Looking for something a bit different to your typical beach holiday? Mum-of-two Rebecca climbed up a volcano – and says it was one of the best family experiences she’s had while living in Asia.
Singapore is an amazing base for one-stop island getaways, beautiful beaches and fabulous kids’ clubs. But when it comes to top travel encounters, I’ve often heard people say climbing a volcano is one of the most memorable activities you can ever do. And it’s especially memorable while in Indonesia, one of the most volcano-dense countries on the planet. My sights were set on Kawah Ijen, on the island of Java. Known for its electric-blue fire and Crater Lake, a huge body of vibrantly-hued water at the top of the volcano, Kawah Ijen was one of the best experiences we’ve had as a family since living in Asia. Here’s an account of how we did it, and perhaps a little insight into why.
The launch pad
Sumberkima Hill in Pemuteran was our launch pad for this breathtaking adventure. It’s a private villa retreat with all the trimmings, yet incredibly laidback and just what we needed before embarking on our climb. Jane and her team provided us the best possible foundation in preparation for our adventure: ornamental bunk beds for the kids, two on-site restaurants that deliver to the villa, plus onsite spa offerings for sore and achy muscles. And let’s not forget the spectacular view that looks out onto the lush tropical wilds of Pemuteran. Bliss.
The journey begins
The day of our climb started at 4.30am. Yep, it’s truly terrible to wake the kids up that early – perhaps they should have slept in their hiking clothes! But my mummy wisdom told me such as early start would be better than hiking throughout the dead of night – the other option, if you want to witness the famous Ijen Blue Flame (see note at end of article). We decided to save that sightseeing adventure till another day and instead opted for the day walk.
Armed with a breakfast basket, our driver from Sumberkima Hill drove us to the Gilimanuk ferry port in West Bali, a short 30 minutes away, to where our guide from Ijen Navigator, Sapta, was waiting for us. He kindly and promptly took over the organisational reins and purchased our ferry tickets (FYI make sure you have your passports with you) and then shepherded us onboard. Then it was time for a short, one-hour boat journey, during which we got to watch the sun slowly rise.
Once we arrived at Ketapang port in East Java, it was systems go as Sapta led us to two 4WD jeeps, which would take us to the Ijen crater base.
All about that base
Once we’d arrived at the base of Ijen, we wasted no time: a quick loo break and then we were ready to go! The hike up to the top is about 3km and takes about 60-90 minutes depending on your speed. The incline is steep – you are hiking an elevation of around 2,300m, after all – and it’s a little rocky in parts. After the initial shock, sweat and kiddie grumbles, we discovered the main incline is during the first hour of the climb, so some level of fitness is required. I like to consider my kids pretty fit (although one is a tad lazier than the other when it comes to hiking). I still made sure I had plenty of food bribes, as finding them en-route isn’t really an option. About a third of the way up, my daughter just couldn’t be bribed any more, so she hitched a lift in a wheelbarrow up the last main incline!
To guide or not to guide?
Most definitely get a guide – especially with kids. They’ll arrange everything from transfers and ferry tickets, which is better than doing it yourself when there are tired, hangry youths hanging off your limbs at the break of dawn. And it’s also handy to have someone who speaks Javanese for general translations. Our guide, Sapta, was so adept at encouraging Zara to walk just that little bit further, all while proudly showing us one of his country’s most visited tourist attractions and reeling off fun facts about Ijen and his studies in law. I felt like I’d made a new best mate by the end of the tour!
Simply stunning. Expect to walk up dark earthen tracks and alongside lush green mountain edges with views of impressive vistas, not to mention all the flora and fauna. You may even catch a glimpse of a soaring eagle at the top! And, once at the summit, the view becomes something else entirely. I can only describe it as apocalyptic: a stark and desolate volcanic crater, with sulphuric smoke billowing up from the lake base below you.
Wear your masks!
That sulphuric smoke certainly catches you off guard, especially the smell – it’s a pungent aroma of rotten eggs… eugh! When it hits the back of your throat, there’s nothing else you can do except cough like a baby seal. Sapta encouraged us to drink water when this happened and handed out the apocalyptic gas masks (which my daughter promptly used as a prop for her top-of-Ijen Tiktok, sigh). The masks helped a great deal with the smell and the coughing. Definitely wear them! Once we had ours in place, off we trotted to explore.
The landscape diversity at Ijen was immense. It’s sheer, it’s extreme and it’s simply spectacular, especially the aqua jade lake. As clouds passed over it, the water takes on varying shades and it becomes a piece of moving art. We were all still and spellbound. No doubt about it, Ijen is a once-in-a-lifetime view that will stop you in your tracks.
I felt like we’d accomplished something extraordinary. And, let’s face it, it didn’t come easy! There’s the early start, car transfers, ferries, 4WD journey, the actual hiking and tired kids. But we all endured it together and worked hard to witness something incredible – a true gift from nature.
Stay overnight somewhere locally or in Pemuteran before tackling a journey back home. You will be exhausted after climbing Ijen: it’s a super long and arduous day, especially with kids. Sumberkima Hill had our backs literally, and their amazingly zen villa resort can accommodate pretty much any budget and sleeping configuration. So take the time to reflect, rest and restore – after all, you’ve just witnessed something other-worldly and this should be honoured with the gift of time.
Fun facts about Ijen
- The Ijen volcano complex is a group of composite volcanoes located on the border between Banyuwangi Regency and Bondowoso Regency of East Java, Indonesia. It is accessible via Bali via a 30-40 minute boat journey.
- The volcano last erupted in 1999.
- People of all ages can hike up Kawah Ijen. In our party, we had someone as young as 10 years and as experienced in life as 70.
- Ijen National Park is open all year round. The best time to hike Ijen is during the dry season (April to October). The wet season is from November to March. We hiked in March and experienced rain on our drive up and down to the base of the mountain but not for our actual climb.
- Please note for conservation reasons, Ijen is closed every first Friday of the month.
- Our party of 5 hikers cost IDR 2,700,000 (approx $262) for all our expenses, not including accommodation.
- If you do the night walk, you will get the opportunity to witness ‘Ijen Blue Fire’, an electric-blue flame that appears from the combustion of sulphuric gases. As the gases emerge from the cracks in the volcano at high pressure and temperature (600°C), it ignites when it comes into contact with air. This blue flames can reach up to five meters high. Ijen and Iceland are the only two places in the world where you can see this natural phenomenon.
Happy hiking, Honeys!