The mysterious blue flames of java’s ijen crater

There is a place on Indonesia’s most populous island, Java, where dozens of tourists climb into the crater of an active volcano in the middle of the night. Here they face poisonous fumes, pools of liquid sulphur and slippery paths. All to see a phenomenon that can only be seen in a few places on earth. Here blue fire rises from the earth, this is the mysterious Ijen crater.

Kawah Ijen (the Ijen Plateau) is located in East Java, very close to Bali. Tourists have visited the place for years during the day to see the magnificent turquoise sulphur lake and for a chance to see a highly active volcano. But it wasn’t until National Geographic devoted an article to the volcano’s unique blue fire that large groups of tourists started coming in the middle of the night and actually descent into the crater.

Once there, tourists have a chance to see the blue flames for themselves (if they’re lucky). And if they hang around for sunrise, the place is beautiful in daylight as well.

Ijen was certainly on my itinerary during my trip in Indonesia.

I arranged for a driver, very cheap in Indonesia, to take me to the starting point of the walking path. I paid the rather steep 150.000 RP entrance fee, which I’m told the local community doesn’t benefit from at all, and started the hike. It’s a 3 km walk to the crater rim.


Walking, very fast, in front of me was a man, carrying two empty baskets on his back.. He was one of the miners who climb into the crater every night to mine for sulphur. I tried to strike up a conversation with him and to my surprise he was very keen to talk to me and his English was excellent. He told me that he likes to talk with tourists so he can practice his English and hopefully one day move with his family to a big city to find better work.

The higher I climbed the more obvious it became that an active volcano was near. Quickly the scent of sulphuric gasses started to hurt my nose and throat, tears started rolling down my eyes. I donned the small paper surgical mask I was given by my driver to filter most of the dangerous gasses but I was pretty sure it’s only function was to look silly. Thankfully when I reached the crater-rim the wind started to turn, blowing most of the smelly fumes away.

I looked for a path down into the crater, which wasn’t all that difficult. I simply followed the trail of signs that say “do not enter the crater, very dangerous”. I didn’t think that walking down into an active volcano by myself was a very smart thing to do so I waited for one of the tour groups to arrive and simply followed them.

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The final descent into the crater was a bit of a challenge. There was no clear marked path, I was surrounded by poisonous gas, everything I stepped on was slipping away under my feet and there was a highly acidic lake below.

I finally reached the active part of the volcano. Here the fumes were so dense that I could barely see my own hands. But occasionally a glimpse of blue flames rising from between the rocks could be seen. I spend the next half hour or so trying to get the best view and I clearly wasn’t the only one. Dozens of tourists were scrambling around, coming dangerously close to the liquid sulphur just to get a glimpse of nature’s display.

So what is the secret behind this miraculous display of nature? There are actually huge amounts of sulphuric gasses trapped underneath the surface of the crater. These gasses can heat up to 1120˚C, the huge amount of pressure this causes presses the gasses through cracks and vents in the surface. As soon as the gasses come into contact with air they ignite and the blue flames are born. The gasses then condense and form pools of liquid sulphur. Ceramic pipes have been installed to lead the liquid sulphur away from the volcanic vents where it can cool down and solidify, so the miners can break it into pieces and carry it down the mountain.

The sulphur miners make their way into the crater every day. They collect anywhere from 60 to 100kg of solid sulphur and continue to carry it up to the crater-rim and down the mountain. These paths are difficult to climb without carrying 100kg on your back, and yet they manage it with all this weight. Some miners make the dangerous journey twice a day.

The worst part is that they make little more than $5,00 a day for some of the hardest work on the planet. The sulphur is sold, mainly to China, for outrageous prices and processed into cosmetics and insecticides. None of the profits from the mine or the entrance fees to the National Park gets back to these hard workers.

In spite of the natural beauty of this place I couldn’t help feeling like a voyeur. Many tourists delighted in taking pictures of the mine workers, going so far as to ask them to pose for pictures or trying to see if they themselves could lift the 80kg baskets (most couldn’t). The miners, surprisingly, didn’t appear to be too bothered by it.

After witnessing the blue fire I made my way back up to the crater-rim. I walked around the crater for a while, catching the sunrise and marvelling at the beauty of the lake below.

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Getting to Kawah Ijen

You can get to the Ijen crater from the towns Bondowoso or Banyuwangi in east Java. These towns can be reached from the major city of Surabaya. If you come from Bali the ferry drops you of in Banyuwangi. Once in one of these towns you can either book a tour or arrange a driver to take you to the volcano, there is no public transport from either direction.

If you don’t take a tour the driver will drop you of at Pos Paltuding where the hike begins. It’s an easy 3km walk to the crater-rim. Once there it’s best not to just wander down into the crater. Wait for a tour group or the miners and follow them. The path down is extremely steep en slippery, several tourists have died here so take great care. It’s advisable to bring a small surgical mask, the fumes in the crater can be quite overwhelming.

To see the blue fire you will have to be inside the crater at least several hours before sunrise. Once you get back on top you can walk around the crater-rim for great views of the crater-lake and the surroundings. Don’t miss the sunrise.