Ijen, and The Quest of The Blue Fire

On July 16, 2013 by Niza Zainal


We set off to Bondowoso for another leg of our excursion just after we completed the morning tour to the Whispering Savannah and Bromo. We met Nick and Jeremy in front of Café Lava waiting for their transport to Surabaya; while Loo was nowhere in sight. I remembered he told us the day before that he opted to stay behind photographing the stair trails. After saying our goodbyes we hopped into the minivan that will take us back to Probolinggo. I was chatting with DH when I heard a sound from the back of our ride, and was surprised to see Chris. Eventually he decided to follow us to Ijen, and was actually resting at the back of the minivan all the while.

We reached Arabica Homestay in Sempol when the sun was about to set – after a long, tiring drive from Probolinggo. Dinner that night was simply set meal we ordered from the kitchen – basically fried rice, a small portion of chicken and vegetable soup. At Rp50k per person we found it a bit expansive to our standard.  Knowing that we were somehow in a remote coffee plantation with limited means; apart that we are simple people with simple wants so there was no complaint there. After the meal and small talks it was time for some sleep before leaving for the crater. After all our fellow trip mates decided to see the very much talk-about blue fire of Ijen which requires early climbing; thus only allowing us a few hours of sleep.

We left Arabica for Ijen at around 2.00am, where our driver sped off through the dark via a very bad road. It took about an hour to reach the mountain base, and met our guide – a skinny elderly that was going to take us down into the crater. A retired miner of 20 years, he now runs a small cafe at the base of the trek apart from his part-time guide job.

We started hiking almost immediately as we only had an hour left to witness the blue light. Falling behind, I tried to walk as fast as I could, but barely able to catch up with the others – who am I to compare with those experienced hikers and westerners in our group? They were quite fast too; not to mention they were all tall and have longer strides. What has been an average 2 hours climb to the peak we attempted doing in an hour. It was a race against the time, as the sun was going to rise soon and so our chance of seeing the blue light. To make it worst, I started to feel my right calf twitched with burning pain; a sign of muscle cramps – induced by the cold temperature and my lack of training. And to my shame the track is not that difficult after all; except for the fact that it constantly inclined at 40 to 50 degree all the way up.

After discussing with DH we decided not to pursue the blue fire and climbed at our own pace. It was not in our initial agenda anyway. Chris was so kind and insisted on walking with us, but I urged him joining the rest as I don’t want him miss seeing the fire. With Chris gone we hiked in the dark to the peak, equipped only with a small headlamp to light up the way. But it turned out not a bad decision after all, as we have more time to enjoy the walk and the scenery – which turned out perfect came morning light!


Early morning at Ijen

Merapi was behind us all the time, bathed in blue in the early morning mist.


Ijen is one of the many volcanoes in Indonesia, which has the most beautiful turquoise-green, but acidic crater lake. Reside on the flank of Mount Merapi in Eastern Java, it is home to a local sulphur mining operation and living source to hundreds of men – that carry out one of the most dangerous and gruelling job in the world.


Pondok Bunder

About an hour later we arrived at the workers’ canteen and weighing post of Pondok Bunder. It was just another 1km hike to the crater from here.


We bumped into several miners as we went further up; their sulfur-laden whisker baskets swung as they tramped on the steep terrain. From their swift yet organized steps, balancing those massive chunks of yellowish blocks on a bamboo pole seemed so effortless but in reality a single load could weigh up to tens of kilos. From time to time they eased their heavy burden by shifting it from one shoulder to another, and I couldn’t help to notice skin lesion and muscle disfigurement. Such is the working life of these miners, which making a living simply means constant battle against heavy loads, backbreaking 6km journey up and down the mountain, lethal gas, low pay and permanent damage to one’s health and vital organs.  Everyday they have to choose an unsympathetic and ironic options : To risk their life or to risk not having anything for a day in their life. And we think our job sucks.


Sulphur miner at Ijen

On the way we met this Bapak (it is how they call an elderly man or mister in Indonesia), on his morning routine. Despite the burden on his back he managed a smile for us and made our day.




Approaching the crater. 5am and it was already daylight - too many photo stops I guess!


A choking smells of rotten eggs hit us as we nearing the crater. Beyond the barren ridge lies a beautiful milky blue lake, which color changes to emerald green by the intermittent sunlight. Deceptive as it looks, giving no inkling what-so-ever to its corrosive states.


