The journey began with an eight hour, non-air conditioned bus ride where three non-Asian sized tourists (that’d be us) squished on a bus seat made for two smaller-than-average-Asian-sized people. Luckily, the bus cleared a bit by hour 3 and we could spread out a little. Heavy emphasis on the “little” because that bus was seriously built with the sole intention of transporting ants.
Then we finally (finally!) made it to Banyuwangi, the easternmost city of Java! We had basically adopted our friend Matej (Slovenian superhuman we previously met at Bromo), so when we didn’t book a room ahead of time we naturally just followed like lost puppies to his accommodation hoping there’d be an extra room for us.
Two Americans and a Slovenian Walk Into a Graveyard…
Don’t worry, that’s not the start of a really bad joke. Or maybe it is. According to GoogleMaps, the homestay was a mile from the bus stop so we decided to walk instead of take a taxi, which in hindsight may have been problematic, but I have a thing for misadventures so it’s all good. Now don’t get me wrong, Google is a glorious thing but I have serious doubts on whether their map makers have ever actually tried to navigate streets in Southeast Asia because it is notorious for having “streets” where there are only fields and “roads” that are actually questionable back allies made of dirt and overflowing with chickens.
We abruptly stopped about a quarter of a mile before the homestay because it seemed we had hit a “dead end.” (Quotations because there was still a highly questionable trace of a trail ahead up ahead surrounded by trees.) We looked down at the map, then looked up at the “road,” then back at the map, and finally at each other. I believe that most people in this situation would say, “hey guys, this doesn’t look right, we should turn around and try the other way.” But no. No, no, no. You get three overconfident and desperately tired travelers together who climbed a mountain at 3am earlier that day and suddenly anything is possible.
A few steps into the journey and I hear laughing, a “what the hell are we doing” sort of laugh that is specifically used for situations where the ridiculousness is so high but your persistence level is even higher. Did I mention it was getting dark, too? But we pressed on, determined.
And then we stopped.
We suddenly realized that we had been walking through a decrepit Islamic cemetery this whole time. Awkward… But because GoogleMaps said the homestay was right there, we keep walking and then… a wall
Literally, there is a wall. And tombstones. And did I mention a wall? While debating if it was appropriate to climb over we heard a voice say, “are you the Slovenian?” to which Matej happily says yes. Mysterious Wall Man then says, “you used GoogleMaps, didn’t you?”
Indeed, we did. Is this possibly a common occurrence for you, sir?
At Long Last…
“There should only be one Slovenian man,” he continues to say, “but I hear three people…”
We explained that we hoped there was an extra room available for the night. Mind you, we are still separated by a wall, in the dark, standing beside a large tombstone and talking to some guy through a large slab of concrete. Finally, I chime in and ask if maybe we could climb the wall and go to the house to discuss all this. “Oh, yes, of course!” he says. So we toss our bags over the wall, heave ourselves up, fall into some mud and a few steps later we are standing on the porch of OsingVacation Homestay.
Not only did he have a have a room, but it was one of the most hospitable places we’ve ever stayed. Beny (formerly known as Mysterious Wall Man) spoke excellent English, played the ukulele (specializing in the “Happy Birthday” song), and made everything possible. When all the motorbikes in town were sold out he even allowed us to rent his personal bike. Plus, his lovely wife, Ani, brought us all fresh coconuts with limes, and since the road to my heart is essentially lined with coconuts, I was one happy camper!
The Moment You’ve All Been Waiting For…
I’m guessing that most reading this came to get information on Kawah Ijen, not to read about late night walks through forgotten cemeteries, and wait no more because that moment has now come!
Everything had fallen into place and we were ready to begin our hike to Kawah Ijen, the world’s largest acidic volcanic crater. After a little late night nap, we woke up at midnight, put on warm clothes, grabbed our gas masks and hopped on our bikes. We asked how to get there and the response was, “go straight.” Thanks, that’s so helpful sir, have you ever cosidered working for Google Maps?
But it turns out that is basically what it was; save for a few turns to leave our homestay, it was the most straightforward route. It is nearly impossible to lose your way, and that’s coming from someone who could make getting lost a lucrative profession.
Our trek began around 2am and we were surrounded by darkness and massive crowds (seriously, stay clear of Bromo and Ijen during New Years). There are three sections of the walk; (1) easy, gentle incline, (2) stupidly steep, (3) pleasant, yet smelly, walk. After about an hour we reached the edge of the crater, which I can only accurately describe as looking across Mordor. I was prepared to finally meet Gollum face to face.
Descent Into Middle Earth
Going down into the crater literally felt like we had reached the edge of the planet after escaping from the impending apocalypse. The fog (smoke?) could still be seen and felt within the immense darkness and it became impossible to tell if it was open sky or a mountainous wall that we were looking at.
Along the way we were passed by local miners bringing up 150 pound loads of sulphur in baskets they heave on their shoulders. Most miners wear flip-flops and work without gas masks, yet will go down and up 2-3 times to make approximately $13 for the day. Many only live to their 50’s because the toxic fumes eventually take their toll, but they do what they need to make a livelihood. To me, that’s absolutely insane. And as a side note, I saw many tourists oblivious to a miner trying to get by, so if you happen to hike here, please give these men the right of way.
Eventually we made it all the way down and were soon face-to-face with the elusive “blue flames” as they danced in the night. Aside from “oh my” and “woah,” the scene left me without words. I really don’t know how to describe it except as an otherworldly sight that needs to be more than just seen, because it must truly be experienced. Sure, you can see pictures of it, but what made it special was sitting amongst lava-formed rocks with gas masks on while witnessing a sight that happens in only this one place in the world.
It was absolutely phenomenal.
Rise to the Sun
With only a two hour time window to see the flames, we climbed out of Mordor around 5am and waited for the sun to rise, which of course was super anti-climactic. What was most incredible was looking down into the place we just were; there’s something spectacular about trusting your environment despite an inability to see while in a black hole, to then having the same place be completely illuminated by the sun and seeing exactly where you just were. In the case of Kawah Ijen, with it’s smoking sulphur mines and fierce turquoise lake, the daytime was almost as incredible as the night.
KAWAH IJEN CHEATSHEET
Where: Banyuwangi, East Java
Before You Go: Organize transportation, rent gas mask (25,000 IDR/$2)
What To Bring: Headlamp, gas mask, jacket (the ride there is really chilly)
Getting There: Ask your accommodation for organized trips, however, if you’re comfortable on a scooter then I recommend renting one (Motorbike: 60k IDR/$4,50; Gas: 20k IDR/$1.50)
Arrival: You’ll be stopped to pay an entrance fee (100k/$7 weekdays, 150k/$11 weekends)
The Hike: Follow the crowds up the steep road then descend into darkness. After climbing out watch the sunrise and wait for the clouds to pass to see the lake (don’t worry, they’ll clear eventually, just give it an hour or so).
Tip to not be a touristy asshole: Please, for the love all things good and holy, please move aside if a miner is coming by, ESPECIALLY if they are carrying a load of sulphur up. You are in their place of work for amusement while they are out there trying to survive, so always give them the right of way.
Note: The above prices are from our stay at OsingVacation Homestay ($9/night), so they may differ elsewhere but only slightly at most.
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