Tiny van. All seats taken. It’s hot outside. It’s hotter inside. 6 hours to our next destination: “Twilight Zone hotel” number 2 at the base of Ijen.
The hotel is deserted except for a few locals gathered around the tv and an overly hyped guy from somewhere in Western Europe. No wonder. He has spent the past 2 days all alone in the hotel waiting for a tour to come along so he can get to Ijen and then get the hell out of there. We’re a sight for sore eyes.
It’s 7 pm. We have to wake up at… did you guess 3am? WRONG. To make it even more interesting, we have to be ready by 1 am, so we have to set our alarms to half past midnight. Yaaay! Back to the story. It’s 7 pm and we all gather around a table zipping complimentary tea and sharing crazy travel stories. At 8 pm we call it a night. Yes, at 8 pm. We want to sleep as much as possible. Of course, the pressure of knowing you have to wake up in 4, 3, 2, f@ck-this-sh*t hours makes it almost impossible.
So, off we go, 1 am. While we’re all trying to sleep our way to the base of this second volcano, there’s a specially chatty American who’s all cheerleader-like. At 1 am. She’s kind of entertaining though and I’m not going to be able to get any sleep anyway so I just go with the flow.
We get to the base at 2 am: the idea is to go all the way up, then down to see the sulfur mine and the blue fire while it’s still dark and then go up again to see the sunrise. This time, the main attraction isn’t the sun but the blue lake you can see in the crater, which only looks blue early in the morning. Afterwards, the light of day makes it look just gray.
We get introduced to our guide for the night, Holili. Cool, let’s go! We start walking. By now, I’m used to being the last one in the group, gasping for air and doing things at my own pace if I want to be able to do them at all. This nice Italian guy hangs out with me in the back. OK, no biggie, I’m last as usual. Suddenly, the road starts getting steep. Steeper. Steeper. 39 degree angle steep (don’t quote me on this). I start to feel like my lungs aren’t keeping the air long enough, or that they don’t have enough capacity or something like that, I’m not thinking straight anymore. I’m struggling, very badly. I can hear the rest of the group laughing several meters ahead. How can they walk and laugh?!! And to add to my embarrassment, our guide stays behind, with me, smoking his cigarette and looking like he has just started. I tell him I’m sorry like 5 million times. He just smiles. I’m ready to give up, I will just stay here until they come back down, or until dawn breaks and I can find my way back or until a giant eagle mistakes me for dead meat and takes me back to its nest and feeds me to its little eagle kids.
My friend Julia just won’t let me quit. She coaches my way up and down and back up. Bear in mind, she’s the one that has respiratory issues and goes around with asthma medication! I can still hear her: “10 more steps and we’ll stop to rest” I hate everything and everyone. I can’t feel my legs or my head. To add to this beautiful concoction, as we’re going down to see the sulfur mines, the air becomes unbreathable. REALLY? I’m already having trouble breathing, dude! (dude: someone I made up to direct my hatred to, as if he was forcing me to do this). Out come the surgical masks we bought for the occasion. Sexy. Julia sees me struggling so bad she even considers giving me a hit of her medicine. Hilarious.
So… yeah, blue fire, very nice; sulfur, crazy. It really looks like hell down there. To add to my feelings of inadequacy, we see sulfur workers doing their thing. They hike up and down the crater, twice a day, carrying an average of 90 kgs of sulfur on their backs. It looks like exhausting, excruciating physical work. It seems that they’re in great shape, but all I can think of are the consequences of doing this day after day. Consequences for their backs, for their lungs. It makes me appreciate my good fortune in life.
Time to go back up and enjoy the sunrise. When we finally get to the top, I feel like crying. I feel like Rocky Balboa, I can’t believe I’ve made it! I even get my picture taken with my arms held high. You can tell by the expression on my face that I’m not 100% right in the head at this point. I have my friend to thank, I honestly wouldn’t have done it without her.
So we’re there. Ok, THIS IS IT??!! And as my feeling of having been bs’ed about the whole experience starts to grow stronger and stronger, there it is. The sight, the feeling of marveling at the universe, how can this be possible? There’s a blue lake in the crater of a volcano, and it’s the most stunning and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! I realized later that I took like 20 pictures of the same thing, just because every passing minute seemed to offer a different light to the whole landscape.
It’s time to go back down. And as we’re going down a winding road, there he is, the sun. All covered in fumes, looking like this incredible black hole, making the trees below him look like Tim Burton drawings.
I’m in pain, my feet are blistered, I’m hungry, thirsty and tired. Cold sweat on my body, and I would do it all. over. again. As my good friend Jack Kerouac would say:
Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.
Ps: the trekking is really hard if you are not in good shape. It’s almost 2km of steep hike. HOWEVER, if you have good shoes, a stick to help yank yourself forward and a good trekking buddy, it can be done. Don’t forget surgical masks and water. And an energy bar in case your blood sugar goes down. If you get the chance, do it. It’s rewarding in so many ways.
Rocky “Anto” Balboa
People from afar at the top of Ijen
Blue lake + pink in the sky / Lago celeste en el crater del volcan + cielo rosa
Holili / Nuestro guía, Holili
Sulfur workers / Recolectores de azufre