Kawah Ijen: Hell & Heaven

We made an excursion, among the indigenous sulfur collectors, on the slopes of the only volcano in the world that erupts blue lava: the Kawah Ijen on the Indonesian island of Java. The nocturnal catabasis and the morning ascent, similar to those of Dante in Doré's illustrations, gave rise to meditations in us on the power of the cataclysmic events that have always affected the Pacific "belt of fire", and on the necessity on the part of the man to accept them and to come to terms with them.

di Marco Maculotti

One cannot remain emotionally indifferent to them cataclysmic events that have hit Southeast Asia in recent years: the mind immediately changes to the 2004 tsunami, with its epicenter in the sea of ​​Sumatra, which caused 200 to 300.000 deaths. We can then understand how the recent eruption (December 2018) of the Indonesian volcano Anak Krakatau, located on an atoll between the island of Java and that of Sumatra, and the consequent tsunami triggered by it - although it caused a much lower number of victims; "Only" a few hundred - has necessarily awakened the worst fears in the inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago: all the more so since the catastrophic event took place more or less in the same days (December 26 in 2004, December 23 in 2018). Going even further back in time, one cannot fail to mention one of the most disastrous cataclysmic events ever, namely the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in August 1883, which caused 36.000 deaths and the "birth", so to speak, of the "son" of Krakatoa, that is Anak Krakatau responsible for the catastrophe that just happened.

The Kawah Ijen in the morning mist. All the photographs in this reportage are the work of the Author and, consequently, are to be considered the exclusive property of AXIS mundi

On the other hand, the insular area we are talking about is almost perpetually affected by seismic phenomena of this kind, being exactly on the so-called "Belt of fire" (ring of fire) of the Pacific: it is estimated that 90% of world earthquakes occur within this range. Having traveled two months, last summer, to the Indonesian archipelago, I was able to personally verify the state of alert in which island Asians live perpetually, day after day: during my short stay, at least four or five seismic events, a couple of which caused hundreds of deaths and rather massive damage, which led, among other things, to the partial evacuation of the island of Lombok, one of the main tourist destinations of the archipelago. A few weeks after my return to Italy, on September 18, another violent shock occurred: this time the dead were more than a thousand.

That said, the presence of volcanoes (active and not) in Southeast Asia, if on the one hand it is a constant source of danger and uncertainty, on the other it represents for Indonesian governments one of the main economic revenues of the tertiary sector, on which practically the entire economy of the archipelago is based. Hikers pay an average of 200-400 euros for the climbing experience, depending on the overall length of the overnight stay on the spot, and every day, thousands of tourists on the island of Java undertake the night climb of Mount Bromo or the Marapi, to reach the top at the time of dawn. However, even more characteristic is the excursion on the Ijen crater, a group of stratovolcanoes in the eastern part of the island that stands out from the other highlands volcanoes open to tourism for a very specific reason: it is the only volcanic complex in the world which, due to the sulfuric gas that emerges from the telluric fissures with temperatures up to 600 ° C, it emits a fiery lava of blue color. The highest point of the complex, which measures 2.800 meters above sea level, also takes the name of Monte Marapi, which literally means "mountain of fire": it is therefore not surprising to find it several times in this geographical area (in addition to the two examples mentioned above, there is also a volcano called Merapi in Sumatra).

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Precisely because of this more unique than rare peculiarity, I opted, in the last days of my trip to Indonesia, for this excursion, instead of the one (perhaps more touristy) on Mount Bromo. Arrived in the evening at the "base camp" on the slopes of Kawah Ijen, with a temperature below zero, I set out at one o'clock in the morning, accompanied by a local guide who, despite the now advanced age and the state physical to say the least precarious - her coughing coughs accompanied practically the whole climb - she finally proved to be endowed with an absolutely enviable physical resistance and very rarely found in her peers of our "civilized" world.

A two-hour walk is required to reach the edge of the crater, to which must be added a walk of another hour to reach the lower bank, from whose infernal “mouths” the sulphurous fumes and the averniche blue flames that make Kawah Ijen unique in the world. To make this descent towards the "infernal" caverns you must wear an anti-gas mask: the sulfur emissions, in fact, although they can be found in greater quantities in the lowest point of the volcanic gorge, begin to unravel already from the beginning of the path katabatic, making the descent extremely risky for those without one.

However, this does not prevent the numerous sulfur collectors that every night, for who knows how many centuries, they have been going up and down the slopes of the volcano to do without this protection: as if their physical organism, tempered through the generations, has, so to speak, been genetically "immunized" from the mephitic effects of the sulphurous clouds that envelop the rocky depression. Equipped with a wheelbarrow and a wicker basket carried on their shoulders, they descend several times, as if the boiling fumes did not exist for them, to the lowest point of the volcanic crucible, from which the cerulean flames that made this famous are also emitted. place.

