Friday, April 15, 2011

Hike Down to Ijen Caldera, Indonesia

How would you fancy hiking down the caldera of an active volcano these days? :p Well, quite interesting actually, especially when you are going to be visiting one of the world's biggest manual sulfur mine in an active volcano! Yup, the place I am referring to is none other than Ijen Volcano (Gunung Berapi Ijen) on the eastern part of the Indonesian island of Java. A little far away from my common roaming grounds in Malaysia isn't it?

About a mile away from the infamous Merapi volcano, (the last eruption was in 2010), Ijen is 'calmer' compared with its famous neighbor. No dramatic lakes of steel melting lava here, although it boasts an equally beautiful and reputedly highly acidic lake in it's caldera with a measured pH of 0.5!

The pristine turquoise pool of water within Ijen's caldera...

Arriving in Surabaya, the ride from there to Ijen will take approximately 8 hours by van courtesy of the mostly single carriage roads.

A 'familiar' looking face greeting us at the airport... too bad, Miss 'Olive' wasn't in our party! :p ;)

Traffic culture here is a little different which makes the experience plying on Indonesian roads a little harrowing sometimes especially when you have a 10 ton lorry hurtling straight at you while you're in it's way. Yup, overtaking vehicles here is not a wait and see whether the coast is clear kinda thing. It's more of a hit and fade style with the vehicle jumping out on the opposite lane, driving as far you can before quickly slipping back into YOUR lane before the oncoming vehicle slams into you!

Road conditions can only get worse as you ascend the Ijen plateau with long stretches of it having the tar completely removed, leaving loose gravel and gigantic potholes for us to traverse upon. Also, due to the season in which we arrived (March), generous amounts of rain have inundated the slopes with evidence of land slides along the way.

There are no hotels in the village nearest to Ijen. The best you'd probably find there are the homestays that cater to tourists like us. We stayed at the Catimore Homestay, which I guess was one of the 'best' there is in the area, judging by the amount of westerners there. Based on the comments I am reading from the web about this inn however, and with the benefit of hindsight, I confirm that this place leaves much to be desired. :p The toilets are indeed 'not so clean' (someone wrote in the blogs that there was even 'turd' inside, although I didn't see any ;)), and amenities minimal.

Catimore Inn's toilet... the brown stains, cobwebs... Ewwww, I can safely rate this place as slightly above 'filthy'! :p

The toilet didn't look like they were washed daily, if not monthly! The bedroom is spartan with a rickety bed and one lonesome chair. Bedsheets are thin and rather er... dirty :p.

A bed fit for a Spartan! :D :p

We arrived a little pass 830pm in an area where darkness and fog easily overcomes what little light there is. Dinner was ready for us on arrival, although the fare offered to us was rather bland and tasteless consisting of some white rice, fried chicken, some varieties of stir fried vegetables and dried out bananas.

When you are as tired and cold as us... even not so tasty food is good enough! ;)

After having our dinner and setting our bags into our spartan rooms, we roamed around the premises. A pool with geothermally heated water caught our attention, it's waters inviting except that in the cold of the night we were in, my mind reasoned that it would be better to decline it's warm embrace as the effect of the night's chill would have immediately asserted it's deathly hold the moment you step out of the water!

We retired somewhat early, as we had to start hiking early in the morning. I couldn't sleep much though as the paper thin walls couldn't filter out the noisy chattering from one of our neighbors. :p

We packed to leave in the morning, planning to head for our next destination immediately after the climb. Breakfast was nothing more than a few pieces of pastries and some locally brewed coffee, unfiltered. :p
Boarding the van, we made our way to the Ijen base camp taking about 30 minutes to reach there. The camp was surprisingly well equipped, with a clean toilet and bathroom, a small local food stall and an office.

Base camp at the foot of Mount Ijen...

It is worth noting that the whole place is privately owned, visitors are charged a certain amount which in our case was already paid for by our guides. What was not paid for was our cameras and on noting that some of us were hanging some of the gadgets over our necks, one of the wardens informed our guide that we had to pay for that too (25,000 rupiahs each, tourist price no doubt!). We were told that they could be 'smuggled' in our bags through the base camp and then taken out later on the hike but that was after the guide was already 'stung' by the warden. :p As usual, we took a few group photos before the camp signboard before we set off!

Selamat datang ke Kawah Ijen! :D

The climb was rather pleasant without much exertion required. This does not mean that its easy because endurance is required to last the 2 hour hike.

As the sign says, from the foot of the volcano to the caldera, it's about 3km... which is approximately about a 2 hour hike for most people... ;)

Bring water because there is no where else to obtain them aside from the stall down at the base camp. As for the cold, well, after a few minutes walk, your body would have generate enough body heat to keep warm. Bring a light jacket if you wish.

The gang on the way up the volcano...

