Hiking a steep trail of full moon and stars and pin-prick flashlights. Cheerful young Indonesian voices abound and around us the black silhouette of trees and cones on the trail towards a blue flame darkness and a volcanic dawn.

Earlier, we’d had mixed experiences at Bromo volcano, followed by a day of journeys towards a hotel arrival at night when suddenly we were offered the chance to climb Ijen Volcano in a few hours that same night. So we went with the flow. Left beds that we’d paid for – and sleep that was needed –  and headed out with our daypacks at midnight to ride in a 4WD towards a mountain night hike.

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TOP LEFT: Miners amid sulfur field and smoke after dawn. B+W: Miner on the rim above the crater with baskets of sulfur; miners’ bamboo baskets litter the slopes awaiting the day workers return. BOTTOM RIGHT: a burst of blue light amid lamps illuminating the solidified sulfur. These blue flames are only visible at night. They are caused from the combustion of sulfuric gases as they escape from the earth at high pressure and high temperature (up to 600°C) and upon contacting the air – they ignite.

At the volcano’s rim, with an ex-miner as our guide and with respiratory masks ready, we descended the winding trail down into the crater during darkness. But we weren’t alone. Dozens of Indonesian university students were also checking out Kawah Ijen during their holidays so it was a bit crowded at times. Yet, nothing could detract from the weirdness.

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After hiking down to the smoke, and with dawn approaching we headed back up for the panorama that had emerged from the night. In the foreground a miner’s sulfur-heavy basket is laid down for a mid-climb rest. The miners typically lug up to 80 kg per climb and earn about $US10 for their daily efforts.

Weirdness. Excitement. Caution. Walking carefully and then later clambering down a bouldered winding track into the deep dark crater, following flashlight illuminations towards a plume of towering smoke and flames of blue. Stepping aside, for miners lugging baskets uphill (some miners work the night to avoid the heat of the day).

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Despite the beauty, Kawah Ijen is obviously a poisonous place. Spewing from gaps in the crater, sulphuric acid is caught in ceramic pipes which condense the gas into a red liquid  and then a yellow pure sulfur solid. And when it’s hardened, miners chip away at it and extract the chunks to begin a heavy hike of several kms. When a wave of choking smoke engulfs us – it’s unnerving, even with a mask on – it reminds me of accounts of gas attacks during the First World War. Luckily, on this day the smoke mostly behaved itself and bellowed away from the action.

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TOP: Hikers at the crater rim at sunrise. MIDDLE: A view from rim of the 200- meter-deep lake, colored brilliantly by sulfuric acid. BOTTOM: Close-up of awesome volcanic colors and patterns.

It was a trip of strange highs. A vertical, sleepless night hike – well honestly, that wasn’t much fun – but it proved worthwhile, utterly hypnotic, like fire can be, to see blue flames amid black alien surrounds.

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Sunrise at the crater rim and a proud miner poses … while an Indonesian student admires her latest selfie ?

Maybe even weirder was watching workers amid a smoking volcano, that could be called a Medieval vision of Hell especially when you see magazine photo essays about the Miners daily grind. That such a work environment can still exist in the 21st century seems surreal (in spite of having seen the reality of other harsh places such as the Potosi silver mines in Bolivia and the blood diamond fields of Sierra Leone).

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On the hiking trail back towards the carpark the clear volcano vista that was (almost) invisible during the steep dark ascent, unless, you stopped to rest and wonder.

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The highlight of the Kawah Ijen night hike was this scene witnessed shortly after dawn, having raced up from the crater below as the blue flames receded with the daylight to now watch this panorama of peaks and lake and smoking beauty.

Travels in Indonesia – 2016

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