Man at work. These miners’ laborious tasks begin as early as 3.00am, with a 3km climb to the crater rim and down into the vent where sulfur forms and extracted. Fire is set at the fumarole to melt the sulfur, which combustion produces beautiful bluish flames only visible at night. Noxious fumes fill up the air, and their protection against it is simply a piece of rag used for covering their noses and mouths. The molten sulfur is then filtered, and once it solidifies it is broken into manageable pieces. These chunks of sulfur are then hauled down the mountain for weighing and sold at the nearby sugar refinery (the sulfur is used to whiten sugar, among other things). Typically they make three round trips a day, and that’s for a very small reward.


DH and Chris


Strong man of Ijen. Imagine carrying up to 80kg of rocks up and down a mountain for a mere USD12 a day! And that’s living to them. Suddenly I felt ashamed of myself and of any complaints I ever made about my life.


Yellowish Sulfur


We felt sorry for the miners and the condition they work in, but they have our utmost respect nonetheless. Our sorrow where somehow soothed by the admirable scenary as we went down. Ijen is beautiful indeed, and the beauty is made more meaningful by these courageous men.


Another scenic path


Merapi in daylight


Our Breakfast

Instant noodles and fried egg prepared by Pak Im, our guide at his warung after the climb down. The best breakfast ever!


As I was having my breakfast at the cafe, I observed the miners walked past us with their loads and disappeared from view at the end of the trail, which somehow hidden by thick bushes. I glanced around -  everybody was so engulfed with eating and chatting, and didn’t seemed to notice. I quickly ate my breakfast, and when the next miner passed by I simply tailed him with curiosity. The man I was following smiled when he saw me, and was intrigued when I told him that I want to know where the trail ends. The path lead us to the miners’ quarters – which eventually empty, as most of the miners were on leave for the long holiday (we were on the second day of Eid al-Adha, a second major muslim’s festival in Indonesia).


Here the chunks of sulfur were further broken down into much smaller fragments, using nothing but a primitive tool such as a rock. A lorry will come a few times a day to pickup the sulfur and transported it to the collection base 3km away, where these miners get their pay of the day.


More Miners

Ijen miners. I cannot say how much they inspire me – not only they were physically strong to carry the sulfur, but life’s burden with a smiling face! A strong man indeed is he who could smile and laugh at the face of hardship.


Blue Fire of Ijen

Ijen’s blue fire – as captured by our guide using our compact camera.


So, what happened to our quest for the blue fire of Ijen?

No, we didn’t get to see any blue lights. But it didn’t matter; after all as what Chris jokingly said when I asked him about the fire – “it was blue!”

Not for once we regretted our decision for ditching the opportunity to witness the sulfur burning. Nor will I be able again to see  a grain of white sugar without thinking of all the pain and tears that made them. Our trip to Ijen was not totally vain as so to speak, and we managed to find what we came to seek for and what travel has to offer – an invaluable lesson of life that we will never forget!


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7 Responses to “Ijen, and The Quest of The Blue Fire”

  • avatar

    Instant noodle n telur goreng tu memang best :-)

    Saya baru tahu gunung yg kami nmpk ms ke ijen tu gng merapi rupa nye sbb tnye guide dia ckp lain… emmhh

  • avatar

    Salam. Tumpang tanya, kalau nak pergi sini, kena naik flight turun di mana ya?

  • avatar
    niza zainal

    Wsalam Shezz.
    Tiada airport berdekatan Ijen. Selalunya international visitors akan turun di Surabaya dan dari situ harus mengambil land transport ke Banyuwangi. Perjalanan mengambil masa kira-kira 8 jam. Terdapat satu airport di Malang, tapi buat masa sekarang rasanya hanya untuk domestic flights sahaja, dan perjalanan ke Banyuwangi dari Malang kira-kira 5 jam. Anda boleh juga cuba turun dari Bali, lebih dekat tetapi agak leceh sedikit kerana harus menaiki ferry.

  • Salam Niza,
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience. Very useful indeed as I’m planning my journey to Ijen next year. If I may ask, any particular guide or tour operator service that you could recommend from Surabaya. Thank you.

  • avatar
    Niza Zainal

    Wassalam Olive.
    No, thank you sir ;) I’m always excited getting to know other traveler!
    Cafe Lava (Bromo) where we stayed last time provide the pickup service from Surabaya and tour. You may contact Pak Ecok at +62 819 9916 2219. Another is Pak Hafidz +62 819 3970 6968. If you don’t plan going down to the crater there’s no need to hire a guide, the trek is quite easy.

  • Salam Niza,
    Thank you for the contacts. I’ve so much to ask but following your writing closely to solicit more information :)

  • avatar
    Niza Zainal

    Wassalam Olive.
    No problemo. I enjoy reading your adventure as well. :)

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