This one’s a long one, but stick with it…it was a very long day.
A brief digression: I came across this old news article and found it funny – perfectly normal intelligent people can become blind slaves to our technology overlords.
Bali to Java
Two good days of diving in Amed were over and I really wanted to get to Java and start exploring the biggest and most populous Indonesian island.
So, on Thursday 2nd July, I hatched a plan to get to Bali: from Amed I would take a bus to Culik, where I would catch a Bemo (small local bus) to Lovina beach. There I would catch another bus to Gili Manuk, the most westerly port to get to Java. In Java, I wasn’t entirely sure where I’d go – but I would use some of the time while getting to the ferry port to figure that out.
The plan went off mostly without a hitch. The bus in Amed didn’t turn up at 7am, but for a few thousand Rupia the staff at the Guesthouse I was staying in took me to Culik.
Amed to Culik
In Culik, during my 5 minutes of waiting around I had the usual chat with the locals stood/sat near me. What’s your name…Roshan…where are you from…England…Oh, I thought India…yeah my mum was born in India, my blood is Indian but I was born in England…Oh, but your skin like Indonesian, hahaha, I thought you were from India, hahaha…where are you going…
(Feel free to replace ‘I thought you were from India’ with any number of countries where brownish people reside Israel, Saudi Arabia, Middle East etc)
Culik to Lovina
When the Bemo arrived the guy I was talking to happily flagged down the Bemo for me and explained where I wanted to go. The driver agreed to drive that far and motioned for me to jump in. I asked him how much. The usual game played out, first he said 200,000, then 150,000, then 100,000, then 70,000 finally he agreed to 50,000 Rupia (£2.50). I had walked away at 150,000 and showed him I was happy to wait for the next one, then only spoke to him say “lima puluh ribu” (50,000).
Lovina to Gili Manuk
It took 3 hours to get to Lovina. There, I took brunch, then found another Bemo that would take me to Gili Manuk for “lima puluh ribu”. The journey took another 2.5 to 3 hours.
Gili Manuk, Bali to Benyuwangi, Java
The ferry cost only 14000 (60p) and took about an hour or so to cross getting me there around 4pm.
Arriving in Benyuwangi, Java
Whilst in one of the Bemo I had decided my first stop in Java would be the Ijen Plateau. The Ijen plateau is inside Mount Ijen’s crater and home to some spectacular displays and sobering realities.
After getting off the ferry, I took a Bemo into the main town. From there I would figure out how to get to Ijen. I was hoping I could catch another Bemo. In Ijen, I figured I’d stay one night (Thursday night), chill out during the day on Friday, then do the hike on Friday night. I could then use the rest of Saturday getting to Mount Bromo.
I found a Bemo and started the tedious negotiation. Whilst in Gili Manuk some guys had told me that catching the Bemo should only cost about 5-10k Rupiah. As always the driver started off on a nice round 100,000. It’s amazing that every journey costs exactly £5 isn’t it?! I said I’d pay him 5k Rupiah. Eventually, he said 50k. I was getting annoyed.
I know it sounds like I’m haggling over pennies, but there’re two points. Firstly they’re trying to charge 10-20 times the local price. I really don’t mind paying a little bit more because I’m a tourist and because I was lucky enough to be born in the west, it comes with the territory. But 10-20 times is ridiculous. Secondly, I caught 3 Bemo’s that day. If each had charged me 100k Rupiah, that’s £15. My daily budget is £20-30 (depending on where I am and what I’m doing). That leaves little left to eat and get accommodation and do the stuff I want.
Anyway, where was I, yes I was getting annoyed. So, there was a lady sat in the Bemo. I asked her how much it costs to go to town and how much she was paying. Before the answer could leave her lips, the driver jumped in and told her in Indonesian that she should say it costs 50k. She then held up 5 five fingers and said 50k. I told the driver I’m not paying 50k and that he told her to say 50k. He said, “Okay, okay get in”. He started to drive towards the town. I kept an eye on my maps.me app, we were 8km away. The women got off about 5km later and paid 20k for her and her two children. I figured 10k seems a reasonable price to take one person almost the double the distance. We pulled up in town, and I asked him how much. He said 10k. I suppose honesty is better late than never; it’s just appreciated more when it’s not late.
Like hawks as soon as I got off the Bemo I had people shouting at me asking me where I want to go. I said, “Ijen. Bus? Bemo?”. They seemed confused and then said “No bus.” “Motor?” I asked, hoping for a motorbike taxi. After 5 minutes of a conversation (I’m not sure you could call it that) with him speaking at me in Indonesian and me repeating “Motorbike?” while acting out riding a motorbike – neither of us particularly understanding what the other was trying to say – he told me to follow him. He took me 15 seconds across the road into a garage that turned out to be a bike rental shop. Now there’s a slightly more – but not by much – left field idea that I hadn’t thought of. I take back calling him a hawk at the start of the paragraph. This idea was promising.
