One of my goals while in Indonesia was to climb a volcano. After a bit of research, I was captivated by the photos of blue fire down the crater of Kawah Ijen. From the sulfur that is mined inside a portion of the crater, streams of blue fire seem to flow into the lake that is in the center of the crater. Located in East Java, it would only take about four hours on my little scooter to reach it from Bali.
I made plans to stay at a little village nearby the volcano that is home to many of the sulfur miners. On my drive to the island of Java, I came across a group of policemen pulling over drivers on both sides of the road. Even though I had been driving around on motorbikes in every South East Asian country, I have never had an international drivers license and luckily never been pulled over.
My hope of trying to slip behind another vehicle and blend my way through this random checkpoint quickly faded when almost every officer was staring directly at me. Seeing an officer wave me over to the shoulder of the road I knew my luck had just run out. After watching the six officers convene into a small group, probably to see who had the best English, one of the officers walked over to me and asked for my license and registration of the bike. I handed over the registration and pretended to be searching my bag for my license while I was actually putting away most of my money and putting only 200,000 rupiah (about $15) into my pocket.
I tried to look a bit lost and explained that I must have left my international license back in Canggu (the area of Bali I came from). He told me that I must have the license while driving and said that he would have to take me to a police office… or, with a slight tilt of his head, we could try and work out the problem here on the side of the road. I nodded, apologized again and said that I understood the situation and that it would be no problem to fix it here and now.
Reaching around in my pockets I asked him if 100,000 would be enough. Without hesitation, he asked if I could double the amount. I explained I only had 200,000 and needed the second hundred to pay for the ferry to the island of Java. He agreed without any dissent and palming the money from my pocket, I reached out to shake his hand that held my bike registration and we traded papers during the shake. With smiles all around I was back on my bike and on the road. He was happy with the bribe. I was happy with paying very little money and the experience of bribing an officer of the law. On to Ijen!
As the blue flame of Mt. Ijen can only be viewed at night, the adventure started with a 45-minute drive to the base of the mountain at about one in the morning. At the base of the mountain you must pay a fee in order to enter and many Indonesians are running around trying to convince you to take them as a guide or at least rent a gas mask from them. Convinced by my homestay host, I had rented a mask from him to take with me.
The trail to the top isn’t difficult to follow on your own and the roughly 4km trail takes about 1-2 hours depending on your speed. Once at the top of the volcano you may be asked again by a guide or two wanting money to take you down into the crater to view the blue fire. I was one of the first people up the mountain in the morning and without difficulty found the trail down into the crater. It isn’t difficult to follow, just bring a good headlamp.
Plumes of smoke floated up from further down the crater and the smell of sulfur got stronger the more I descended. As the smell got stronger I put on my mask continued down. I began to see sticks with baskets on both ends strewn across the ground. Before I reached the bottom, an incredibly skinny miner was making his way up the steep trail, step by step, out of the crater with a heavy load of sulfur being balanced across his back. I later learned that they carry loads of up to 200 pounds up the hill.
As I got lower and closer to the blue flames, the amount of smoke and sulfur increased in the air. When I came across a man mining for the sulfur and breathed the same air as him, the horrible conditions of the mining work was fully grasped by my mind. The mine is owned by a Chinese company and pays the workers very little for their backbreaking work. The general toil of mining and carrying heavy burdens is tough labor for anyone and adding in the toxic sulfur air you have a job that must be killing its workers slowly. With the horrible conditions in the back of my mind, I continued further to see the blue fire. It was beautiful and captivating to watch, yet difficult to stay near when smoke fills the area making your gas mask fill useless.
After sitting on a boulder watching the fire, smoke, and workers for a time it was time to get out of the toxic air and head back up to the top of the crater. Just as I reached the top the sun started to rise and one of the most beautiful natural landscapes was revealed before me. I may have come to witness the blue fire, but I will return to see the beauty that is the crater and crater lake of Kawah Ijen.
When my eyes had feasted enough on the sunrise of the crater, I returned back to the village for a little rest before heading back to Bali. My little rest helped me avoid being on a ferry that sank on the crossing between the islands an hour before to the port.
Waterfalls of Bali
The beaches of Bali are famous for surfing and relaxing. Yet as usual, I am drawn to waterfalls and the little swimming holes that bring me a sense of peace I can’t find elsewhere. Some waterfalls have become popular tourist attraction, while at others I found myself completely alone.
Chasing waterfalls was one of my favorite activities around Bali as the little adventures brought me through small villages, beautiful rice fields, and other places I would not have ended up at otherwise.
Getting Close to a Break from Traveling
I dropped the ball in Bali and Indonesia. I was given an opportunity to push myself into Balinese culture and learn, but I didn’t take it. The cultural experiences I often strive to be a part as I travel the world were right in front of me, but I couldn’t bring myself to engage. Many parts of Bali are a paradise for a traveler due to the quality food, both Indo and Western, comfortable villas, and stunning beaches. It was easy to get lost in tranquil days filled with beautiful sunsets while sipping on coconuts. I spent most of the time in a floating comfort zone as interesting ceremonies and how knows what happened around me.
People sometimes talk about becoming jaded when traveling. When astonishing sights no longer hold your interest as they used to. It can be applied to most aspects in life, the moment where something we cherished becomes the norm and we no longer appropriately appreciate it. As my interest in actively experiencing the culture around seemed to be beginning to wane, I finally felt for the first time ready to return home (at least for a little awhile).
Indonesia is a big place and I definitely have plans to come back. While I enjoyed my month’s time in Bali immensely, the next time I return to Indonesia I plan to experience more with a renewed interest in my surroundings. I am slowly finding myself coming closer to the United States, but how can anyone be in a rush when there is beautiful New Zealand to explore first!