– JUNE 25, 2015
Our day began at 12:30am. Yes, its early. But we need to be dressed, packed, checked out of the hotel, and on the road by 1:00am. You have to start early if you want to climb an active volcano like Kawah Ijen. It is unique in the world of volcanos; it has blue flames. Sometimes these flames reach 10 feet high! Men brave the flames to earn a living mining the sulphur that the volcano produces. There are only two places in the world where blue flames like this can be seen and this is one of them! To get a view of those blue flames you need to arrive in the middle of the night as they cannot be seen once the sun rises. An unbelievable sight when weather is good.
With our group of 12 we load into our van and head out for an hour long drive before beginning a 2 hour hike climbing to a height of 2800 meters. We arrive and meet up with our 2 guides who lead us to the trail. It was dark. Our headlamps were invaluable. We climb up the steep path, resting every 20 minutes. At about half way up the distinct smell of sulphur fills the air and the guides begin giving out gas masks. We brought our own masks for occasions like this. We try out theirs as well as our own and stick with what we brought. We breathe deep as we climb higher and the air begins getting thin. The smell leaks in no matter how tight you make your mask.
In the darkness, we reach the top rim of the volcano without even knowing it. We make our way down the most steep, dangerous, rough, rocky path in the world down the inner wall of the volcano. Our eyes begin to water, our lungs tighten and nose burns with the intensity of the sulphur fumes that come from the crater floor. It is windy but we pay no attention focused on the care we need to take as any accident means certain and unseen demise. We carefully step down the path, hugging the crater wall to let the miners who work here pass by with their brimming bamboo baskets of bright yellow sulphur on their way up. They carry about 25kg or 55lbs in their baskets making about just over one Canadian dollar per trip and they only make about 3 trips a day. A 2 hour hike up to the top, a 15 minute walk down the crater, fill the basket, and 25 mins up the crater. They make as many trips as possible to fill small carts which then takes 90 mins to the bottom of the volcano to deliver the sulphur. They make about 50,000-75,000 IDR or $5-7 per day. Many don’t wear masks because they can’t afford them so they wet small rags to cover their faces. These men, these miners, undoubtedly have the most difficult if not the worst job in the world.
Our group is broken up by numerous other groups doing the same climb, all coming to see the same thing, those blue flames. There is confusion and we reassemble at the bottom of the path on a boulder 30 or 40 feet above the blue flames and the miners on the crater floor. The smell of sulphur rises with our proximity to the vents. As we clamour to get a look it is difficult to see. It’s disappointing really. From the boulder’s safe vantage point all you could see was blackness with tiny spots glowing blue through the yellow tinged smoke that obscures our view. There are times when the wind blows away from us and we can see the blue flames dance high but those are mere moments. We certainly can see the crystal blue sulphuric acid lake that covers most of the crater flood. Below is a photo from the boulder’s edge.
Some hikers are heading down further and we follow. There is another rocky path down to the crater and we climb down to get a better view of the miners and the beautiful blue flames. The wind luckily blows away from us enough to see the ceramic pipes installed on an active sulphur vent and miners working around them.
As the wind direction changes we get inundated with the most intense fumes and we are forced to retreat.
Even the air on the rock 30 feet up while much improved, is still overwhelmingly strong. Your eyes water. Your throat burns. Having retreated to the boulder’s decently aired platform and having hardly seen, let alone photographed, the reason we are here, I stood on that boulder extremely disappointed to say the least. Ken was happy enough to see the flames for those brief moments but my personal disappointment soon turned to anger. I have seen the pictures that are possible on the few good weather days here, as you can see below. The weather may not be cooperating, so it will be far from ideal but I want the best that I can get at this point.
Time is rolling by. The sun will begin to rise soon and with its appearance those blue flames will disappear. I stand watching for an opportunity to see and snap a single, clear photo.
Time passes and our guides call our group to begin our ascension to the top rim. I refuse to go anywhere without getting a good look and 1 decent picture. Ken and I agree that he can go ahead and I will stay and see him up top. After maybe 15 minutes of trying desperately to get a look through the smoke that floods the top of the boulder I am trying to make a plan of what I should do. How to get what I want? Little did I know, Ken told the guide, Nico, that I was still down below and wasn’t going to leave until I was satisfied with what I saw and I could really use some help accomplishing my goal. Nico, came down to me and said he would lead me down to get close to where the miners are working. Nico led me down a tight rocky path off the boulder and yes finally BLUE FLAMES! The wind was blowing the right direction and we could see! Still a little smoky but unluckily we were there when the weather wasn’t cooperative to get the kind of view I wanted, but this will do.
