If ever there exists a hell which has pink beds of cloud, mother-of-pearl sunrises, a shocking blue-green lake, coffee plantations, and stunning electric blue dance of fire, then it is definitely called Ijen Plateau. As surreal as Bromo’s Martian landscape was, it is compared nothing to the Ijen Plateau which seems as wild as a madman’s imagination. Though the journey from Cemoro Lawang to Ijen was tediously long, with bad roads and terrible driving, it added to the entire adventurous experience. In fact, the adventure of Ijen Plateau starts with the journey. It is a remote destination with such poor public transportation and accommodation facilities that most travelers choose to give it amiss. However as the old adage goes, “beauty comes at a price” Ijen Plateau is without a doubt, worth all the pains and groans. Home of the labour-intensive much controversial sulphur mining operations and the fabled “Blue Fire”, this Javanese destination is undoubtedly the most beautiful hell imaginable.
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Visiting Ijen Plateau is like a journey to hell
A vast volcanic region, dominated by the three active cones of Merapi, Ijen and Raung, Ijen Plateau (or Kawah Ijen as it is also famous as) is one of the most isolated places in Indonesia. While it is a mesmerizing place, the drive to reach there was a tough one. It was the second leg of the Bromo trip and the long trip made our group irritable and bone-weary. By that time, we had already spent three days in the cramped uncomfortable minivan and the adversities of traveling to isolated places in Java started taking a toll on us. Scams riddled our wallets and we started getting edgy with most locals who approached us with a smile. Ijen’s isolation and wilderness made matters worse and I remember cursing my decision when our minivan broke down for the umpteenth time in the middle of dense sugar cane fields. I hated those moments because the drive extended into a few more bone jolting hours and respite seemed further and further away. However, Ijen Plateau was known for its difficult accessibility and all of us in that group were fully aware of this fact when had signed up for the tour. So, we soldiered on for hours somewhere in the middle of east Javanese wilderness and with each passing moment, prayed that our destination got closer. The last stretch of the journey especially seemed to go on forever and we requested our minivan driver to stop after every half an hour to stretch our aching backs and legs. It was also wildly beautiful outside and the isolation made us want to go out and explore.
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The wild Java country and base camp of Jampit
Beautiful varied ecosystems tumbled into one another and the whole region seemed to have its own unique microclimates. Tropical vegetation tangled in a dark, brooding manner and gave way to casuarina groves, coffee beds, strawberry farms, and cloud forests. Cold misty air enveloped us in a soft embrace and it smelled of wildflowers, sap, and strange fruits. It was late evening when we finally reached the secluded village of Jampit and darkness fell around us like a thick blinding fog. It was so dark, that we could not see anything beyond our little pools of blazing light and noises of thousands of night creatures saturated the air. Nothing could be seen and absolutely nothing man-made could be heard. Jampit, a jumping-off base for Ijen Plateau hike was actually in the middle of nowhere. In 2009, at the time of my visit, it had no mobile or internet connectivity and electricity too was erratic. The Jampit hotel standard as expected was dismal and damp rooms, dirty toilet, lack of hot water, and scratchy bed linen guaranteed sleepless nights. The complimentary buffet dinner, however, was sumptuous and it was rounded off with generous helpings of luwak coffee.
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The world’s most acidic lake is the miners’ office
The next morning turned to be an eye-opening one. I came face to face with the reality of Ijen’s sulphur miners dismal working conditions and felt ashamed of complaining about my hotel bed, food, etc. I realized that while I had the luxury to forego all the material difficulties faced at Ijen Plateau by canceling the trip, there were people for whom that was the only option available. The historically active Ijen volcano contains a nearly 1-kilometer long acid lake which produces pure sulphur. Highly demanded by the fertilizer and oil refining companies, the crude method of mineral extraction at the Ijen crater probably defies all human rights acts, yet the practice still continues. A magnificent turquoise circle cradled by the sheer crater walls, Ijen volcano acid lake is as beautiful as it is treacherous. The breathtaking beauty of its deep aqua blue colour contrasting with the yellow gray barren crater walls entrances its viewers, but the deadly water has PH level which can dissolve metal into nothing in a matter of minutes. Known as the world’s most acidic lake, Ijen miners defy death, serious health hazards, treacherous terrain, and human levels of tolerance every time they go down the crater. Their days start before dawn and they hike up and down (twice/thrice a day) 2800 meters to the crater lake carrying 90 kilograms of hand-collected sulphur on their shoulders. It is one of the world’s toughest and poorly paid jobs and the lake can instantly kill anyone unlucky/reckless enough to fall in.
