Having been shortlisted as a finalist in the ‘I must be off’ Travel Writing competition, and slightly ignorantly believing I could sell the article to British Airways, Virgin Airways or even bloody Eurowings, I am proud to offer it now, in full and completely free!
Waking up at midnight is an unusual feeling. Stranger still is doing so in order to climb up a 9000ft volcanic slope only to descend a further 3000ft into its crater.
Although certainly a bucket-list-worthy opportunity, I was feeling sorry for myself before setting off, that was until I encountered the workers who do this trip twice every day.
Standing at 2799 metres, Mount Ijen (Kawah Ijen in local dialect) is located on the island of East Java, Indonesia, not far from the ferry crossing to Bali.
At the summit lies a crater containing a 1km wide, turquoise lake. The lake obtains this colour both from its extreme acidity and high content of dissolved metals, making it both beautiful aesthetically and also extremely dangerous.
The main reason why people are willing to climb into a smoky volcanic crater at such nocturnal hours is the presence of neon blue flames which emit from the lake, creating a spectacular natural light show.
Illuminating the crater, these flames are caused by the lake emitting hot, sulphuric gases which ignite as they react with the oxygen in our air and is as breathtaking to witness as the smog you are forced to breathe.
There is, however, something even more spectacular than the scenery, or the flames on this volcano… the people who work amongst it all.
We arrived in a car park positioned at the foot of the track heading toward the crater just before 1 am.
Accompanied by a tour guide and provided with a gas-mask, we got directed up a steep and rugged path. Walking into the darkness with only an iPhone as my torch, I occasionally stumbled over tired tourists, gasping on the side of the trail.
I was barely aware of the miners who joined me in the darkness, despite being overtaken by many of them on route to the top.
When the dawning light started to brighten up the path, I locked eyes with one man who was walking just ahead of me. He offered a smile and waited for me to catch up before starting to speak in good English.
It took a while before I recognised that the man I spoke with was a sulphur miner and until I saw these men at work for myself, I didn’t realise what an amazing man he was.
Genuinely lovely, he was full of positivity and pride that he was able to look after a household consisting of his parents, wife and two children but eventually, we had to stop talking.
I was too slow for him and he made his excuses and powered on up the volcano. Unfortunately, I didn’t see him again once I reached the top.
I was in good shape when I undertook this trek but some distance before the summit, my legs and my lungs were simultaneously burning.
The last twenty minutes of the ascent was’nt made any easier by the eye-watering, throat clenching, plumes of sulphuric smoke that drifted across the path. I was glad of the gas mask but while it filtered out some of the sulphuric clouds, it also restricted my breathing.
Reaching the summit, I watched as a miner appeared out of a sulphur cloud. With a cigarette in his mouth, bloodshot eyes and no gas mask, he carried two wooden baskets, attached at each end to a strained bamboo pole.
Driving hard into his shoulders, each basket was overflowing with bright yellow sulphur.
Since 1968, the sulphur miners of Mount Ijen have made the trip into and out of the crater before initiating a further 3km walk to the weighing plant. They usually do this twice a day, transporting up to 90kg of excavated sulphur, each trip taking around 4/5 hours.
For this region, the miners’ pay isn’t bad (around 1.5 times the district average) but there’s no union, healthcare or safety equipment provided. The (average) 13USD they earn per day isn’t going to provide the help they need in retirement, especially considering the obvious health implications to working in an environment endangered by methane amongst many other chemicals.
The gases aren’t the only hazard here. Work takes place next to rocky drops into the crater or worse, into the lake itself. Understandably, the careers these men can sustain are reportedly very short.
Although provided with a gas mask, I still struggled to breathe, see or even move when the plumes of sulphuric smoke suppressed me, the only attainable option was to drop to the ground and cover my face as the smog drifted past.
The miners work through this unfazed on a daily basis with only a cloth placed over their mouth and nose for ‘protection’.
The miners are proud of their work and heritage. In defiance of the obvious hazards and the low wage, their children go to school as a result of their work and they earn the respect of everybody who sees them go about their duty.
The work ethic, strength, and endurance on show at Kawah Ijen are simply inspirational and must be admired.
Witnessing the superhuman efforts of these men and witnessing their character left a larger impression on me than the experience of visiting this, or any location ever could, regardless of its beauty.
It speaks volumes for the mentality and spirit possessed by the locals here and it is the people that are a huge part of why I fell in love with South East Asia in the first place.
Anything or anywhere in life can be enhanced or ruined by interactions with people. Somewhere like Ijen, with its inspirational workers and residents, has to be one of the most impressive places on earth.