Along the way, we bumped into the miners, some carrying lumps of sulfur in weaved baskets linked by a strip of sturdy rattan spread over their shoulders. Don't let their small frames fool you because these guys are super strong! The loads they were carrying over their backs range from 60kg to 100kg! And these guys had to do it like 4 to 5 times a day over a span of 6km one round trip!

Unless you are some 'power-weightlifter', mere mortals like myself are unable to duplicate the feat these miners do everyday!

Knowing that this place has become somewhat of a magnet for curious tourists, some of them would offer to sell carved pieces of sulfur in the shape of turtles and other animals for a fee. Watch out though because it might be a problem carrying this stuff on board a plane, sulfur being a primary component for explosives! There is a way station somewhere in the middle of the path up the caldera. Here is where the loads carried down by the miners are weighed and their wages calculated.

The waystation in the middle of the track up to Ijen...

Rows and rows of baskets filled with lumps of sulfur can be seen right outside the way station.

Taking a photo with one of those 'super-human' miners!

Tuhan Selamatkan Indonesia! ;)

Not tarrying long, we proceeded up to the lip of Ijen Caldera, taking about another half and hour to reach the top. Along the way, the surrounding countryside is revealed to us as we cleared the forest canopy. Distant volcanoes, tall mountains, tracts of forest and villages filled the view around.

A nearby mountain and judging by how geologically active this place is, possibly an extinct volcano?

Peaceful, serene forest...

We can even see the island of Bali, located on the eastern edge of Java. Coniferous trees give way to rock the closer we get to the lip of the caldera.

Trees give way to boulders and rocks as approached the lip of the volcano...

At the top there are no more trees, although fortunately for us, the heat of the sun was moderated by the cool weather and thick cloud cover. We took a few pictures at the lip of the volcano. More rocks and the rising plume of sulfur from the mines dominated the view within the volcano, the famous mine itself a distance away down in the caldera.

At the crater's edge...

There was no question on what I would want to do next. I didn't come all this way to Indonesia to stop at the lip so with our guide, four of us peeled off from the main group to descend into the mining area at the bottom of the caldera. A stone path, roughly cut by the miners themselves led the way down.

In the footsteps of Dante? ;)

A firm footing is required while negotiating this path as at certain places it is rather steep. Coupled to this was the fact that some of the stones along the path are rather loose and could be dislodged therefore some care is required lest you topple down into the stony depths below. The trek down into the caldera took another 30 minutes. We were fortunate today as the prevailing winds did not blow the choking sulfurous clouds from the mines into our path which we were told it sometimes does! That small concession gave us a clear view of the path and mines ahead of us.

The sulfur mines of Ijen beckons!

Arriving at the bottom, we were greeted by a busy scene of miners clad in rudimentary breathing masks milling about the pipes and barrels enshrouded in thick sulfurous smoke.

Arriving at the mines, enshrouded by sulfurous smoke...

Not very healthy... :p

A large turquoise lake stretched beyond the mines. The lake is actually the volcanic cauldron and with this much sulfur around, there is no doubt that it is acidic. Curiosity clouding this fact for a moment, I ventured down to the lake's edge to 'feel' the water's temperature.

The waters of the caldera, reputedly pH 0.5 at the center...

Not surprisingly, it was a little warm with the slippery feeling of weak acid. ;) Hahah, mercifully there was no scene of flesh dripping off my bones here... maybe at the center of the lake would the pH drop even further. The mine and the surrounding lake offers a breathtaking sight!

Looks like movie set for some apocalyptic scene! ;)

Truly amazing! Where can you find another place like this? ;)

From a certain perspective, the place reminds me of the Grand Canyon, with rocky walls rising all around.

Echoes of the Grand Canyon...

We stayed here for about 30 minutes taking pictures and observing the miners at their work before our guide called us to return to the lip and back to the van.

Miners work to harvest the sulfur...

Threatening rain clouds gathered overhead and the thought of being washed down by acid rain wasn't really enticing either. We quickly made a beat back to the base camp about an hour and a half later, a little tired but truly charmed by the sights offered at Ijen. We met an elderly German couple at the local food stall over a light snack consisting of local cakes and coffee provided by our tour organizer.

The adventurous German couple that has transverse the wilderness of Central Asia, the wastelands of Siberia, the plains of Mongolia, to the cities of China down to the jungles of Malaysia... finally they are here in Indonesia! ;)

Turns out the couple has been traveling across Asia with their caravan and their most recent stop prior to this being Malaysia! We chatted with them for a while, allowing them to share their adventures before taking a peep at their rugged looking caravan.
The 'rugged' caravan that probably would have clocked more miles in a single trip than most cars in their lifetime!

A little bit pass 1pm, we were summoned by our guide to get on board our vehicle. "All aboard!" for it's time head to our next destination... Mount Bromo! ;)

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