Getting to Kawah Ijen for free

I had a hard time deciding on my travel route in East Java, as it seemed like a tour was unavoidable since I couldn’t ride a motorbike on my own. It made me wish R was going to be with me, as perfect travel partners like him are hard to come by. I knew that I really wanted to visit Ijen, a still-active volcano which had the famous blue flames at night, where sulphur miners make the treacherous journey down to the crater to collect sulphur to sell. There were two ways to get there, from Bondowoso (further, but more scenic) and from Banyuwangi (more tourists and possible travel partners, but nearer to Bali than Surabaya where I was starting at) Thankfully, with couchsurfing, I had quite the adventure for absolutely zero costs. After arriving at Surabaya, I couldn’t wait to get out of it as I could smell the pollution at the bus station, and there were so many touts from people trying to confuse me and earn a commission just by getting me to board their (wrong) bus. The bus ride itself was quite an experience, with many hawkers and buskers coming on board every 30 minutes or so to earn some rupiahs. I was surprised that the bus driver actually stopped to let them on board, and that people actually bought the random snacks they were selling.

Y, who owned a hostel in a small village near the already-small city of Bondowoso, agreed to host me. He picked me up from the bus station at the nearest big town on his motorbike, and the views on the ride to the village were that of rice fields and coffee plantations. Really reminded me of Vietnam again. Somehow, once you’ve had a really good experience while traveling, every little thing seems to remind you of it. Anyhow, it was quite amazing that I managed to find a host in that little village, which seemed to be right smack in the most rural area I’ve been to.

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The backyard of where I was staying at.

I had a huge comfy bed to myself, complete with my own squat toilet and sofa, and best of all, fast wifi! Couldn’t have asked for more, and Y was a gem, bringing me to meet his friends and family who were really welcoming. I loved the nights we spent eating fried beancurd on a bamboo platform while just chilling and hiding from the rain, or sharing a simple dinner of Indomie, the ubiquitous instant noodles that seemed like the national dish of Indonesia, with keropok, fried prawn crackers that accompanied every meal, and fried smashed tempeh.

On Sunday morning, I had breakfast with Y’s family, and tried tape, which was fermented cassava, made locally in that village. Quite an acquired taste, but I wouldn’t say it tasted bad. Eating the finger licking good food with our hands was the only acceptable way to enjoy it, and I remembered why I loved couchsurfing so much.

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Y used to be a tour guide, and he told me that I should hitchhike my way to Kawah Ijen, the volcano that I wanted to visit. After he kindly dropped me at the last town from the volcano, I barely waited 5 minutes before someone stopped for me. It was quite amazing how easy hitchhiking was here. Even though the drivers didn’t go all the way to the volcano, they waited with me before the next motorbike came along to pick me up. With my very limited Bahasa Indonesia, I managed to have some sort of conversations with the kind souls who helped me along the way. Within an hour, I reached Sempol, the town at the foot of Ijen. It was supposedly a 13km walk through some forests and a waterfall, and I was planning to spend about 3 hours trekking leisurely to reach Ijen at about 3pm. I had a lot of time anyway, as I could only start climbing at 1am the next morning. The security guards at the starting post looked at me like I was crazy when I said that I was walking up, and wished me good luck. However, after walking less than 1km, a miner who was driving a truck stopped and picked me up, and drove me all the way to the top. It was mighty nice of him, as I saw that there was a landslide, probably from the previous day’s rain, and it had also started to pour. So within 1.5 hours, I went from Bondowoso to Ijen, faster than any public transport could have taken. More importantly, it was really fun just trying my luck along the roads.