I weighed it up quickly in my head. I could easily ride there, it looked like it was only 40 minutes away. It would save me more transport costs and I’d be free to find accommodation myself. It would cost 85k Rupiah, a bit more than I’m used to paying but the bike looked really good so was worth the extra money. Cons: well I’d have to return to Banuwangi before I could move. Also I’d have to do the hike tonight which I hadn’t really mentally prepared for (the entrance opens at 1am and most people start the ascent at 0130). I suppose the advantage of that is I get it out of the way and don’t waste time.
I decided to go with the flow and agreed to take the bike. I inspected the bike more closely, she would be one of the best motorbikes I’ve ridden in 6 months. New tyres with deep treads which would be great for off-road. There was barely a scratch on her. And she looked like she can pack more of a punch than the rentals I’m used to. I completed the paperwork and gave them my passport whilst they finished preparing the bike. They said I can leave my main backpack in their office. So I prepared my day bag with everything I’d need for a hike – first aid kit, Leatherman, camera, extra layers of clothes, my sarong, my balaclava for biking etc.
With everything ready I put on my raincoat, left them my bag and set off. The guys said I needed to head straight and take the fourth right turn after the traffic light. Just before I left, he said, “Sorry, it’s the third right at the traffic light, then it’s just straight all the way”.
I now had data on my phone because I finally got my phone unlocked in Bali. So I brought up Google Map directions. Google agreed it was the third right, so I started following Google’s direction.
The road started off really nice. After 15 minutes, parts of the road had chipped away. 5 minutes later it became a bumpy ride, but the off-road tyres dealt with them really well. I was still able to – for the most part – race through the roads. Google Maps told me to turn onto a road that became even worse. But still the bike persevered. Excellent traction, excellent power. I had a lot of confidence the bike will get me through whatever came next.
Another turn and Google took me onto a really muddy road. Again the bike did really well not to slip and to follow my prompt and instructions flawlessly. The road continued. By now the sun was really low in the sky. I could just about make out half of it above the tree canopy. I desperately wanted to get back to a main road, fast. I looked at the map. It looked like after quite a few more kilometres, a bit more curvy roads, crossing over a river and then a few more kilometres I’d rejoin a main road. Hopefully, it’d be easy sailing. I followed the road until there were forests either side of me. The road became progressively muddier.
Then Google said to take a left turn into a forest, the path looked about twice the width of the bike. I went with it. But light was disappearing rapidly. I contemplated just going back, but I was quite a way off from the city now. I continued. The path narrowed. The path was now about twice the width of my bike tyre. The forest was only about 10-15cm away from me on either side, and closing in on me fast. I wasn’t happy. I looked at the map again – I was getting closer to the river crossing. This really didn’t feel like a road, not even a makeshift Indonesian road that I had become used to.
I kept going. After 3 more minutes, it started to become a lot darker. As I came over a hill I saw the path I was driving down become even narrower. The trees narrowed into the path and was only centimetres away. Then the path looked like it went downhill and into the darkness of a canopy. I stopped. There was no way I was going in there. When I stopped I could hear the river that Google was telling me to cross. It didn’t sound like it’d be a small dry stream. It sounded like it had a lot of force and the area I was in didn’t look like it’d have any bridges. Once under the canopy there would be no way to reverse out, I didn’t particularly want to ride through a river, and the downhill path looked muddy. Enough was enough.
I did what I should have done a while ago. I threw in the towel and refused to become an international news story of idiocy… the idiot tourist who got stranded in an Indonesian river following Google Maps. I didn’t want to become one of those people that I think, well at any point before you became stuck, you could have exercised common sense. I’d already passed on several opportunities to do that, but it still wasn’t too late for me. I was literally 100m away from becoming that person.
I started turning the bike around. It was hard because the ground was really soft. My shoes sunk into the ground. It took a bit of to-ing and fro-ing on the small path. Too much one way and I’d get it stuck in the mud. Too much the other way and it’d fall into the forest. Carefully and patiently I managed it.
I wanted to get back to the main town as fast as possible. I headed back the path Google brought me on. After clearing the forest, I began to retrace the path. There was one particularly bad road Google had taken me on which I wanted to avoid this time around so I opted for a road that was longer and curved around the short-cut, but looked better. 2 minutes onto that road and it became pristine tarmac. I looked at the map. This proper road was marked as a little path on Google, whereas the path in the forest I had just driven through were large thick lines denoting main roads. Damn you Google. Damn you common sense.
The good news was, I was back on. I didn’t head back to the town. I turned uphill and continued on. From then on it was perfectly even roads. Though dark, I was able to drive really fast. Soon the windy roads stopped and I was on a straight stretch. Perfect, I could make up for lost time. As I saw lights I slowed. I stopped at a small shop to buy a few chocolaty snacks, it’d been a while since I’d eaten and I wanted some sugar in my blood to stay sharp. I bought two bottles of SE Asia’s special Red Bull (the kind that has 6-8 espresso’s worth of caffeine in a small bottle the size of three shots. I knew I’d get little sleep and I’d had a long day.
