But I kept walking until I saw the bus to Banyuwangi and I snuck on using the back door.


Unfortunately, someone — I’m still not clear on if it was a legitimate ticket collector or some kind of travel agent — saw me board the bus. He didn’t approach me right away. He waited until we were just far enough out of town that I didn’t really have a choice but to stay on the bus. Then, he demanded three times the price for a ticket.


My first instinct was to laugh at him. But he quickly made clear that he was serious and not up for negotiating. He called over a cadre of his friends to surround me. I still wasn’t buying it. But he crossed a line when he grabbed my backpack, told the bus driver to stop, and brought my backpack to the door — indicating that he’d throw it off the bus if I didn’t pay.


Now I don’t know about you, but the idea of spending my day stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere instead of hiking Ijen didn’t sound too appealing. So as much as I hate letting scammers win, I gave him twice the cost of the ticket. He let it go.


The bus ride from hell


Things didn’t get much better once I had my ticket. It turned out this bus wasn’t the Express bus it was advertised as. Instead of traveling on the highways, it took the back roads — read, never went faster than 30 km per hour. So after three hours, we were just pulling into Jember, an hour later than planned.


At which point, I discovered that the bus I was on wasn’t actually going to Banyuwangi. It was going to Jember. I now had to change buses. Luckily the one bit of honesty Mr. Ticket Scammer had maintained was selling me a ticket all the way to Banyuwangi, so I didn’t have to pay again. But I did have to wait awhile for another bus.


Bus #2 was even worse than the first bus. Within minutes of pulling out of the station, the driver (of this air-conditioned bus on which the windows don’t open) started chain-smoking, filling the entire interior with smoke. I can handle the smoke in Indonesia in general, but this was truly nauseating.

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Then, we got stuck in horrible traffic in the mountains. There was construction along the road, so massive trucks were chugging up the hills at 5 km/hour on roads to narrow to pass, all while belching smoke behind them.


Finally, seven hours after I left Probolinggo (it was supposed to be five), the bus ground to a halt. I looked around, and much to my dismay, we were not at the bus station — we were at a gas station! In case you’ve never been on a huge charter bus when it stops for gas, let me tell you, it takes a long time. And I probably wouldn’t have been so exasperated if we hadn’t driven literally two more minutes before pulling into the bus station. Why they couldn’t let their passengers off before getting gas, I’ll never know.


Kampung Osing


Rice terraces in Kampung Osing -- the perfect base for hiking Ijen
Rice terraces in Kampung Osing — the perfect base for hiking Ijen


It was nearly 6 pm when I arrived in Banyuwangi. I hadn’t eaten lunch (well, unless a pack of Oreos counts) and I was really starting to feel the sleep deprivation of the night before. For a brief moment, I seriously considered bailing on hiking Ijen.


I’d booked a room at Kampung Osing Inn — a small guesthouse in the neighborhood of Kampung Osing, in south Banyuwangi. It’s a charming little family-run place (just 4 rooms or so) and the perfect base to hike Ijen. As soon as I arrived, the owners got me excited to do the trek again. They didn’t even ask me to check in before excitedly telling me about a minibus to the mountain that I could hop on at 1 am. I signed up for the trip without a second thought.


Then I checked my watch. 6:15 pm. Ugh. That meant best-case scenario, I was going to get about four hours of sleep tonight. So I immediately headed out to find food before crashing.


Strolling through Kampung Osing gives you the feeling of what Indonesia must’ve been like before tourists came. Kids, moms and dads alike came running out of their houses to say hello to me. One woman invited me for tea as she closed up her shop. Nobody spoke more than a couple words of English. After walking around for a bit, I found a street stall that had delicious noodle soup for a whopping 6,000 rupiah — that’s less than $0.50, folks.


After dinner and meeting up with the other folks who were hiking Ijen, I tried to get some sleep. It was going to be a rough morning.


The adventure begins: Hiking Ijen, Part I


My alarm went off at 12:45 am. I’d gotten, at most, four hours of sleep. To my surprise I didn’t really feel tired. The adrenaline was racing — I was going to climb another volcano!


