On Friday May 1st Reshma and I flew into Surabaya airport on the island of Java, Indonesia. We were prepared for the 6-7 hour drive described in our itinerary. Unfortunately, this was May day weekend and the heavy traffic resulted in a 9 hour journey broken only by a slightly confusing lunch stop where the food was described in an unusual way (pictures on the menu are so much easier!) and scrambled eggs turned out to be an omelet. The food was good so all was well and we were soon on our way again.
Having driven to the far end of Java we arrived at our hotel at 8 pm and we were told we would be collected again just 5 hours later, so we opted to skip dinner and head straight for bed.
At 1 am the following morning we climbed into a 4 wheel drive jeep and proceeded up a dark narrow road to the base of Ijen. This drive was an experience in itself with no other vehicles around in the pitch dark and only a narrow strip of the front windscreen visible from the back of the Jeep. After a little while I was slumped down in the back seat with my eyes closed trying not to feel sick! Reshma has this amazing ability to sleep no matter how bumpy a car journey 🙂
We started our trek up to Ijen crater, it wasn’t long before we started seeing the sulphur miners carrying the sulphur blocks down the mountain. In around two hours we reached the crater rim where our guide pointed out the blue flame way deep down in the crater, which can only be seen in darkness. Honestly, not that exciting from this far away. It was here that the sulphur dioxide started to become more prevalent. Our guide offered us flimsy paper masks which we knew did nothing to prevent such a toxic gas but it did allow a wet wipe to be placed in front of the nose and mouth to alleviate the smell somewhat. With this ‘safety’ precaution in place we proceeded down into the crater. Maybe 100m or so from the blue flame the smoke was getting quite thick. We started coughing and it was stinging my eyes, at which point I decided I didn’t want to go any closer, Reshma agreed. By now the blue flame was large and clear and we didn’t feel getting closer would really offer us a better experience. It didn’t matter what the guide said, sulphur dioxide is toxic and I wasn’t risking it. He kindly offered to proceed with my camera while we started our retreat away from the smoke back up the crater.
As we picked our way back up the sun rose, revealing a beautiful turquoise blue lake, the yellow sulphur and the smoky cloud. This blue lake is considered the largest acidic lake in the world. This was breathtaking and unlike anything I have ever see before.
All the while the sulphur miners trek up and down with their heavy loads of up to 90kg. I am certain their exposure to the gas must have long term health effects. Some wore a gas mask of sorts but most removed it for the return climb, struggling to breath hard through the fitted mask.
Our decision to turn back early was fortuitous, as soon as we reached the crater rim the wind had turned and the toxic smoke had engulfed the entire crater including anyone still trekking back up the path. The beautiful sight in the crater vanished.
The daylight revealed a rather foreboding sign which we had unknowingly wondered past in the dark at the crater rim. We kept moving retreating down and round the path to escape the gas cloud and made our way back to the car park.
I think anyone considering this trek should do some research into the effects of the sulphur dioxide, especially if you already suffer from asthma or other respiratory issues. I was disappointed to see children being lead down into the crater although I suspect their parents were unaware of the danger. The guides are very reassuring that there is no risk but I think they are also unaware. As with any volcano there is also the unlikely scenario that it might erupt whilst you are inside. This being said even the trek to the crater rim is extremely worthwhile and you can decide if, and how far, to descend based on conditions as we did. Below is a distant volcano.
The drive back to the hotel was more fun now that we could see the beautiful rain forest and the giant ferns, we even stopped for a photo opportunity. Back at the hotel we had breakfast, showered and packed up ready for our 5 hour drive to the Bromo area.
On route the rain started and we saw many locals working away in the rice paddies and school children splashing in the new puddles that formed. The roads here were pretty poor and driving seemed to consist of either standing still in jams or hurdling forward at 100km an hour, quite often on the wrong side of the road. We eventually started our climb up the steep road to Bromo. This area was really stunning, the steep valley sides were lined with farmed fields and rickety huts clung to the hill sides with no apparent way to access them easily.
We were checked in at Cafe lava, around 2000m up the mountain side around 5pm in time for an early dinner and an early night before a 2 am start. Again we climbed aboard a 4 wheel drive, this time for a fantastic drive across the sea of sand. We could later see this was essentially the base of a volcanic caldera. This time there were many other jeeps and a little competition seemed to be happening. Our driver raced over the bumpy sand trying to find a route to cut off the other drivers, it was all pretty fun. We found the mountain busy and had to park on the steep road side. After a short walk to the viewpoint we managed to squeeze into the front row. Our prime position was thanks to a shallow puddle which everyone else was avoiding due to their inadequate footwear. We then realised we had two hours to wait for sunrise so we bounced around trying to keep warm and taking photos of the disappearing moon.
When the sun eventually crept up we realised we were high on the rim of the enormous Tengger caldera looking down to its center. A steady stream of smoke bellowed from the blown off crater of Mount Bromo and we were stunned by the beautiful scenery that had been hiding in the dark for 2 hours.
Below, Bromo is in the front left of the photo billowing smoke and greyish in colour, Mount Semeru is at the back of the photo, Java’s highest mountain.
After sufficient photo taking we squeezed out through the crowds to let others in. Returning to the jeep the driver had to expertly squeeze it through the miles of additional jeeps that had parked up since ours. All the time mopeds with tourists on the back squeezed through any tiny space around us, everyone wanting to get ahead.
After another thrilling race along the sea of sand we parked near the base of Bromo. Many people opted to ride a horse to the base, but we made the 45 minute walk on foot. The whole area was soft black volcanic sand. 250 steps completed the ascent to the Bromo crater. Up close it was very impressive. The base of the crater was far below and smoke bellowed from it’s centre like a snoozing giant. It is in fact only snoozing, it last erupted in 2011.
We continued round the rim on the soft black sand. The valley floor below looked flat and vast and small dunes lined the edged of the caldera. Contrasting with the lush green hills on the outskirts you can see why this is considered Indonesia’s most beautiful volcano.
Eventually it was time to retreat and get back in the Jeep. Breakfast, shower and checkout were followed by a 4 hour drive back to Surabaya airport a good 5 and a half hours before our flight. I am using the time to write this, there is little else to do at this airport!
So often over the last year I return from holiday feeling very blessed and contemplative about these amazing experiences. The poverty of Asia contrasting with the extreme beauty and cultural experiences always leaves me feeling this way. Of course I can never fully understand what living this these places is like, I can only view this world with my own eyes and understanding . This is most definitely a positive feeling for me, I only hope it is one that never leaves me. I hope to never take these experiences for granted. And as for the morning after, well I am filled with that magical power that the mountains always instill in me, for me mountains are like a drug to which I am addicted.