Extremely beautiful. We got about 6 feet away, close enough to feel the heat on our faces. The glow of the blue flames is not from lava of some kind but from the combustion of sulphuric gases. It comes out of vents and cracks in the volcanos crater under high pressure and at a high temperature (up to 600 degrees C). Some of the gases condenses as yellow molten liquid sulphur then cools enough to be broken off by miners. We stood and watched. For those few seconds I enjoyed the most beautiful sight. Gorgeous blue flames danced. Men scurried about. It was shocking how close they get to the flames and most have no masks! So risky.
My seconds of enjoyment ended so abruptly with a change in the wind.
Extremely dangerous. Right after I snapped a couple of shots we are quickly inundated with the most intense, hot fumes straight from the flames. It wasn’t even sulphuric smoke but warm, pure, sulphuric gas. I held my breathe hoping for the direction of the wind to change back. Tears stream down my cheeks, my nose, throat and lungs burn with an intensity I cannot clearly convey. As the gas replaces the oxygen, it burns every mucus membrane like hot airborne vinegar. Sour. Stringent. I wish I could say my gas mask helped at all, that it held out some of the fumes but it didn’t feel like it at all. I doubled over and covered my face in an attempt to stop it from burning. My reaction was to yell. Not from the heat, it wasn’t that warm. Even Nico who has gotten accustomed to the fumes yells, although, rightly so as he isn’t wearing a mask! We are rendered helpless. It is not like any other feeling. We stagger away trying not to trip over the rocky ground. Suffocating. It felt a little like dying. I truly felt we may actually die right there. Not at all kidding. Not in physical pain but more in general agony. You can’t breath. No oxygen. Your eyes stream tears, uncontrollably burning every time you open them. Your airways are tight and burning. Your nose running. I knew then that this was not my brightest moment. We can’t breathe but you are almost in too much agony to do anything to save yourself, like run. How can you run when you can’t breathe? A part of me didn’t want to run. Wanted to wait for the wind to change back but I couldn’t stand it. I yelled for Nico and in the most feeble attempt to flee, he grabs my hand and we run…as much as you could run in the vinegar like environment over the rockiest ground, with our eyesight blurred by burning tears and our path obscured by yellow smoke. We more desperately felt our way along a rocky wall, covered in yellow sulphur dust in any direction away from the vents billowing smoke. Nico covered his face with a thin handkerchief. I couldn’t help but double over and yell in agony every 3 or 4 feet. It was intense. It felt like it took forever but it was maybe only 60 seconds. I actually yelled at one point that I was dying. I paid no attention to my uncapped camera slung helplessly around my neck. I had seen the beautiful pictures that are possible if weather is good and researched the available information on Mount Ijen but didn’t research the effects of the smoke coming out of its core. The reality is that there is some risk of suffocating or being poisoned by the purity of the sulphuric gas. I said it wasn’t brightest moment.
We did eventually emerge in a still smoky but vastly improved area just at the foot of the treacherous path up and I really required a moment to collect myself. I won’t go into detail about the human body’s reaction to this type of caustic gas as it is not pretty to see or read about. I will say that admittedly I paused to vomit a little, clear my eyes, collect myself, put on a new gas mask and we started heading up the rocky path out of this sulphuric hell. I said out loud that this was a very stupid decision. So stupid. How risky was that? With photography you balance the desire to capture the perfect shot with the danger in getting too close to the edge of a cliff or the waves crashing on a rocky outcropping. Nico got me close to what I desired to see and allowed me the time to capture a few shots but honestly we nearly died in the process. On the way up I periodically stop to snap some photos since the sun is now up and you can sort of see the beautiful but smoke filled volcano panorama. My lungs are tight and I felt a little like an asthmatic trying to breathe. A little shocked by the mornings events I got few of the photos I otherwise had planned had I been thinking clearly.
Some of the few moments when you could actually see the crystal blue sulphuric lake shine through the smoke filled sky.
You come across many men coughing with such a deep hack that is obviously from breathing in the sulphuric fumes day in and day out. Little safety protection. No healthcare. For little money.
I had nearly died in the crater, we explored the top rim and the smoke was obscuring much of the beauty that is found here so it is time to go. We have to drop everyone but us at a ferry later this morning and we have a lot of driving to do.
I will never forget today. Never.
Kawah Ijen, extremely beautiful and extremely dangerous, for its miners and its visitors.
For more photos of our adventure go to our flickr account here.