I piled into the waiting minivan with Rebecca, Ed and Trace from New Zealand, Ruth and her friend from Singapore, and Jen, our guide. A 90-minute drive up a bumpy, winding mountain road later, we arrived at the parking lot. Jen distributed gas masks — the sulfur at the crater of Ijen is so toxic, and you get so close to it, that you need them for the final portion of the hike.


Jen explained that the hike consisted of two kilometers of uphill, followed by one kilometer of walking on flat ground, followed by a steep 400 meter descent to the crater. If we wanted to see the famous “blue flame” (sulfur interacting with the air; it looks exactly how it sounds), we had to be at the crater by 4:30 am. Two hours to hike just over 3 km? Easy peasy.

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Jen undersold how “uphill” the first two kilometers were. Some of it was at such an angle that it felt more like climbing stairs. We could only walk 100 meters before taking a break. Since I was already sore from Bromo the night before, it wasn’t pretty.


The amazing thing is, the sulfur miners who work Ijen do this at least twice a day with a 90 kilogram load on their backs. Jen was a former miner, and he said he could make it to the top in about thirty minutes. They must truly be some of the strongest men in the world.


I was starting to rethink whether hiking Ijen was a good idea when we finally got to the “flat” part. But I quickly realized it wasn’t very flat after all. Instead, it was more akin to what I’d imagined the first two kilometers would be like — a steady uphill slog.


I knew we were near the rim of the crater when the smell of sulfur hit me in the face. I checked my watch — 3:45 am. We didn’t have much time to climb down to the crater.


The descent to the crater: Hiking Ijen, Part II


The worst part about hiking Ijen is even after you reach the top, you haven’t even begun the hard part yet. No, the trek up the paved road is tough. The descent to the crater is in a whole other league.


This is where I have to say, I am so glad I went with a group, with a guide who kept us together and looked out for us, for hiking Ijen. While it’s possible to go on your own, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a) an experienced hiker, b) comfortable hiking at night, c) have no fear of heights, d) have real hiking shoes with good traction, and e) don’t depend on glasses for vision (more on this in a moment). Tourists have died and been seriously injured here fairly recently, so it’s worth taking extra caution. I wouldn’t even consider it in rainy season.


The hike down to the crater consists of a series of switchbacks straight down the crater rim. The path is gravel in some places, while in others it’s closer to a rock scramble. But what makes it difficult is the plumes of sulfur that the wind blows into your face every couple minutes. If you get lucky (and we did), it won’t be too bad until you get near the bottom. Others who hiked on different days said it was overwhelming the whole time.


At the beginning, it was slow going. But we were still high enough up that the sulfur didn’t impact us. We scrambled over a couple larger rocks and busted our knees on some extremely steep descents. I slipped and tumbled 10 meters on my butt.


The lower we descended, the harder it got to breathe. I could really smell the sulfur, and my eyes were stinging from it. So I decided to try the gas mask. As it turns out, breathing into a gas mask causes your glasses to fog up. So now, not only was I attempting to navigate this treacherous path in the dark — but I couldn’t even see two feet in front of me! Since I’m all but blind without my glasses, I had to take it extra slow and hope not to tumble to my death.


The Blue Flame and Crater Lake


My best attempt to capture the Blue Flame. It looks cooler in person, I swear.
My best attempt to capture the Blue Flame. It looks cooler in person, I swear.


At this point, you might be wondering why on Earth someone would clamber down this path in the dark. The answer? I had to see the Blue Flame.

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And there it was — waves of blue coming out of the sulfur cloud. It was hard to get a good view, as the cloud kept covering it. And forget about photos (you’d need some serious night photography equipment to really capture it). The locals aren’t kidding when they say you need to get there early. By 4:45 — well before the sun appeared — the residual light was sufficient to hide the flame.


