Strolling around town in a gas mask—like carrying a machete—is a profound and magical experience that everyone should endeavor at least once. It has the power to make the most mundane daily chores feel like a daring and cavalier adventure.
Like buying cookies and cigarettes for breakfast at 3AM.
Or breaking into a Javanese open-pit sulfur mine.
“Ijen crater doesn’t open until 4AM,” growled the Indonesian park ranger, immediately apprehending me in the parking lot.
“But I came to watch the sunrise from the crater rim!” I lied. “I need to start now. I’m a very slow walker.”
“Why are you wearing a gas mask?”
“I’m–” I looked to the ground. “Would you like some of my cookies?”
Thinking ahead, I’d bought cigarettes—in the most nicotine-craven country on earth, cigarettes are to Indonesians as carrots are to horses: dangle enough of them and you can make any cart move.
I waved the box.
The man stared.
“How about some cigarettes?”
“You’re trying to see the blue lava! That is not allowed!”
“You are not allowed! There is sulfur dioxide gas!”
Actually it was hydrogen sulfide gas, which irritates your throat like sulfur dioxide gas, but also makes your lungs bleed sputum until you drown in your own blood. If by some magic you survive, it has toxicity comparable to hydrogen cyanide (“Zyklon-B” of Holocaust fame)—the cortex of your brain will be reduced to pudding, transforming you into a blithering, pants-pooping human potato and spoiling the rest of your vacation. Of course this only occurs if you stick your nose against a volcanic vent. And although I understood the severity of this risk, I had important sightseeing to accomplish.
I took a deep breath. “My name is Steve McDonald and I work for Esquire magazine. I’m writing an important article about Ijen crater and I need to–”
“Come back at four.”
“But I am a journalist!” I cried.
“And I am a park ranger. Come back at four.”
Although most Javanese open-pit sulfur mines make terrible holiday destinations, Gunung Ijen was special. Out of the 452 volcanic zones that string the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is the only one that spews neon blue lava, lashing purple flames a meter high.
In truth this isn’t technically “lava” but rivers of molten sulfur, which upon hitting oxygen combust in a dazzling sapphire inferno.
In recent years visitors were allowed to wander into Ijen crater by starlight, to stare mesmerized by the blue lights until the sulfur miners arrived at dawn to snuff out the blaze. Sadly, however, this has changed.
The island of Java has awoken from its volcanic slumber and now appears to be funneling espresso. When Ijen’s crater lake started to boil in March 2014—spraying frowning tour groups with vaporous acid—the mineworkers announced that cleaning up melted foreigners wasn’t worth their wages: all visitors were banned from witnessing the blue lava and access to the crater was restricted to a distant observation platform on the rim.
This proved an inconvenience to me as I’d traveled all the way from Jakarta to explore Ijen crater and wasn’t about to turn back empty handed—at least not without belligerence.
Surely if it were safe for the miners to stroll the crater using little or no safety equipment, it wouldn’t be suicide for me to do likewise. Risk was involved, of course, but to bask in the warm, ethereal glow of a river of sapphire lava seemed so breathtaking an opportunity that I couldn’t let it pass. The richest fruits of life grow on the highest, most treacherous branches, and if climbing the tree meant buying a gas mask, then I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I am careful, but not afraid. Also gas masks seemed like a lot of fun.
It turned out that I wasn’t the only miscreant who attempted to break into Ijen Crater that evening. Sitting on the curb next to the ticket office was a middle-aged couple from Los Angeles.
The man chuckled as I slumped down next to them. “The good old Indonesian Cigarette Trick, eh? Classic.”
Mark and Lena had been shivering in the parking lot since their failed 2AM entry. They’d arrived at the same time as a French traveler who had proposed to bypass the main gate via a secret side-trail, however he’d since been apprehended by park rangers and whisked off to the police station.
The three of us reckoned that if the park opened at 4AM, we only had an hour to sprint up the crater rim before the blue flames went out at dawn.
