Plumes of thick toxic smoke, your whole body and clothes reeking of a strong sulfur smell, a whole lake of pure sulfuric acid. All (and more) in the same place. How engaging is that?!
Don’t run away yet. This has been one of my most striking travel experiences.
Striking because of the place itself, obviously, but also for the men who work there. They are known as the “sulfur miners”, I’m sure you have heard of them before. They walk down to the heart of the crater to mine some sulfur deposits, accumulate the obtained sulfur rocks in their bamboo baskets and struggle back up to the crater rim.
Top attraction on the island of Java, Kawah Ijen is a collection of superlatives. The crater of this active volcano is home to the world’s largest lake of sulfuric acid. Its pH is 0.5 (the closer to zero the more acidic). This is close the most acidic liquid you can find on the planet. Its turquoise color is as bewitching as the lake is potentially dangerous.
Getting To The Crater
After having left our homestay lost in coffee plantations profiting from the rich volcanic soils, a rather short and easy drive took me and my friend to the foot of the Ijen Volcano. “Kawah” means crater in Indonesian, therefore Kawah Ijen designates the crater of this volcano.
When I got down the car, I had a feeling of an everlasting spring. Greenery, little birds, quietness… it was quite difficult to imagine that there was such an inhospitable place up there. There is a path up to the crater, pleasant but quite long. I think it is something like 3+ km (2 miles), which isn’t much but it’s going uphill the whole time.
On the way up we came across all the tourists who were going down. It was mid-morning. All these brave people had woken up early to come and see the sunrise over the crater or something like that, I suppose.
I thought to myself, we may not see the sunrise but at least we got rid of the crowd of tourists that would have completely killed the mood of exploration of such a special place. The tourists were not the only people there; we also met a number of these famous sulfur carriers with their load on the shoulders.
How incredible, they are at least as skinny as I am and they are able to carry such rocks. I briefly tried carrying a basket full of sulfur. It was ridiculous: the basket didn’t move of an inch.
I arrived first at the crater rim. I got awe-struck by the size, the depth of the crater, and the color, the blue of the crater lake. This deep turquoise was simply hypnotizing. Not the Caribbean kind of turquoise, more milky. You would think twice before jumping in, this lake is the world’s largest natural reserve of pure sulfuric acid.
Following The Sulfur Miners Down The Crater
We started our descent towards the bottom of the crater on the rocky path, paying attention not to put ourselves on the way of the sulfur miners who were climbing back with their horribly heavy load of sulfur rocks.
I don’t think I had ever confronted myself with the elements – and such powerful elements – so directly. All along you just pray for the winds to keep blowing the toxic smokes away from you. But inevitably, the cloud of smoke comes back towards you and when it hits your face, you are left with biting the collar of your shirt.
The sulfur carriers always have their dirty piece of cloth to bite to help them cross the smoke. The gases mix with your tears, turning them into sulfuric acid that burns your eyes.
We finally made it to the bottom of the crater and we are now walking on yellow sulfur gravel. Next to the lake, fumaroles (release of volcanic gases) deposit several tons of sulfur every day. The miners have installed pipes to conduct the gases and the sulfur to the mining spot.
When it goes out, the molten sulfur is as red as blood.
The best part is that when we reached the lake of acid, we were alone. All the tourists gone. There were a couple of miners who tried to communicate with us, show us a bit of their work, show us the melted sulfur. They kelp giving us big pieces of sulfur, suggesting us to bring them back home as souvenirs. But that’s not really the kind of items you want in your backpack when it gets scanned at the airport! Inflammable, the sulfur? Oh, really?
The sulfur miners can carry 50 to 90 kg (100-200 pounds) of sulfur on their shoulders. The miners who have been there for a while all have a hollow on their shoulder, created by the weight of the handle of their basket full of rocks.
They are relatively well paid compared to most Indonesians. They are paid according to the weight of the sulfur they extract from the crater. They take their load to a weighing station where they get their cash. Most of the sulfur is used in the sugar refinery industry.
Exploring The Crater Rim
This exploration of Kawah Ijen wouldn’t have been complete without a hike on the rim of the crater! We walked in a nature marked by the volcanic activity. The trees have succumbed to regular exposure to toxic gases.
The view over the crater lake was mind blowing. We took a long while to enjoy that view and resigned ourselves to heading back to the path down the volcano.
This volcano was for sure a highlight of my trip to Indonesia, and a highlight of my traveler’s life as a whole. There are always some places like that that strike you more than others. That’s for these moments that we travel after all, no?
Back home, a few weeks later, I wore the same pants again. It had been washed a couple of time but there was still a slight sulfur smell! Eventually the smell vanished, but my memories of that place are not even close to fading away.
A Little More About The Sulfur Miners Of Kawah Ijen
The sulfur miners have a life expectancy of about 30 to 40 years. They often start this job when they are still teenagers. Many have died in various accidents in the crater, but the majority die from illnesses due to a constant exposure to this very toxic environment. The extremely hard work also obviously contributes to deteriorate their body much faster than it should.
This is the price to pay for what is considered a good salary – $10-$15 a day on average – to provide for their family.
From the bottom of the crater where the sulfur is mined, the miner have to transport it up to the crater rim and then follow a part of the path that we tourists take to access the crater. They take the sulfur to the weighing station where they get paid. The weight is carefully measured, and in spite of the difficulty of the job, the company don’t do them any favors and tend to round down the weight measures.
It is a truly unique experience to meet these people, an experience that make you think twice before complaining about lack of comfort again.