Discovering Indonesian volcanoes is a real adventure and one of the most challenging and gratifying things to do in the archipelago. Belonging to the Ring of Fire, which is an area in the Pacific Ocean where a large number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur, volcanoes in Indonesia are among the most active in the world.
Indonesia is spread nearly over 18,000 islands (it’s similar to the United States in size). The country is sitting atop three busy tectonic plates: Pacific, Eurasian and Indo-Australian and it‘s home to 147 active or dormant volcanoes, so being around a volcano is something that happens even if you don’t really try.
Once I realised how unusual this was (it’s not like I can easily hike tens of active volcanoes in Europe), I’ve jumped at every possibility of visiting them.
I wanted to go to Ijen ever since I saw spectacular photos that come from that volcano. Kawah Ijen is one of a kind as inside the crater, there’s sulphur mining operation where every night and day dozens of men work on getting the purest form of sulphur, which often ends up in your face creams (I hope I surprised you a bit with that).
Even though Ijen is located close to the eastern side of the Javanese coast, meaning very close to Bali, it’s still a mission to get there as travelling Indonesian roads is very slow and you cover the distance of about 40 kilometres in one hour.
Ijen is also known for blue lights, which are an outcome of burning sulphur forming lava-like rivers of light. This phenomenon occurs at Ijen all the time but it can be observed only during nighttime when the world around is dark. Gases emerge from cracks in the volcano and when they come in contact with air, they ignite sending blue flames up (you can see and incredible image of this here).
An active volcano, sulphur mine, captivating workers, blue lights – it seems that there are already enough reasons to see Ijen, so what will you say if I add the biggest hydrochloric acid lake in the world to this list?
If you fall into this water, the acid will break down your body tissue in 15 minutes. Please, don’t put your fingers in the lake to see if my writing is right.
Kawah Bromo has a special place in the religious landscape of Java and the volcano’s name is derived from Brahma – the Hindu God of Creation. Bromo’s area inhabitants, the Tengger people, are unique in this Islam-dominated island, as they are the direct descendants of the Majapahit empire princes, who ruled Java and South-East Asia until the end of the 16th century.
Myth and reality are tightly intertwined at Bromo and the notion of appeasing Hyan Widi Wasa, who punished a royal couple for not keeping their word after receiving a divine blessing, is still very much alive.
Princess Roro Anteng and her Brahmin husband Jaka Seger went atop Mount Bromo and prayed to Hyan Widi Wasa for children. The God promised them twenty-five offsprings but on the condition that the 25th child would be sacrificed in the volcano’s crater.
When the last child came in this world, his parents didn’t want to part with him and Hyang Widi Wasa showed his anger by having Mount Bromo ferociously erupt and swallow the last child anyway, causing fear, damage and havoc to the surrounding area.
It seems that the Tenggers did learn their lesson and now once a year they pilgrim to the sacred grounds to appease the God and the volcano sacrificing money, goats, chickens, rice, vegetables, fruits and flowers.
How do I get there?
I hope that by now I got you excited about Ijen and Bromo. For a few months, I’ve been thinking how can I fit this trip into my tight schedule. Organising everything on my own would be great but very time-consuming. You must understand that travelling in Java is unlike anything else.
I decided that this was a trip I wanted to do swiftly, which meant that I needed someone else to organise everything.
In Bali, I see many ads about 24-hour trips to Ijen but the tricky part is to choose the right company, which will ensure that you have a great experience. I had a look around and decided to go with IndoTravelTeam. I talked about my needs and desires to the owner, and decided to visit Bromo and Ijen during one trip, which would only take 3 days and 2 nights.
Are you up for an adventure?
“Are you up for an adventure?” was the opening sentence of the information materials I got from IndoTravelTeam, and really, if you know anything about me, that’s the question that never needs to be asked.
We set out from Bali at 6 AM, got a ferry to Java and arrived at Bromo just after the sunset. The ride is a bit intense because you spend many hours on the road, but that’s the part of the beauty, isn’t it?
IndoTravelTeam chose an unusual route to get us to Java. If you know something about driving a car in Bali, you’ll know that the national road along the western coast is a dangerous nightmare. You travel very slowly in dense traffic with truck drivers going at full speed, not giving a shit whether they cause an accident.
Instead, we went through the mountains to the North, using empty roads and enjoying beautiful views.