At 3:59AM we shook hands and wished each other luck.
“See you in the crater,” waved Mark, before I quickly overtook them.
Within forty minutes I ascended the crater rim into a rocky amphitheater of volcanic cones, high above the moonlit Javanese plains.
The trailhead into the heart of the crater was conveniently labeled with a signboard. ‘DANGER! DO NOT ENTER!’
Thick columns of poison gas swirled out of the crater, roiling yellow against a galaxy of stars. The lake was boiling again.
I tightened my gas mask, but stopped, regarding the narrow, treacherous footpath as it plunged from the crater wall into a gassy, yellow abyss. The night was dark. I didn’t know the trail. Far, far below, whirling clouds pulsed and glowed with eerie blue light.
I shifted my weight.
“Psst! Mister!” came a hushed voice. “Cigarette. Cigarette.”
Perched behind me on a boulder was a scraggly Indonesian miner. “Cigarette! Cigarette.” he repeated.
“Blue flame,” I pointed. “Blue flame. You take me?”
“No, no, no, no. Tidak bisa,” he shook his head. “Cigarette. Cigarette.”
I brandished the pack.
His eyes sparkled.
A moment later we were parading into the crater, stumbling over scree as my new friend happily puffed his tobacco.
The haze thickened. The path grew more precarious. Soon figures emerged through the mustard veil of gas—weathered old men in tattered clothes, groaning under the weight of enormous sulfur stones piled into baskets on shoulder-polls. Some wore gas masks. Others clutched handkerchiefs to their coughing mouths.
“Cigarette,” chimed my friend, flicking his butt into the abyss.
I was about to feed him another when a gust of wind swirled through the crater, dispersing the yellow fog. Crisp blue light spilled over us; two hundred yards away, a glowing, sapphire pool of molten rock lashed into the darkness with curling, indigo flames. For a long moment I stood agape, hypnotized by a hundred glimmering hues of azure, before it faded again in the churning fog. Dawn was approaching.
“Hurry! I need to get closer!” I shouted.
And then it happened. A cry echoed off the rocks:
“Excuse me! Sir!”
I whirled around and then froze. Jogging towards us up the footpath was an officious-looking park ranger.
“Good morning!” I smiled innocently.
“Good morning sir,” he said politely. “I’m afraid it’s not safe for you here. One of the vents has ruptured and there’s too much smoke. We no longer allow visitors into the crater.”
My face twisted in surprise. “What? But I came all this way to see the blue flame! Oh no!”
“Sorry,” frowned the ranger. “I’m afraid you have to go back that way.”
I needed this polite man to leave, and I saw only two options of achieving this:
The first was to simply push this gentleman into the abyss. The more diplomatic approach, however, would be to act like a numbskull until he lost interest in my welfare and then walked away.
“Can I take a couple pictures?” I began.
He shifted his weight. “Well–“
“Real quick! I’ll stand here,” I said, removing my camera.
He frowned. “I don’t –”
I held out a cigarette.
He frothed with lust.
“Sure, why not!” he said, accepting the cigarette.
I then proceeded to waste ten minutes of his time taking photographs of fog.
“Alright,” he finally declared. “We must go now.”
“I can’t see the flames. Wait one second!” I shouted, before committing another ten whole minutes to the pointless fiddling of buttons.
“Please!” he complained and complained. “That’s enough.” “We must go!” “The smoke is itching my eyes.”
“Wait!” I shouted, removing a tripod from my backpack and adjusting it to optimal height settings. “Almost done,” I promised, turning around—but the park ranger had slipped off.
My miner friend smirked.
I gestured down the path. “We go fast?”
He frowned, examining his feet.
“Cigarette?” I baited.
He shook his head and then pointed me back up the path.
“Cigarette?” I shook the carton again, but it was futile. Dawn burned pink on the horizon. I was already too late.
I hunkered down on a rock for a few moments before a plume of smoke shot up and the blue light went dead.
