Volcanoes of Indonesia: Part 3 – Kawah-ijen

» Posted by on Mar 19, 2014 in Featured, Indonesia

This is the third part of my Indonesia trip (read part 1 and part 2).

The program was to climb Semeru (an even harder hike than Merapi). Unfortunately a combination of a tired knee (really painful) and failing hiking shoes made me skip the hike. Instead I spent two days resting while Stephane and Christophe climbed Semeru. The view from Semeru was fantastic but the climb was grueling. Both Stephane and Christophe skipped dinner that evening and slept for 12 hours straight.

Durring those two days, I explored the town, taking pictures of the local market and local taxi.



The goal of the trip, the main reason I went anyway, was to photograph the volcano called Kawah-Ijen. It’s not a lava flowing volcano, but still a very spectacular one. On the way to Kawah-Ijen, we stopped in a couple places to either take pictures or simply enjoy a coconut on the beach. It was our longest drive and it took an entire day.

Enjoying a fresh coconut on the beach in Indonesia.

Enjoying a fresh coconut on the beach in Indonesia.


That evening the sunset was colorful and while we were complaining about a lack of human subjects in this perfect frame, a fisherman walked in…


Ijen is a group of volcanoes but the most famous in the Ijen group is the Kawah-Ijen and its sulfur mine. This particular volcano is rich in sulfur and emits a lot of hot sulfuric acid gas. What humans have done is to trap the sulfuric gas and let it condensate to form pure sulfur they can extract.
The other aspect of extracting sulfur on a volcano is that heated sulfur (because of the volcano temperature) burns and creates a permanent display of flames around the sulfur mines. At night, the blue flames emitted by the burning sulfur become visible.

In the original itineary, we were supposed to spend the night at the base of the Kawah-Ijen, starting the climb in the early morning. Stephane and I knew that we wanted more time on the volcano, so we decided to skip sleeping all together. Instead of setting up the tent when we arrived, we went for a nap. We had dinner and we started climbing to the rim of the caldera at 10:30pm. It’s a relatively short hike (3 to 4 hours depending of your strength). We got around the sulfur extraction zone by 2:30am. It’s a truly incredible sight, the blue flames, the sulfuric acid gas, the raw sulfur.



Kawah-ijen is the largest acid lake in the world (PH 0.4)

Kawah-Ijen has the largest acid lake in the world (PH 0.5)

The picture above shows the view you have as you are coming down from the rim of the caldera. The steep trail is covered by fine bright yellow powder and chips. You don’t need to know where to go, just follow the yellow powder. The image below shows you the trail of the workers coming down at night.

Sulfur carrying man at night.

Trail of workers coming down.

Once you get at the bottom, you have to start wearing a protective respirator and even with one when you get caught in a draft, your eyes get wet and you can’t breathe for a while.

Sulfur burning on the kawah-ijen

Sulfur burning on the Kawah-Ijen

Sulfur flame in the Kawak-ijen volcano

Sulfur flame in the Kawak-Ijen volcano


A lone miner in the sulfuric gas on the Kawah-ijen

A lone miner in the sulfuric gas on the Kawah-Ijen


Full moon over the Kawah-ijen

Full moon over the Kawah-Ijen



Extracting sulfur manually

Extracting sulfur manually

The sun had risen, I was spending my time getting closer and closer to the miners, trying to get more intimate shots. Suddenly my camera stopped working, the LCD displayed Err. 80. Oh well, just a bug I thought, simply power off, power on the camera and I should be back in business. I turned off my camera, back on and nope, still broken, not a problem, relax (don’t breathe too much). Let’s switch to a fresh set of batteries, that always fixes things. Oh crap, still nothing. That’s ok we were done anyway. I will reset the camera at the hotel, it’s a bug, nothing to worry. Once at the hotel, I had no such luck. The camera never worked again. After I got back to the States, I sent my camera to Canon for a repair. Canon ended up replacing most of the electronics in my camera.

Fortunately, my friend Stephane was kind enough to let me borrow his camera while he was not shooting. That’s why I have a lot less images from that point on. But lesson learned! From now on, I will always carry a second body with me. None of us had a spare body and that was a mistake. But again I never had a camera failed me like that before. I now understand why the Canon 1DX costs twice as much as my 5D, the pro line can survive sulfuric acid gas, while mine does not.

This is the last image I took with my camera:

Breathing sulfuric acid gas without protection

Miners, breathing sulfuric acid gas without protection

How can I tell the next image was taken with Stephane’s camera? Images taken with his starts with the code “_SG”.

Each worker carry around 70Kg of sulfur.

Each worker carry around 70Kg of sulfur.

Getting about 10cents per kilo of sulfur.

Getting about 10cents per kilo of sulfur.

After coming down from the volcano at 9am, we went to our hotel to check-in. The normal check-in time is 2pm but our rooms were ready so they let us rest. We took a quick shower and by 10am, I was sleeping. We had spent the entire night on the volcano.

We woke up for lunch around 1 or 2pm, I can’t remember. We went back to bed immediately after.
At 9pm, we packed our bags, checked out (imagine the hotel staff faces when we told them we were checking out). And by 10pm, we were back climbing the Kawah-Ijen. We spent an entire second night with the sulfur miners. We climbed back to the rim of the caldera for sunrise.

When your only camera is your iPhone.

When your only camera is your iPhone.

We got back to the van around 9am. That was the end of our adventure. Not quite but this was the last volcano. I still had three days left before my flight to San Francisco. A quick drive to Ketapang, where we took the ferry to Bali. Bye bye Java, what an incredible island!

If you are wondering when I took the time to sleep, the answer is simple: in transit. I’m blessed with the ability of falling asleep anywhere, anytime, when I choose to. So each time we drove somewhere,  flew somewhere,  took the ferry, I found a corner and slept.

Part 1, Part 2, Next Bali…

All the images presented here are available for licensing or as fine art prints.