Sometimes, despite Seb’s incredible talent for photography, pictures just don’t do justice to the experience. Our visit to Kawa Ijen is one of those times: photos cannot convey the incredible odor of this place. I would describe it as somewhere between raw sewage festering in the hot sun and a thousand rotting duck eggs – but really it is just completely off the stink chart.
The reason behind the stank in this active volcano on the Indonesian island of Java is the tons of raw sulfur burning and pumping out noxious gases at an incredible rate. Even behind several layers of makeshift nose protection in the form of wet clothing, I found myself retching into oblivion as the putrid yellow fumes engulfed us. My fellow adventurers – my brother Garrett, sister-in-law Erika and ever present chèri Seb – were faring slightly better. They had even managed to climb up the crumbly ash-covered hill in order to get a closer peek at the ominous blue flames of the burning sulfur in the darkness; the reason for our ungodly 2:30am departure on this 3 hour hike up and into the crater of this volcano. It was truly an otherworldly sight – and one I’d have to admire from a slight distance given my sensitive gag reflex. I did highly appreciate the sunrise view over the scary hot blue lake – the largest lake of pure acid in the world. Just a quick dip with our fingertips was enough to turn our silver rings totally black.
What’s even more impressive than our strenuous midnight hike in the darkness to the acid lake or the stink that would stay in our clothes through half a dozen washes is that there exists a small community of people who brave these conditions every single day: the sulfur miners of Kawa Ijen.
While visitors are huffing and puffing to slowly make it to the top, this community of a few hundred men make their living from this. Not only must they endure the long hike up and into the crater everyday in the wee hours of the morning, the lung and eye stinging smoke of the burning sulfur, but they do it to ‘mine’ giant chunks of brimstone and carry loads of it on their shoulders in small bamboo baskets that can be up to 90kg (200lbs). And all this for only a few dollars per day.
We arrived about an hour before daybreak and had already passed several men on their way down the mountain. While hikers are strictly forbidden to enter the crater (according to a much ignored sign at the base camp of the volcano where we spent a very short night before our 2am wake up call – all four of us crammed in the last bed available which presumably belonged to one of the park rangers), we joined many dozens of trekkers descending the dangerous and rocky switchbacks down to the dark pits of hell. Every time we passed one of the miners, our guide understandably asked us to step out of the way – these guys are shouldering an impressive load of deceptively heavy sulfur.
After braving the fumes for hours to pick out the large chunks of yellow stone, they then have to pick their way through the ash and slippery boulders on the 1km hike out of the crater and then down the mountain. They are more often than not shod in bulky rubber rainboots or flimsy flip flops, but are more sure-footed than mules on their daily trek. They must to do this in the darkest hour just before dawn (their work day often starts around midnight) because the wind changes every afternoon, making their work impossibly noxious.
Despite this incredibly tough, dirty and low paying job, these guys seem in decent health and good spirits (although we heard that the average life expectancy is around 45 years). They were more than happy to flex the rock-hard biceps of their small frames and ask for a cigarette in exchange for a photo. While we were choking on the fumes several yards removed, they were in the pits busy chunking up the sulfur with little protection to speak of. They handle this toxic substance with their bare hands and have even developed a side business of selling choice stalactites to tourists willing to take home a stinky souvenir. These are certainly the most difficult working conditions we’ve ever seen and these tough Javanese make overworked office managers look like spineless slugs in comparison.
Though uncomfortable at times, our hike was an intense experience for all the senses. They may not convey the scent of the sulfur, but what Seb’s pictures can capture are the incredible and varied colors of this unique site: the indigo glow of the blue fire, the mustard yellow of the sulfur chunks, the opaque turquoise of the acid lake, the ash gray of the mountain rock and the soothing pink sunrise. I wonder if the miners are able to appreciate these gorgeous colors through the fire and brimstone of their daily work.