In the heart of Ijen volcano

The turquoise lake.

The night before our trip to Mt Ijen (2799m) was spent in probably the worst hotel we stayed at in years. It was so bad that we not only decided to skip having a shower before bed but didn’t even dare undress and ended up sleeping fully clothed on top of the bed. We had heard that hotels/guesthouses around Mt Ijen were limited/scarce and that there wasn’t really any option of finding a different place to stay the night.

It rained the entire evening and we assumed that our outing would be cancelled. Who hikes up a volcano in heavy rain? Our morning call came at 3:30am. Luckily the rain had stopped. There was only a strong wind. We were also pleasantly surprised that we were not bitten by bed bugs or other insects during the night. Our promised ‘boxed breakfast’ was handed to us as we got into our car: 3 pieces of dry, white bread and a boiled egg each. No box.

Mt Ijen was not easy to get to. The drive there was along badly maintained, very muddy and pothole covered roads which made it a very bouncy journey. There was no chance of grabbing more sleep..

The winds had been strong enough to blown down trees and several times we had to stop to clear large branches and even small trees from the road.

We arrived at the base of the volcano at 5am. It was pitch black and there were only a couple of other 4×4’s parked nearby – a huge difference compared to the amount of cars parked at Mt Bromo. We were assigned a local guide and told that we should follow him. Our guide didn’t speak English, didn’t have a flashlight, wore galoshes and continually chain smoked as we hiked upwards. He obviously knew the way by heart and he was fast. It was a 1.5hrs hike and we could barely keep up with him! The steep climb reminded us of Wan Chai Gap, just much longer and steeper.

The brighter it got the more rewarding the views were.

The sun had fully risen by the time we reached the top and we passed three guys who were already on their way down. They had started hiking at 1am in order to reach the lake and see the ‘blue fire’ and watch the sunrise. The sunrise, they said, wasn’t anything to write home about as it ‘just got brighter’. They asked us if we are going down into the crater. We didn’t know we had the option but of course we were. After wandering around the top and admiring the beautifully blue lake we pointed and said to our guide: “Down?”. He nodded and started casually walking down. Not an easy walk. After a few minutes Husband decided to head back, but generously let me continue.

On the way up, we had been passed by several locals carrying empty bamboo baskets. These men were now slowly and very carefully coming out of the crater with full loads of yellow stone. It was much harder going down that I had anticipated. Each time one of them passed I had to stand to one side either clinging to the wall or right on the edge. I knew that I was just there ‘for pleasure’ and wanted to make as little nuisance of myself while they were there working to feed themselves and their families.

It was only 200meters down to the bottom of the crater but it took me over half an hour. Once down it was difficult to breath. The gas discharged by the lake contains sulphur and it irritated my throat which after a breath or two felt sore. When wind blew my direction it was almost impossible to breathe. Several times I desperately struggled to hold my breath until the wind changed direction. I wished for the face masks which were packed in Husband’s backpack. The smoke also stung and made my eyes water while down in the crater and I couldn’t stop coughing. I stayed as short a time as possible (10min) and headed back to join Husband at the rim of the crater. On the very hard walk up I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to work up to 12 hours a day in those conditions. What kind of impact must it have on their health?

Each sulphur miner carries 80-100kg of sulphur on their shoulders. That’s roughly 1.5 or even twice their body weight. Our guide said that there were around 300 local miners. They have no education, no chance of a different job other than the one in that hell. Each of them has a ‘working permit’ – a piece of paper with their name of it. Without that ‘official’ piece of paper they would not be able to receive the stamps that acknowledge the amount of sulphur brought down. A miner earns an average of 10USD per day (and it is one of the better paid jobs in the region). The strongest miners can make up to 4 trips per day, depending on their ‘spirit’.

Surprisingly, their footware consited of flip-flops or galoshes. Some wore trainers that were falling apart and one of the friendliest of them wore only black socks. I was amazed by his smiling face and the way he joked with his workmates while doing the back-breaking work. Most of them were surprisingly friendly and had plenty of cheer.

Official reports say that 74 miners have died in the past 40 years as a result of working in Ijen volcano. Sulphur mining at Ijen is probably the hardest job I have ever seen.

Almost daybreak.

Just barely after dawn, we passed the first sulphur mine worker. He must have worked through the night or at least headed up at 2am. He was happy to see us and shouted ‘Selemat Pagi’ which means ‘Good morning’.

Unattended basket with sulphur rocks on the crater rim.

Sulphur cloud heading our way. Time to take a big breath before the toxic fumes reach us.

This man insisted with gestures that I take his photo and later laugh at the picture.

Still warm, freshly mined sulphur. Deep red at high (boiling) temperature which fades to bright yellow as it cools.

No advanced machinery here. They use only steel rods to break off solid sulphur stones. No gas mask to brave odorous smoke, only scarves.

Last recorded eruption was in 1999 (but ash, not magma).

One kilometre wide and 200 meters deep, the biggest crater lake in Java is filled with 2,500000 tons of Ph 0.5 acid. Water temperature: 34C.

80-100 kilograms of sulphur. The stone is 99% sulphur.

Very tough 200 meters back up to the rim of the carter with 100kg on their backs.

Last look at the turquoise lake.

Following the work miners on our way down. 3km to the weighing station.

We got back to the car and ‘rewarded’ ourselves with a cup of ‘turkish coffee’. We told our guide about my time down in the crater. He was very surprised as he forgot to tell us that tourists weren’t allowed down. He pointed out a big banner posted by government workers: ‘It is absolutely forbidden for tourists to walk into the crater’

We started driving and I couldn’t calm down. I was completely hyped up by what we had seen. Such a beautiful and surreal place.

If in East Java definitely visit Mt Ijen and perhaps go down into the crater .. but try not to stay at Catimor Homestay (such an awful place).

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