Kawah Ijen

Fear and loathing climbing to the crater of Kawah Ijen

I was catching my breath as the stream of hikers in both directions were passing the narrow but stony path down to where the famous blue fire was. Hikers in trekking gear while others were in jeans and sneakers. I just didn’t mind the incessant offers of pieces of sulphur and gas mask. All I can think of was if it’s worth the risk considering my condition. It was already past 0430H and our main guide told me that it might no longer be advisable to go down due to the thicker smoke as the clock nears 5 o’clock…

I was quite excited with the trip to Indonesia. When I got the itinerary, jubilant that trekking to Kawah Ijen’s famed blue fire was part of the activities. Will an outdoor sandal suffice? Should I bring my thick jacket? Gloves? I have no outdoor pants, should I bring one? These were the questions I asked in emails I sent to our coordinator, Leya. And before I flew to Jakarta, I was ready for the trek.

Panorama of Kawah Ijen early in the morning. CLICK FOR A BIGGER PHOTO

Panorama of Kawah Ijen early in the morning. CLICK FOR A BIGGER PHOTO

I have been a mountaineer in college and when I already worked as a telecoms engineer. But a knee injury due to running sidelined me around five years ago and from that time till today, I did gained not just a few pounds. The last hardcore trekking activity I had was two years ago, in the rugged fastnesses of the Cordillera part of Abra in North Luzon, chasing a waterfall and adventure for three whole days with no ample preparation. That was a hard lesson that temporarily cause me to limp while walking with a stick but one of the best I had.

As Day 7 of the Indonesia trip progressed, I was actually getting worried, fearful and hating about four things:

  • Cough and colds during the trip and into the run up to the trek
  • Steep ascents and descents might make my knee injury flare up as my doctor who did an MRI of my right knee told me that running or walking on level surfaces is okay but not so much on rugged or uneven terrain
  • I have a case of sciatica wherein walking or moving my left leg sends down a dull pain from the base of my spine and it can really be difficult walking with a limp. A check up with a chiropractor three weeks from this trip found that my left leg is actually shorter by half an inch and I need a series of therapy session to correct the bone misalignment at the base of my spine
  • I’m in no way prepared physically and I just told myself to take it easy, rest and continue at a manageable pace

As we wound our way to Paltuding, the jump-off point for Kawah Ijen, I was already excited but worried at the same time. The temperature was quite low when we reached the jump off point that covering up, jacket, gloves, was the best thing to do. After a few minutes of briefing, we started the trek. I didn’t imagine that the sheer number of people doing the blue flame hike can this be much but judging from the many offroad vehicles parked, there were really a lot, probably in the hundreds of trekkers and tourists!

Tourists and hikers congregate at the viewpoint where you can see the lake but at this early, when the sulphuric smoke is thick, blocks the view

Tourists and hikers congregate at the viewpoint where you can see the lake but at this early, when the sulphuric smoke is thick, blocks the view

The trek to Kawah Ijen is said to take around two hours and another 45 minutes to go down from the crater lip to the source of the flame. The route was leisurely at first, a slow ascent until a portion that got steeper. It was here that I started to pant, catching my breath, coughing in between steps and stops. I just took it in stride. Stops. Rests. And another stop. And rest. Not making a dash as I was also bringing my carbon fiber tripod and camera gear in my backpack.

We’re almost near the crater, I can hear some say and it did give me hope that all these difficult trek will finally end. But the air started to get thinner and the smell of sulphur stronger. I had to don on my thin mask, no, not a gas mask, but more of a simple mask that was provided to us. The farther you go up, the thicker the sulphur gets and it not only makes your breathing difficult but stings your eyes too. It was after the wooden house, a nice place to actually rest and eat and have hot coffee, that it really made more difficult for me. Because of the cough and cold, I had to bend forward to just take deep breaths and fill my lungs. I did this for several times and it did make me worry that this might give me problems once down below the blue flame. This is one of the challenges when you climb Ijen and those with respiratory problems should think again of doing this trek. Once, I fell and almost hurt myself because of some uneven rocky surface which my overhead light wasn’t able to point.­

Posing at the crater :)

Posing at the crater. Despite my condition, I was bringing a lightbackpack, a camera bag and a carbon fiber tripod

The path now started to level and I can see from the distance people and their points of light ahead. The crater! Finally. Coughing and panting, and bending forward to really take a deep breaths. Kind of difficult. It was also a good thing that my knee problem didn’t happen and the sciatica didn’t flare up, but just a little dull pain on the left leg but still manageable. It was just the difficulty of breathing due to the cough and thin air laden with Sulphur that I had to contend with.

I stopped for a few minutes rest. I followed the line, no, the throng of people making their way to and from the blue flame below. I was already quite tired and my feet was aching. One more step. Please. One more step. One more hurdle. One more descent.

A sulphur miner carrying blocks of the element from the crater below

A sulphur miner carrying blocks of the element from the crater below

I was catching my breath as the stream of hikers in both directions were passing the narrow but stony path down to where the famous blue fire was. Hikers in trekking gear while others were in jeans and sneakers. I just didn’t mind the incessant offers of pieces of Sulphur and gas mask. All I can think of if it’s worth the risk. It was already past 0430H and our main guide told me that it might no longer be advisable to go down due to the thicker smoke as the clock nears 5 o’clock.

I took one step. And another. I looked down below. The path was almost not visible except for faint traces of people negotiating the steep descent. And ascent. Forms interspersed with small points of light. I took one deep breath and looked on the the stony steps below me…

An enterprising miner selling sulphur souvenir items along the trail at the crater

An enterprising miner selling sulphur souvenir items along the trail at the crater

Carved sulphur as well as raw pieces sold as souvenirs to the hundreds of tourists and travelers going to Kawah Ijen

Carved sulphur as well as raw pieces sold as souvenirs to the hundreds of tourists and travelers going to Kawah Ijen

If you're too tired to go up or down, this pushcart taxis can help you, for $60 one way.

If you’re too tired to go up or down, this pushcart taxis can help you, for $60 one way.

The descent back to Paltuding gives you this stunning scenery

The descent back to Paltuding gives you this stunning scenery

Another volcano, foggy morning, a stunning landscape. Can you find the hikers in the photos?

Another volcano, foggy morning, a stunning landscape. Can you find the hikers in the photos?

A portion of the crater at Kawah Ijen as volcanic smoke emanates from below

A portion of the crater at Kawah Ijen as volcanic smoke emanates from below

This trip made possible through the Wonderful Indonesia program of the Ministry of Tourism. Check out the official website, or follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. But don’t forget to Like my Langyaw Media Facebook page for updates.

For stories during my WONDERFUL INDONESIA trip, click on the TRIP OF WONDERS tag.

Estan Cabigas is freelance photographer, blogger and writer based in Makati City, the Philippines. A true blue Cebuano, he makes stunning images and meaningful photo stories. His work has been published in local and international publications including National Geographic Magazine, Geo (Germany), Sunday Times Magazine (London) and other publications. He is also a peripatetic traveler and has traveled to all 81 Philippines provinces. I'm open for work, collaborations and inquiries, including hotel, restaurant and site features and reviews.

One Comment

  1. Estan Cabigas (@EstanCabigas)
    September 27, 2016 @ 22:50

    #KawaIjen’s blue flame is not for everyone https://t.co/kgOODY6L3T #tripofwonders #WonderfulIndonesia @indtravel… https://t.co/xpmvF008AL

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