I kept driving until I rejoined the main road (the one I would have been if I had taken the fourth right all the way back in town). I continued up the winding and curving path. I had lost my data and the GPS wasn’t locating me correctly. I didn’t know how long I had left so I kept driving. As I gained altitude it became cold. I was still in my shorts, vest and rain jacket. But I didn’t want to stop. I kept going. It continued to cool, eventually my legs numbed and my hands cold. But I was on a mission. As I kept going I was desperate to see any sign of life. At night, these unknown roads became daunting. The trees either side looked over me menacingly and mockingly.
After 30-40 minutes, at around 7 or 8pm, I finally saw lights. I had made it to the entrance of Ijen. I pulled up in the cafe across the road. I ordered a hot coffee and proceeded to zip on the legs to my shorts, put on a t-shirt over my vest, and a hoody, and doubled up my face mask. I began to warm up straight away. I ordered a second cup of coffee. The young man who worked in the shop spoke English well. We got chatting and he asked if I needed a guide. I read in the Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor that it’s advisable if one goes into the crater. So I asked him how much. We agreed 150k Rupia. I needed fuel and dinner. He said I should head another 13km down the road where I can find both. I asked if I can just sit in the tuck shop for the next few hours, but he said unless I have a blanket it’d get too cold. I didn’t think my Sarong would cut it so I continued on.
The 13km were significantly warmer than the previous 30km on the way up. There were even moments of warm breezes.
I found a restaurant and hotel whose name shall remain a secret. They gave me a significant unofficial discount for the room. I ate some noodles, then brushed my teeth, set my alarm for 1240am and went to bed.
Thought it was cold, I curled up into a ball and fell asleep straight away. I got about 2-3 hours of sleep. I awoke 2 minutes before my alarm went off. That made it easier to get out of bed but not by much. I threw on some more clothes, necked three-quarters of one of the Red Bull bottles and was ready to go. I drank a piping hot cup of tea then left to retrace the 13km back the way I came. It was much faster on the way back because I was more familiar with the roads and knew where the hazard spots were.
My guide was ready for me. I parked my bike and left my helmet with them. He suggested I take a rain overall because it can get cold. I went to my bike and tried to open the boot. It didn’t open. Somebody came and said “No sir. This one”. I had been trying to start the wrong bike. I tried my key in my bike but it didn’t work anymore. I had twisted the key. I told my guide we’ll deal with it when we get back (when we got back I used the pliers on my Leatherman to straighten the key out, no big deal).
So, what’s the deal with Ijen? Why all the effort?
Ijen is an active volcano (not active in a lava sense but active in so much as it steams and burns).
Kawah Ijen crater is on the bottom left before dawn
The crater after dawn broke
The Ijen volcanic crater is full of Sulphuric rock, and, for this reason, many of the local men work long and hard to mine the sulphur from the volcano and carry it back. Miners will work through the night and the morning to make their way into the crater. Endure horrid sulphuric emissions whilst they mine for the rock. Most tourists wear professional gas masks because the sulphur smell is so strong. The miners have zero protection. The miners’ life expectancy is lower than Indonesia’s average; articles on the internet quote between 30-40 years though I couldn’t find any reliable sources.
The sulphur emissions are so concentrated that it makes the air acidic and can make the eyes burn and water. The guides will advise tourists not to get too close for that reason. After digging up around 80kg of sulphur, they load them into two baskets.
Sulphur basket mined that morning. Approximate weight 80kg.
They carry it all the way back up to the rim of the volcano and back down to the weighing station wearing only worn out flip flops (I saw a few walking barefooted).
Their first load of the day is bought at 800 rupiah per kilogram. So, if they brought back 80kg, they’re paid 64,000 Rupiah, around £3.25. Their subsequent loads that day are bought at 1000 rupiah per kilogram – about £4 for 80kg. Most workers will manage 2-3 loads per day earning them a little over £10 a day.
All of the miners are just individuals working. They’re not employed by anyway, they simply turn up to mine the sulphur with whatever equipment they can have. For that reason each miner does everything, there’s no division of labour – a miner will get there in the morning, walk to the crater with an axe pick or any instrument they can get, they look for rich deposits then proceed to work on breaking the rocks apart, find high quality ore and load them in their baskets before bring it back up and repeating.
Sounds difficult, right? Oh yeah, and sections of the sulphur ore are continuously on fire, burning blue. That’s why tourists make the effort to go there to see these beautiful burning blue flames under the night sky.
Naturally occuring sulphur flames in the Ijen crater. Near the bottom of the picture you can see the light outline and light of a miner at work.
It’s a perplexing mix of natural beauty juxtaposed by the sad, stark, and savage reality of poverty.