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The hike to the Ijen crater lip
Our Ijen Plateau hike started early. After registering ourselves at Pos Paltuding we slowly hiked up to one of Indonesia’s most enigmatic volcanoes. It was a moderately easy hike, with broken trails, dirt tracks, and beautiful views. Hardly any facility could be found throughout the trail except for one refreshment shop and even the WC signs pointed out to the wilderness around us. Volcanic cones towered around us as we hiked high above the fluffy beds of pink clouds and the sunrise shaded everything in blush hues. The steep hike and broken path made us pant and grunt, and at breaks, we stared in amazement at the miners who trudged past us bearing heavy loads of pure sulphur on their shoulders. The landscape became more and more barren, as we had climbed higher and soon the smoking lip of the crater could be seen. The highly active Mount Merapi stood behind us and we stared in aghast at its completely burnt out, ash grey slopes. Merapi’s explosion in 2006 destroyed the vegetation and life along its paths and the chilling reminder of nature’s fury made us hike faster. I remember feeling strangely afraid and a bit vulnerable because it is true that all our defenses fail against the fury of nature. To distract myself from the active Merapi volcano, I stared down the crater railings at Ijen’s sulphur pool. The famous blue-green billowing lake looked tantalizing and I trudged down for 30 minutes to walk to its shores.
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Production of sulphur inside the Ijen crater
Treading along the narrow treacherous path was not been easy and the lack of a local guide made it harder. At places, the path was too narrow for two people to pass and I had to plaster myself against the crater wall to let the miner trudge ahead. In spite of their hard work, the miners were a friendly bunch and I followed them to the lake. Thick burning smoke and breathlessness met me harshly upon the arrival of the lake and I watched the calm blue water look deceptively sublime. Smoke billowed out from it and in spite of my face mask, I found it hard to breathe. In a matter of minutes, I gasped, choked and retched while the miners around me diligently scooped out fresh sulphur from the volcanic gases that were collected in ceramic pipes. The gases were allowed to escape into strategically placed pipes for condensation, where they liquidity before forming hard sulphur. The bright yellow, a bit oily to touch residues are in great demand in cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and the Ijen Plateau battlminers collected them using the most rudimentary tools. It was this harsh, nearly deadly working condition which placed the Ijen miners into eyes of human rights controversy storms for ages, but strangely it was they who protested against the modernization of their environment.
And a scandalous human rights violation battle
Their dangerous profession brought them a paltry sum of a few hundred Indonesian Rupiah (not even 1 USD) per hike but the fear of losing their precarious livelihood to modernization in a strange wild country, made them climb down into the belly of the deadly beast twice/thrice every day. With only a damp cloth or sterile face masks covering their nose and mouth for protection against the burning acidic fumes, the miners toiled relentlessly through generations in a most death-defying manner. It was this dramatic and sometimes tragic combination of stunning moon-like beauty of the region with human pathos and absolute wilderness that made Ijen so lust-worthy. Nothing attracts human attention more than tragedy and/scandal and both usually have lots of beauty involved. Sure enough Ijen Plateau too has its share of a huge amount of all three and I left it, not wanting to return.
