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Chasing blue fire in Indonesia’s volcanic heartland

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The faint smell of sulphur grows stronger and headier with each step we take, edging closer to the crater. I clutch the gas mask I was given white knuckles, recalling the conviction I felt just a few hours earlier that this was mere pretence. Kawah Ijen lives up to its reputation, as captivating as it is dangerous.

My journey began a day earlier at the Tengger Mountain Range overlooking Mount Bromo – one of the region’s more popular attractions for hikers – in time for sunrise. It’s easy to see the landscape is so revered by people of Hindu faith, as I look over the flat plain, dubbed the ‘sand sea’, the colossal mountains that rise from its centre. In this moment of quiet peace, I wonder what the next 24 hours hold in store.

A meandering descent to Probolinggo begins the journey to Kawah Ijen. No sooner do I acclimatise to the dramatic change in temperature and the soaring heat than I board an eastbound train to the tip of Eastern Java; the flatlands of Banyuwangi.

Time spent here is taken up with logistics – to see the blue flames, I must reach the crater well before dawn. With day bags packed and winter gear in tow, I leave for Ijen, shortly after midnight. A long and winding ascent follows and the temperature plummets; helped in no small part by the formidable darkness.

Chasing blue fire in Indonesia’s volcanic heartland

I’m greeted at the base by Ganda, a former sulphur miner who now leads guided expeditions into the crater. He has spent morning and night at Ijen, engulfed by its noxious gases, for more than a decade. The hike is by no means arduous but the thinning air and growing stench of sulphur make for an uncomfortable experience. I notice that I’m not the only one sweating in the freezing cold.

After a few hours and with little warning, the incline flattens, and we stare out at the vast crater. The earth here is otherworldly. The crater looks almost snow-capped from a distance; on closer inspection the surface of the caldera is scarred. The path down to the lake is outlined by a faint trail of light from headlamps, which quickly disappear into the plumes of yellow smoke.

The descent is steep, narrow and dangerous; the carved earth has eroded over time leaving a surface void of any grip or precaution. Any instinct to panic and rush is quickly stifled by the inability to hurry, for the poor visibility and rapidly thickening air.

This is not a path built for two-way traffic, yet it somehow suffices. The men who pass are miners, carving up to 90 kilograms of sulphur from the crater, carrying overladen baskets of the noxious chemical across their shoulders. The wooden planks they hoist buckle under the sheer weight. Ganda tells me the sulphur obtained from Ijen is sold, processed, and used primarily in cosmetics and whitening creams. It is for these everyday yet non-essential items that people put themselves in perilous situations; ill equipped to linger within the hazardous conditions, let alone perform backbreaking labour here.

Chasing blue fire in Indonesia’s volcanic heartland

In the belly of the beast, the noise and acrid smell of the gas are overwhelming; the unbearable burning sensation on our skin and eyes is my breaking point. I struggle to spend a few minutes, let alone a decade, in the crater. Sasha Friedlander calls Ijen the place Where Heaven Meets Hell. It is at this point that her description resonates most.

The thick plumes of yellow smoke engulf us without warning, but when they clear, I see the mythical fire; brilliant blue luminescent flames erupting from the surface of the lake – a chemical reaction between the sulphuric gas and oxygen, but for which there is no real explanation or likening. The glowing, ethereal orbs of light appear as if they are floating above the lake. And in a moment, it’s over. The noxious smoke billows over again, the gas washing over us. I glimpse the mystical blue fire once more, before we ascend the caldera. 

Chasing blue fire in Indonesia’s volcanic heartland

The media have maintained a continued interested in Ijen, but the people who live within its periphery every day are rarely given faces. Filmmaker Sasha Friedlander challenged this in the documentary film, Where Heaven Meets Hell. She tells me, “I had been told about the beauty of the volcano as a tourist destination, but didn't realise until seeing it that it was the site of a gruelling sulphur mining operation, where miners carry baskets into and out of the crater for eight dollars a day.”

“Watching the miners suffer through their labour as tourists passed idly by sparked something in me”. Sasha’s sentiments reverberate, and as we make our way down from the summit, we processed a difficult question. Kawah Ijen’s reputation precedes it; try as I may, no words could truly do it justice. But the beauty of the fire serves as a site for uncomfortable encounters between miners and observers, who are left questioning the true price of their curiosity, and travels in search of a blue fire. 

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