Kawa Ijen: Courage is Climbing into an Active Volcano Crater

Kawa IjenFI
“Do you want to climb into the active volcano crater?”

Alyssa asked humorously as our guide climbed past the giant sign that told us it was dangerous and forbidden to follow him.

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Sketchy sign for a sketchy place. Guess I’ll just ignore it.

I took a moment to pull my scarf tighter around my face trying to get some relief from the smell of the sulfur that was being mined from the crater below me. Despite my efforts, the smell continued to assault my senses as if to remind me that I was not only breathing sulfur, but also other potentially harmful undetectable gasses.

I knew Alyssa was asking this question with a grin on her face to make light of the fear we both felt. I also knew she was asking with sincerity. Looking back at her I felt lucky to have a friend who thought to see if I was still alright with the dangerous situation we were about to put ourselves into.

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Alyssa and I protecting our faces from the smoke and smells with t-shirts and towels. We felt really unprepared when the tourists with gas masks passed us.


Before we left for Indonesia Alyssa and I decided that we wanted to see the incredible and rare blue flame of the Ijen Volcano Crater. We were attracted to the idea of doing something adventurous, active, and totally unique to the region. There are only two blue flame volcanoes in the entire world and we were going to be a short car ride away from one of them. While we knew there would be some danger involved, we decided that the risk was worth the reward.

This is when I realized reading about danger and experiencing it are two very different things.

My entire body was tense. As a human being, I knew that climbing into the volcano crater was a bad idea. Humans weren’t meant to climb into volcano craters of their own volition. Humans instinctually want to be comfortable and want to survive.

Everything in my mind wanted to say no to Alyssa.

I wanted to turn around and climb away from the toxic gaseous volcanic mountain. I could see her mind was thinking the same thoughts. I mean, why else would she have even asked me that question?

My inner mind’s dilemma was disrupted when somebody tapped my shoulder from behind me. He made a motion asking me to move so he could climb down ahead of us. I moved out of the way for the man who wanted to climb down.

He was wearing simple workman’s clothes and a scarf bundled up around his face. His shoes were big rubber rain boots that stumbled awkwardly but confidently over the small loose rocks covering the dissent into the crater. On his shoulders he carried a large tree branch with two empty baskets on either end. He was one of the sulfur miners who worked every night in the volcano crater carrying sulfur up and down the mountain.

I watched him walk past in complete wonder that somebody chooses to work this dangerous job nearly every day.

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This is the baskets the miners carry over their shoulders all over the mountain. Each side weighs 50-70 lbs. I wanted to get a picture of one of the miners but I didn’t want to seem rude because they were so kind to us.


“Erin, Do you want to climb into the volcano crater?” Alyssa asked again with less humor and more concern. I knew I would be disappointed in myself if I climbed all the way up the mountain but didn’t climb into the crater. “Yes,” I told her. “Yes, I do.” We gathered up our things and set off after the miner with our guide falling in next to us.

I watched the miner in front of me expertly pick his way through the boulders and stones and tried my best to stumble after him. Despite my 170-dollar hiking boots and his 2-dollar rubber soled rain boots, he completely schooled me in climbing ability. No amount of money spent on “superior” shoes could equal the value of experience.


It was near impossible for us to get good pictures of the flames with our mediocre cameras. There are some great pictures by professionals online if you are interested in seeing them though. Two tourists sitting in front of us and the flames between them. The flames really looked like they belonged on another planet. Most surreal place I have ever traveled to.


The further we climbed into the crater, the further we climbed from the safety of what was familiar.

With every step, I became more and more tense.

I couldn’t believe I had travelled all the way here from my home in Texas. When I thought of how far away from home I had come, I also thought of the millions of steps that I had taken to arrive here in this place. Every single one of those steps had seemed terrifying in the moment. They took me further from my comfort zone and further into the unknown, but they had all been manageable because I took them one step at a time.

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Sunrise during our climb down the mountain. Now begins the long journey back to Japan.


Suddenly, the volcano crater didn’t feel like a hostile foreign world anymore. The steps I was taking into the crater I had taken countless times before in the last 3 years. This was just another step in my journey to make the unknown known to me. My climbing became stronger. While I didn’t begin to climb with the same grace and familiarity as the miner in front of me, I did begin to climb with confidence.

I climbed with the knowledge that the very nature of going anywhere outside your own front door is in itself a little dangerous. Going somewhere new and unfamiliar only takes a little bit of courage and a million small steps.

This journey was taking me into the unknown. It wasn’t the first time I had done this and It wouldn’t be the last.

Fear makes a journey worthy of travel.

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A video I tried to take of the flames. You can see them a bit at the end of the video!

4 Responses

  1. Kim February 21, 2015 / 2:09 pm

    You’re awesome Erin, so happy you are finding so many adventures!!!

    • Erin February 22, 2015 / 8:51 am

      Thanks Daddy. Love you so much!

  2. Jaci February 22, 2015 / 2:05 pm

    what a great adventure!

  3. Aunt Jeanne February 23, 2015 / 2:04 am

    Awesome!! Thanks for sharing your adventures. Hey! That’s my niece!!!

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