When I arrived in the small town of Bondowoso to volunteer as an English teacher, I was hoping to be able to visit neighboring volcano Mount Ijen on one of my weekends off. I had read about its sulfur mine workers, heard about its beauty from the locals and fantasized about its blue fire. I knew though that it would be hard to fit the visit in on a weekend without hiring a private car (which I did not have the budget for). Luckily, the Indonesian teacher I was assisting was willing to help me and after convincing his cousin to come with us so that the other volunteer could also come, we hit the road on a Friday night after class. Destination: Mount Ijen!
Hiking to the crater rim
It was pitch-black and we had to use our flashlights to stay on track. I find that there’s something very exciting about hiking in the dark towards the unknown. As you’re not able to see what surrounds you, the surprise remains intact until the sunrise. The closer we were getting to the crater lake, the harder it became to breathe because of the sulfur vapors. When you reach the crater’s rim, a few local guides offer you to lead you down to the lake in exchange for a small compensation. You can also rent a gas mask to protect you from the sulfur vapors.
Going down to the lake
My friend didn’t want to go down as the path is at times a little dangerous so I started hiking down alone. On the way, I met a lot of sulfur miners carrying heavy sulfur blocks up the crater’s slopes and all the way back to town to sell them. They were hiking in rubber boots, without any kind of protection from the toxic gases. Eventually, the sun started to rise and revealed the vibrant blue-green lagoon and astonishing pink sky. It was breathtaking. Literally. When I was next to the blocks of sulfur, a cloud of toxic gas headed our way and caught our breath away, forcing us to run away from the source. After this incident, I decided that I had exposed myself enough to the gases and headed back up to meet up with my friend. Fun fact: after visiting Mount Ijen, my jacket and backpack smelled like sulfur for weeks, despite washing them over and over again.
My thoughts and experience
Mount Ijen was a bittersweet experience for me. The beauty of the crater lake is out of this world and the sunrise that I saw over the volcano was one of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. But witnessing the working conditions of the sulfur miners, killing their backs and putting their health at serious risk for a few dollars really left me thinking about the tourism industry and about Mount Ijen’s case in particular. Shouldn’t the entrance fee tourists pay to visit Mount Ijen help them to at least buy proper hiking boots and gas masks?! Maybe it could also cover part of their salary?!
When visiting Mount Ijen, make sure to bring:
- hiking boots
- warm clothes
- a flashlight
- a surgical mask or better, rent a gas mask on top
P.s: if you want to read more about my volunteer experience in Indonesia, how I found the opportunity and how I did it almost for free, it’s all explained in this article!
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