Impossible not to feel a little, during the catabasis, like Dante who descends the rounds of hell in Doré's imaginative illustrations: for this purpose there is no real path, but you have to make do as best you can, leaning on the gargantuan blocks of rock scattered throughout the entire gorge, always being careful not to put your foot in the wrong. And like Dante, I felt momentarily lost when, due to the total darkness that enveloped the entire environment (and which - alas - did not make it possible to photographically document this incredible descent), suddenly I no longer found the guide I could find at my side. accompanied: in the meantime, in fact, another group of tourists had descended into the infernal mouth, who, mixing with the sulfur collectors, now formed a nice swarm of people, of whom, due to the darkness and the sulphurous clouds that enveloped everything , it was not possible to decipher the face. I stayed there for a long time to observe the warbling and the aerial evolutions of the cerulean fire that made the volcano famous, as well as the still and hazy acid lake of the caldera of the volcanic complex, which stretched as far as the eye could see a few steps from the fiery flickers: a vision that can only bring to the mind of the non-fasting traveler of classical mythology the rarefied environments studded with cold and blue flames of Greek Hades, where the souls of the dead, according to tradition, were destined to prowl like shadows, ghost simulacra of what they had once been in life.

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The characteristic blue lava of Kawah Ijen

And such and such as to the spirits of the deceased residing in Hades the countless tourists (mostly Europeans and Americans, but also Asiatic in large numbers) seemed to me also, during the ascent undertaken alongside the finally found guide, with more than understandable shrewdness, they were preparing to make the descent in turn towards the flames of the Javanese Avernus. Faced with the slow descent of such ghost mob I understood the guide's haste to leave base camp at one o'clock, when almost all the other hikers lay in Morpheus's arms, perhaps believing in this way to gain strength and breath for the steep and tiring ascent to the mountain. Never a decision, in hindsight, was more propitious: making the insidious descent towards the erupting mouth of the blue flames in the company of hundreds of other people would have deprived the experience of all that.atmosphere of sublime desolation that instead, setting off early, I was able to fully feel, like a cold ethereal fire on the skin.

Having laboriously climbed up to the upper edge of the crater, it took just under an hour to reach the summit of the mountain complex, where we already found scattered groups of hikers, encamped on the spot early, moved by the desire to admire the sunrise. Dawn was not long in coming: the multiple refractions of the heliacal star spread rapidly over the entire panorama observable from the summit, to the point that even in the west a bizarre play of lights meant that on the rocky bay suspended, as in a dreamlike vision, on the acid lake of the Kawah Ijen caldera, a band of a very bright tawny orange was imprinted in the hazy sky, which eventually it descended towards the still body of water in the form of a forked beam of light, like an otherworldly laser.

Meanwhile the fog began to rise more and more towards the sky, giving life to equally dreamlike visual phenomena: the summit of Merapi, partially enveloped by the nebulous banks that rise in mid-air during the first hours of the day, seemed suspended on the clouds, as the ancient Greeks must have imagined the sacred Mount Olympus. Later the ethereal beams enveloped, after having risen further to the uranic heights, the same peak. And when the fog finally spread unevenly over the entire plateau, the whole panorama appeared completely transfigured: as if the different bands that made it up and that were now very distinct to the observer's gaze each belong to a world of its own, each seat of a separate universe, characterized by a different density compared to the environments with which it was found to confine.

It is in moments like these that you feel the metaphysical character inherent in mountaineering, already intuited by Nietzsche during his wanderings in Egandina and then theorized by Julius Evola in the collection of essays Summit Meditations: written on the mountain 1927 - 1959 (first ed. 1974): the ascent of the mountain is considered here as an active practice but at the same time also ascetic and meditative, with the possibility of producing subconsciously, thanks to this contiunctio oppositorum of action and contemplation, that overcoming of the limits of the purely human condition. A rise (physics) which, therefore, turns into something more: that is to say into one ascended, in its purely mystical meaning - un ecstatic rapture of the heights and vastness.

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For these reasons, Evola was able to affirm that "The world of the high mountains goes to speak to a primordial inheritance, [and for this reason] it can slowly bring out the sense of that more than human freedom, which does not mean escape, but is the beginning of a pure force"; a freedom that can only be conquered by "overcoming the purely human and individual feeling of oneself". And in what, more than in the mountains, nature provides us with one imago that "in its greatness, in its purity, in its power and in its primordiality, it is superior to the small events of men", but also, we add - and here we are about to conclude - to the larger and more serious ones, such as cataclysmic events reported at the beginning of the article, otherwise incomprehensible and unacceptable from one point of view human, too human?

In this sense, during the catabasis about averniche mouths on fire with blue - and then during the subsequent ascent to the summit - it is possible, for the spirit that is able, to fully understand the essence, beyond Good and Evil, of the naked and primordial Nature, eternally existing as a snake biting its own tail, in its character of artificial, of deus faber, and at the same time of destroyer, since a new creation becomes impossible without a preliminary destruction.

In the same way, we find the same dichotomy in the painstaking work that, night after night, since the dawn of time, they perform the characteristic sulfur collectors of Kawah Ijen: an action twofold, which is expressed on the one hand by subtracting the still incandescent minerals from the vulva chtonia, and then wisely remodel them in souvenir to be sold to numerous tourists and hikers to "round up the bills"; on the other hand, finely pulverizing most of the sulfur collected and then cramming it into large bags, to be then sold to wholesalers in neighboring countries.

In this way the cycle of life and death, of cyclical creation and destruction has always been going on, on the slopes of Kawah Ijen, for ever and ever.


The author on the summit of Kawah Ijen, enveloped in the morning mist.

4 comments on “Kawah Ijen: Hell & Heaven"

    1. Yes, the event was filmed in full with a fixed video camera. Now it remains to be understood when and how it will be published. In any case, we will be able to sponsor it on the FB page and maybe even here on the site, when it is published. On the FB page, for the moment, you can listen / see a video extract of my speech lasting about 5 minutes.

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