Java, Kawah Ijen – the sulphur miners of Java

Java, Kawah Ijen – the sulphur miners of Java

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Zoom in to Java’s Eastern edge on Google Earth and the pale blue disc of Kawah Ijen’s lake is one of the first distinct features to emerge into view. But, forget lakeside villas and water skiing, this is the world’s largest acidic lake, with a pH as low as 0.13 (pretty much battery acid) – a clue as to why the crater is both a strange medieval-style workplace and an adventure tourism highlight.

Ijen’s 200m-deep lake hides an active volcano and the single set of sulphuric fumaroles which emerge there have become a lucrative, if hazardous workplace. For the men who toil under the stars at Kawah Ijen, the ore they mine offers higher wages than other unskilled labour, even if such wages come at a high price, whilst the spectacular sights, sounds and smells of their workplace helps pull the tourists in.

1 ferry, 2 buses, 1 taxi, 2 trains, 26 hours and no sleep after leaving Karimunjawa, I stepped onto the platform at Ketapang Station as the sun started to ease down, happy to be immediately swept up by tour operator Leo for a “blue flame” Kawah Ijen tour. Six or so hours later, I’m back in Leo’s 4 wheel drive at 1am with tour buddies Priscilla and Victoria from Sabah, first speeding through a deserted Banyuwangi, then slowing abruptly as the road pitches upwards. Contrary to the 2013 Lonely Planet, the surface is now excellent, though clutch-destroyingly steep, and it’s an hour up to Pos Patulding – the ranger station that marks the start of the trek proper.

Cool, dry and quiet under bright moonlight, the steep trail up is just 3km long, often taking a direct vertical over traditional zigzags. At first we are alone in the dark, then oncoming traffic starts to pick up – miners with full loads pass on the way down or we cross them resting, loads balanced on clever ledges cut out of the trailside bank.

Ijen’s crater rim is sensed rather than seen – acrid fumes start to bite at the back of the throat before, suddenly, we are on the edge. Under a near full-moon and bright stars, the flaming blue rockface near the vents below is clearly visible in the distance, even as acid plumes do their best to hide it away and, after barely a pause, we continue on – leaving both the crater rim and our travel insurance behind. The trail down into the volcano looks a chaos of boulders and rockfall, but is easy to follow with the headlamps of both miners and visitors breadcrumbing the winding route. Within minutes we’re low down on the crater wall near the acid lake, where fires lit by the miners keep the sulphur flowing down ceramic pipes until, rapidly solidifying, it’s chipped off into blocks and loaded into baskets.

The scene is like nothing I’ve witnessed – around the vents the rockwall burns bright blue in the darkness and, but for the modern attire of the workers, the experience feels like some vivid scene from a fantasy movie. Occasionally the edge of a hydrogen sulphide cloud swirls around, acrid and unpleasant even through a fume mask. Guide Yanizar tells us we are lucky – the night before the wind and acid clouds conspired and most visitors chose not to risk the crater descent.

Cooled, the lemon-yellow blocks are strangely attractive and nowhere near as odourous you might expect. Baskets full, for the miners the real work begins here – a steep rocky climb up and out to the rim before the long walk down, first to the inital weighing area, then onto the processing station, all while carrying somewhere around 75kg (and, since this is Indonesia, smoking at the same time). As Yanizar explained, two trips per night nets the miners about 150,000 Rupiah (£9). And the sulphur? It’s used to bleach sugar, vulcanise rubber and in cosmetics – seemingly banal uses for a substance which literally has to be ripped from the Earth’s fiery heart.

For us, the short climb back out of the crater starts in the dark, but ends in bright sunshine, our pace beaten by a typically fast tropical dawn. Amusingly invisible in the dark on the way down, the first surprise is a big sign explaining how visitors are banned from entering the crater. Once back up at the rim, we circle anti-clockwise for a kilometre or so, rising gently to a cluster of abandoned buildings with great views both into the crater and East to the sea. With perfect conditions on my visit, the constantly-changing early morning light framed the crater perfectly, floating on a sea of clouds above Java’s Eastern edge.

This new perspective and the risen sun reveals the crater whole. On the sulphur vent side, little or nothing grows for hundreds of metres around the fumarole – life poisoned by the constant acid clouds. On its Northern shore, the lake is just twenty or thirty metres below the crater rim – no doubt ready for a future earthquake to split this weak point and send a toxic torrent into the valley below. Sunrise complete, photos taken and masks packed away there’s just a steep, knee-destroying descent left to enjoy back to Pos Patulding.

Part the way down at Pondok Bunder a weighing point and rest house has a small shop for refreshments, plus some very sociable miners happy to explain the technique for carrying the sulphur baskets. I think I could have walked about 20m on the flat carrying the 75kg load I tried, and didn’t even consider picking up the 105kg basket pair. The miners are friendly, decent working men – I was happy to give approx 10,000IDR to each miner who I photographed or “borrowed” a basket pair from, which was accepted with reserved thanks – nothing awkward at all.

I was back at my hotel by 9am, and on a ferry across to Bali within a couple of hours more after 16 hours very well spent. Even as it grows in popularity, Kawah Ijen was a real highlight of my trip and I’m glad I skipped the crowds at Bromo to explore it, but do think carefully about whether you want to risk entering the crater as there are significant risks to consider. If it’s not for you, I’d still recommend walking up to the crater rim in the daylight as many do – a lovely short trek in the cooler air of the volcano’s slopes.

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