Mt. Ijen is a volcano with a crater that holds the largest sulphuric lake in the world. Due to the high levels of volcanic gases and acidity in the air, we began our midnight hike wearing gas masks. I have hiked small mountains and volcanos before, but I was not expecting this type of trek. We left our family homes at midnight to begin the steep 4 hour hike to the summit. The entire hike was in darkness, so we relied on our mini flashlights and local mountain tour guides.
Our tour guides were actually former sulphur miners in Ijen, so they shared their experiences about growing up and working in the sulphur mines with their families as most people in the town do. I was shocked to find out that each day the sulphur miners hike up the steep mountain, fill their shoulder baskets with ~80-100 kilograms of sulphur rock, hike back down the mountain, and sell the sulphur in town. When we began our scenic hike, we felt the sting of gases even through our gas masks and were winded after just the first hour. I was amazed to see the sulphur miners running up the mountain or carefully descending the mountain with the sulphur baskets around the shoulders without gas masks.
Not only is the physical labor and exposure to sulphur especially detrimental to their longevity, but the path at the summit and down into the crater to retrieve sulphur rocks is extremely hazardous. When we made our return journey back down the mountain, we saw how narrow the path we had walked up in the dark truly was. On either side of the 3 foot path were steep, rocky slopes leading into the sulphur lake. If we or any of the miners had slipped in the darkness, we would have fallen into the acidic sulphur lake.
Putting the scariness of melting in a giant acid lake aside, however, it was amazing to see the clouds slowly disappear as the sun rose at 4:30 am to reveal the beautiful blue lake below us. We were unable to hike down into a part of the crater where we would be able to see blue flames produced from the interaction of the gas with the sunlight. Apparently the lake had been emitting more gas than usual, so it would have been very dangerous to try to see the flames as the sun rose on this trip.
Hiking up Mt. Ijen with the sulphur miners to see the lake at sunrise was one of my favorite experiences I’ve had, both on this trip and from any of my travels. Here’s to hoping I can see more of Java in the future!