Java, Indonesia - Blue Flames & Yellow Rocks.... / by Mark Boyd

I awoke at 6am ordered a UberMoto (cheap motorcycle taxi) to the bus station 40 minutes away then attempted to wake the young hostel boss.... It seemed he was comatose after a heavy night on booze and whatever else crossed his path the previous night.  I wasn't sure if my room had been paid for online or whether I needed to pay cash... I tried to wake him again but nothing.  At 6.30am I was on my way to the bus station.  The scooter I was pillion passenger on barely had enough space for my arse and the foot rests were useless.  Remaining on the scooter was a challenge the entire way.  My Uber-Moto picked me up at my hostel at 6.30am. I was headed to Ubung bus terminal to catch a bus to Gilmanuck. The were no real foot holds on the scooter, and the 16kg on my back made for a good 40 minute core and groin morning workout. I boarded the local bus.... and was the only one on. I kicked my shoes off and stretched my legs across the aisle. For half an hour there I was travelling in unusually spacious local transport. This is not something Indonesia is known for.

Suddenly we pulled over to the side of the road and I was asked to transfer buses.  I asked was this bus still going to Gilmanuk, but apparently this was as far as it went. The ticket guy on the other bus popped my backpack in to the trunk of the new bus and then directed me on to the 'local' Gilmanuk bus, stage II. No seats.

I knew it had all been going far too well. I sat on the steps with my day pack wedged between my legs. Half an hour later a seat became available. Yee-haaaaaaaa!

 Bumpy and shaky.... That's the Indonesian way I know and love...

Bumpy and shaky.... That's the Indonesian way I know and love...

The 3.5 hour bus journey was very pleasant all in all. Wonderful views of rice paddies and coastline. Some of the road I'd recognised from my return journey from this area the week before.  

I boarded the ferry to Banyuwangi (pronounced Bangy-wangy) and by 1.30pm we were docked and I was walking off the boat on to the island of Java.

 Passport handed across for the ferry ticket.... New name.... Maril Boyo.... A hint of Welsh there!

Passport handed across for the ferry ticket.... New name.... Maril Boyo.... A hint of Welsh there!

A local taxi driver spent 15 minutes trying his very best to convince me it would cost 50,000 INDR to get to town. I already knew it would cost 10,000. I smiled and asked how long this interaction needed to go on before he told me the normal price. I laughed. He laughed. He continued for another 5 minutes. I smiled and laughed some more until his 'tourist dollar' wall crumbled. He eventually pointed me to one of the tiny local bemos. These are the local form of transport in Banyuwangi. For 10k I could get to down town, then for another 10k I was able to take a GoJek (another cheap online motorcycle taxi service) to my homestay.

My homestay wasn't up to much. The old lady spoke no English, which always makes things interesting, but then her son showed up. He was the proprietor of this establishment. His mother showed me to my room. The bed sheets clearly hadn't been changed, but she quickly sorted everything with a quick spray of air freshener. The bathroom, my bed and sheets and a little extra for the ceiling. Boom, all clean and good to go! Bloody Nora.

 Mrs Mop.... Or should I say Mrs Air Freshener?

Mrs Mop.... Or should I say Mrs Air Freshener?

There was a time where I may have requested that the sheets were changed.... Oh no, that's not true, Amanda would have done that, and I'd have just appreciated it. So what was I doing here in 'Bangywangy'?

I was here to see the 'Blue Fire of Ijen' and this entailed climbing a mountain then decending down to the edge of the crater lake where the local sulphur miners of Ijen have been extracting huge chunks of yellow rock for decades. These guys work in unimaginable conditions, breathing in toxic sulphurous gas the entire time they are down there, the blue flames which burn above them are caused by gases seeping from crevasses in the porous rock surface. These cart horses of men carry their 60 & 70kg (154lbs or 11 stone) haul of yellow sulphur rocks back up a series of steep stone steps up on to the main mountain path where it is transferred on to two wheeled trolleys. This was something I needed to see to believe. Many places offer tours to see 'The Strong Men of Ijen'. But my plan was to rent a scooter from the homestay and depart at midnight to get to the bottom of the mountain and then to trek up to see the blue flames and these incredible human beings at work.