The eerie “Blue Fire” of the Ijen Plateau at night
After coming back to Jampit, I had contemplated staying longer in Ijen to experience the fabled “Blue Fire”. First captured by the Paris based photographer, Olivier Grunewald, Kawah Ijen is famous for the electric blue fire streaming down its slopes at night. Often misinterpreted as lava, the combustion of sulphur, upon contact with air creates the blue lava-like rivers of light inside the Ijen crater and miners often work under the eerie blue light at night to escape the day’s heat. Although active throughout the day, the darkness makes the blue light visible. Grunewald lost quite a few cameras and lenses while attempting to film the “Blue Fire” inside Ijen and had barely managed to stay there for more than a few minutes. His scary experience with the scarier thought of going down to the acid lake alone at night made me give up the reckless wish and I had Ijen Plateau, knowing that I will never see it again in this life.
Ijen Plateau Travel Tips
How to Reach
By public transport – Ijen Plateau is accessible from both Bondowoso and Banyuwangi. The trailhead to Ijen starts at Pos Paltuding. Banyuwangi is closer but expect bad roads and poor transportation. Pos Paltuding is 64 kilometers from Bondowoso and public transport won’t bring you that far. From the bus terminal in Bondowoso, you can get a minibus via Sempol to Blawan/Kaligedang. The bus leaves around 11.00 o’clock in the morning and it takes about 3 to 4 hours. It takes that long because it is a very bad road. At the terminal, you can ask for the price. It should be around Rp. 15,000 per person.
By hired car or motorbike – If the time or the mode of transport doesn’t suit you, you can hire a car or motorbike to you anywhere in the plantation. A car will cost you around Rp 400,000 till Rp 600,000. By motorbike it will be approximately Rp 150,000 – Rp 200,000. From anywhere in the coffee plantation you should be able to find someone who will take you the approximately 15 kilometers to Pos Paltuding, either by car of at the back of a motorbike. At Pos Paltuding there are usually a few motorbikes to take you back or on to Banyuwangi. The minibus back from Blawan/Kaligadang to Bondowoso leaves around 06.00 in the morning.
Where to Stay – Kawah Ijen is closer from Banyuwangi than from Bondowoso, but the road is very steep and has deteriorated badly. A 4WD is essential. If you want to rest the night before climbing to Kawah Ijen, then opt between Banywangi and Licin instead of in the plantation. But spending two nights in the plantation is really worthwhile if you are interested in the way of life in Indonesia and at a plantation. A minibus from Banyuwangi will take you as far as the village Licin. In Licin, you can spend the night in Ijen Resto & Guest House or in the luxurious Ijen Resort and Villas. You can hire a 4WD or a motorbike at Licin. If you rent a car in Banyuwangi to bring you to Pos Paltuding it will cost you around Rp 550,000 till 600,000. By motorbike it will be around Rp 150,000 to 200,000. At Pos Paltuding there are usually a few motorbikes to take you back or on to Banyuwangi.
Things to remember before visiting Ijen Plateau – Hikers are required to register themselves at the PHKA Office at Pos Paltuding before beginning the one and half hours hike to the lip of the crater. Another nearly 30 minutes hike is required to go down to the lake and a local guide is recommended as the path is steep and toxic fumes make the descent very dangerous. It is to be noted here that officially going down to the lake without a guide is prohibited (signboards are scattered all around the crater) but the rule is hardly followed. Visitors can buy handcrafted sulphur souvenirs from the miners to help their conditions a bit. The dry months from April-October are best recommended for the hike. Those wanting to experience the blue fire, please be pre-warned about the extreme conditions prevalent there. Taking help of the local miners as guides are absolutely recommended for those wanting to go down by the lake at night. For more details check out this post.
Where to go after Ijen Plateau – Most travelers leave for Gilimanuk, Bali from Ketapang, after completing the Ijen trip. However, the ancient rainforests of the remote Alas Purwo National Park also make an equally delightful break. For more details check this post. The easier to reach and closer to Bali, coastal forests of Baluran National Park also makes a lovely post-Ijen getaway.
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