Mount Ijen, Indonesia. Mining Sulphur by hand, deep in the active volcano crater. This is the job from hell. Breathing in stinking toxic fumes. Hour after choking hour. Walking for miles, weighed down like pack mules carrying loads of up to one hundred kilograms, in temperatures few could bare. All, for as little as a few dollars a day. How long would you last, working in a live volcano? The climb to the top of Mount Ijen, on the Indonesian island of Java, was physically demanding. However, nothing could mentally prepare me for what I would see at the bottom of the crater. Nothing.
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Mount Ijen volcano, in Eastern Java, Indonesia, towers above the landscape.
A 2800 meter volcano, “Kawah Ijen” is a mystical and frightening place for the local people. However, the Mount Ijen volcano is also a source of income, for those men hardy enough, and desperate enough, to enter its active crater to work as sulphur miners. At four in the morning, the miners begin their gruelling day. A four kilometer walk into the crater mine is just the beginning. These men extract sulfur with little more than their bare hands, a primitive method long since abandoned in the western world. Carrying the back-breaking load using bamboo baskets, back up to the top of the crater, and then down the mountain, is a job that some men have performed for decades.
When I finally arrived at the bottom of the Mount Ijen volcano crater, my eyes welled with tears.
The extreme natural beauty of the turquoise coloured crater lake, and the surrealistic mine-site, were almost too much to bare. The miners were very considerate to me. There was a clear sense that I was a welcome guest in their work place. I stayed in the crater for an hour or two, as various miners safely toured me around. On the way up and down the dangerous, steep, rocky path, the foul-smelling toxic plumes were choking me. My eyes were weeping, my nose and throat burning. Breathing was difficult, my chest felt tight, like asthma. More than once I thought, this is not a good idea.
My journey into the crater was spur of the moment. I had seen the miners taking their loads down the mountain, as we were climbing up to the rim of the crater. At the top, looking through my zoom lens, and saw ant-like figures deep into the distance. I was mesmerised. The view far below was drawing me into the crater. With little hesitation, I began the descent, and advised my travel partner “I’ll be back, when I get back”. After the remarkable experience below, I headed back to the top of the crater, under the guidance of a miner who had befriended me. Upon my return to a waiting Phillipa (who, by this time, was clearly worried for my safety), I looked into her eyes, and was completely lost for words. Not knowing how to begin to explain what I had seen, I attempted to describe a most bizarre combination of incredible beauty, and outright hell that these workers endure. I simply could not hold back the tears any longer.
I will never forget this day.
Mount Ijen Volcano (Kawah Ijen) is located in Eastern Java, Indonesia. Travellers can independently hike to the top of the crater rim. Beware that descending into the crater is very dangerous.
Enjoy the photos.