Ijen and the Blue Fire

From start to finish this was my favorite part of the tour. We stayed in a guest house in some coffee plantations, didn’t see much coffee though, but below the guest house were big gardens with mountains around them, there were mostly strawberries in the gardens. The people here were very friendly, with big smiles and happy to talk to me. I went off looking for the seeds of a plant called Kelor to take home for my mom to grow. I’m told it grows all over Indonesia and seems like a miracle plant. It is good for your garden, adding fertilizer, nitrates or something, and is a natural pesticide. It is rich in vitamins and a source of yen cooling energy, and fights black magic. It is used medically to treat loss of appetite, epilepsy, ulcers, jaundice, muscle pains, herpes and other skin wounds. You can eat it in soups and the seeds can purify drinking water from germs and other impurities. The people there, fishing or going on walks or heading to mosque, said it didn’t grow in that area, but they were very amused by my looking for it and asking in Bahasa Indonesian. I had gotten a nice gay Indonesian guy on our tour to teach me how to ask to buy it and I think what he wrote translated into: “Can you give me a gift of some Kelor seeds?”

The guest house was worth a few days stay but we went to bed after just a few hours, at 7pm and tried to get some sleep, then woke up at midnight and didn’t return. Luckily I was tired from getting lost on Mt. Bromo the day before and did get some rest.  Off to the mountain.

The climb up was steep and about three kilometers. I barely stopped and let my heart rate climb high and level out. It is different to climb in the middle of the night. I talked with a cute Indonesian girl on the way up and some of her friends. It’s weird to talk with girls who have saris over their head and are clearly Muslim. I don’t know the rules. Another time I had been told not to touch a girl, not even to shake her hand. I don’t know the way to tell the level of each girl’s strictness in her religion.

At the top there was just about nothing, only a sign saying “Danger, it is not allowed to go any further”. I did not notice this sign till after I had come back up from going further. It was dangerous too, we went down into a valley or something, very steep, walking on rocks that could slip away. Of course there was no railing, like most outdoor tourist sites in SE Asia, but also it winded on itself often so if you fell it could be down multiple sections at once, meaning, it was a damn far fall, maybe death. The sulfur wasn’t too bad till I was at the blue fire. There, when the wind changed and blew it in my direction, it burned into my lungs. As it attacked my chest I did not get enough oxygen so I wanted to breathe even deeper. Even with my sweatshirt over my face, it didn’t filter much of the sulfur smoke, and it burned my eyes so I couldn’t see. The only good move was to stay still, breath slowly, and get lower to the ground.

The blue fire. It is the sulfur on fire. It does not stop, 24 hours a day, until all the resource has been used up which I guess will not be for a long time. It’s supposedly only present in two places in the world, here and in Iceland. In the night not much is visible, blackness and smoke, but when the smoke shifts you catch a glimpse of it, blue flames on the side of the mountain. It is like they are hovering, dangling in the air because you can see nothing but blackness around them. Multiple different patches of them but the smoke blocks your view so when they appear you stare in amazement. Something about it being the side of the mountain that is burning, or that it is rock that’s burning, or that you just climbed up here in the middle of the night. It’s like no fire you have ever seen before, it is like it’s not fire at all. Everyone is in awe, trying to get pictures though the picture are just blue flames in a field of nothingness, they just can’t do it justice as most pictures usually cannot for scenes of natural beauty. You must see it with your own eyes.

DSCF5625They have set up little tubes to collect the melted sulfur as it runs off. It goes down the tubes and onto the ground below, where it hardens and the workers, local men, break off pieces with a metal pole and carry them one kilometer up the steep rocky path that I came down, and then down the mountain another three kilometers, all in two baskets connected by a piece of wood that they then carry on their shoulder muscles on one side of their bodies or the other. Fifty to seventy kilograms we are talking about here. They do it two times per day, every one of them. Most of the men I talked to have been doing this for upwards of twenty years or were sons of men who have been doing it for longer. One older man had a torch made of a soda bottle full of fuel with a rag sticking out. He stood, torch in hand, amid the sulfur smoke posing for pictures, breathing it in for extra tips. None of the men wore face masks.

I stayed up there till 7am. There were different places to stand with different views, avoiding the smoke was always at the top of my list of priorities. There was also a lake that I didn’t see till the sun was coming up. It was very acidic, I put my hand in to see if it was hot, it was hot, a little more than lukewarm, but it also burned the cuts on my hand, and even my skin but only slightly. I didn’t notice it at first but within a few second the acidic water started biting into the exposed flesh. It hurt pretty bad for about 15 minutes.

There were people collecting the molten sulfur and pouring it into water slowly to make pretty (stupid) looking souvenirs to sell to us. They looked like hand dripped beeswax candles.  In the daylight I also found the toilet amid some rocks off the path, where the early morning dump is taken when needed.

