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Up In Smoke

There is something faintly engrossing about standing in a place where you know someone has died. A young person, on a day-trip, fulfilling that need that travellers have to see, and smell, and touch foreign things. And suddenly the joy is cut short, the crumbling ground gives and his feet slip and he falls down the face of a volcano to his death. My morbid imagination tried to re-enact the event in microscopic detail, second by second, as I stood on the rim of the crater looking down the grey slopes to the lake. I was searching for the steepest point, the trickiest passage, the place that was most likely to have claimed a man’s life, when Dori, my guide, calls out with a smile, ‘You want to go down?’

Kawah Ijen volcanic lake

Kawah Ijen in East Java is one of Indonesia’s 76 historically active volcanoes, and is one of the most spectacular sights that the country can offer those who pass through. I heard of it from a traveller I met in Bali who said, simply, that ‘It was the most incredible place I have ever seen.’ A shimmering aqua-blue lake sits quietly in the bottom of a volcanic crater and stretches out from the stark, chalky-grey slopes like a sheet of coloured glass. On the other side the crater sweeps upwards again to support a cloudless sky, electric and clean. At regular intervals thick clouds of smoke that billow from gashes in the ground momentarily obscure the view, and betray Ijen’s barely-kept secret: this place is not for the gutless.
The tourist who died was a Frenchman who lost his footing as he paced along the part of the crater that masquerades as a path leading to the lake edge. He, like most tourists who come to see Ijen, was drawn by the rare excitement of beholding an awesome natural landscape and a place of outright dread together in the same place.

The lake is one of the most acidic lakes in the world, supposedly with a pH value of 0.3. The smoke that pours from the rocks, soaking everything it touches with a cloying, pungent, metallic stench, is rarefied sulphur. And one of the most extraordinary feats of human endurance can be seen here nearly every day. An elite class of hardened men, and sometimes boys, have taken it upon themselves to seek out and collect what the volcano rejects: pure sulphur.

On a bad day the conditions mean most tourists who arrive at the site can bear it for only one or two hours. A reasonably fit western man will take around two hours to get to the crater rim. These men, locally known as the sulphur-slaves of Ijen, work tirelessly from 4am to 2pm every day, humping wicker baskets filled with up to 60kg of sulphur from the lake edge, up to the crater rim and then back down the side of the mountain to a weighing station 3km away. There, a refinery company pays them cash-in-hand for their loads, and uses the sulphur to whiten sugar.

A miner at Kawah Ijen

A road was built connecting the bottom of the volcano to the refinery only recently too, which means until a few years ago the miners would have had to walk the entire 18km to the refinery on foot. 

Having dumped their cache and collected their pay, they start again. In a day each miner will do the trip four or five times, unloading around 200kg to 250kg in total. The obvious question: Why? is answered by Dori. He tells me that for each 60kg load they are paid 30,000 rupiah, just over £2.20. In a day this means they can earn up to £9, which, surprisingly, is extremely good money. Consider the fruit-seller, who earns just 15,000 rupiah (£1.10) a day.

The strain of the work and the horrendous conditions mean many of the more experienced miners suffer numerous complaints, including sore lungs, corroded teeth, back pains and extreme cases of conjunctivitis.
There is an end in sight however.

The mine was opened in 1968, and nearly every day since then the miners have collectively removed four to five tons of sulphur. The result of mining a limited resource so hard is plain. Dori tells me that the mass of sulphur being pumped up from the depths of the volcano has been dropping off significantly, and within a year daily masses are expected to drop from the current 250kg per man to around 5kg per man.
“This work is not for humans, but if you can do it, you must do it. In one year, when it finishes, they will have to farm, like the other people,” said Dori.

I made my way down the inside of the crater, trying to pick out the path among the loose rocks and boulders that lay strewn everywhere. A rotting sign bearing a skull and cross bones motif added a tinge of hilarity to the scenario, but I was not going to take any chances. At several points I was on my backside making sure I was not going to add to Ijen’s tally of victims, which includes some miners, according to local legend.

Taking the Tourist Trail

The miners appear indifferent at first, when I ask them, through Dori, how they will cope with the loss of a well-paid job. But as I walk with them down the rock-strewn, dusty slope of the crater, the hot, acrid, briny smell of sulphur filling my lungs and the smoke gusting through my hair and clothes, one of them speaks out: “I am very scared,” Dori translates. “I have children and a wife, and soon there will be no money. I will have to farm.”

At the bottom of the crater, with the acidic lake lapping lazily just inches from the feet of the men and the thick smoke wrapping round their legs and faces, others laugh at their colleague’s concern. Dori tells me that these men are survivors, and whatever happens they are confident that they can adapt.

The smoke – the breath of Ijen, as the miners call it – is what contains the sulphur. The miners use a network of pipes to condense the gaseous sulphur, exceeding temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius, into its solid form, the recognizable yellow rubbery substance. They then bundle the large lumps into wicker baskets that they hoist onto their shoulders as they pace back down the mountain to the weighing station. They also collect samples of the sulphur in water bottles, and sell the solidified stalagmites to tourists who have come to see them work.

Wayan is one of the men who work on Ijen. He looks 45 but is probably no older than 30. His skin is dark brown and tight over his small frame. A small mound of scar tissue on his shoulder can be seen under the bar of wood that connects his two baskets.

Incredibly he spends most of his time working at a point on the crater where the smoke billows relentlessly from the ground and surrounds him like a cloak. He scrapes the solidified sulphur into manageable chunks with a shovel, and pours buckets of water over the red, molten sulphur to keep control of the near-invisible fires that burst into life erratically. Dante could not have imagined a more terrifying place when he conceived of his Seventh Circle of Hell.

Like most of the men who work on Ijen, he is philosophical about the loss of his livelihood. He says: “It is okay that there is no more sulphur. I have my father’s farm, and anyway, Ijen needs to rest. If the volcano sleeps, then we are safe.”

But Kawah Ijen is far from dead. Murmurs of life are recorded every few years, where the lake bubbles and changes colour, and big eruptions, where mud, smoke and molten sulphur are thrown hundred of metres into the air, were recorded as recently as 1952. The fact that the diminishing supplies of sulphur will mean the miners will not have to expose themselves to these hazards is of limited benefit, for it is hard to say which is worse for the health: volcanic eruptions and sulphur fumes, or poverty.
I left Kawah Ijen feeling enlightened and privileged to have met men for whom the term ‘hard work’ could have been invented. I was impressed and saddened. I was also a little daunted. It will not be long until the sulphur supplies are gone, and with them a way of life that most westerners simply have no conception of. The French tourist who lost his life could have chosen far less inspiring places to die.

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