Friday, 21 August 2015

Sulfur mining at Kawah Ijen volcano

Sulfur mining at Kawah Ijen volcano

Seeing the blue sulfur flames at Kawah Ijen at night was the peg for my trip to Indonesia. If I hadn’t read about this half a year ago I would not have gone to Indonesia. Visa free entry for Germans starting just months before my trip was an added bonus. And fortunately, the departure fee at airport was included in ticket price in spring 2015. Whoever came up with charging passengers in cash in local currency for departure at airport should be hanged – by the balls!

Ijen volcano is extensively covered on various websites (but there is none I can recommend, either excessive advertising or lack of facts or factual errors), but as often the case, information I am looking for is missing, and a lot is copy/paste, hence I will post about my trip.

Saturday 08.08.2015
Train from Surabaya to Banyuwangi. The train goes through Banyuwangi town (stops at Karangasem, but not at Argopuro which are both in town) to bus station and ferry port to Bali some km north of town. At the train station, an officer from tourist information greets me and invites me to their office. I ask about details to go to Ijen volcano and he offers me a tour for 850 kIDR (driver, car and guide including entrance fee) which I book. For another 50 kIDR, he drives me to a guesthouse in town.

Sunday 09.08.2015
Depart 00:27, car and driver on time. Arrive in Paltuding 01:23. Distance 32 km, but winding uphill and from sea level to 1875 m (altitudes from There is a base station with camp site, toilet (fee 2000 IDR), parking, restaurants, probably some basic accommodation. Looks like I'm not the only one going up tonight:

Plenty of other tourists, mainly Indonesians. It is chilly, I wear long trousers and shirt and am glad my guide brought a jacket for me.

When I see large number of buses and cars, it suddenly dawns on me: putting each tourist on a separate car with driver causes traffic jams and pollutes the environment, but creates work. Even if there are two tourists who book the same tour at the same agency, they will put them in different cars. You would have to talk with other tourists before booking or go to a place that offers shared tours. Applies to everywhere in the region.

We start our ascend (with large number of other tourists, I guess there are over 1000 visitors this night) 01:47. There is some kind of check point where my guide exchanges some words, but I don’t see money changing hands so I don’t know if you have to pay entry and if a guide is compulsory.

Even with hiking booths, you have to watch your step (surface is sandy slippery). For 1 mio IDR, you can get a palanquin and four carriers (probably only up to rim, not down to crater).

2:43 I can smell sulfur (pure sulfur is odorless, I mean the smell associated with sulfur), 3:00 we reach the rim of the volcano. That’s 1h13min for about 3.1 km, but you have to go from 1875 m to 2285 m. From rim, you can get first glimpse of blue sulfur flames.

Then down to crater watch your step again, it’s uneven rocky surface. About 700 m, to elevation 2152 m (water level of lake). Most other tourists have flashlight (my guide gave me one, but I don’t need it).

Locals installed pipes to condense sulfur and let off other gases (I’m not sure what it is, neither SO2 nor HCl judging by smell, but very unpleasant to breathe and burns in your eyes). Blue flame on top of picture.

Getting into the fumes is unpleasant and probably unhealthy, but as a tourist, with circumspection and keeping your distance you can stay out of them don’t need a gas mask. On some travel websites you can find suggestion of giving cigarettes to the workers in exchange for taking picture, and in the same paragraph people say how dangerous these working conditions are. ChristianPFC says: while these fumes are unpleasant to inhale, I can’t imagine that they contain any substance that is as toxic and carcinogenic as tobacco smoke.

The crater lake is warm (there are some hot spots where you can’t touch the soil), there is solidified sulfur on the shore and the water is acidic (dip finger in it and taste). 

You can clearly see the blue light of burning sulfur, but it’s difficult to photograph from a distance (Note to fellow travelers: the flame is pale, if you shine a flashlight on it or use flash, it won’t improve visibility.) Only when wind blows the smoke out of line of sight, you can clearly see blue flame, but it's blurred on my pictures due to long exposure time. There are some tourists who climb up to get near the flames, but my guide advises against doing so, and for once I am a good boy and follow his advice.

But from sea shore I spot some blue light, and with good wind conditions I see it is different from the above. Workers are preparing water hose to extinguish flames before they spread, I quickly go with my guide to this place. And there it is: sulfur on rock burning with blue flame without all the fizzing and smoke of the main site. (Again: flashlight or flash largely destroys the impression; I guess the red light is from my camera for focussing.) 

That’s what I came here for. But not long and workers extinguish flames with water. There is unrealized potential! (The effect could be created everywhere: buy a few kg of sulfur, melt it, pour it on stone, let it solidify and ignite it. But don't tell anyone about it, might get you in problems with environmental protection agency.)

Here I had to put on the gas mask (covering nose and mouth, but not eyes) provided by my guide (25 kIDR). On several occasions, the wind blew the smoke in my direction, and I sat there with closed eyes and breathing through the mask, knowing my current physical well-being depends solely on the filter and fit (there was minor leakage, I could smell the fumes).

About 4:55 we leave from crater lake in complete darkness, 5:10 there is already sunlight. (There is a popular spot to watch sunrise on crater rim, but I’m not interested in sunrise). Picture in first sunlight (blue flame still visible):

5:21 reach crater rim and walk to sunrise point.

Sulfur mining site and crater lake from rim:

Interesting vegetation on crater rim:

You can walk around 3/4 of the crater rim, but at the dam it's impassable. Trek back to base camp:

Due to cool temperature (estimated 10 degree Celsius at night), I needed an amazingly low amount of drinking water for the entire trip, about 300 ml in 6 hours.

Judging from pictures I took, number of tourists decrease from sunrise on. If you come during day, you would have the crater largely to yourself (and the miners), but the blue flames would be pale in sunlight.

sulfur mining site:°03'37.9"S+114°14'38.8"E   

There was wild nasturtium, I tried some flowers and leaves, tastes like those in Germany (spicy similar to capers or papaya seeds).
Copyright 2015 ChristianPFC

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