East Java is home to some of Indonesia’s most spectacular volcanoes, including one with blue fire. Our contributor embarks on a daring expedition. By Nivedana Jalan
“How did I bring myself to agree to this?” I wondered, as I climbed up the steep slope of Kawah Ijen, a beautiful yet deadly active volcano in East Java, notorious for its location along the Pacific Ring of Fire, which harbours more than three-fourths of the world’s volcanic activity.
Covered by a canopy of pitch-dark sky at 2 am, my only source of light was a torch that helped me navigate the uphill hike. All attempts at keeping myself warm, including multiple layers of clothing, had failed. For a tropical country, Indonesia was sure cold that particular night, and I couldn’t help but wish that I was curled up in bed with a mug of hot cocoa.
All right, maybe it wasn’t really that terrible! After all, Kawah Ijen is not the most arduous volcano trek on the island of Java, let alone the whole of Indonesia. It is a three-kilometre uphill walk, which actually seemed to be getting easier (though rockier and more slippery) after the first hour. Besides, I had my eye on the prize.
Kawah Ijen is home to an extremely rare natural phenomenon: blue flames. This ‘blue fire’, as it is commonly known, burns as sulphuric gases around the crater combust upon coming in contact with oxygen, giving Kawah Ijen an eerie blue glow just before the break of dawn. It is said that this is the only spot in Asia where the surreal blue flames can be witnessed. And I couldn’t wait to see them for myself.
The star of the show, without a sliver of doubt, is sulphur, and it made its presence felt immediately. As I continued my ascent to the top, the air began getting heavier with a smell akin to that of rotting eggs. That was my cue to put on a mask.
As I stood looking down at the crater, I was transfixed by the sensory extravaganza that was taking place. There they were, the electric blue flames, crackling like lightning and dancing amid the fumes, as if in rhythmic sync with the gentle breeze that had so far helped me on my hike. Molten sulphur streamed down the crater, leaving a trail of neon blue in its wake. This surreal performance of nature left me awestruck, and in that instant, the cold, hunger, and exhaustion were all forgotten.
The darkness soon gave way to light, and as the blue flames began dying out, I shifted my focus to the second marvel of Ijen—a turquoise lake located inside the crater. Its tranquil water seemed to beckon me. “Be careful!” my guide exclaimed, as he saw me take a step forward. This beguiling beauty is also a death trap, and even a tiny misstep into the highly acidic lake can prove fatal.
With the sun now shining brightly overhead, I began my descent. Along the way, I couldn’t help but feel a mixed bag of emotions, as I passed by miners going downhill, carrying giant blocks of solid sulphur that must have weighed nearly 100 kilograms.
Each night, sulphur is mined along the slopes, carried to the base, and sold at low prices. Small blocks are often carved into various shapes and sizes to make a quick buck. Buying one of these from a miner not only helps someone who is breaking his back to make a living but also gets you a unique souvenir.
After some piping hot noodles and freshly brewed kopi at a warung (a small restaurant or cafe, usually family-owned) near the base, I headed back to my hotel. A few hours of shut-eye later, I was ready for my next adventure: a visit to the thrilling Bromo Semeru Tengger National Park.
Spread across 800 square kilometres, the national park is home to five volcanoes, of which Gunung Bromo, an active one, is a well-known attraction among visitors. Named after Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, it is a holy pilgrimage site for the Tenggerese, a small Javanese-Hindu community. For tourists, Bromo holds a different draw: its location.
Eager to see what all the hype was about, I hopped into a four-by-four in the still of the night and drove up to the summit of Mount Penanjakan, a neighbouring mountain that provides a bird’s-eye view of the gigantic volcanic complex. Just before the break of dawn, as the sun’s rays began piercing the clouds, I witnessed the unparalleled magnificence of Gunung Bromo. The mountain stood regally on a carpet of volcanic sand, with two other volcanoes, Batok and Widodaren, standing like sentinels on either side. The imposing mountains soared together into the pink sky through a sulphur haze.
What made the view even more majestic was the landscape that surrounded the volcanoes: a desolate and barren sea of sand, enclosed by lush green valleys and the savannah. This was one of the most otherworldly sights I had ever seen.
When it comes to Bromo, there is another, more practical reason for its popularity. The hike up this mountain feels like child’s play, especially when compared to other volcano treks in Indonesia, including the one at Kawah Ijen. In fact, it took less than an hour for me to reach the rim of its crater, an astonishingly short climb for one of the country’s most active volcanoes.
A visit to the Bromo Semeru Tengger National Park is incomplete without a drive through the volcanic complex of the region. I was still in a trance when I walked back down to the vehicle and the driver slammed his foot on the gas, whizzing through a vast desert of ash and sand.
Back at the hotel, as the adrenalin began to wear off, I mulled over my escapades of the past few days. It seemed almost unfathomable that these serene and utterly beautiful wonders I had witnessed could also have alter egos that were capable of destroying everything in their path. Their sheer power made me realise how small and inconsequential we are in front of nature’s forces.
Emirates flies from Mumbai and Delhi to Bali via Dubai. Alternatively, Singapore, Jakarta, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur have daily flights to Bali and Surabaya, the two cities that can be used as a base for your East Java adventure.
Bromo Semeru Tengger National Park: Nestled on the highlands of Bromo, Plataran Bromo offers serene views of agricultural plantations. Doubles from INR 8,542
Kawah Ijen: A laid-back hotel set amid four hectares of rainforest and gardens, Ijen Resort and Villas is a great base. Doubles from INR 4,134
- Always check on volcano activity levels while planning your expedition.
- Carry warm clothing.
- If you suffer from respiratory issues, check with your doctor before planning this holiday.
- Buy a mask beforehand; sulphur levels tend to get quite high near the rim of the crater.
- Book your transportation in advance through your hotel or a travel agent, as journeys often begin in the middle of the night.
- While it is not mandatory, it is always better to hire a guide for your trek.
It is recommended to hire a tour operator for this exploration of East Java. The operator can take care of essentials such as transportation, accommodation, trekking permits, guides, and language barriers. While there are numerous companies that offer customised tour packages, Remote Lands and Getaway Tours are two of the most popular luxury tour operators.