Majestic views and sulphur mining

Volcano Ijen, East Java, Indonesia

After over a year of writing travel articles for Vida, most readers will get that natural beauty (with a little bit of trekking) is what I look for when seeking out a travel destination. The Ijen volcano complex, a group of stratovolvanoes in the Banyuwangi Regency of East Java in Indonesia has therefore been on my bucket list for a while.

As with many places with their peaks in the clouds (nearly 4,000m above sea level), the views from the summit are incredible, but what makes Volcano Ijen stand out from the crowd is the turquoise-coloured, acid-filled crater lake and the famous blue flames, which result from ignition of sulphuric gas, which emerges from the cracks at temperatures of up to 600°C.

DSC_5545Trekking up to crater of the volcano is possible regardless of your level of fitness, however to witness the blue flames, you need to get there before 4:45am and because there are guards preventing tourists from making the climb in the middle of the night (there is a safety element involved) only the fittest climbers make it up the steep volcano in time.

Though the sight of the blue flames from the sulphuric gas provides a phenomenal sight, it does pose dangers and can cause damage to the lungs of trekkers and even death, which was the case for two unlucky hikers early in 2014.

The trek up the volcano itself is a lovely experience since you walk through jungle terrain with volcanic geological features. Wildlife thrives in this environment and do not be surprised if you come across some Gibbons and other species. Once you get to the crater, which will take between one and three hours depending on your level of fitness, you’re faced with a tough decision; go down into the crater to the sulphur source by the lake, or keep trekking along the volcano’s summit. Both treks will take around an hour each and both offer stunning sceneries. If you wish to have a close inspection of how the sulphur is exposed within the crater and view of the gas being emitted from its source then climb down the crater. Otherwise trek to the highest summit to view some stunning landscape of around the volcano as well as the crater itself. You will witness the view of a lake within a crater, a colourful landscape and the sea in one picture.

But Volcano Ijen isn’t just a tourist destination. It is the livelihood of sulphur miners who climb the cliff face twice a day in search of sulphur rocks, which they then have to carry three kilometres down the volcano to Pultuding Valley to get paid. What the volcano gives them in return is a meagre salary of €7.34 per day and a huge risk of respiratory ailments as well as death.

Some 800 miners have been doing the job for 80 years for a Chinese mining company. Around 30 of these miners trek up to the crater every day for 27 days at a stretch, sleeping just below the crater in a bare cabin with just a couple of rags to keep them warm. Each trip takes them around four hours, one hour up, one hour down and time for mining the rocks. They then carry two baskets weighing between 60 and 100kg balanced precariously on a fortified bamboo rod. The terrain they travel is difficult with loose stones and air thick with sulphur hindering their progress. The stronger ones manage two trips but not all can make it to the sulphur source twice. Once these miners are spent the next team of 30 make their way up to the crater.

Holik, a 37 year old miner who has been working Volcano Ijen for 10 years, says he carries 90kgs every day and when you look at this man I can assure you, that even though he is 5ft 3″, he looks like a mini Hulk. When I asked him about his job and its dangers he says “my wife wants me to work in construction because she fears for my life every time I set foot on Ijen, but I am not afraid of dying, I am afraid of hunger”. They work through the dangers every day just to feed their families, yet when you see their pay slip you will be appalled. For every trip that they do, all they earn is a mere €3.67c. That means they make €7.34c per day, if they can manage two trips. Even though the cost of living in East Java is not very high, their earnings are barely enough to support themselves, let alone whole families.

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Death is a reality for the miners, and on average one miner per year dies from the sulphur gas and when this happens the rest of the miners gather around the lake and throw a goat in as sacrifice. They say that they cannot afford gas masks yet over the years foreign hikers have donated their masks to the miners, yet the miners prefer to pose for photos with these masks rather than actually use them to protect their lungs and teeth.

A local NGO has helped teach the miners English so that they can work as guides, taking tourists up the volcano so that they can make a decent living for themselves. Though foreign interest in Ijen is steadily climbing, numbers are still not yet sufficient to give these miners a stable income.

Trekking up this volcano really opens your eyes to the privilege of being born into the western world. Despite living in such natural beauty, these miners are always one wrong step away from death. It is my wish that more tourism will offer these people a way out.

Until next time, let the world be your playground.

Marc Casolani

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