Last Stop: Banyuwangi | Asia’s Hidden Gem

The final stop of my west to east adventure on Java Island: Banyuwangi. Not a bad place to finish off with a trek on Mount Ijen’s famous caldera! Talk about tickling the senses!

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The night bus came to a violent halt, our driver seemingly having an anvil for a foot his entire life, awoke me from my dreams of the white sandy beaches. My eyes took a few minutes to adjust to the very little light coming into the mega bus style cabin. I noticed my seatmate was still passed out in deep slumber, how envious I was of her, as I scan the views through the shattered front window. They’ll let any vehicle pass inspection in these parts. From what I gather we are about to board a ferry headed for Bali, this DEFINITELY does not look like Banyuwangi to me!

In a frantic tizzy I went up to the driver and asked if this was near Banyuwangi center for I did not want to go to Bali, least not again! Unfortunately for me the language barrier became a huge issue as the minutes counted down to the ferry’s inevitable departure. It’s nearing one am and my homestay’s host was waiting up for my arrival that I might not make. Gathering my stuff to get off god knows where I hawk back to Murphy’s Law and how much of a bitch that is right now.

A light at the end of this nightmare came from my seatmate talking to the driver and translating to me. She spoke in broken English to me and seamlessly switching to Indonesian when talking to the driver. My sentiments were conveyed to our driver that if I wanted to make my stop I need to get off now! So there I was stranded at a ferry terminal literally in the middle of the night and all I had was my wits about me. Not a bad way to end a pretty bad night bus travel experience. Boy do those trains are looking MIGHTY good right now.

I search for any available cab that might be running at this hour, ruling out getting a Grab entirely. After some time a driver was willing to drive my ass to Thalia Homestay where my host was still up waiting for me close to two am. Twenty minutes later I arrived at my destination, bid the cabbie goodbye and was welcomed warningly by my host. She showed me immediately to my room so I can settle in and get some rest. If only she know what an ordeal to start this final stop had been and it wasn’t even dawn yet!

My game plan for my few short days here was to hike the last of the volcanoes on my list: Mount Ijen. The range is actually a volcano complex compiling of groups of composite volcanoes. Gunung Merapi (which just erupted a few weeks ago) stratovolcano is the highest point of that complex and in the center of all of it lays an acidic lake. They are located on the border between Bondowoso and Banyuwangi in East Java, Indonesia. Thus making Banyuwangi the PERFECT place to base myself out of for this last trek.

I must have slept like a rock because I didn’t wake up until four in the afternoon. Sometimes late night travels mixed with unexpected detours will drain your mental and bodily energies. Though revived, least for now, I made way to speak with my host family and inquire the best way to trek up Ijen the following night. Through our conversation I felt such a warmth from their family (who are actually from the states!) that I hadn’t felt in a while, all things considered, I’d definitely recommend staying with them on that alone!

In the end I decided on booking a tour they ran to save all the hassle of having to figure it out in my current sleep deprived state. After this exchange I went to find some much needed food to quell the fight my stomach was putting up. I found myself at Seafood Sobo nearby my homestay. 100% did not disappoint. Get the crabs, all the crabs and thank me later.

Seafood Sobo > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle
A great seafood spot that was surprisingly cheap!

Instead of my alarm ringing in the middle of the night I was woken up to gentle knocks on my door. My phone shined 11:15PM as I replied back that I was awake followed by a faint thank you. Time to get up and ready my pack for the next god knows how many hours. A tour car ran by the family would promptly pick me up at midnight and make the rounds to pick up other patrons (one more French person at a different homestay) before driving the 43km to the base.

Our drive to Ijen was base was a MUCH smoother affair than when I headed off to Bromo base. Dare I go as far to say that a cat nap was taken during the ride. Once we arrived the scene was entirely different, chaotic as you can imagine. At 1AM it was already lively with hundreds of people with headlamps walking about and rows of parked cars congesting the lot.

Our driver facilitated introductions with our tour guide and just like that he was off back into the night, probably to sleep in his car. I honestly thought about doing the same, but there’s a volcano to trek. Our guide introduced us to each other, a small group of would be trekkers; a French couple and one more rounding our their trio. My group, now six strong, was given headlamps and face masks, sulfur fumes are strong on the summit, before heading off into the night.

Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle
Hauntingly beautiful to look back at where we just were.