A group of young European folks and one young American guy (who introduced himself as 'The Architak' yes, with that spelling, and passed me his business card, which listed, 'Business Man', 'Entrepreneur' and 'Photographer'. he rambled on about various things but I was struggling to believe this guy, which is really unusual.  I sensed a steady stream of bullsh*t being fired in to the young crowd as he did his damndest to try and impress them....  Once I'd heard enough I decided to look over his Instagram page as he didn't have a website, maybe I was wrong about this guy.  But then his Instagram page confirmed my theory.  One thing he definitely was not was a photographer, and I doubt he was a business man either!  A strange imposter out to impress with stories straight out of Walter Mitty's mind.  Weirdo!

The young group in their early twenties offered me a place in their tour jeep to save me having to scooter my way to Ijen under the cloak of darkness  I mulled over their kind offer but didn't want any time constraints attached to my adventure.

As I was chilling out by the front door of my little air freshener sweetened, sweat box room the lovely Ildiko from Germany arrived. She asked if I was planning on doing the Ijen trek and if I was how I was going about it. I shared my plans and told her she was more than welcome to join me.  I told her there was also an opening in the tour jeep departing at midnight. Ildi opted for the much more fun and adventurous one hour journey on the back of my scooter on unknown road, in the middle of the night. In the meantime she enquired as to whether the sheets on her bed were fresh as the bathroom seemed like it was still awaiting a wipe down. Of course neither things had been tended to and minutes later Ildi's bathroom was clean and she had fresh sheets on her bed..... Hmmmm... I liked the way this lady rolled! Ha ha!

That evening we jumped on the scooter and took it for a test run to a local eatery where we both enjoyed the best noodles and vegetables (Mie Goreng) that either of us had experienced in all of Indonesia. On finishing I immediately ordered seconds! Ildi had learned some basic Indonesian which I was incredibly impressed by along with her wicked sense of humour. It was almost as good as mine.... Almost. I knew that evening we were going to have fun! Everyone hit the hay before an 11.30pm rise.

Our host advised me to follow his group of friends who were also heading towards Ijen, along with the organised tour car.... Ildi and I hung around for a few minutes whilst everyone chatted and faffed, so we decided to plough on. Five minutes in to the ride and I encountered the first sharp corner and the scooter felt remarkably unsteady... I pulled over and checked the front wheel. Sure enough the front tyre was flat. We turned around and headed back to the hostel. The rest of the crew flew past us in the opposite direction. Inconvenient. When we arrived back we tried to explain to the old lady that we needed another scooter. After five minutes of faffing around her son appeared with keys for another scooter. We were back! This scooter was devoid of fuel and needed pretty immediate rehydration. Ildi shouted as we headed out through the town, she'd spotted a fuel bottle rack alongside the road. It was 12.30am, I was surprised there was anyone around to sell us the fuel. But sure enough a woman appeared to exchange fuel for cash in the dark of night. The final few kilometres were steep.... so steep in fact that Ildi had to dismount and walk as the scooter got slower and slower as the incline continued to get steeper. Our fuel gauge was already heading towards 'E' due to the fuel guzzling inclines. With this incline came cool air, and I eventually had to pull over and grab my hoody from underneath the seat. So we eventually arrived at the car park a little over an hour after leaving the homestay the second time, and during that hour we passed both the tour car and a fair few of the scooters that had left before us.

We paid our entrance fee to the National Park and followed the track. The track was fairly steep, but tonight I was feeling strong! Ildi was curious as to why I was 'running' as she put it. As I've mentioned before, I walk uphill fast.... and Ildi was struggling to keep up, but with a little push she managed. A local 'guide' selling face masks to filter our the sulphurous gas latched on to Ildi. I walked slightly ahead and allowed her to enjoy dealing with him. She was more than capable. We'd both told him we didn't need a guide, but he still wanted to rent us a gas mask each. I told him I had a damp towel which I would be tying across my nose and mouth. 'Do you use a mask when you go down towards the mine?' Ildi asked. 'No....' he answered, after trying to convince us both we'd both die down there without a mask. The miners don't wear masks , but I don't think the miners live long lives either. Eventually, after over half an hour of 'bothering' Ildi the local salesman/guide made a sale.... He agreed to meet Ildi once we'd returned to the top.

