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Published: April 11th 2015
There is blue fire in Hell
Actually I remember making blue flames with sulphur in my parents garage with the Bunsen burner I got for Christmas. It stuck then too!
If you want to know what hell is like go to Ijen. The path down to the base of the caldera is steep and treachous by torchlight at 2am. We had our gas masks on to keep the devil and his sulphurous fumes away. You could dimly make out the fizzure billowing out acrid steam. As you get closer you can see the ethereal blue flames of the burning vapourised sulphur dancing above the dark rock. When the steam blows your way you crouch down holding your mask and closing your eyes to stop the burning. You wait until the wind changes. Molten sulphur drips from corroded pipes in lakes and stalactites. And people work down here on a daily basis!
We were accompanied by Eno (not Brian!) having booked a package with Ijen Expedition Tours (www.ijenexpedition.com) run by Sam. Sam had a good write up in the 'Leave your daily hell' blog (www.leaveyourdailyhell.com) and offered a bit more than the standard tour as well as gas masks.
We were picked up at midday revived after our night of luxury at Ketapang Indah hotel and taken to Ijen resto and guesthouse (https://www.facebook.com/ijenlodge/info?tab=page_info) in Tamasari, Sam's
home village. We had a simple bungalow in a nicely laid out garden. The food was fine if simple. In the afternoon we walked around with Sam and an employee of his who kept taking our photo. We saw our first clove tree. There is a clove processing factory in the village currently suffering as the local trees are not yielding what they were. It was so interesting just looking at ordinary Indonesian things and finding out more about them. Sam showed us how to tell the difference between arabica and robusta coffee plants. The latter of Indonesian origin is so named because of its better resistance to disease.
On the walk back we stopped at Ena's fried food shack which we can definitely recommend. She had deep fried battered tofu, bananas, tempe (a fermented bean curd) and sweet corn. We worked our way through her range. We are really impressed with Tempe and along with the fruit mangosteen/mangis is an Indonesian food we have really taken to.
We started the Ijen plateau tour at 1am by being driving half an hour into the mountains from our rural guesthouse. It is not hard to
find the mountain or the walk start point if you have transport. There is just one road. The guesthouse we stayed in is a good starting point. You can just follow the crowds when the gates open at 2am and of course it is a lot cheaper if you do it yourself.
Having said that we did very much appreciate having Eno as a guide on the night. For one he gave us gas masks which you could tell made a difference when you took them away from your face even when visible steam was not directly around you. He was very chatty, very proud of his faith and country and clearly had a good relationship with the miners ('They call me Bro' he said proudly). He made sure we gave them respect.
Like Bromo, Ijen is one of three cones in a larger volcanic plateau (the other are Marapi, not to be confused with the volcano outside Yogyakarta of the same name, and Raung). There is a three kilometre easy if steep walk up to the rim of Ijen. Even at 3am it was busy with tourists, local and foreign, and miners. Many
of the tourists seemed happy to just walk down the crater and see the 'blue fire' before returning. After all it is pretty special. Apparently the only other place to see the phenomenon is somewhere in Finland.
We stayed down near the fissure experiencing the ever brightening light of the new day. The crater contains the largest acidic crater lake in the world (pH 0.5 apparently). At first you were unaware of the lake. In the dark you concentrate on where you are putting your next footstep. As the light increases the expanse of the lake right next to fissure breathing scolding sulphur becomes apparent.
Miners have installed condensing pipes in which the sulphur first liquified to a red molten slick. The sulphur drips out of the pipes and solidifies in small yellow puddles that are broken up by miners.
The miners for a small fee (10,000INR/$1) chipped off a piece of molten sulphur. It was still warm when they handed it to us. It had an orange tinge and has since gone that bleached yellow so characteristic of sulphur.
Two hundred miners carry out anywhere from 50
to 160kg each day. 18 tonnes is extracted every day, only a fraction of what the volcano generates. They receive 1000INR/$0.1 per kg delivered to the starting point over 3 km away. So they can typically earn 100,000 to 150,000INR ($10 to 15) per day which is better than being a labourer in a rice paddy (30,000 to 40,000INR per day).
They chip off the lumps of sulphur using crow bars ducking the toxic eye-burning steam. Very very few have masks. Some will chew a wad of cloth and breathe through it. They bag off small bits. Large bits they carefully arrange in two wicker baskets to balance the load. The strongest miner will load up four baskets and relay them up and out of the volcano a hundred metres at a time. We saw two loads being weighed. One was 84kg and the other 74kg. They don't get paid for the weigh of the baskets (4kg).
The two baskets are connected by a wooden strip that the miner balances on one shoulder. When that side gets tired they give it a quick bounce and flick it over to the other shoulder.
The staggering thing is that the production of sulphur in Ijen is but a pimple when you consider the total global sulphur market. Sulphur is a waste product from a lot of oil production so its cost of manufacture is not a consideration. If the Ijen crater closed up tomorrow no one in the sulphur market would notice. These miners with their totally manual extraction have to compete with this. This is probably why using mules or donkeys is not economical.
Sam's father was a miner for over twenty years. He retired at 59. According to Sam his lungs are fine. It's his knees that give him trouble. I noticed the pressure on my knees on the way down even without a load. It is amazing he can walk at all. Sam is glad he got support to get educated so he does not have to be a miner.
Eno chatted to a few of the miners. Some had been contemporaries at his school. When we took their picture we tipped them 10,000INR. As the sky lightened we could see more of the operation. The blue flames faded in the sunlight. There was
a whole network of pipes coming out of the main fissure. Goodness knows how they were put there in the first place. The whole time we were there more miners came down the crater as others staggered out. One chap who must have been in his fifties was wearing flip flops. Most had rubber boots.
By 8am the sun came out from behind the mountain to light up the crater. The view was intermittent because the steam from the fumarole would blow across the crater. The burning steam tends to disperse more in the sunshine and hence many miners prefer to go down before sunrise. If the wind is blowing in the wrong direction it can be impossible to go down.
We came back to our guesthouse at 9am and crashed out after breakfast. Most people travel on late morning. We elected to stay one more night in Tamasari. Sam came and picked us up again. This time we went on the back of motorbikes to restaurant with a fantastic view of paddy fields terraced above a valley. Sam pointed out the lava rocks from Ijen's last eruption in the stream bed.
Sam's vision is to open a guesthouse with similar 'eco' principles to the restaurant. He currently gives work to ten local villagers and runs an excellent operation. We wish him well.
It really was an excellent tour. It cost 2,300,000INR including two nights accommodation, park entry and all meals for two days for both of us. You can do it cheaper by yourself if you want to. We recommend you use Sam and his team. Ijen is a massive contrast to the Bromo volcano. Every visit hopefully helps people understand the working life of the miners better and supports their community. The local government needs to sponsor other jobs which pay well enough so these brave souls do not have to take the devil's wage.
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