Anyone visiting the eastern end of Java will no doubt be planning a trip to the stunning Ijen plateau. The regular itinerary involves a midnight hike to the crater edge, followed by a stop inside the crater to marvel at the blue flames of the sulphur mine before finishing off with a spectacular sunrise overlooking the many volcanic peaks of Java and Bali. It’s a memorable experience and whilst many insist it can’t be done without buying an expensive tour, we heard several reports to the contrary so decided to go it alone. This is our detailed guide on how to plan your own unguided visit, what to expect, and why we think it’s nicer on your own.
What to Bring:
- gas mask
- rain jacket/wind breaker
- warm layer
- head torch
- high calorie snack
The Road to Ijen
The very first thing you’ll need to do is rent a moped, helmets and gas masks from your homestay or a rental shop in Banyuwangi. Make sure to test the moped out before the night of the trek, checking the breaks, tread etc. Rental costs were 70,000IDR per day, and a full tank of petrol cost 40,000IDR. The gas masks were 20,000IDR each and an absolute necessity.
A lot of local companies will warn you that the road to Ijen is poor quality and too dangerous to attempt on a scooter. The reality is very different as the majority of the route is along some of the best roads we’ve seen in Indonesia. I still wouldn’t recommend it to a complete novice given the pitch black you find once you enter the national park perimeter. If you’ve ridden around Asia a fair bit already, it shouldn’t pose any problems.
The route is pretty straightforward and sign-posted, but take a phone with it preloaded just in case. There was virtually no traffic when we set off at 12:30am. I made sure to keep count and during the street-lit portion, we only encountered one small patch of broken road. Once we paid the parking fee at the entrance and passed under the huge gate, there were no more street lights. The road is still good quality but there are very occasional potholes that can appear quite suddenly out of the darkness. As long as you’re aware that there might be a hole or two and don’t drive like a maniac, it’s quite easy to traverse the rest of the winding road up to the base camp.
Once you arrive at the car park someone will point you in the direction of the building where you can buy an entry ticket. It costs 100,000IDR (~£5) on weekdays and 150,000IDR on weekends for foreign visitors.
The hike itself is honestly very easy. It’s more like a steady walk up a hill which most people should be able to manage. If you do find yourself struggling, there are a bunch of porters (usually sulphur miners) waiting with wheelbarrows to carry you up for a small fee. You’ll pass through the forested lower regions of Ijen for around 30-60 minutes. After you emerge from the forest canopy the path becomes a little narrower and more gravelly but is still very clear and not particularly steep. We were lucky enough to have a full moon above us, lighting up beautifully ethereal scenes of ghostly clouds wrapping around the black silhouettes of nearby mountains. Make sure you take the time to look back over the valley on your way up.
After about 45-90 minutes you’ll reach the crater rim. Here you’ll find a lot of guides offering to help you reach the blue flames at the bottom of the crater. It’s up to you whether to get one at this point. On the one hand it’s nice to support the local people and the guide can give you a bit more information. However, if money is tight or you’d prefer some alone time then it’s really not necessary. The terrain turns to boulders and rubble as you dip into the crater, making it a bit more precarious than the path up. Take care where you step but, as long as you’re paying attention, there’s no real danger. Also make sure you keep your mask on the whole time you are inside the crater. I thought it was only necessary when you could smell the sulphur or got near the smoke and ended up having irritated sinuses for a week.
On the way down you’ll encounter miners making their way back up with baskets full of their yellow payload. It’s quite heartbreaking to see how arduous their labour is as they traverse back up with 70-90 Kg resting across their shoulders. Be gracious and give way as they pass. If you really want to show some appreciation it’s a nice gesture to buy a little yellow souvenir from them for 20,000IDR. Sulphur is an essential compound in many industrial and cosmetic products. Unfortunately, obtaining the sulphur causes atrocious health complications for the miners, reducing their average life expectancy to just 50 years. Despite the risks they undertake and the back breaking work, corporations still exploit the cheap labour costs in developing countries like Indonesia, giving the miners just $5-10 a day and providing no safety equipment such as gas masks. Any additional income from the tourists is definitely appreciated. Here’s a great National Geographic piece on the miners, complete with stunning photos (much more so than our phone snaps ;)) of Ijen.
During our visit, the electric blue fire from the ignited sulphuric gas was small compared to the massive plumes you see all over the Internet. They were still really cool though and we spent quite a lot of time sitting on the verge opposite, watching the miners work whilst the wind periodically stoked the flames. Once the crater started to crowd up with the tour groups we decided it was time to head back up and find a nice spot for the sunrise. For us, this is really the best thing about doing Ijen solo: you get to set your own pace and find spots of solitude on an otherwise busy mountain.
For sunrise, it’s just a short 15-20 minutes along the crater’s edge until you reach a north-easterly vantage point. All that’s left to do is munch on your snacks and admire the sky as it shifts through a kaleidoscope of indigos, pinks, purples, oranges, reds and yellows. Meanwhile, behind you, the magnificent, powdery, aquamarine water of the crater lake reveals itself. It’s a truly spectacular view that we were so glad to have ample time to appreciate rather than having to rush back to a tour bus.
The descent back to the car park was by far the toughest portion of the Ijen trek. Maybe we’re getting old, but the downward slope is absolutely killer on the knees! On the plus side you finally get to see the monochrome world of the night before spring to life, flaunting bright green ferns against red-brown dirt and patches of pink and yellow volcanic rock.
After a wet ride home through verdant rice paddies, we got back into bed for a well deserved nap. This was our experience completing the midnight-sunrise trek of Ijen without a tour group. In total it set us back 380,000IDR (£20.52) for two people. This figure includes 20000IDR sulphur souvenir and way more fuel than we actually required. Hopefully this information is useful when planning your own trip. Whichever way you decide to visit, Ijen is well worth the effort!