People often tell me how lucky I am and how lucky the kids are, and I usually thank them and agree. But the reality is that whilst we are lucky in that I have the support of the kids mum I think to call us lucky would be like trying to explain away what we do as some unfathomable impossibility whereby we just happened to one day stumble upon a passport, some cash and a few airline tickets. That is absolutely not the case and there is nothing that makes us more lucky when compared to any other family. Of course some people are unlucky, and believe me I have had hard times in my life, I literally have dragged myself from the floor upwards and rarely stopped to reminisce. But I do agree that every now and again, some part of our journey comes along that does make us incredibly lucky, whether its perfect weather at a crucial time exaggerating the magnificence of what we are doing, or like the time we fell off a motorbike in the Himalayas with nothing dented but our pride. That is luck, everything else we do is the result of meticulous planning, cheek and well structured days that usually start early and end late. Literally, we come home exhausted, it takes me weeks to settle back into a slow existence where my days aren’t filled for 12 hours constantly.
Taking all the above into account however I do believe there does come times every now and again where we must be lucky, where we are afforded such an amazing experience that it can only be explained away with chance which multiplies itself into a pure, unadulterated blessing. Those moments where you stand there and your mind is physically unable to comprehend the information your eyes and senses are transmitting. When something is so perfect you are almost forced to believe in some higher being having created such beauty, its almost impossible to believe otherwise.
So when I looked out from the window of the train as we made our way across East Java, and I saw a stunning range of volcanos I never anticipated just what was there, or what lay ahead. I figured out the range was the Ijen plateau, and so once we left Ubud in Bali we headed for a few days of beach time but I had Kawah Ijen on my mind which is renowned as being the most beautiful climb in the range.
As we usually do, we go independent and there was for some reason a staggering lack of information on Kawah Ijen other than what people had seen once they got there. Getting there was somewhat mystifying with some suggesting you head from Bondowoso in Java (east) but to the west of Kawah Ijen, and others suggesting from Banyuwangi in Java (right on the fringes of eastern Java and the ferry port to Bali)
We found out that arranging a tour from Bali is practically impossible (i was pricing it up) due to the ferry crossing from Bali to Java. And so really, it is something that must be done somewhat independent.
Kwah Ijen is a stratovolcano (made up of hardened lava) that sits at its highest point at 2799m which is just short of 10,000ft. It last erupted in 2002 and has remained active ever since continually spewing out sulphur at one edge of the crater. This sulphur is mined by local folk who carry up to 90kg of the stuff up ridiculously steep and dangerous paths over a route of about 2 miles and get paid just $13 per day if they make two journeys. It is immensely difficult work and the miners are often poorly equipped against the fumes and elements with most suffering respiratory problems at some point.
At its crater Kawah Ijen has a 1 kilometre wide lake filled with sulphuric acid (and the greatest acidic lake on earth) which glows brightly turquoise and is flanked by Gunung Merapi in the imminent distance. All things considered it is just one of those places we simply had to check out.
People generally make the ascent of Kawah Ijen during the daylight hours, but for those willing to make the ascent in darkness a rare phenomenon awaits them known as blue fire. (more later) and they also get to witness the sunrise and so of course, this was what we needed to do.
Knowing it would be absolute darkness, freezing cold, desolate and sulphuric smoke would fill the landscape we bought a torch, face masks and packed our warm clothes and threw our boots on. Balancing getting onto the summit in time to see the blue fire and witness the sunrise, against getting to the summit too early and then sitting in the freezing cold for hours took some planning, and an element of luck and technology.
In any case we made the 5 hour journey back to Java, leaving bali at 6.30pm and arriving into Banyuwangi in java for 11.30pm, but due to time differences it was at 10.30pm. And, everywhere was closed. Pitch black and nothing opened I spent ages finding someone that could help with transport. Eventually a guy offered me a price of 700,000 (£40) and knowing it should have been 600,000 I agreed. The jeep was to pick us up, take us to the foot of the volcano, wait for us and then bring us back to Banyuwangi in the morning. All was agreed and the bloke suddenly started telling me a guide was compulsory, it isn’t. So I was told “my boss said the price is now 800,000” This really pissed me off, we’d spent about an hour sorting things out and now because I refused to be scammed with a guide the price had risen. We left and headed off into the dark in a direction I was sure the train station was, the idea was that there would likely be a hotel who could probably arrange something for us.
After about 5 minutes I saw some bloke selling tea from a porch and I asked him if he could help us find transport. He knocked up his father who said he might be able to help, he jumped on his scooter and shot off into the dark returning ten minutes later with a driver and a price of 600,000. He asked if I minded whether he brought his 7 year old son with us and of course I didn’t mind, I encourage such things.
Reports on the web say the road from Banyuwangi to Kawah Ijen is in state of disrepair and passable only by jeeps. It isn’t, we did it in a toyota minivan and arrived about 90 minutes later in darkness, cold and at the foot of the volcano under a stunning starry night sky scarcely illuminated by a half moon.
Guides surrounded us, but once I pulled out my torch and face masks and I think they knew we knew what we were doing. I thought we were the only foreigners there, but a couple of girls and a guy came over and asked if a guide was compulsory. I told them it was not and they asked if they could walk with us as they were a bit out of their comfort zone. The guy who we had arranged our driver with was called Edi, and his son was called Yusuf, Edi asked if he minded if he and Yusuf accompanied us and so we all set off at about 1.30am in absolute darkness up to an opening in the trees which was barely noticeable. I took the following photograph of the pathway ahead:
Despite guide books and web reports claiming you must pay entrance we were not charged going up, or coming back down.