Really the fire was beautiful, incredible, alien, but it was the whole experience that made it great. I was one of the first up as I walked fast and past most of the Indonesian tourists who had started a little earlier, and I was one of the last ten to leave. One the way out I had had enough sulfur. It came hard at us while we walked out up the rocky path. I didn’t think I could take anymore. My hacking lungs started to sound bad and I kept gaging. But I made it out and looked down at the smoke and flames from above, less impressive in the daylight.

I gave one of the guys carrying sulfur rock a shoulder massage, he said it was the first time anyone had done that. He had been carrying those heavy loads for 24 years. I said he must have a great wife to work so hard for her, he laughed and said yes of course he did.

On the way down I passed tourists going up. They were tired and didn’t really look at me, whereas all the workers smiled big at me and said hello enthusiastically. I don’t know how they keep their spirits up while working so damn hard but I guess they have to or day after day it would be unbearable. I gave a few of them snacks from my bag and bought some silly turtles molded out of the sulfur for a buck. I forget the figures of how much they made for a trip of seventy kilos but it was small, 10 or 20 cents on the kilo, but I was told they make double what a normal worker in Indonesia makes.  I would put it on my list of hardest working jobs, maybe hardest, but definitely not worst jobs, just hardest.


Mt. Bromo Indonesia



First stop on my three day tour from Jogjakarta to Bali, Mt. Bromo, an active volcano which I’m told last erupted three years ago and later heard it erupted again three days after I left. It must have been small because there is a whole town around it and the houses are actually quite nice, I assume they were not damaged. There were lots of farmers, I was told they grow a lot of coffee but I saw a majority of cold weather crops such as onion and cauliflower. The tour guide said it would be 6°C at 4 am.

We stayed in a hotel just outside of the park, you go down a hill and are inside, there is a big rim all around you, I guess 360 degrees but I could only see about a third of the circle, so I can’t be sure. Inside are sand flats with some small hills, kind of sharp peaked, but only a meter to three meters tall. Then there is a cone shaped mountain with some green bushes growing on it and a shorter one next to it which is the volcano Mt. Bromo. It is wider but not as tall and the top looks flat from far away, like it had been blown off long ago.

I don’t know if this small mountain is the only volcano or if both are, or if the whole area is basically one giant volcano. I’m guessing the whole area is but the short one is the mouth with the active tube releasing gas and magma. I discovered that if you pick up a piece of lava rock and throw it in the air, there is a deep boom when it hits the ground, like it is hallow underneath and the sandy floor is stretched across a huge cavern in the earth like a drum. It was a great sound to hear the earth make, deep and shallow, immense.

The trip in started at 4 am. I walked in with a Spanish couple named Miguel and Lluria, instead of paying 100,000 rupiah for a jeep tour (about $10). It was very dark and we didn’t know where to go. Some motorbike drivers gave us bad directions and we ended up paying some other ones 35,000 each to bring us to the mountain. We shouldn’t have paid it and would have been fine walking the way we were headed, but it was too dark for us to know. When we got off the bikes another guy came up holding a horse and said, “You buy my horse?” We laughed about it, he meant another ride of course, but we took it to mean did want to buy a horse, bring it on the bus, and take it home in a few weeks?

We walked up to the mountain, past locals selling coffee, to some steps. At the top you could see down into the volcano a ways, but couldn’t see magma. There were steep cliffs down to the inside of the mountain and then a hole in the middle with sulfur steam or smoke coming out.

I walked to the right, to the end of the chain railing and it seemed the path stopped. But on the other side, to the left, it went on. So I walked along that path leaving the Spanish behind. It kept going pretty far, I walked maybe a half hour till I was about halfway around. In my residual anger at paying the motorbike drivers, I was planning to slide down the outside of the mountain and cross the small hills to where they picked us up. I got to a place where it became green with bush so I thought I might go down through there, though maybe dangerous and difficult, and I wondered about snakes. Again I changed my mind and kept going to the highest peak in the path, above the very low mist line.  The view below me became less visible but on the other side of this peak, I could see there was another semi-circle touching the side of the volcano on the outside of it, it seemed like it might hold water, in the past or future.

DSCF5532I walked down until the cliffs were lowest at their point, so I decided to venture inside the volcano. If I slid/climbed down one cliff, I would be on a second plateau, then down one more and I would be just along the lip of the hole where I could lay o my stomach and maybe be able to see what was down there or feel heat on my face.

But the plan looked easier from the top than it was once inside. I went down the first hill but could find no safe path to go down the second one. I was getting a little scared too down there, so I went back up instead. The sand was hard to climb because it kept slipping under my feet. At points there were layers of mineral deposits that were sharp but would break under my feet, so not really very strong but I’m sure it would still hurt to fall on them. Before I left I did some Tallon Indian war cries into the volcano, they echoed across and some others repeated them back to me.

