Mount Ijen – Fire and Brimstone!!!

Surely the most impressive sight in the whole of Java?

Ijen crater

Ijen Crater (source: Nat Geo)

Probably our worst nights sleep since arriving in Java. All the guests were early to bed as many were starting out at 01.30 to see the “blue flames”. It is Friday in Ramadan so first the usual prayers over the loudspeakers for a couple of hours then, about 10.00pm the fireworks started! It must have been some sort of special ramadan day. Kids were throwing firecrackers, rockets were being fired and most seemed to be landing on the corrugated iron roof of our room! A couple of hours later it finishes. Two hours more and then the jeeps start leaving for the crater. All hope of any sleep is gone.

At 5.30am on the dot, I open the door and there is Albert, waiting like a sentry. We jump into the car and set off. The previously cheerful friendly driver is sulking (see below for the reason why).  Albert, he just drops off to sleep, yet again.

It is a 3.2 km hike from the base station to the crater which could be tackled by anyone of moderate fitness. It takes most people around 1.5 hours to get to the crater rim as it is quite steep in parts. After around 30 mins the views become stunning, really one of the best hikes we have taken in a long time. We are up above the clouds and looking down upon the valleys and volcanoes. We did consider the 1.30 start to see the blue flames but are really quite glad we didn’t. It was a nice temperature for walking, the sun was on the rise and it was the start of a beautiful day.

Mount Ijen

The big industry for the local people is mining the sulphur from down in the crater. On the way up and down we pass, or are passed by dozens of these miners carrying their loads of bright yellow sulphur in two baskets on a bamboo pole across their shoulders. Each load weighs 55 kgs for which they get paid around $4! These guys look fit. Really fit! But their outward physique cannot possibly reflect what must be going on breathing all those noxious sulphur fumes day in, day out. Occasionally some will ask if you want to photograph them in return for some cigarettes. Really?Sulphur fumes AND cigarettes!!

Albert doesn’t have much to say for himself so I ask him what he thinks his job as a guide actually entails – he considers for a while and replies “to show people the way”. No Albert, you are supposed to tell us stuff about places, about the sulphur miners for example. Clearly this is beyond his remit so I just give up. He then gleefully points out a sign saying we are at 2300m altitude – yes Albert, I can read..

Along the way we are joined by one of the sulphur miners, Ahmed, who, judging by his age, I assume has retired and turned to guiding for a living. He speaks some basic English only but in the two hours or so in his company we learn more about Ijen than we have learnt from Albert about anything in the last three days.

Eventually we reach the crater rim. It is spectacular. By now it is around 8.00am and the sun is just peeping over the rim of the crater. Looking down we can see the bright yellow of the sulphur deposits, the green and blue of the lake and massive clouds of steam coming out of the sulphur. From one minute to the next the view is constantly changing as the steam comes and goes.

It seems a long way down to the crater but as we stand and watch the miners coming up with their loads we ask “how difficult can it be?”. Signs proclaim that it is dangerous and visitors should not enter, but clearly, many do. So, with our new found guide friend, we descend into what seems like the depths of Hades.

Not that bad really, even for someone like me, who hates heights, it is manageable. We stop frequently to allow the miners struggling with their loads to pass by. By now we really are in awe of these guys. They must rate amongst the toughest workers on the planet. All the way down our guide is pointing out the best places for photographs. Like a true gentleman, he assists Carolyn every step of the way, not that she wants or needs his help, he just sees it as his job. He asks Carolyn my name and whether we have children. From then on he refers to me as “Papa Clive”! How you doing Papa Clive, watch your step Papa Clive…

After 30 mins we reach the lake and the sulphur deposit. Incredible to think we are but yards away from liquid sulphur bubbling up out of the earths crust!!

By now the fumes are choking and our guide insists we put on the gas masks he has brought (Albert could learn so much from this guy – or at least he could if he hadn’t stayed at the top!)

We spend around 20 mins at the base of the crater. It is an absolutely stunning experience. We are lucky in that unusually, there is no cloud to mask the views and the steam from the crater clears regularly to afford some spectacular sights.

Time for the long slog back up to the rim of the crater. Surprisingly the knee I damaged in Jakarta is holding up well despite the terrain but I fear I may have problems on the way back down.

Halfway back up one of the miners stumbles and nearly falls only to be caught just in time by my Carolyn. Much to his relief and the great amusement of our guide and his fellow miners who witnessed it. Saved by a woman – how embarrassing!

The trip back down the mountain affords yet more amazing views. The sun is now up and there is less in the shadow of Ijen so on balance, I am glad we decided not to visit the crater in the middle of the night to see the blue flames as we would have missed these spectacular sights. We spoke to a few people who did get up to see the flames but the flames failed to put in an appearance.

Now onwards to Bali – I need beer!

**********The rant*********

Although Ijen was wonderful, we have been sleep deprived every night since arriving in Java three weeks ago.  As it turned out, sleep was not on the agenda here either.    Matters were not helped by the tour company……..

After a 6 or 7 hour drive from Mount Bromo via Probolingo we hit the coast. Not much to see along the way. The highlight was a massive coal fired power station, which, according to Albert, who had briefly woken up at this point, it powered the whole of Java and Bali. Seemed a tad implausible but who am I to argue?

We arrive at Bondowoso and were expecting to stay, as agreed, at the Arabika guesthouse, the best place available. We had sat there in Malang whilst the tour rep “apparently” made the reservation. Imagine our surprise when we pulled up at the Catimore Homestay. Not a Homestay but a coffee factory. We are shown to our “room” basically a run down hovel, no hot water, no sheets on the bed, absolutely filthy, holes in the ceiling and a 1/4 mile walk in darkness from the main area behind a factory building and right next door to the diesel generator powering the factory.  To make matters worse,the homestay/factory gestured to Carolyn to have a “free cup of coffee”.   Most welcome normally, however this was tepid and totally revolting. Madness when the factory was a coffee processing plant and we are surrounded by coffee plantations.

Carolyn is livid and she asks Albert to get his manager that we set the trip up with on the phone. She explains that we don’t like being conned out of the entrance fees (Albert had been paying just the local priced entrance fees for us rather than the “foreigner price” and was pocketing the difference, effectively conning the national park/us out of around $100 each time). The manager doesn’t seem surprised in the least either by the entrance fees con. The bait and switch on the hotel room she of course already knew about as it was she that perpetrated it!

Cut along story short she agrees to refund the cost of our entrance fees and pay for the set dinner but there is nothing they will do about the switch in accommodation. We take the matter up with reception who first tell us that they are fully booked and, after some insistence, they manage to find us another room (still awful but better than the previous one). Albert seems quite pleased that we have got it sorted, although he had no part in the solution. He then says to me “don’t worry about me, I will sleep in the car tonight”. I reply “Albert I don’t give a sh** where you sleep”. We agree a time of 5.30am to leave for Ijen in the morning, half expecting him and the driver to do a runner and leave us stranded!

The bathroom in our UPGRADED room.

The bathroom in our UPGRADED room.

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