East Java, Indonesia. Mike, Dan and I embarked on our hike into Kawah Ijen– a volcano complex known for its mesmerizing electric blue sulphuric fires along the mountains that lead down to a tranquil-but-toxic, azure lake by night. By day, if you make it here to watch the sunrise, be ready to catch your breath because the pink and purple hues from the rising sun are sure to leave you breathless. Oh, and don’t forget your gas mask!
We wake up groggy and heavy headed. The room is pitch black as it rings with the abrasively loud iPhone alarm coming from Mike’s bed. I sit up and stare blankly at the wall, the way you do on a Monday morning when you know you have no choice but to get up. It turns out that going to bed at 9 wasn’t early enough.
We had planned this. We came all the way to this rural town of Banyuwangi just for this one night. We first heard about the Ijen Crater from two Canadian girls we met in Bali. They floated the words “otherworldly” and “incredible” so many times, and I repeated them in my head as I forced myself up from the worn mattress on the floor. Dan and Mike had called the bed, and because the hostel didn’t know how many of us were coming, I was the lucky one who got stuck on the floor. I check my phone again as I hear Mike nodding off and I flip on the fluorescent light to wake him up. Time to go.
As scheduled, our tuk tuk arrives outside the hostel sharply at midnight. It kicks up dust, puttering down the dirt road towards us, headlights blinding me for a second. My heart sinks when I see the size of it. Dan, Mike and I are not small people, and the three of us are going to have to cram ourselves into this small metal box for the next two hours. We climb in, drop our packs on our laps and try to get some residual sleep before the hike.
It doesn’t take long to find out that sleep won’t be an option. The tuk tuk jerks back and forth on the uneven road the whole time, throwing me onto Dan, throwing Dan onto me, and throwing Mike onto both of us. We grab onto the metal handles and attempt to stay in place as the car rocks around for another hour.
After another hazy hour in and out of sleep, we arrive at basecamp. It’s still pitch black outside, save for a few small cottages lit by flickering lanterns and fire pits. As soon as I get out of the tuk tuk, my skin pricks up. It’s freaking freezing. All I packed was a long sleeve T. what was I thinking? Realizing we drastically overestimated our tolerance for the cold, we rush into one of the cottages and haggle with a local lady selling jackets, paying an absurdly high price for an absurdly used jacket. Mike’s is a particular bummer, tattered and torn but just as expensive as ours.
At the instruction of our guide, we grab a cup of Nescafe and warm up by the fire pit before being given our headlamps and facemasks. He tells us he won’t be joining us for the hike but will be waiting at basecamp for us when we return. We politely pretend we’re fine with that before looking at each other confused. How the hell are we supposed to know where to go? He assures us the path is straightforward and sends us off.
Oh my God. What have I done? We’re 15 minutes in and I’m huffing and puffing like a chain smoker. Every step forward is two steps back. The ash and sand from the volcanic rock sinks as we take every step, swallowing our hiking shoes and tugging us downward. It doesn’t take long for me to lose my breath, but I keep on, intent on keeping up with Mike and Dan. I’m having way too much fun with my headlamp, though, sharply turning my head from side to side to check out what’s to be seen in the darkness. It’s genuinely dark. Without light, all that can be seen is a faint blue-ish outline of trees and rocks. With a light, spots light up brightly and clearly, and I’m convinced I’ll see a mountain lion if I play my cards right.
No lions in sight, but we’re quite high now. The ground’s incline mellows to a gentle slope and I can finally catch my breath. I never thought about how luxurious it can be to just walk on a flat surface. Our pace quickens a bit as we regain some of the energy we lost from the incline. The moon is full, and way up here, outside the cover of trees and the shadow of the mountain, we can see for miles. The hills in the distance are lit up by the full moon, and as we turn a corner, my eyes widen. The plane in front of us opens up into a barren path and we can see the lip of the crater below us, billowing with smoke and sputtering out blue fire. Dan, Mike and I, drenched in sweat, seem to be having the same thought. “This is awesome,” I say without even thinking. This is genuinely the first moment I can remember being this floored by nature. Endorphins pumping, I start to walk faster and get ahead of the group as we head down into the crater.
I was wondering when it would start to smell. Having seen volcanoes before, I knew what to expect. Rotten eggs – the powerful, intense and inescapable smell of sulfur. There’s no way around it. I put my mask on, but it turns out to be as useful as Mike’s crappy jacket. As we make our way down, it quickly becomes apparent that no part of this hike is easy. The limestone that makes up the crater swerves back and forth in switchbacks – and it’s sharp. One girl who’s group we caught up with tripped and scraped her shins on the way down. We go slowly.
As we go, it’s impossible not to notice the hordes of workers – local men carrying a yellowed sulfuric rock up and out of the crater. They do this same hike twice a day, I’m told, carrying kilos upon kilos of rocks in woven baskets supported by a flimsy wooden stick that rests on their backs. They sell it to companies that use it for all sorts of things, like bleaching sugar and dying fabrics. The men stop us and try to sell us the rocks, carved into intricate but kitschy shapes. We politely decline and move on.
As we finally get down to the base of the crater, we have to pass by the enormous natural sulfur pipes that pump out the smoke the blue fire burns from. With all the luck in the world, I get trapped in a poorly timed cloud. I can’t see anything. I feel my eyes burning and the years being trimmed off my life from inhaling the fumes. They taste toxic. But thankfully it passes quickly and I run off to meet up with the guys. We stand at the “beach” of the crater, no longer drenched in sweat but now caked with sulfur.
The beach itself is stunning. I can only describe it as Gatorade-esque. It’s a deep turquoise, and it’s perfectly still. But it’s highly caustic and apparently has the same effect on human skin as battery acid, so I keep my distance as I watch a stupidly bold tourist dip his hands in.
The sun is starting to come up and Dan whips out his Nikon camera to catch it shining over the edge of the crater. It’s actually really cool to see the interior of the crater at different stages of the morning. Dark and mysterious corners become flushed with light, and the lake steams as the sun changes its color to a deeper green. Dan, Mike and I take an obscene but expected amount of pictures, soaking up the reward for our strenuous hike.
Dragging our feet, we start to climb back up the crater and make our way out. Everything looks completely different now that the sun’s up. There’s something really quite magical about not knowing our surroundings until morning that made the hike feel mystical and sort of otherworldly. The path really looks nothing like I thought it did on the way up, and I only recognize small landmarks I made for myself. Mike, Dan and I are beaming knowing that the rest of the hike is downhill, and we chat leisurely with a second burst of energy.
We finally reach the starting point, and catch our guide chasing chickens away from the tuk tuk. He asks us how we liked the hike and collects our gear. Mike attempts and unexpectedly succeeds, at selling back his jacket to the lady he bought it from, and we pile back into the car. Tightly packed, reeking of eggs, and covered in smoke, we jerk around the back of the tuk tuk for two more hours, this time having no problems falling asleep.