In the darkness of the night the sky shone brightly with its billion dollar view. Before us laid a two hour trek up some 9,000 feet to the crater of Ijen and it was wise to start soon to catch first light. From memory the trek itself wasn’t entirely too bad if you aren’t an avid hiker. Most of the trail was on cement roads for the first half while the second on more weathered paths. The incline was manageable for a good duration until the last third of the climb. At that point my quads were in a bit of pain though nothing that would required me to be wheel barreled up. Yes, you heard right, there were fine locals with wheel barrows and pull sleds ready to drag you to the summit! Bless their souls.

You will find a rest stop halfway up the mountain to take in the night views. I must say without light pollution like that of big cities the view on this mountain were SPECTACULAR. The moon’s reflection was enough to illuminate things around you. A mountain peak here, some low lying clouds there, a few billion stars above. Complete serenity swallowed you whole once you turned off the outside world.

Not too long after our break we finally broke the summit, phew! After catching my breath BRIEFLY I was told to get ready as we were about to descend into the caldera! One of the draws of coming to do the Ijen trek is descending down into the caldera where sulfur gases under extremely high pressure expel from crevices in the rocks. Exposed to the oxygen present in air and sparked by lava, the sulfur burns readily, and its flames are bright blue. I certainly did not need a second invitation and was rearing to go.

Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle
The acid lake shining bright by moodlight.

The descent was a bit more on the hairy side compared to ascending to the summit. You’ll find yourself zigzagging in the darkness, where the headlamps are vital, while trying to avoid falling off the path. I always recommend getting off the beaten path but on this occasion stick to it! A faint hint of sulfur looms in the air before you eventually commit into heading down. Keep those gas masks close by.

A train of hikers and miners working the crater for sulfur deposits were in traffic unison with each other. I couldn’t help to notice them (miners) carrying wicker baskets brimming of sulfur deposits otherwise known as ‘Devil’s Gold.’ Come to find out that some 300 miners make this trip twice daily to collect as much sulfur deposits as they can. Doing so while inhaling toxic sulfur fumes some 40 times the tolerable limits for humans! All of this hard work just garner $10-12 a day! If you hate your job let us take a moment to appreciate these gentlemen. You can buy carved sulfur deposits as souvenirs from the miners to help them out and have something unique to bring home.

The deeper we descended into the caldera the more prominent the smell of sulfur became. On went the gas mask, though mine didn’t really help much if anything at all. By the time you hit the bottom the smell is intensified 20 folds. I couldn’t put my finger on any particular scent other than rotten eggs. Like a thousand rotten eggs whose odor was compressed into the mass of a neutron star and shoved straight up your nostrils. Throw in some nose hairs being singed for optimal effect. Again my gas mask did bollocks to help me breathe.

Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle
Blume flames oozing from the crevices.

Overcoming the fumes I made way towards the site of the sulfur leak. Hard to miss as people gathered in groups around it. Before visually making contact you can hear the extremely loud hissing sound it was emitting. Imagine a crack in your window during a hurricane.

With the night still dark the closer you got to the leak more its faint blue fire becomes prominent. Being about fifteen feet away yielded the best seat for the show. Flames sped out like blue bullets from a gun with the trigger jammed open. Eventually it came gushing out in a constant stream of blue and white. I couldn’t stop gazing at it because at certain points the sound and sight became so engrossing it hypnotized me. Had it not been for the overwhelming gas fumes that burnt my eyes and throat I could have watched it for hours. Not as epic as some photos online the view was still one you can hardly forget.

Finished with the late night showing in the caldera we all made our way back up from where we came. Going up always seem a lot easier than down doesn’t it? Before long I found myself catching my breath as the moon illuminated the lake in the caldera’s center. Eerily beautiful.

Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle
Setup and ready to roll on autopilot.

We trekked a couple of more miles on the ridge and ended up facing east, towards Bali. I couldn’t help but look around as we walked noticing just how insanely high up we were. The clouds were now below some peaks of the ranges with only trails of headlamps leading all the way back down the mountain. I fell behind my group lead to soak up some fleeting moments this high up.

We parked it with a group of about 50 others all vying for the sweet seat to watch yet ANOTHER sunrise in the south Pacific. You would think I be sick of them by now, but that certainly isn’t the case. It’s always here you can see the many walks of life converging for the simple joy of watching another day unfold in front of you. Locals, backpackers, tour guides. Engineers, teachers, blue collar, white collar. English, German, Arabic, Portuguese. You can find just about anyone huddled here counting down the minutes.

  • Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle

The show started as all shows do: with a myriad of cool colors bleeding onto a blank canvas. As the sun peaked over the top you can see a mountain side to the right and a valley forming deep below. The winds stayed at bay while the laughter and conversations grew in intensity. Phones and cameras all came out to play mine included, though capturing these moments aren’t my specialty, preferring to live in it.

