With just hours before the sun peaks on the horizon, I’m staring at a supernatural blue glow while breathing through a heavy-duty gas mask, from within the belly of an active volcano.
Stopping to just realize the present moment usually only happens in the face of something truly extraordinary.
Without a doubt, this is one of those moments.
Getting to Ijen
We are in Indonesia’s East Java to climb the volcanic crater of Kawah Ijen: a place of sulphur clouds, a giant acidic lake and neon-blue flames that are only visible by night.
Waking up at the Cinderella hour from at our homestay in Bondowoso, my husband, I and two non English-speaking Italians, pile into a van for a 45 minute ride to the base of the volcano.
We arrive to a handful of mini buses loitering in a pitch-black car park, with some tin-shed stalls selling steaming cups of coffee.
It’s unexpectedly freezing and so I put on all the contents of my suitcase until I am a fat parfait of T-shirts and leggings.
Unable to see anything beyond my shoes and the stars, we begin the steep, 1.5 hour ascent to the top.
After more than a few slips along the unlit terrain we finally reach the summit of the crater rim.
My headlamp catches and reflects off a well-weathered sign: “Visitors are prohibited going down on crater. Dangerous.”
I look back down the mountain, then at my dirty, grazed hands, and press on.
Blue flames and suffocating sulphuric clouds
After another 20 minutes circling around the top, we begin our descent into the crater.
Although there are organized tours, the volcano is not ‘tourist-friendly’ by any stretch.
We find ourselves navigating through a small dirt track, sometimes climbing, mostly slipping, down large rocks and at times going the wrong way.
And with each step, an unpleasant odor – that smells like eggs and ammonia – intensifies.
Then, I see it.
A blue glow radiating in the distance, covered occasionally by huge white clouds of escaping sulphuric gas.
Getting closer, a silence falls over us as we look up, mesmerized.
Just metres away, electric-blue flames burst out of the sulphur mines and lick away into the night sky.
The blue fire is ignited sulphuric gas, which escapes from cracks in the rocks and installed vents. It can reach temperatures of up to 600°С.
Behind us, a line of dimly glowing headlamps bob along like glow worms, as drabs of other travelers cautiously negotiate the rocky terrain.
Just next to the spewing cauldron, is Kawah Ijen crater lake – the largest acidic lake in the world.
The volcano emits hydrogen chloride gas and reacts with the water, turning it a bizarre shade of turquoise-blue.
A sight to leave you breathless, literally.
I’m filled with awe, sitting just metres from this spectacular natural phenomena, which that can only be witnessed in a handful of locations around the world.
Then, suddenly and without warning, the wind changes. The blue flame disappears and a white cloud of escaping noxious gases surrounds us completely.
Gasping for breath, I reach out in hopes of grabbing an arm, hell, even a rock, but I am left batting desperately at the air.
My eyes and throat are stinging as I drop to the ground, my chest tight with panic.
Thankfully, after a long minute, the sulphur cloud zags in another new direction, revealing a cluster of bewildered young travelers crouching on the floor, eyes watering.
I look around and see others abandoning their old and poorly-sized masks, instead wearing them loosely around their necks like clunky, apocolytic necklaces.
Chasing the sunrise
After the adventure of the morning, it’s hard to think Kawah Ijen has anything more to offer.
But our guide then tells us to start running! “Try to reach the top of the crater before sunrise!”
Climbing the rocks back up and sprinting over the lunar surface of the crater, we reach the summit in time, completely breathless.
But it is entirely worth it, as it is the most amazing sunrise of my life.
With the light behind us, we make shadows on the clouds as we look down to the stunning turquoise-hue of the crater’s lake.
All variations of orange and pink smear across the morning sky and I feel like I am simultaneously on, and over, the moon.