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Published: June 28th 2015
The name may not ring any bells but many people may have seen documentaries on Mt Ijen on TV. This active volcano is mined for its sulphur. Day in day out miners trek deep in the crater amongst the towering noxious fumes. Like most visitors to the volcano we ventured inside it at night to get a view of the hypnotic blue flames.
Getting here was no easy feat. The infrastructure for doing such tours is geared towards tour packages that move tourists from east to west of Java eventually ending in Bali. We arrived in the transition town of Probolingo with our mini bus dropping us off outside of a tour agency (typical!). Our plan was to catch the local bus from Probolingo to get to the small town of Sempol where we would arrange our own tour/trek of Mt Ijen. After checking our guide book and talking with the helpful tour agent it made sense for us to take the full Mt Ijen tour he offered (minus accom) as it worked out cheaper for us and easier, so we agreed on a reasonable price for the tour including transport 175rupiah/£9 pp. We were told the journey would take
6 hours to reach Sempol but ended up much more closer to 8hrs.
There were a total of 13 of us in the van - a mixture of people from multiple nations, only 4 of us including ourselves hadn't booked the full inclusive tour and hoped to find our own accommodation. The minibus pulled up at a hotel, the inclusive tour group got out and checked in. Ourselves and the other couple (Michelle and Suraj) got out and asked our driver where the nearest homestay was, his answer to put it short was "I don't know". We then asked at the reception, to which a worker responded with " All the homestays are full" even though he had no evidence for this claim. The hotel they'd dropped us at seemed to only have 1 room left for 4 people for 300,000 rupiah.
Ourselves and the other couple were told by someone in Probolingo that homestays in the area would be much cheaper so declined the hostels only offer. To make matters more confusing we had only paid 350k rupiah in total (which is relativity cheap) so the driver didn't believe we actually had the volcano tour included, luckily
our tour agent had put his contact number on the receipt and thankfully confirmed everything for the driver when he called. Like we said, our price for the tour and travel was relatively cheap - Michelle and Suraj had paid 500k rupiah in total with a different agency for transport only. So you can imagine their anger and frustration at being over charged big time, and to top it off the driver refused to drop them off in the nearby town of Sempol 7km away (we'd actually passed through it to get there).
The negotiating went back and forth for what seemed like hours outside of the hotel and it was getting late. Tired, hungry and stressed, everyone wanted a resolution, the driver all of a sudden unable to understand English relied on someone else to translate. We knew if we didn't stay at that particular hotel the driver wouldn't come and pick us up at 1.30am when the tour starts, but we wanted to help Michelle and Suraj so that they'd also be able to come on the tour in the morning as well. Eventually a deal was made (with the driver pocketing some more money) and Michelle
& Suraj were coming on the tour. The 4 of us were also going to be room mates for the next 4-5hrs, paying what we would for a nice cold family room.
We had got quite sociable with the rest of the group we shared the minibus with and some people wanted to make the most of the jacuzzi. Tired and slightly fed up after all that negotiation we kindly declined. P could not believe how rude the hotel was as they suggested that if we didn't want to pay we could all sleep in the van as they were adamant that they had seen her sleeping in some restaurant the day before!!!. Luckily for us we did not have to witness the jacuzzi scene that unfolded.
It turned out that some local guy was already in the jacuzzi and to everyone's surprise; naked. If that was not bad enough, the guy then proceeded to masturbate in front of the others in the pool and ignored the comments made that such act in public was disgusting and he should stop. We were very pleased that we had missed this spectacle.
Waking up in the cold room at
1am with only 4 hours sleep, everybody felt rough. We managed to roll out of bed and be ready with the rest of the tour group for 1.30am. It took about 45mins to reach the starting point the of mount Ijen hike. At the base we met our guide. The guides here are superhuman, they make this walk everyday with tour groups, sometimes they even do labour work there once the tour ends. If you have done a hike like this you will know what we mean.
Our guide casually smoked a cigarette as everyone else struggled to catch their breath trudging up the steep mountain side at their own pace. With it being pitch black, we could only see the path directly in front of us illuminated by our head torches.
The trek was all upwards on steep slightly paved roads. We much prefer taking steps as you had to be careful on these steep paths with all the loose stones.
The closer we got to the crater the stronger the smell of sulphur became. Our guide gave us our free paper face masks to help with the difficulty breathing. However past half way up, we
were coughing and choking, and our eyes were stinging and watering from all the sulphuric fumes (smells like rotten egg). We were approached by locals renting gas masks, we thought at first it was just some type of useless money making business until our guide told us the paper ones were useless in the crater - boy was he right.
After we arrived the top of the crater we unknowingly walked across a ridge with a long drop on either side. The descent into the crater was steep and uneven, the smoke was thick, the path lit only by the multiple headlights & torches people had and the echoing sound of tourists and locals alike coughing from the intoxicating fumes.
One of the reasons we were up so early for the tour was to see the blue flames which are only visible at night. The blue flames are ignited sulphuric gas from cracks within the crater and are quite hypnotic when you see them. We tried to get as close as possible to take pictures but every time the wind blew the fumes in our direction, everybody had to crouch and hide their faces to prevent
their eyes stinging and watering - it was like tear gas. The miners coughed and spluttered as they worked their way back up the crater, stopping at points for a breather, some with a scarf covering their face, others without much protection at all. For us it wasn't worth getting any closer for a decent shot, the fumes were overpowering so we made our way back up the steep ambiguous path. As we made our way up to the ridge the sun was just rising. Stopping for a breather we turned around and were in awe by what we saw. We were inside a crater, the sulphuric acid lake below us was a beautiful blue, and the grandiosity of it was breathtaking! The higher we walked back the more spectacular the view became, we could see the low clouds hiding the valley to our left and the beautiful orange & reds to our right as the sun rose gradually.
As we made it to the top of the crater, now with some light from the sun rising we noticed a sign. A warning sign asking visitors not to enter the crater as it was too dangerous. It was indeed
dangerous. There were no clear paths and you had to climb and fumble down large bits of rock, sometimes fallen rocks. Many people make the journey up and down the volcano into the crater at night. This sign was not visible in the slightest at this time only when you came out of the crater. Pointless for night visitors.
While the many tour groups trekked up and down the crater taking in the views, the miners continued their gruelling work up and down too. The minimum they need to carry is 60kg (carried over one shoulder) which they take to a shop in town (about 1hr downhill) that weighs and buys the large slabs of yellow sulphur. One worker shown us his receipt - around 50k rupiah for 62kg, that's about £2.50! Workers usually make 2 trips into the crater a day.
Despite their laborious work the workers seemed quite upbeat and sometimes jovial as they went about their day. We later learnt that the miners age defined the work they did and their role. 30 and below can carry loads up and down whereas over 30's just transport the empty baskets back up. Retirement age is 55.
We asked our guide what was the purpose of mining the sulphur and he told us that the mine is owned by a Chinese company who use the sulphur in skin beauty products. It's upsetting to see people work these in these treacherous conditions, ruining their body and health and ultimately shortening their lifespan in order to support some beauty industry. They have no social care system here and so they have to work in whatever way to make ends meet. This was very saddening to witness.
Making it back down the steep trail to the bottom of the volcano we were exhausted from the lack of sleep and strenuous exercise but still in one piece. We joined up with rest of the tour group and excitedly shared pictures and stories as we shovelled down our jam sandwiches and hard boiled eggs. After the past couple of days we both definitely felt the need for a little relaxation time. We know just the place...
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