I was looking forward to visiting Mount Ijen immensely, there are better known and perhaps more spectacular volcanos in Indonesia but what grabbed my attention here was the impressive stories I had heard about the Sulphur miners carrying huge loads of the yellow mineral the hill. It was a short hike to reach the summit of the mountain, only 3 km’s of reasonably steep dirt track and I was only a few hundred meters into the walk when I crossed paths with the first miner carrying sulphur down the hill. The miners all had the same quick, shuffling gait, you should see by their bent over posture and rush to get down the hill that they were carrying a very heavy weight. What these guys do is truly a Herculean effort, men that weigh not much more than 50 kg’s carry up to 75 kg’s of sulphur 700 meters from the bottom of the crater up a VERY steep goat track and then 3 ½ km down a dirt road to unload at the bottom of the hill. The Sulphur, once known as Brimstone is mined by hand at the bottom of the volcanos crater amongst thick plumes of sulphur fumes, no gas masks are worn and the bright yellow sulphur residue sticks to the faces of the miners. These men don’t have a comfortable pack or harness to carry the sulphur, they simply use a thin but strong piece of wood that sits across their shoulders with a wicker basket on each side. What amazed me was that even though many were grimacing in pain every one of them would smile and have a polite word as they went by, often asking if I had a cigarette to spare. I have seen infantry soldiers quit a pack march and sit on the side of the road after 5km while carrying 30 kg’s in a comfortable pack yet these guys just bear their burden without complaint…amazing. I chatted with quite a few of the miners on the way up and on the way down the hill, many have been doing this job for years and they showed me the scars and bruising on their shoulders from carrying the heavy weight day after day. There’s no OH&S officer on mount Ijen and the men get paid by weight so there is an incentive for them to break their bodies with heavier loads to get more money to feed their family.
Almost as amazing as the effort of the workers on the mountain is the volcano itself, the view from the top reveals a crater lake amongst clouds of Sulphur fumes in what resembles a lunar landscape of volcanic rock. Mount Ijen usually puts on a spectacular show of blue fire but due to some recent volcanic activity in recent weeks the blue flames couldn’t be seen while I was there. One of the miners took me down the track to show me how the sulphur was mined, steps were roughly cut into the rock in some places but for the majority it was a precarious walk down. The sulphur is channelled down through metal tubes where it oozes out as a liquid amongst thick fumes and cools until the hardened substance can be collected. I wasn’t wearing a mask and the taste of the sulphur fumes was very strong, breathing this toxic gas in on a daily basis greatly reduces the life expectancy of the miners that work here. It is quite paradoxical that such an alien landscape which fuels an occupation as brutal as sulphur mining could be so beautiful, the lake itself even had a tranquil feel about it.