The surroundings of Kawah Jien is dramatic and beautiful, but they are home to one of the hardest and deadliest jobs in the world – belonging to the miners who extract sulphur from its depths.
Story and Photos by Dave Stamboulis.
While Mount Bromo with its mist rising off the volcanic crater floor gets most of eastern Java’s travel coverage, the Kawah Ijen crater and lake–located at the far east end of the island–remains a far more interesting story, and makes for a compelling visit. Not only are the dramatic mountain surroundings beautiful but also they are home to one of the world’s hardest and deadliest jobs, that belonging to the miners who extract the sulphur from its depths.
The Ijen Plateau sits just off the end of Java’s eastern tip. Rising up to over 2500m, the area is a large caldera filled with stratovolcanoes, and home to the world’s most acidic lake, a beautiful emerald crater lake that sits at the bottom of the caldera. The volcanic soil on the slopes of the plateau is abundantly fertile, home to large coffee plantations, strawberry farms, and several relaxing hot springs, making the region a perfect spot for eco-tourism.
While visitors here will marvel at the natural wonders of Ijen, perhaps of even greater interest are the local miners who inhabit the slopes of the volcano. The bottom of the Ijen Crater is rich in sulphur, and one of only two spots in the world where it can be mined (the other a small operation also in Java), after which it is taken out to be processed for making cosmetics, whitening sugar, and other uses.
In what is surely one of the most gruelling jobs on the planet, the miners of Ijen make their living by digging up the sulphur, and then carrying it out of the crater on their backs in bamboo baskets. The miners start work around two in the morning, while the temperatures are still cool and when the sulphur is bathed in an eerie blue flame. The interior of the crater constantly belches smoke and steam, and most tourists visiting the area need the provided gas masks to descend the 500m into the “Gates of Hell,” as the area is known, as the odor from the sulphur and gases can be overpowering.
The miners chop loose large rocks of sulphur, which they then load into counterbalanced baskets and haul them out on their shoulders, ascending a precipitous and rocky trail to the crater rim and then back down to the parking lot, where trucks transport the sulphur to be processed in a nearby factory. The miners earn a paltry 800 Indonesian rupiah (less than THB3) per kilogram, and carry loads of up to 100kg at a time. The miners make two trips up and down in a morning, earning a maximum of 100,000 rupiah (THB290) for their efforts, and the only respite from their exhausting labor comes from cigarette breaks and the extra bit of cash they now make from tourists by selling small sculpted pieces of sulphur they have carved into souvenirs.
My partner and I recently visited the plateau and hooked up with Samsuri, a wisecracking, highly energetic son of a miner who has decided to get out of the physically brutal labor of hauling sulphur. He had since become a self-taught ace photographer who now leads photo tours around the area. Sam, as he calls himself, doesn’t sleep a lot, guiding photographers three to four nights a week and sometimes more, getting up at midnight to start the hour long ascent on foot up to the crater, in time to witness the glowing blue light, which emits from the sulphur in the crater only at night.
Sam, who seems to live on pure adrenaline, along with 15 cups of coffee and a pack or two of cigarettes each day, is committed to using his tours as a vehicle for making change in the Ijen villagers’ lives, helping to start up schools for the miners’ kids, and ensure that more of them will have other choices for work in the near future.
Another reason for the early start up the mountain is avoiding the buildup of gas clouds, which get too thick and noxious to ensure safety later in the morning. While the view from the crater rim is absolutely breathtaking, Sam tells us a few facts that reveal some of Ijen’s cruel truths. He says that while the crater lake might be photogenic, it is also more corrosive than battery acid, and that the miners, in addition to breathing the odorous fumes, have to watch every step while mining and hauling sulphur, lest they slip and fall into the lake, which would have horrific consequences.
We meet up with several miners already hauling up their first loads of the day. Purnomo, whom I recognize from several documentaries made on the miners, has a wide and infectious gap-toothed smile, and takes easily to Sam’s gentle teasing of him, calling him “Leonardo, our local superstar” due to all of his media fame (the BBC and a couple of independent filmmakers have given the Ijen miners some coverage).
Purnomo says that he’s happy that more tourists are coming to Ijen, hoping that more exposure to what he and his comrades do every day may be of assistance with better pay or working conditions and hopefully better lives for the miners’ families in the future. He asks us for some cigarettes, a common request from the miners, as their smoking breaks are the only relief they get from the long hard slogs up and down into the crater.
The descent into the crater is steep, boulder strewn, and perilous, and adding noxious gas and dim dawn light makes for a dizzying experience, causing us to stop and gather our wits and balance repeatedly.
Another miner, Yudi, who is already on his second foray of the morning into the mine, passes us. Yudi is one of the younger miners, and perhaps the 80kg-load he is carrying doesn’t extract quite as brutal a physical toll on him as on some of the older miners, but like his compatriots, he hopes only for slightly better pay conditions, and comforts himself by knowing of Sam’s reputation as a guide on Ijen, bringing plenty of temporary cigarette breaks and the promise of better lives for his children’s futures.