Y had a friend who owned a warung, a small restaurant, at Pos Paltuding, where everyone starts the climb. After telling the owner that I was Y’s friend, he let me stay there to rest until 1am, which was perfect as the rain was coming down in sheets and the temperature had dropped to about 15 degrees. I took a nap on the rattan bed until it was too cold to sleep, and moved to the fire place they had at the back of the warung. It was quite something, watching the flames as they threw whatever rubbish they had to feed the fire, Indomie plastic packets, random sheets of paper and empty cigarette cartons. I probably killed quite a few lung cells from inhaling all that burning plastic fumes, but keeping warm was the priority. There were at least 10 kittens there, and they were all curled up around the fire, mewing away. I almost wondered how I was going to kill 12 hours with no wifi and couldn’t really communicate with the people due to the language barrier, but time seemed to pass faster as the afternoon went by. One of the younger guys, S, who worked there came to chat with me and he told me of his big dreams to open a barber shop selling kopi luwak, the famous Indonesian coffee made from beans dug out from cat shit. I was really impressed how ambitious he was, and since he was an avid photographer who had just started making videos of Ijen, we had quite a lot to talk about. At dinner time, together with two other friends, we drove down in his 4WD to Sempol for some Bakso, meatballs with a rather chewy texture, and keropok. I really wanted to stop to take some photos, but felt bad to make them wait lol.

When 1 am finally came, I was excited to start climbing. S also ran a tour agency, and he had a couple of school kids who were new to guiding and would be climbing Ijen that day with a couple of US tourists. He told me to go along with them, and off we went. I had read online that when the gates open at 1, there would be huge queues, but surprisingly, there weren’t that many people, probably coz it was the rainy season. After paying the 100,000Rp ticket, which was 20 times what the locals paid, we were off to a good start. The trek wasn’t difficult, a little steep at parts but the road was well paved. After about an hour’s walk, we reached the crater. The guides I were with didn’t want to go down, so I went on my own. This was the tricky part, as even with a flash light, it was difficult to find the correct way down to the crater. Everyone seemed to be going on their own path and the one I chose seemed to be very difficult and slippery. The miners were zooming past me, hopping across the huge rocks in a very agile manner while carrying 100kg loads of sulphur, making me feel like an absolute clumsy city mouse. I decided to join a group of Indonesian guys who kindly let me tag along, and we got to a good spot to watch the elusive blue flames. This was one of the only two places in the world (the other being Alaska) where this natural phenomenon occurs, and was difficult to catch it as the wind kept blowing sulphur fumes which both blocked the view of the flames while burning our eyes. I didn’t get a gas mask, but don’t think it would have helped much as breathing wasn’t so much of an issue, it was really the eyes that kept tearing.

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Everyone was starting so early in the morning to catch this, as the blue flames disappear once the sun comes up.

After freezing for about 2 hours, the sun started to rise, but it was a really cloudy morning so I didn’t get that coveted sunrise shot over the crater lake. Still, the whole experience of watching these flames come and go, while waiting with that friendly bunch of Indonesian guys, was special. I felt a little bad actually, as the miners have to do this for work, going up and down twice daily with their heavy loads, while we tourists are just obstructing their way for our selfish pleasures. After quite a lot of photos, we slowly made our way up.

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On the way back down, it was great seeing what we had missed in the dark. A really beautiful mountain stood across Ijen, and I also realised how steep it had been. It didn’t seem so going up, but my knees really felt it on the return journey. Within an hour, I was down, and the next challenge came: how to get out of Ijen.

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While I was deciding on whether to head back towards Bondowoso or Banyuwangi (a motorbike taxi would have cost about 200’000 Rp either way), the tour guides I had started climbing with spotted me and beckoned me to join them. They were sitting on a ledge and as I tried to balance myself on it, I flipped over and fell right into a drain lol. It wasn’t painful, just embarrassing. Just then, I spotted a group of 4 guys on motorbikes and took the chance to ask if I could hitch a ride with them. I was extremely lucky once again, as two of them turned out to be Singaporeans and were glad to let me ride pillion. They were headed to Banyuwangi before going to Bromo, which was perfect as I had now found myself travel mates for my next adventure. And that’s how I did it: traveling to and from Ijen, for just the cost of the entrance fee. Hitchhiking was a risk well taken.

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