I stand on a rocky summit. Before me is a vast pool of aqua coloured water that glows softly in morning light, framed by a thick blanket of smoke, which adds a hint of mysteriousness to its beauty. On 2,799m above sea level, Kawah Ijen (or Ijen crater) is certainly as breathtaking as rumoured. I am flooded with gratification of being able to witness this beautiful scenery. After all, only half of my team make it this far. To travel fast go alone, to travel far go together. I will never have reached this point if I do this hike alone.
Ijen is the first stop of our Labour Day long weekend hiking trip, where we conquer Mount Bromo, the most popular mountain in East Java, and of course the magnificent Mount Ijen, which I’m going to share with you. At 2 A.M. in the morning, our guide hustles us to start moving. We didn’t get to sleep much. Outside is totally dark, no sign of stars or moon so it must be cloudy. At the base of Mount Ijen, we start our hike along with hundreds of others. At first the trek is easy, and rather relaxing. Cheery chatters and casual conversations fill the cold night air with a positive vibe. There is a sense of unity with everyone moving towards one direction. The path has no lights but we have enough lighting from hikers’ flashlights. We must look like a tribe of fireflies from up above, I imagine.
An hour later, our little team of ten start to break. Some can’t keep up and despite the team’s insistence to stay together, nobody wants to be a burden and choose to let the rest go ahead. Another hour later, we lose more team members. The track has gotten more difficult by this time, the ground has grown steeper and rockier. The air starts to smell of sulfur, seeping through our cotton masks and growing stronger as we proceed. With our diminishing stamina, the challenge was clear, to go on or to give up is a matter of willpower.
In the third hour our team is reduced to five persons. We have reached the peak of Mount Ijen, and the hardest challenge of the hike is yet to come. We want to go down to the crater to see blue fire and the lake. This is not an easy thing to do, especially for a novice like me because from this part of the hike, there isn’t a safe track to walk. From here onward it’s full on climbing with two hands as support and you need to watch your feet. The hike becomes intense. I follow the footsteps of the person before me to make sure the rocks are solid and safe to step on. Some parts are seriously dangerous as they are not always protected by railings and you can see cliffs on either sides. It is scary and for the first time I question my sanity of organizing this trip. I obviously did not know what I was signing up for. Nowhere in the tour information said it would be a tough hike. I thought it would be a safe walk throughout like in the first hour, maybe I was too naive – this is a real hike at the mountains after all. Oh well, no use crying over spilled milk, at current situation it’s best to gather my courage and keep moving.
Halfway to the crater we finally see it, the legendary blue fire. It’s supposed to be a chemical reaction of sulfuric excess and oxygen, which can only be witnessed at two regions in the world, here and Iceland. It’s beautiful to see dots of blue fire glimmering from afar, dancing in the dark. They’re too far down though, and sadly beyond the capture capability of my phone camera. Also beyond my personal physical limit. With my energy drained, I cave in and tell the remaining team to go ahead while I rest here. They don’t agree. This place is crowded and the path is narrow, simply not a good spot for a rest. Plus phone signal don’t work deep in the mountains so there’s a chance they’ll lost me. The team decided it’s best for me to move with them, even if they have to drag me. Two boys will provide physical assistance in front of and behind me. I used to read somewhere, going hiking would reveal true personality. I’m glad my friends are genuinely good people with big hearts who offer help when needed, and that they care for me enough to not abandon me.
In retrospect I also see a flaw in my personality. Why was it I hesitated for a split second when they offered help? I already felt so helpless with my limbs feeling like tofu yet deep down I wanted to resist help. I’d much rather be the person to provide help. The way I thought about it, going hand-in-hand with others would double the risk of failure. If that person took a misstep, he’d drag me down the cliff. But I decided to take a plunge, and realized it could go another way, that having company could double the chance of success. The moment I accepted help was a crucial moment when I began to trust and rely on others, which was rather foreign for me.
Dawn breaks. I hold tightly onto my friend’s hand feeling grateful and at the same time sorry to burden him with the responsibility of looking after me. Totally exhausted but highly alert, I think it’s adrenaline that gets me this far. Somehow we make it. Ijen crater’s tranquil lake spread out before my eyes, it’s neon blue-green water so beautiful and surreal.
If you wonder how lovely it must be to take a dip in this mystical water, beware, looks can be deceiving, the water is in fact highly toxic due to sulfuric content. Even with a mask on, I could not prevent the unpleasant sharp sulfuric smell from entering my nostrils, and made it hard to breathe. Ijen crater is a famous sulfur mine. Several local miners swiftly pass by carrying a heaped basket of yellow sulfur rocks on their shoulders. These men deliver sulfur down the mountain, going through our hardships several times through the night, and get paid as low as Rp 900 (or USD 0.07) per kilogram! It’s incredible how people can live and be content with a lifestyle so different from ours.
If you want to learn more about Ijen crater, here is a good article. In the mean time, be sure to check out the rest of the trip:
See you next time!