The way I dealt with the situation about not arriving too late or too early was to use an app called Endomondo on my phone. It is a GPS based route tracker telling you how far/fast you have travelled, I knew the route was about 3km straight uphill and so this meant I could pace accordingly as well as having water stops/rest stops at sufficient intervals.
The route begins slightly steep, and after about 15 minutes becomes very steep, so steep in fact that coming back down was a comedy of falls and slips with jack falling some fifteen or so times. The route follows a well trodden volcanic pathway which twists and turns up for about 2.5km to a rest house (which I think is a sugar refinery) We were walking only by our own torch and there were times we had to take serious precautions as the pathway splits and drops and is at times littered with bare tree roots. It was fun for the kids though, a real adventure in the darkness led by a single white strobe of light.
By the time we got to the rest house we were dripping in sweat and stops of more than a minute resulted in us quickly getting very cold as the sweat lost its heat. In anticipation of this I had brought us dry T-shirts but I didn’t want to use them until we hit the summit. The walk was hard, and I don’t care what anyone else says, not only is it at altitude and so the air is thinner, but the smoke is thick from the rest house onwards and the pathway was a grinding, merciless climb where every step taken was felt. After 3km we were supposed to be at the crater rim, but it was another 1km of a winding, relatively flat path along the side of the volcano and under sparse greenery and foliage. By this point we had our face masks on and the smoke stung our eyes to the point where we could barely keep them open and they became simple slits.
The path eventually meets the crater rim and though it was dusty we couldn’t see anything other than the beam of our torch
We followed a path to where we could see the odd headlight moving slowly (these were the sulphur miners) and found ourselves at a view point which looked out into complete darkness except for some flickering and dancing of blue flames. It was one of the most bizarre occurrences the kids and I have ever seen and it literally looks like fire dancing around in the dark.
My camera struggled to focus through the darkness and so this photo is the best we got as we peered into the darkness of the crater:
The blue flames are actually sulphur in the lake setting on fire and burning, this doesn’t just happen at night, but obviously cannot be seen during the day. You can descend down into the crater and toward the flames for a close up look, but the track is dangerous and has claimed lives. Despite the assurances of a miner willing to mind us down I felt it an irresponsible and unnecessary risk to proceed with children in tow.
After we had sat in awe (and were so cold we just had to move) I checked my clock and it was 4am, the walk had taken us about 90 minutes, but we had a further 1 km to climb up to the craters highest point.
This was the point at which the walk became dangerous and the point at which we walked along the rim of the crater, in darkness we had no way of knowing how far the drop was, or how steep it was. We walked in single file slowly up across the cooled and dried lava and headed what looked like towards the stars. The walk was amazingly exciting as every step we took was in a landscape we could not see, to a backdrop of scenery we had not yet witnessed. But, after some 30 minutes we reached the summit of Kawah Ijen and after checking my compass we planted ourselves facing east and watched in awe as the horizon began to glow a fire like golden yellow.
Starting at around 5am the landscape slowly and almost cautiously came into view, it was like you imagine the surface of the moon to be like, dusty, dry and devoid of life other than those who had made the effort to witness nature at its absolute best and most exciting. We shivered and huddled together and we made up half of the people who had made it to the summit to see the sunrise and this only confirmed to me just how much effort we had put in (as we descended we noticed several tourists who had simply not made it in time) After there was sufficient light we snuck a peek over the crater rim and it rocked me to the core and the kids almost in unison vocally extended their awe at what lay before us. No image I had seen did the view justice and I simply don’t have the vocabulary to describe what a phenomenally spectacular view it really was.
I hope the leading photo has done it some kind of justice, but it cannot tell the massive scale at which it is in reality.
We were completely mesmerised by not just the view, but the landscape in which we could now see. It is luner-esque, baron and like no where else on earth outside of a volcanic region. And as we made the walk back across the rim I told the kids how proud of them I really was. We had been up for over 36 hours, had travelled some seven hours and walked all night up a hill that is extremely steep for 90% of the way, we had done it wearing face masks and in darkness led only by a torchlight. We had made the effort to summit Kawah Ijen and it had rewarded us in a way which I cant imagine could ever be beaten. We had felt every step of the climb, had transversed a crater in which a wrong footing could’ve resulted in serious consequences and through my pride of the kids I wondered if I had perhaps gone too far this time. But it was difficult to balance risk with what filled our minds and the kids were really in their element, Jack was skidding in the dusty lava and every now and again Abi would do a fake fall which she swears wasn’t fake.
As we made the descent it became apparent just how high we were as the clouds were thousands of feet beneath us.
And now we are safely back in Bali and the trek last night is a beautiful memory I reflect on just what we accomplished, I think about how every step I take is two steps to Jack and yet he persisted through the darkness clinging to his inhaler for the first time of the entire year. I think about how my timid little girl looked at me reassuringly as she followed my every footstep around the rim and I feel absolute pride that she continues to do something every day which scares her. And then I think to Charlie who throughout not just the climb, but the entire summer has been an absolute workhorse. He carried around 5 litres of water and plenty of food and clothes up that volcano. Every step he took was against gravity and with a bag so heavy most adults I know would have given up. Yet with a cheeky smile and a will to succeed to he pushed himself past his bodies own abilities.
Everyone of us involved in ascending Kwah Ijen put in nothing short of maximum effort and as we descended back down the volcano I saw many tourists heading up in daylight looking at the kids and wondering how on earth their tiny legs had defied what even they felt was impossible.
Kawah Ijen rewarded our efforts with the most spectacular sunrise we have ever witnessed, draped across the most amazing view we have ever seen. I am still a little taken back by the whole experience, but right now it seems that after 5 years of seeing and doing things most people only dream of, we might just have topped every thing which preceded Kawah Ijen.
Combined with the company I keep, last night was the best night and experience of my life.
The kids all agree 🙂