Kawah Ijen – Hiking Indonesia’s Blue-Flame Volcano

Hiking a steep trail under full moon and stars and ahead the beams of flashlights flickering up the slope like insane fireflies.

Around us sounds of cheerful young voices chattering in excited Indonesian. Up further, trees silhouetted against the moonlit sky and ahead – if my legs make it – the promise of blue-flames 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 the volcano of Kawah Ijen in just 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 volcano night hike.

baskets and sulfur-worker-ijen-volcano-indonesia kawah ijen

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

looking down crater-lake-ijen-volcano-indonesia

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 and excitement. Walking carefully. Clambering down a zig-zagging path into the darkened crater. Following the flashlight illuminations towards a plume of towering smoke and flames of blue. Sometime stepping aside for miners lugging baskets uphill (some miners work at night to avoid the heat of the day).

kawah ijen volcano smoking crater indonesia black and white photograph

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.


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 steep, sleepless night hike – well honestly, that wasn’t much fun – but it proved worthwhile. Yet utterly hypnotic, like fire can be, to see blue flames dance 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, is watching the workers amid a smoking volcano that resembles a Medieval Vision of Hell. That such a work environment still exists in the 21st century seems too surreal (despite having seen other harsh places like the Potosi silver mines in Bolivia and the blood diamond mining in Sierra Leone).

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, now daylight reveals a panorama of peaks and lake and that nasty, smoking beauty.

india traffic chaos at night