The colors soon turn into their usual warm hues, making tiny pockets of fire in the sky until it was blazoned with light. The air around us grew only slightly warmer as the sun grew higher. At the same time you can see Bali off in the distance coming into focus. There is no doubt that thousands of people were on Mount Batur watching the same show we are. Crazy to think how a moment like this with the 50 or so people around feel so exclusive is also being enjoy perhaps by millions around the area. Reminds you that a life this beautiful is always cherished by so many.

Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle
Overlooking the acid lake atop Mount Ijen.

The morning, now in full swing, turned everyone’s attention to the lake that was now visible behind us. Its color was reminiscent of thermal baths of Iceland, while the odor, still something hard to describe in full detail, illustrated by the sulfur gas fumes is a mere memory. In full daylight the ominous plumes of sulfur gas cannot be mistaken. They pillow over the lake, moving ever so slowly across the landscape, casting a shadow on its far side. I was actually feeling my chest tighten up a bit just standing there, but glad to have moved far away.

Beyond the lake you can see the moon high in the sky reflecting the sun’s rays. But the gas rolled in waves, sometimes you can see hundreds of feet ahead and then poof in an instance you were blinded. We were turning heads left and right like chickens released from their coops. Not knowing which yielded the better view we chose to look at them all!

  • Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle

Our faithful sun was now high into the morning sky showing us everything we couldn’t see in the pre-dawn hours. Hiking up some 9,000 feet is no small task but you are rewarded once light broke. A clear blue sky above, a volcanic range surrounding us, and a city just waking up under a veil of cumulus clouds below. Tired, legs spent, and especially famished we decided it was a good moment to head back down towards basecamp for a quick breakfast before out departure.

  • Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle
  • Mount Ijen > Banyuwangi > TheRoamingNoodle

I can’t remember much of the drive back to my homestay for I was so overcome with the need to sleep I properly zonked out sitting shotgun. On the one hand I was sad this would be the last volcanically active trek I would do for a while, but on the other I was surely happy not to get up at midnight either. Time pass by so quickly when you’re a zombie in deep sleep that I woke up to the front gates of my homestay, the host out front with a cheerful smile. I bid farewell to my driver, pocketed a small sum of money for the day, said my hellos and cut up some chit chat, and made way for the luxurious bed one can find in these parts.

After sleeping for what seemed like the entire day I woke to pack my gear as my adventures here came to a close. My time spent here wasn’t as long as previous cities on Java, but I can leave knowing another adventure was under my belt. My next stop was Surabaya, not for anything in particular, other than the airport that will fly me to Singapore where I will spend a few days before closing out this sabbatical altogether.

A few weeks before arriving to Banyuwangi I purchased a one way ticket back home. Home, something I haven’t said in a long time, but felt it everywhere I went during these last few months. After my time on the road, countless of thousands of miles traveled by air, sea, train, bus and even tuk tuk it was on this island, Java, that I really found something I didn’t know I was looking for.

In all of my travels people have always asked which was place was the best? I hear it time and time again after some beers are had. I would always scroll through the rolodex of my memory bank to come up with some place that was worth a mention, the Shangri La of my destinations. After spending three weeks running around this island I think finally I’ve found my answer, my hidden gem amongst the influx of diamonds.

A quick recap of another volcano trekking adventure.

Here, on Java Island, my cares about life and its problematic situations were dissolved. My appetite for adventures had and will have only grew by the day. The excitement that coursed through my veins were amplified by the strangers I befriended and the mischief we found ourselves in. I didn’t care anymore if I missed my next train, or got lost on the trail to the natural hot springs. Everything just floated away and you are left in a semi-dream state of euphoria and ecstasy with both feet firmly planted on the ground.

With its rich culture and deep roots in humanities explorative past, warm and welcoming people, immensely great cuisine for every palette, and history that can still be seen and lived through till this day, it’s hard to explain why I loved my time here so much. Even harder to leave it knowing I didn’t get to reach all the way into its underbelly. It’s true, by the end I regretted buying that plane ticket home. This felt like home. I wanted to bring everyone here, yet at the same time just keep it a secret for a bit longer.

All good things come to an end they say. At this moment I wasn’t leaving Java, or SE Asia, or my wonderful adventures behind me for a life back in the states. This was just an intermission where you can go back home and get refreshed for the next act.

Plus we still have Singapore and all its great eats!

1 comments on “Last Stop: Banyuwangi | Asia’s Hidden Gem”

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