Deep in the volcano's spiny caldera, blue flames flared like primordial ether at creation's dawn.
Stars shimmered overhead, teasing the night's inky blackness, only to be obscured as clouds of sulfurous gas poured from fissures in the crater floor.
Hours earlier at a guesthouse set amidst coffee fields and rubber trees, Joanie's alarm started screeching at 11:40pm. We'd gone to sleep a few hours before to rest up for the drive and hike to the peak, then into the cauldron of Kawah (Mount) Ijen, an 8,660-foot volcano on Java, Indonesia's eastern slope.
It was a spur of the moment decision instigated by the temptation of more volcano trekking and blue lava (actually blue fire, but fantasy overpowered reality).
The night before we hiked to the peak of Mt. Bromo, an inactive volcano on a massive volcanic plateau (stay tuned for pix an overhead satellite map). Before heading to the guesthouse on Bromo’s rim where we’d nap before the summit push, we stopped at the tour office and saw pictures of Mount Ijen’s blue flames.
We had to see this. After a bout of bartering that included throwing a stack of cash (880,000 Rupiah – just under $100) on the desk saying, “Here's the cash. Do you want it? I really want you to have it” and watching the salesman squirm as he decided it was enough, we added the second volcano trek to our itinerary.
For the blue fire, the plan was to leave at midnight and begin the hour and a half drive through windy roads canopied in lush jungle. The guide did not appear until 12:30 am and was limping, from twisting his ankle in the dark. (In the previous 2 days, both Joanie and I and the Dutch couple trekking with us had a total 8 hours of sleep and would have enjoyed any extra shut-eye).
We loaded into the van and drove to the volcano, an advertised hour and a half journey that takes only 45 minutes. After arrival, we finalized our packing (jacket and rain shell for the cold and possible rain, snacks for the hike, water, headlamp and a monopod (a one legged camera stand) that I’ve occasionally used as a cane (my ankle is much better but I am still cautious) and headed up the trail.
The path begins wide as a Hummer and flat but quickly charges upward to a 45-degree slope. We hike in the darkness broken by our bouncing flashlight beams, panting from the guide’s breakneck pace and thinning air as the altitude grows.
We continue climbing up, above the tree line into the night’s expansive claustrophobia. The acrid smell of sulfur sours the air and the crater looms. Far below, billowing clouds of sulfur churn skyward, shifting direction as the winds swirl. In the distance, a faint blue glow radiates and small red and white lights dance near the glow, lights of the fiery torches and flashlights of the miners harvesting raw sulfur.
It’s nearly 3:00 am and the guide says 20 miners are working the late shift. It’s a weekend for the miners and the main crew (around 400 people) are off.
We tie bandannas over our faces to protect from the sulfurous fumes and climb over the edge, into the crater’s barren lunar landscape. Rudimentary steps cut into the chalky white rock vanish and reappear at random. When there are no steps, we slide down scree and hop from rock to rock, struggling to keep our balance and ignore the sulfur’s stink. As we descend, miners trod up the path carrying baskets full of raw yellow sulfur precariously balanced on their shoulders. An average load weighs between 175-220 pounds, for which they take home around $13.50.
The blue fire, fueled by alight liquid sulfur, grows brighter but the winds pickup and spit the fuming clouds throughout the crater, erasing everything except for its milky haze. At the bottom of the crater, a miner toils in the noxious cloud, prying sulfur from the earth with a six-foot crowbar.
A bit further, we arrive to the shore of the sulfurous lake that fills the crater; it’s hot acidic water steaming and morbidly opaque in the darkness.
I am in hell or some lost time when the molten earth struggled to accrete. It’s dark, stinking, my eyes are burning and despite wanting to take more photos, our group’s survival instinct seems to have taken over and we begin to ascend back to the crater rim.
Ten seconds later the winds violently shift, trapping Eric (one of the Dutch hikers), Joanie and myself in a malicious cloud of sulfur gas. I crouch down, my eyes shuttered, holding my breath but unable to avoid breathing the fiery air. I gasp, try to look around and see nothing but deadly blankness. Joanie is a few feet away.
Talk is impossible. We can only choke and have been trapped for what seems like a deathly amount of time. Instinct screams, overpowering the thoughts of death tearing through my brain. Seconds, minutes, I have no idea. The cloud breaks. I pull Joanie up and cough out “Let’s Go!”
We see in the distance a light and run toward it as fast as we can. The cloud still hovers but thinner. Our eyes, throats and lungs sizzle and an unspoken singularity directs us to ascend as fast as possible from this murderous place. We climb until the guide takes a wrong turn and we’re stuck at a dead end. A miner nearby sees us stranded and corrects our path. In the dark, we quickly ascend to just below the crater rim.
At the rim, clouds of sulfur continue to billow by, less toxic than in the crater but still saturated with poison. Joanie is gasping, sick from inhaling the sulfuric brew. All of us are coughing, our eyes still tearing.
But we’re alive and survived what may or may not be hell on earth.
It’s either late night or early morning, the coldest, darkest time. Icy winds whip around the crater.
The sky lightens, stars disappear and temperature rises. The crater reveals itself: it’s sides mangled and scarred as if some mythical predator clawed its way from the blue fire, clouds of sulfur churn, yellow sulfur deposits stain its walls. The sulfurous lake no longer looks like death’s ocean, but a tropical turquoise oasis.
The day has finally begun: wispy pink clouds fill the brightening sky and the blue flame’s primordial glow fades into the new dawn.