The miner muttered something before turning and resuming his descent, leaving me alone on the side of the crater wall, wincing through the rancid smoke, pouting in my gas mask.
Before I could turn back, footsteps caught my ear.
“The old bat quit halfway to the rim!!” Mark laughed as he emerged through the mist, pacing after a young miner. “We’ll beat you to the end of the trail!” he goaded.
“You’re wasting your time,” I frowned. “The flames are dead.”
“Fuck the flames! I wanna see the Kawah!” he bellowed, dashing off through the smoke.
“Wait!” I yelled.
I looked around. Either the ranger had forsaken his post or Mark had pushed him into the abyss. The coast appeared clear. The trail seemed easy to follow. I still needed to justify my gas mask purchase…
I set off after Mark alone, tracing the path deeper and deeper into the crater until my eyes burned and the earth beneath my feet turned cracked and yellow like death.
“Where are you going?” I shouted out after him, but Mark was long gone.
The volcanic moonscape of the crater floor stretched out before me, menacing with vents of poison gas. The serrated rocks around me took on ashen shades of green and blue—a hellish contrast to the orange and yellow icicles that dripped from them like melted sugar. It was like stepping into the mind of Willy Wonka during one of his angel dust nightmares.
Ceramic pipes snaked out of the earth, spewing blood-red rivers of molten sulfur and columns of toxic smoke. I watched from a distance as the molten sulfur cooled and hardened, turning orange, then yellow, before a skinny miner in a gas mask shattered it into fragments with a pipe. These fragments were then piled into miners’ baskets in loads exceeding 150-200lbs—often greater than the miner’s frail bodyweight—which were then dragged on shoulder polls back up the steep crater wall and then a further 3km to the weighing station. It’s seemed a nightmarish job, and the miners’ necks and shoulders were disfigured with calloused scars. But I knew the job was highly coveted, paying a far better salary than farming; for one day of backbreaking toil, the chemical company rewards its workers a handsome US$13.
I waved cheerily as I barreled through their workplace, calling out for Mark. Whenever someone tried to approach me, I would dole them a cigarette, to which they’d smile with alarming intensity.
“Dank yu!” they’d cry.
Then I’d stare in horror as they each pushed aside their gas masks to light up. I almost tried to stop the first one, but remembered that their life expectancy was 31 and that it didn’t make much of a difference.
Beyond the vents, the air turned clear. The trail terminated before a knoll of boulders, upon which Mark was flailing his way to the top, cackling to himself like a mental patient as his concerned miner-friend watched from below.
“Steve-O!” he waved.
I climbed up after him.
“Yes! Incredible!” he laughed upon summiting the rock pile.
I held out my hand and he hoisted me up.
“Wow!” I gasped.
I could now see that we were standing in the very heart of the crater, on the banks of a vast, steaming crater lake of boiling turquoise acid—the beautiful, surreal, and deadly Kawah Ijen. The ban on visitors had become a blessing in disguise: the crater lake belonged to us. It would have made for a breathtaking picnic spot, if not for the dead birds scattered around its banks (the air above the water was clearly toxic; even with a gas mask, I could taste it on my tongue).
“Brilliant,” beamed Mark. “And you said it was a waste of time.”
Mark turned back shortly thereafter. But I remained sitting on the rocky outcrop, amidst the dead birds, for what felt like hours, watching the dawn crest the crater rim, casting golden tendrils of sun over the turquoise waters and illuminating silver wisps of steam that swirled up Ijen’s craggy walls, trapped on the warm Indonesian breeze.
For more death-defying shenanigans, hop over to Vietnam and watch me poke death in the face with a stick in, “Steve McDonald Pokes Death in the Face With a Stick For Your Reading Entertainment: A D.I.Y. Cobra Hunt”
Or for more spectacular geology, journey deep into the earth’s crust in Borneo in “The Biggest Darkness: An Expedition to the Largest Cave Chamber on Earth”