I got out with only difficulty because it was not too steep. I kept going along the path to try and make it all the way around. It started to rain right after I got out. Thinking it was good that I didn’t try to make it to the bottom, I trudged on hoping not to get too wet or find a nice spot for shelter. The rain didn’t last long, what it did was bring in a thick fog so I couldn’t see across the volcano at all, and the sulfur smoke was blowing right at me at times, choking me up and bring tears to my eyes.

I came to a simple shrine and gave a bow and asked for protection. A few minutes later I came to a fork, I went right realizing that the left probably went to the other mountain, but truthfully it was a guess, I didn’t know because I couldn’t see more than 10 foot in front of me. I was glad to have given a bow and assumed I had made the right choice, which I had, but quickly that trail disappeared and it looked like it went down. So I went down with it till that path disappeared. I couldn’t tell if I was going down into the volcano or outside of it into some valleys between the two mountains. I figured better to end up on the outside of the volcano rather than inside so I went down and left and steered left more than I should have. I realized it would be very difficult to get out of where I was heading, but it seemed like keeping going was the best option. A slight fear was beginning to rise and settle in me.

There were no people near me, and I doubted that anyone would really wait for me if I didn’t get back in time. I had a few hours before my bus left, I told myself to breathe and relax, then through a break in the mist I saw an Islamic structure off to my right and I recognized it as near the entrance to the stairs. I was now aware that I was between the two mountains. So I went down to the valley, where water would flow if there was some. But the water didn’t flow evenly, there was a big drop off, probably about 10 foot, maybe more, a waterfall with no water if you will. It had sheer cliffs up to where I was standing, if I jumped down I might get hurt. I slid along the edge and crept down slowly, knowing that my footing and hand holds could slide right out from under me at any point. Full of fear, or maybe what some would call adrenaline, I hung down from my arms, facing the ground, not the cliff, and dropped. My right foot pushed off a small ledge a foot below and I jumped about a meter and a half down. I knew hitting the ledge would make it risky but it made the drop less. I landed and was fine though my nerves were pulsing.

And a few minutes later… another drop off, this time 4 -5 meters. There were hand holds to try to climb down, but there was a small amount of water on them and I imagined slipping and falling or that they would just break, and me with them. I pictured myself alone in a pit with a broken leg or hitting the other side of the rock cliff with my head, as this and the other resembled a hole about two meters wide, rather than a path. I decided not to jump down,  I said no and went back up, back the way I had come, it was the only somewhat safe option. At this point I am asking myself why the fuck am I sliding and climbing and jumping down the side of a volcano, all alone in another country? I did have a phone, with almost no credit and reception, but I probably could call someone, too bad I didn’t find out the number to call in case of emergency. You always forget those sorts of things right? 911 certainly would not work here. I was starting to lose it, my mind wandered to possibilities of me dying, to being lost up there for days, but I reasoned it out and found it unlikely.

The mountain was too steep and the sand keep sliding out from under me, it was exhausting my legs fast. I got up to a point and saw foot prints, of a cat or some small four-footer. Good. I followed them but I slipped a lot more than they did. Then I got to the top of a sandy peak and sat for a moment. More prints…Human…Mine! I followed them back hoping they were where I started to go down and not one of the many back and forths I had done, zigzagging down.

They did take me to where I had started to go down, just after the fork in the path. Where before I could not see where the path was, now I could see that the path went along the peak, thin as it was. I could go on but it seemed the path was a little dangerous, only about a foot wide. On either side I could easily slip or fall down the outside of the volcano or into it. I could go the safer way back, the way I came 45 minutes. I decided to go the new way to completer the hike around the rim. On the thin path where before I might have been afraid to see down the possible deadly edge into the volcano, with sharp rocks and walls too steep to climb back out, now with hardened nerves I walked happily because there was at least some kind of path and I had a clear direction. Then I saw some small strings of yellow guard rail, and people on the edge, “Hooray!”

Thank YouI came walking up expecting the people to point at me: “You are crazy dude, what are you doing out there?” But they said nothing. I leaned on the rail and relaxed. A woman who I shared a room with, Catharine, came up and said hello and I told her a little about being so happy to be back but her response was slight. Then  saw a girl from Holland I met in Jakarta, and she too didn’t care much. I bought a bouquet of hard flowers to throw in the volcano for a wish or prayer. I said only “Thank you” when I threw them in. I had been really scared out there and realized that I was very stupid to have put myself in that position. I felt awkward because no one else around me was sharing my experience, I felt alone in my relief.

I told Catherine more about it as we walked down the stairs. She gave me the understanding I needed, she had been in Nepal and went off on her own and the mist came in and it got dangerous. I was good to hear, just to know she understood the feelings I was having or had went through. She understood being lost on a mountain, possibilities blowing through your mind, until you will yourself to calm and be logical, and the embarrassed relief when you get out of your predicament.

She headed to her jeep and I walked up the outer rim road to my hotel, it was about 8 am now. There was hot water, lucky me, my legs needed it.