Taking steps in my own life – and meeting the sulphur miners who risk theirs every day.
After being involved in the earthquake in Kathmandu in April, I have to admit that for a few months afterwards I was slightly on edge. The five days I spent in the city pre-evacuation caused my brain to be in a constant state of heightened alert. Even after I arrived home in Northern Ireland, if a truck drove past my house and shook the building my heart rate would rise and I’d relive some of the feelings I had during the disaster. This of course is something that can’t be controlled. I know now that this is the fight-or-flight response – a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.
As time went on, these feelings subsided but I was still slightly apprehensive about flying back to Asia in August. “What if it happens again?” I thought to myself. “Well, if it happens, it happens, and I’ll deal with it,” was the only logical thing I could come up with. What else was I supposed to do? Never travel again in fear of another earthquake? So I took the plunge and threw myself back towards Asia. The final test, I decided, was that if I was mentally strong enough to climb into the crater of an active volcano, it would surely dispel any remaining fears I had. And so last week, standing at the foot of Ijen volcano, I found myself wearing a gas mask, about to do just that.
The Ijen volcano complex is a group of stratovolcanoes in the Banyuwangi Regency of East Java, Indonesia. Ijen itself has the largest highly acidic crater lake in the world, giving off highly toxic sulphuric fumes. The lake is the site of a labour-intensive sulphur mining operation, and I was to meet some of the men who risk their lives in these horrific conditions.
Starting out at 2am, our small group climbed for two hours to the top of the crater rim. Our guide was just 17 and couldn’t speak a word of English. When we saw him we all let out a nervous laugh which basically translated as “Really? Our lives are in the hands of this guy?” He struggled throughout the climb, as did we. None of us really knew what we were getting ourselves into. At times the incline was 45-60 degrees – in darkness, surrounded by sulphur fumes. At the top we put on our gas masks, and descended into the crater itself. It took another difficult hour to climb down, but our reward was a mystical blue fire that glowed as a result of the burning sulphuric gas. It’s only one of two places in the world where you can see this happen.
The sun started to rise just as we were about to climb out of the crater. In the daylight we were able to see just how vast and desolate this whole place was, as well as the sulphur miners who were climbing up and down carrying huge baskets filled with rock. Escaping volcanic gases are channelled through a network of ceramic pipes, resulting in condensation of molten sulphur. This sulphur then cools and turns bright yellow which the miners break into large pieces and carry away in baskets, weighing up to 90kg. Workers earn on average $13 per day and have an average life expectancy of 40-45 years old.
Any claustrophobia our group felt climbing the crater in darkness was replaced by vast open vistas on our way down. The atmosphere was eerily silent, as no birds or animals are able to thrive in these conditions, and yet at the same time it felt utterly serene. As I descended the volcano I thought about the men who had to walk up and down here twice a day just to make enough money to eat – yet here we were paying money to do it. At times the travel industry is somewhat morbid, and in my guilt I found myself giving money to every miner who passed us on the trail.
The Dark Ambience of Kawah Ijen
Photography and video is difficult in these conditions, and I fell about five times during my descent into the crater. As such you can’t really use your camera to its full extent as you need to have the use of both of your hands. I did however manage to take some snippets and I feel this video gives a pretty good impression of how bleak the region is. Music is by Glasgow-based ambient artist, Sleep Research Facility.
Should I climb Ijen or Bromo?
The active volcanoes of Ijen and Bromo are the two main draws of East Java. I have climbed both, and both offer very different experiences. In a nutshell, if you want a beautiful sunrise and picture-postcard views, choose Bromo. If you want a more intense experience, choose Ijen. For Bromo you can base yourself in the little mountain village of Cemoro Lawang and simply get a motorbike taxi up to a viewpoint for sunrise. What’s more, climbing Bromo itself is easy and I even did it in pitch black for a festival featuring ritual sacrifices. (A very intense experience, read about that here.)
Ijen is much more difficult, and my group all admitted they didn’t expect it to be as tough. It’s the only volcano I have climbed where I have had to use a gas mask – and the darkness and fumes are suffocating. (I have actually climbed another volcano in Sumatra – Mount Sibayak – and this one is almost a combination of the two, offering a challenging climb with lots of geothermal activity and great views from the top. If you are thinking of also going to Sumatra on your Indonesian trip this is definitely a climb to consider as an alternative to both Ijen/Bromo.)
After what I went through in Nepal, my own journey to Ijen held slightly more significance than it may do for others. But I still really recommend the climb. During the hike you may be saying to yourself “why on earth am I doing this?” but it’s a very sobering experience to see the conditions some people have to live and work in every day.
My trip cost 300,000 rupiah (£14) and I was picked up from my homestay in Banyuwangi at midnight and dropped back at 9am. (The Panorama Homestay in Banyuwangi is very good, and cheap.) Bring water and a jacket for the top, though I was too hot wearing it. Also consider wearing clothes that you are OK to bin after as the sulphur fumes will not wash out.