The night at Bromo
As soon as we arrived at a village near Bromo, our guide, Pierrick, opened an extra luggage and invited us to take whatever warm clothes we needed. At this point, our altitude was nearing 3000 meters, so the air was much crisper than at the sea level. Also, a local peddler came with thick hats and scarves and we had a chance to stock up on warm accessories.
After that, we went to dinner and Pierrick briefed us about what was to happen next, emphasising that we should get as much sleep as possible because we had a busy day ahead.
The local accommodation is a part of the adventure and if you travel around Indonesia avoiding the mass tourism places, you’ll soon discover that things we take for granted in Bali, are not the same if we venture further. The houses have no heating, so it’s rather cold but I really love how it adds to the overall experience. On the top of that, being able to peek into daily lives of the local people always leaves me very thoughtful.
The chance to see sunrise was one of the most exciting things about this trip. I’m more of a sunset person, if you know what I mean.
We started at 3:30 AM and travelled to Bukit Cinta View Point from where there’s an incredible panorama view of Bromo and Semeru – another active volcano that belches steam now and then.
Slowly, from the surrounding darkness, the shapes of volcanoes started emerging from an electrifying, savanna-like landscape. The more sunlight we got, the better we could see all the crevices in the volcanoes’ structures. This view is breathtaking. You can see thousands of photos of this area but nothing will prepare you for how amazing it really is.
Walking on the Moon
After we enjoyed the sunrise and snapped millions of photos that will never be seen, we hopped into our jeep and went over to the bottom of Mount Bromo. There, tens of horse-riders appeared as soon as we arrived, offering to take us to the feet of Bromo.
It was alluring and could be romantic if it wasn’t for my size. The horses are only a little bigger than ponies and I’m rather tall. Also, I’m not fully convinced if the animals were being treated well, so all in all, I preferred to use my legs.
Walking towards Mount Bromo and climbing the volcano (an easy climb of some 250 steps), we were surrounded by moon-like views. This place is so graceful, majestic and photogenic that it made my head spin.
I walked on the edge of the crater, clouds of steam coming up. Looking down inside it, I was reminded how fragile human life was. We don’t stand a chance in the face of natural forces, but it goes even further than that.
From the stories of people falling down the crater while trying to get the best selfie shot, I felt that natural selection found new ways of reminding us who rules this planet. With this in mind, I did pay attention to where I was walking, unwilling to prove my own theory.
Ijen next in line
After experiencing the beauty of Bromo and the Tengger Caldera, I couldn’t wait to discover Ijen. The images coming from Ijen are some of the most captivating and if Bromo was so gorgeous, what was to come next?
From Bromo, we went back to the village to get our belongings and have breakfast, and we were back on the road in no time. Half-day of riding took us two hours away from Ijen. We checked into a hotel around 4:00 PM and were advised to rest as we had to continue the trip before midnight.
We entered the Baluran National Park at about 2:00 in the morning. The parking area was already getting busy as most of the hikers go up the mountain at night to catch a glimpse of the blue lights.
We waited for another IndoTravelTeam bus to arrive from Bali with adventurers doing the 24H Ijen trip. Soon after they joined, we were ready to set out. Pierrick gave us headlights, gloves and gas masks. It was obvious that safety comes first – a notion that continued through Henri, a guide who took us up the volcano and down into the crater.
The walk up Kawah Ijen is short and easy. As we neared the top, the air was getting rich with the scent of sulphur. The world was still shrouded in darkness and we couldn’t see much of the surrounding area. Despite that, the walk down the crater was not very challenging, with many headlights along the way. It seemed that some mineworkers were instructing the hikers and whenever there was a carrier walking up with heavy baskets full of sulphur, a shrill call pierced the air and we all jumped out of the way.
The marvel of Ijen
When we reached the viewpoint, which was right above the sulphur mine, the blue lights were flickering through steam and gases. We sat down on the edge of a precipice and just enjoyed the moment. It really is a view-to-see and if you get a chance to do it once in your life – you’re lucky.
As the crater become brighter with the rise of the sun, I gradually discovered the views inside the volcano. The colours and textures were one of a kind and being able to appreciate them in person, was an incredible experience. Our planet is very beautiful but sometimes it’s easy to forget this, especially when we succumb to the everyday life.
Moments of utter beauty remind me to look for magic in the small things. Trips to places like Kawah Ijen and Bromo are some of the best presents you can give to yourself and if you have a chance – do it. The key to joy and happiness is always within us and we have full access to that, but allowing time and making the effort for special experiences of this kind is like charging a battery, making sure it will operate for longer.