Ijen Crater Trek, Indonesia

Hiking the Ijen Crater was one of our favourite activities of all Indonesia – exhilarating, dangerous, and tough in equal measures – and our first real ‘thrill’ in our time there: an adventure, slightly off the beaten track. But first, to our journey…

After a depressing night in Kuta (featuring the rudest hostel man we encountered on our whole travels, who literally left our conversation mid-questions, riding off on his bike!), we got out of the city and took a local bus to the ferry port for Java, which took us past beautiful rice terraces, with locals smoking away on the bus, the driver picking up packages en route, and a nice local atmosphere – which we’d been lacking thus far, due to travelling in a big group in private taxis and staying in villas. It felt good to be ‘back on the road’ and planning out our next adventures.

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After meeting up with the others, we paid our 30p (!) for the ticket and boarded the one hour ferry to Java, which was full of families and locals, and we star-gazed as the ferry crossed the strait in the dark of night. We were picked up by a guy from our hostel who drove us to our hostel where we were welcomed by our hostel team with arak shots, and briefed about our night trek up the Crater the following evening, which sounded super exciting!

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The next day was spent trying to sleep as much as possible in prep for our overnight trek, and also doing some admin to work out our schedules so we could fit everything in, as travelling around lots of tiny islands requires quite a bit of forward planning (as we discovered in Philippines!) We squeezed in a meal on the local market too, which was pretty average (chicken and rice, essentially) but at the same place we discovered ‘susu soda’ which is essentially condensed milk, fizzy water and rose syrup, and it’s fucking DELICIOUS! Hello diabetes.

So, now to the trek itself. We were giving a full briefing by our hostel team, and given the required gas masks (so we didn’t die of sulphur inhalation!) then driven, in the pouring rain, to our first stop, which was one of his mate’s house who grinds coffee for a living. He treated us all to a freshly-percolated cup of Indonesian coffee, which was really delicious, and probably necessary to keep us awake on the hike! We sat around smoking and chatting, with our ‘guide’ Haddy cracking jokes, and (worrylingly) only THEN did he tell us that he wouldn’t be joining us on our hike! So… we were hiking alone. Into a dangerous crater. That spews out sulphur. What could go wrong?!

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We drove down dark country lanes, feeling a little sick from strong coffee and apprehension, and a little spooked by the eery atmosphere, until we reached the base of the hike at 1am, where we started our trek. The first hour was a steep hike up a muddy trail to the rim of the crater, in pitch black, illuminated only by our head torches. After not hiking for ages, (and smoking too much whilst drinking with my buddies) I found the hike pretty tough, especially as we gained altitude, but with regular stops for water and to regain breath, we made it to the top of the crater. And this was when the real fun started…

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As we’d approached the top, the smell of sulphur had been overwhelming and choked our lungs, so we’d donned our gas masks and paper filters, and prepared ourselves for the climb down into the crater itself. Hiking through the night felt kind of magical in its adventurousness, and the whole thing filled us with jitters, in a good way! As we carefully stepped down into the crater, following a vague path that switched between clearly-signed-trail, to just-scramble-over-whatever-rocks, we were passed by heroic sulphur miners carrying HUGE loads of neon yellow sulphur across their backs, which we later discovered weighed up to 80kg! We moved out of their way to let them pass, carefully trying to make sure we didn’t edge over a rock and fall into the crater!

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The walk was pretty tough, balancing on steep uneven rocks in the pitch black, sweating balls, and feeling like we were choking on our masks (the paper filters creating kind of a water-boarding effect with the sweat and fumes!). Sulphur clouds blew upwards out of the crater, occasionally blinding and choking us when the wind changed direction, and we’d have to crouch down until it passed. After a while we saw an incredible cloud of bright indigo smoke emerging from the crater – the natural phenomenon of sulphur igniting that so many come here to see, and it was beautiful!

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We climbed down further until we were on the edge of the crater, and we watched brave and skilful miners at work at the face of the mine, hacking away through the multi-coloured sulphur. We inched closer to take some pictures, then FUUUUUUUCK! A HUGE cloud of sulphurous gas changed direction and flooded our senses – eyes streaming, noses running, unable to breath. We heard the miners shout ‘let’s go!!!’ and we started scrambling out of the crater, blindly searching for rocks to take us higher up and out of the stream, screaming each others’ names to make sure no-one was left behind.

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After a scary few minutes of running and crouching, we all assembled together, safe; shaken and exhilarated by our near-escape! We decided to make our way out of the crater for sunrise, in case we weren’t so lucky next time! We trekked past huge tour groups that were working their way down to the crater for sunrise, and found a spot at the top where we could watch the sunrise over a 360 degree panorama. With a twinkling city on one side, an emerging beautiful turquoise crater on the other, and steam streaming over the top, we finally watched the sun come up, hyped by our great accomplishment.

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After a little break and some food, we made our way back to the bottom whilst the day heated up, passing sulphur miners on our way who were returning to the top for their next load. A real eye-opening experience, I can’t even imagine what life is like for these miners who earn so little for all of their effort, and risk their lives in the process. Apparently some tourists even donate their masks, but they’re too expensive to upkeep when the filters break. Pretty heartbreaking stuff.

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After a hearty breakfast of soto ayam (chicken soup) and fried bananas, we drove back to our hostel via some (boiling!) hot springs, which really helped to soothe the old muscles!

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We’d planned on going straight onto another trek that night, but given we were all near exhaustion we went out for a meal instead to a sweet local restaurant, where we got a fair amount of attention as out-of-towners, and the restaurant owner even asked for a photo with us!

So all in all, a unique and exciting experience, and one I’ll never forget. Next, we took an early morning trek to catch a glimpe of the much more famous Gunung Bromo…