IT was already dusk by the time we arrived at the Catimor homestay, which was nestled in a sprawling coffee plantation reminiscent of the bygone Dutch colonial era.
When my friend had asked me a few months ago if I’d be keen to trek up a volcano to view the world’s largest acid lake, I thought she was crazy. In my mind, I had pictures of human sacrifices and people getting burnt alive in a lake of … fire and brimstone!
Fortunately, the adventurous side of me won, and here I was, over 250 km away from the nearest large city of Surabaya, Indonesia (where our flight had flown in to), in a homestay at the foothills of the Ijen mountain range, in East Java.
I had heard that the trek promised spectacular views along precarious ledges. While the adventuress in me was thrilled to bits, I also secretly harboured a great fear of heights and was wondering how I would fare, bearing in mind that the mountain is exactly 2,499 metres high!
After a relaxing time in the natural hot springs close by our homey “resort”, we turned in early. We were awakened in the wee hours of the next morning by our local guide, Afif Mahrus, to the aroma of hot coffee, no doubt from the nearby plantations.
A four-wheel drive brought us on a bumpy ride along a pot-holed road winding through the mountainside, to the base camp at Paltuding, where we were supposed to trek up Gunung Ijen (Mount Ijen) to view Kawah Ijen (Ijen Crater) and the almost one km wide acid lake.
The pathway of lava soil stretched out ahead of us, and though initially flat, soon started winding uphill at a slope of 25 to 35 degrees. Jungle foliage gave way to rockier terrain. While it was not such a tough trek, I was thankful for my sturdy hiking boots, which suited the rugged landscape well. The 3km hike up took approximately two hours.
Though we had been told it would be cold, I actually started perspiring, not so much due to the physical exertion, but because of my layers of warm clothing, which I soon started discarding. Fortunately, we had been well-informed by Afif, who had advised us to layer our attire, so that we could easily add on or take off layers to adjust to the unpredictable weather.
Along the way, we came across miners, heavy laden with baskets of sulphur. We were aghast to discover that they carried loads of between 80kg to 120kg daily, from the heart of the crater, up to the rim and down the rugged rocky slopes of the mountain. It was definitely not an easy vocation, especially since they were also exposed to the poisonous sulphur fumes for prolonged periods of time. The miners’ ages ranged between 21 to 60 years, but many were wizened beyond their years due to the hard labour.
According to Afif, mining was a means of earning some fast money for many of the villagers (but often at the expense of their health). And to them, USD6 (Indonesian Rupiah58,000 or RM18) per day was good money. Many worked four days per week mining sulphur, while other days were spent farming and tending livestock.
As we got higher, the weather became cooler, and breathtaking scenery stretched out before us. I kept my eyes focused on the distance, trying not to look downwards at the steep drops.
The pungent odour of sulphur burned at our nostrils and we put on our masks. But luck was on our side, and the wind blew the fumes away from us.
Soon, we were walking on solid volcanic rock, and we came to the crater rim. To take my mind off the height, I half imagined that this must have been how Neil Armstrong felt when he walked on the surface of the moon, with its barren crater-filled landscape!
Although the crater rim was fairly wide, there were sheer drops on either side, and a slight step in the wrong direction might send one rolling down the slope either into undergrowth, on one side, or a turquoise blue acid lake, on the other. Talk about being caught between the devil and the deep blue … lake!
At this point, fear overcame me, and I hesitated, feeling dizzy more from the height than the walking. If not for the encouragement of the friends whom I was with, I might not have made it. They kept urging me onwards and I figured that I might as well keep on going as I’d already made it this far.
We slowly climbed up the rocky terrain. Though not physically difficult, it was still a 45-degree free form rock climb (without the aid of any equipment). But as long as we kept our bodies low and did not look downwards, it would be OK, Afif advised.
It was already mid-morning by the time we arrived at the top. The sky was an amazing azure blue and below us, in the distance, a surreal turquoise blue lake glimmered in the early sunlight. .
We saw miners descending into the heart of the crater in their arduous occupation.
There is an active volcanic vent at the edge of the acid lake, which is the source of sulphur and signboards prohibited trekkers from going near the acid lake. It gleamed wondrously but it was also deadly, especially if one were to fall in … that is, if one does not choke to death first from the toxic sulphur fumes!
The miners were friendly and willing to pose for photos with visitors. Some sold tiny figurines of turtles and other animals, carved out of the sulphur crystals. These were said to be good lizard repellents and cost around Indonesian Rupiah 10,000 (around RM3.00) each.
After a short rest and photo-break, we proceeded on our hike back. The journey downhill seemed easier and we proceeded to the base camp where we had a simple lunch of sandwiches. We were thrilled yet relieved that we had made it all the way to the peak, and had got back safe and sound.
I learned two things from this trip, firstly, nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it, so never give up and always keep moving forward and you can overcome your fears.
And secondly, whom you choose to go on a journey with, is very important because it can either make or break the experience. After all, it was with the encouragement of my fellow travellers that I made it all the way to the lake of acid – and back.