Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Ijen Crater and the Blue Fire

After leaving Gunung Bromo we had another long journey to the Ijen Crater. Frustratingly, rather than staying in the same minibus with the same people then next two days of the trip would involve multiple changes of bus and personnel, and lengthy waits in between without any explanation as to what was going on. It often looked like organised chaos. However, I must confess that it was quite nice to be able to sit back and let someone tell us where to go and when rather than organising everything ourselves as we normally do.

We eventually arrived at our hotel late in the day, and were shown to our room which appeared to be a family's lodging. All of the usual inhabitants' belongings remained in the apartment – most notably a huge stuffed dog, a plethora of baby oil, and a pile of plastic containers filled with a variety of malodorous dried-fish based snacks. The bathroom was a communal open air shack with a tap, a bucket and no door. Apparently the hotel is often overbooked during the high season, so the tour operators rent rooms from the local families nearby to house unsuspecting tourists. Without meaning any disrespect to the family who had vacated their home for the night, it was awful (so much so that a couple of girls opted to sleep on the bus rather than using the local accommodation). Without much choice we went straight to bed in preparation for an early start later that same night. So luckily we weren't in the room for very long.

This trip has involved more mornings that have commenced at an hour starting with a 4 than I had ever envisaged. However, there was no such lie-in this time; we awoke at 12.30am ready to set off to the Ijen crater at 1am! There was some last minute drama, when it appeared there was insufficient room on the bus for everyone. Since we had added this portion of the tour last-minute by way of a conversation with one of the tour staff, our places on the bus seemed most in jeopardy. Not knowing what to do, we decided to simply write the tour add-on to the top of our ticket, which seemed to be the 'official' way of keeping track of who was doing what. Fortunately, this seemed an unnecessary precaution, and our presence on the bus was not questioned.

After a 30 minute or so drive we started to hike up to the crater in the pitch dark with only our torches to assist. Obviously we couldn't see anything of the landscape, however the clear sky and lack of light pollution gave a stunning view of the stars which helped to illuminate the path as we ascended. Why, you might well ask, were you hiking up a volcano in the middle of the night? It's a pretty fair question. The answer is that we were in search of the Blue Fire. The active vent at the bottom of the Ijen Crater is a rich source of elemental sulphur which supports a mining operation. In order to safely mine the sulphur the toxic fumes must be burned off, and only at night are the blue flames from this process visible.

After a couple of hours of trekking upwards in the dark we reached the top of the crater. Looking over the edge of the crater we could see the blue fire some 300m below us. It was...underwhelming. What I didn't realise at that time was that we were going down into the crater. We donned pollution masks to make the eggy fumes more tolerable and started the deep descent into the crater. It was extremely slow going; it would have been slow going in daylight as the descent was steep and the rock extremely loose, but clambering down the slope in the dark meant that only a snail's pace was possible.

The sight that greeted us at the bottom was really remarkable. Through the thick smoke we could see huge bright blue flames. It was a spectacular sight!

Upon closer inspection we could see the miners working in amongst the flames to extract the liquid sulphur before allowing it to cool and harden, then breaking it up into moveable chunks. Astonishingly we were able to go right next to the fire and view the extraction process close-up.

To say that it looked like unpleasant work would be a huge understatement. However, the extraction was just the start of it; the next step was to transport the sulphur up 300m out of the crater, and then down the volcano. The chosen method for transporting the sulphur along this route is two baskets at either end of a bamboo pole that is carried across the shoulders. I have no idea why a more efficient/comfortable method has not been developed. Apparently a full load of sulphur carried by this method will weigh in excess of 75kg (i.e. more than I weigh), and a worker will usually make two trips per day. All that to make about $15 a day!

After spending 30 minutes or so at the bottom of the crater we made our way slowly back up. It was hard enough to climb up the steep and slippy slope without taking 75kg+ of sulphur with us! We then walked for around 30 minutes further up the mountain just in time to see the spectacular sunrise.

Once the sun had risen we were also able to appreciate the beautiful view in the opposite direction, including the view down into the crater.

After sunrise we made our way back down. The journey downwards was much more pleasant because we could actually see what was around us! We could also afford to feel smug in the knowledge that all the people who were walking upwards had missed both the blue fire and a stunning sunrise for the sake of an extra few hours in bed.

The remainder of the journey to Bali continued on the same “organised chaos” basis. After reaching the East coast of Java our bus unsurprisingly did not materialise, and we boarded the ferry to Bali by foot. After reaching the other side we were then directed on to a public bus, rather than the private bus we were expecting (presumably the tour staff for that section of the operation had pocketed the savings). There was still time, however, for further drama – some passengers at the front of the bus witnessed the driver fall asleep for some 30 seconds while driving before they were able to wake him up. The driver was extremely unhappy about the allegation (although, to be fair, I'm often a bit grumpy after a nap too), and pulled over shortly thereafter. Assuming that it was a rest break we disembarked from the bus, only for the driver to storm out of the bathroom shouting at us to get back on the bus and slapping himself around the face to prove that he was awake. Whatever he had done in the bathroom had clearly woken him up!

The driver clearly bore a grudge against his accusers and those travelling with them because when they got off he proceeded to stand on top of the bus and throw their luggage at them. Two Dutch girls whom we had befriended (they had been the ones who tipped us off about the blue fire) and had hoped to meet up with again in Sanur also got caught up in the madness and decided to get off early. We reluctantly stayed on the bus as we had no idea where we were in relation to our destination, or how else we could get there. Thankfully the driver calmed down significantly and even handed our luggage down to us when we got off in Sanur.

Drama over we had made it to Bali unharmed and were looking forward to a long sleep and some beach time. The 3 day trip had been exhausting, however we had covered a lot of ground in a short space of time and had seen some truly amazing sights in the process.

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