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Indonesia

The blue flames of Kawah Ijen

Indonesia

The blue flames of Kawah Ijen

Magical! The blue fire in the crater of the Ijen volcano on East Java is a must-see. Upon contact with oxygen, the sulphur fumes of the volcano ignite, creating these alluring blue flames.

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East Java

The miners of Kawah Ijen

It’s not lava but sulphur that has made Gunung Ijen one of the most famous volcanoes in East Java. At night, travellers from around the world flock here to watch the dancing blue flames down in the crater. But the phenomenon is also an important source of income for the local population. Every day, hundreds of miners make the agonising trek into to the Kawah Ijen crater before climbing back up with heavy baskets of sulphur on their backs.

The Gunung Ijen volcano rises 2,700 metres above sea level and harbours a captivating blue lake and steaming sulphur mine. Fed through ceramic pipes, boiling hot liquid red sulphur percolates up from the ground. When it cools down, the sulphur transforms into yellow stone that creates a spectacular contrast with the blue crater lake. This yellow stone can be used in a large variety of products: from matches and rubber to cosmetics and batteries.

Liquid sulphur percolates from the ground through ceramic pipes © Iris van den Broek

Three daily trips into the crater
In the very early hours of the morning, the local miners descend into the crater. By getting an early start they can beat the heat of the day. The sulphur mine lies 200 metres inside the crater. The trail from the edge of the crater to the steaming mine is steep and treacherous. It is hard to imagine that on their way back the men will be lugging heavy baskets filled with chunks of sulphur. And we are not talking about just a few kilos: on each trip the miners carry an average of 80 kilos of stone up a steep path with a sixty-degree slope. Most people can barely manage once, but these frail men make the trek several times a day. Some even as many as ten times!

Once they reach the top, their takings are weighed. Ten kilos of sulphur yield 10,000 rupiah (75 dollar cents). This means that a load of 80 kilos will earn the miner a measly sum of $6. However, mining is still a lot more lucrative than working at a coffee plantation for example.

Miners lug up to 80 kilos of sulphur on their back © Iris van den Broek

Blue flames
In recent years, a growing number of curious travellers have also been making the descent into the crater. Most visitors explore Gunung Ijen in the daytime and miss out on the volcano’s secret: the blue flames. To see those you must join the miners (and a guide) and make the trek in the dead of night. One o’clock in the morning is a good starting time. The hike to the edge of the crater takes 60-90 minutes depending on your walking speed. The descent into the blue fire of the crater will take another 45 minutes. You will be handsomely rewarded for your efforts and still have plenty of time to admire the blue fire in all of its splendour. Upon your return from the crater, enjoy a sunrise walk around the edge: this relatively flat trail offers great views of the blue crater lake.

The magnificent crater lake at sunrise © Iris van den Broek