At this point, my group had to make a choice. We could rush back up the side of the crater rim in order to catch the sunrise. Or, we could explore the sulfur mining and visit the crater lake for sunrise. I for one was none too eager to tackle the gravel path again so soon.


Jen brought us around the side of the sulfur cloud, where the miners actually work. We saw a few men hauling chunks of sulfur out of the ground. Another group was working a hunk of mineral into a souvenir to sell tourists. A third had set down his baskets and was being entertained by the white guys trying to pick them up. Jen explained that despite the fact that sulfur mining is hard, manual work for very low pay, the locals are extremely resistant toward bringing in any sort of automation. Any job — even one which virtually guarantees a life expectancy shorter than 60 years — is better than no job.


The miners work at night to escape the heat of the day, so they started the hike out as the sun started to rise. That was our cue to head to the crater lake. Luckily, it was neither far nor uphill. And we were rewarded with the view we’d all been waiting for — that moment convincing us that hiking Ijen was worth it.


The trek out


The path back up to the crater rim
The path back up to the crater rim (those lights are hikers’ headlamps)


We hung around the crater lake for about an hour. It changed colors as the sun rose — really indescribably beautiful. But then it was time to head back.


You’d think it’s easier to hike in the daylight. But in reality, now that the sun was up, we could clearly see the gravel path we’d come down — and it looked all the more daunting.


It took another hour to hike back up (with plenty of stops for photos along the way). The landscape was really amazing — the sulfur paints some of the rocks yellow, creating this otherworldly, technicolor look. But the higher you get, the more misty it gets, until you reach the top — where you can see almost nothing.


The walk down was uneventful. The path was so steep that it turned my knees to jelly — I almost think it’s harder to hike downhill sometimes. It took about an hour, through what we could now see was a pretty alpine forest.


Then, it was back to the van, an hour-long drive, and an incredible breakfast at Kampung Osing Inn. I packed up and jumped on the ferry to Bali before 10 am.


All in all, not a bad way to spend a night? A morning? Whatever…a few hours in East Java.


Have you climbed Ijen? What did you think of the hike? Leave a comment!


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6 years ago

Maybe get a ticket next time and you won’t be forced to pay more than it actually cost? lol
At any rate, the hiking experience sounds amazing. I’d probably die from exhaustion, but I’d still try to make the trip!

6 years ago

Oh, what a view from up there! I’m sure it was exhausting, and you’re so right, it was worth it! To tell you the truth, I’ve never considered this as a “must see” if I go back to Indonesia, but you got me thinking. Sounds like one great adventure I’d be proud of! 🙂

6 years ago

That bus trip sounds absolutely horrible. The predawn hike looks totally worth it for the views.

Candiss | Lost Not Found

Wow! What an intense hike! I bet seeing that blue flame was pretty cool though even if it was a crazy few days for you!

6 years ago

That was a bad bus incident which could have easily ruined your trip. Fortunately everything went nice in the end. The view is so beautiful!!

6 years ago

Wow what an experience. The bus ride would have scared me. It is really impressive you didn’t give in to their pressure that easily. The blue vapours amaze me, I want to see them for real now.

Carol Perehudoff
6 years ago

You’re crazy! I would have slept for a week after the nightmare bus ride and AND after the hike. But what a great story. I’d totally go all out to see the blue flame.

Paige Wunder
Paige Wunder
6 years ago

I feel like my sympathy-level for the bus ride is pretty low, since you snuck on. It’s still a scary thought being thrown out, but that is technically theft. Luckily, it worked out well and you got to see a beautiful view.

6 years ago

I would have needed way more than a pack of Oreos and no sleep to get the strength to do a hike. Glad you were able to push yourself though. I would have most likely zoned out from exhaustion.

One Girl: One World
6 years ago

What a incredible story! I’m not sure I could handle this hike but it sounds like it was worth it in the end. That bus ride would have freaked me out though!

6 years ago

Hiking a volcano is really amazing and that blue flame is wow! I too would love to take this hike. But yours description clearly states that it is not that easy. Still will try with guide. Loved your pictures.

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