It took us maybe an hour and a quarter to reach the crater rim, then another 15 minutes to get down towards the mine. On the way down a miner loaded with 70kg of sulphur said 'Photo'. I took a photo with my iPhone 6 and he held his hand out for money. I reached in to my pocket and gave him a 5,000 rupiah note. It was nothing....

We could see the blue flames as we descended the steep stone steps, finding our way along unmarked rocks. We followed the yellow powder marks from the shoes of the miners. Then we were there. The first people to arrive. Wow! I couldn't believe we were the only ones there. Ildi seemed surprised at my surprise seeing as we'd apparently 'ran up the mountain'. We moved closer to the blue flames.

Plumes of sulphurous smoke filled the air, but the barely noticeable breeze was taking it away from us. Suddenly that barely noticeable movement of air changed direction. The thick smoke engulfed us. I was glad Ildi had a mask on. My damp travel towel was doing a job, but not the full job. The smell was powerful along with a slight burning in the throat. We fell back to escape the toxic gas..... It was pretty horrible. How these guys breath this stuff in from midnight until 8am day in day out I do not know. As we looked back up to the crater rim 50 headlights sparkled as the rest of the curious tourists made their way down towards the blue flames.

 Silly Russian gets too close....

Silly Russian gets too close....

I set up my tripod and took some images. The shutter speed need to be between 20 and 30 seconds just to allow the camera to find enough light. This means when people move they appear blurred, when flames dance they appear smooth, as bright headlamps move they create light trails, and as you can see the moon becomes exceptionally bright....

We hung around watching others watching the miners, watching Russian tourists get too close to the blue flames, watching the wind change sending smoke, toxic gases and flames in their direction.... and so on. Observing the miners at work was something else. Picking, digging and lifting....

Then once the baskets were loaded with the yellow rocks, their compadres would lift the load on to their friends shoulders and send him off to the top of the crater rim.

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They really are spectacularly strong men. Not just physically strong, but mentally strong.

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They are doing this work to support their families, there is nothing more to it. Devout family men with the will to support.

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We hung around until 5am watching these incredible men, then headed up to the rim to watch the sunrise over the lake.....

Ildi went and sat on her own (and ate her cookies) and I attempted to capture some decent images.... But nothing extraordinary came of that.

As the light increased more of this other worldly landscape was slowly revealed.....

We walked back down from the top of the crater rim to where the miners were bringing up their final loads for the day.  They looked tired after their tough night of digging, loading and climbing.

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 If only those little yellow 'sulphur wings' on this miner's shoulders could have carried him up...

If only those little yellow 'sulphur wings' on this miner's shoulders could have carried him up...

Trolleys sat waiting to be loaded the hard earned stacks of sulphur..... and hard earned it is.... These poor guys will earn just under £1.00 or $1.25 for their two 70kg runs this morning.  Eight hours of some of the toughest work on the planet for next to nothing.... It's heart breaking to think about.  Sad, very sad.

 

We began the walk back down, passing areas that were previously hidden by the night.  The surrounding scenery was stunning.

A trolley waits for it's owner to give it a push.....

Once we reached ground zero we grabbed a coffee and some deep fried bananas jumped back on the scooter then freewheeled down the steep incline towards the main road. Ildi urged me on as we free-wheeled past proper motorcycles and other scooters.... I have to say it was great fun!

We arrived back at the homestay late morning, hung out together, wandered the village, ate more food at our little fantastic Warung and booked train tickets to Probollingo the following day...

Probollingo was our gateway to Mount Bromo.... A potential troublesome spot, not crime wise, just full of liars and cheats, but if we wanted to reach Mount Bromo we'd have to face it.

 Capturing me capturing the crater lake.....

Capturing me capturing the crater lake.....