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Climbing Volcanoes in East Java

At the top, in all the sulphurous smoke

After a blissful week or so on Bali, relaxing with friends and eating our heads off, our friend Heinz (who was also our host at Rumah Bali Resort in Nusa Dua), his son Fabian and a small assortment of other friends and workmates took us off to East Java to climb a volcano.  It wasn't the first one we'd climbed in Indonesia with Heinz. We did another in Bali many years ago.

Heinz, photographing Kawah Ijen the next morning

Piling into a minivan with enough photographic gear to outfit an expedition (Heinz and Fabian are also keen photographers) we set up the southwestern highway, heading for Gilimanuk to take the ferry over to East Java.  I'm glad I didn't have to drive that road.  One lane each way, with trucks hurtling towards us in our lane a common sight.  I learned not to look - especially when our driver giggled!

Kawah Ijen from inside the caldera. Early morning

Once over the strait we headed up through small villages to the caldera of an enormous volcano; Kawah Ijen.  The part you climb to get to the sulphur lake is only a small fraction of the volcano complex. The slopes of the main crater and much of the caldera is covered with coffee plants.  There are several villages inside this area and a resort inside a coffee plantation complex, which mainly services those who plan on climbing.

Coffee plants; flower and unripe berries

It was before 2 am when we assembled in the dark, and it was freezing! Yes, we were in Indonesia, but we were way up in the mountains, and it was COLD. Coffee would warm us up - but alas, in the middle of a coffee plantation, they had inexplicably run out!

The minibus took us back to the 'base camp' where hundreds of people were preparing to climb that morning.  Coffee and fried bananas were sourced and we were off.  Because I would be slower to climb than Mike or Heinz, I was assigned Rudi, an ex-sulphur porter and Made, Heinz's right hand man, to ensure my safety and assist me. They stuck to me like glue and thank goodness they did.  I wouldn't have been able to make it without them. 

Mike will write a blog about the sulphur porters of Kawah Ijen.  They deserve a blog all of their own.

It took me a while, but I climbed the volcano. It was about 2 hours to get up. About 3.5 km and a good deal of that is up! Hikers use the same path the sulphur porters use. At the rim it’s unbelievable. Sulphurous smoke rises from the bottom of the crater about a km below. I was about done in, as well I might be - we were about 2400m up at that point.

I made it to the top!

You can barely see, even when the sun comes up, your eyes are streaming, your nose runs and a you pull a scarf over your mouth and nose to filter out some of the worst of it.  Some people wore masks and some were even in full particulate filter masks!

I could have avoided much of the smoke if I'd gone further up to the top of the rim, like Mike and Heinz did, but I was pretty exhausted by then.

This was the track we climbed - one of the flat bits!

My knees gave out about two thirds of the way down and had to take a ‘taxi’ for the last third - a padded porters trolley. I was a light load compared to his usual one and paid him a darn sight more per kilo as well!

It was terrifying, being less than a foot off the ground and hurtling down the path with the porter yelling 'Taxi!' to clear the path.  He was running!  There were brakes on that contraption, but to my knowledge he didn't use them. 

Padded porters' trollies. I used one to get down the last third of the descent

Back to 'base camp' and more coffee and fried bananas later, I waited almost another hour for Mike and Heinz to come down.  They had continued past where I stopped to the highest point of the rim.  From there they could see the acid lake in the bottom of the crater. Where I was it was obscured by the sulphurous smoke.

The view from the top. Mike and Heinz saw it, but I didn't.  Photo Mike Fewster

I made it up and back, even if not entirely under my own steam, but I think perhaps my days of climbing volcanoes are over. However we are planning to do a little walking in the Sierra Nevada and other parts of Andalucia when we go to Spain later in 2020.  Let's see how well my knees have recovered by then.