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Published: March 18th 2017
Distant shot on the way down into the crater
Still technically Day 7, the alarm is set for 2300 to wake up for the overnight trek to Kawah Ijen. We have a 2 hr drive to get to the trail head. It's a winding, poorly sealed road that leads us up the mountain. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time.
Some background- Kawah Ijen is a volcano complex in East Java, situated within it is an active sulphur mine at the base of the crater. It is also the location of the famous blue fire - the largest of only 2 blue flame sites in the world. The electric blue flame is ignited sulphuric acid that vents out of the crater and can reach heights of 5m (temperatures reach up to 600 C). Sulphur clouds are frequent. A workforce is required to mine the sulphur and that workforce is all indigenous men. The sulphur miners are paid $5.50 - $9/day and carry up to 100kg of sulphur in baskets over their shoulders. They do 2 trips a day down the crater and back out to the weighing station- a distance of about 25 km/day. The working conditions are extreme- burns, eye
Sulphur for Sale
Molten sulphur poured into moulds for tourist sales
issues and respiratory problems are rife- they go with the job. Lifespan is much reduced. There have been some tourism initiatives in recent years to assist the miners - guiding tourists and miner homestays have improved their income and reduced the amount of time spent down in the crater. A Swiss NGO has also recently started supplying trolleys to reduce the amount of carrying they have to do once they are out of the crater.
The story of the sulphur miners was highlighted on the BBC Doco Human Planet a few years ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UBk8f7Bgj0
We arrive, I buy a miner guide ticket and hike up hill for 3km, despite it being 2am it's a hot climb. We give way to the working miners. I have my head torch and I've been supplied with a good gas mask, I'd say half of the tourists have them, the other half have a surgical mask or nothing. There is a rest stop and small shop at the top of the hill. Miners are selling small sulphur figurines in various shapes, I buy a turtle- a donation really. After a quick break we continue. The first smell of sulphur hits early,
Closer To The Base
Sulphur gas plumes
it dissipates then recollects frequently. I use the mask intermittently. It's very claustrophobic. At the top of the crater we then have a 300m climb down (45-60 degree gradient) to the base of the crater. At this point the mask is on continuously.
The first sighting of the blue fire is breathtaking- it ripples and peaks- like a small blue aurora borealis. At the bottom of the crater the miners work with molten sulphur that cools to bright yellow slabs that they chip away at and load into their baskets. The sulphur clouds billow and thick smoke descends- it burns your eyes and coats your skin and clothes in a fine white-yellow powder. It's a scary but fascinating process. I can't imagine not having a decent mask- the sulphur fumes are choking. Quite a lot of people are panicky and try to ascend quickly. I think my previous experience in the sulphur cloud on Mt Damavand has been of benefit, that taught me the lesson not to panic but to regulate my breathing and crouch low when necessary. I can't believe that the miners don't have more protection.
The way down the crater is not particularly difficult but
Right down in the smoke, drilling the crater
it does get slippery on the rocks and there are some large step up and downs, I'm glad that I have my trail shoes. It's not hard but takes concentration. There is a constant procession heading in both directions and my guide has somehow become the helper of a group of 3 girls who are slipping and sliding on the rocks. I'm fine with that, I prefer walking at my own pace.
Just before 5am we head back up the crater for sunrise. My miner guide advises me it's best to wait at a midway point because the views from the top aren't that great. However, as far as I have read that's not the case and I tell him that I want to continue. He's insistent but I really want to keep going . I decide to continue and tell him I'm fine to go alone and thanks for his help until this point. Somehow Dosi appears as I'm heading up and tells me to hurry up or I'll miss the sunrise from the great viewpoint at the top! So, speedily on we go. And it was soooo worth it. As the sun comes up over the horizon
the crater lake is exposed- it's about 1km across and is a milky turquoise blue acidic soup (pH 5). It is stunning. It's cold and windy and beautiful. The air is clean. We have an impromptu breakfast, crouched down behind a wall out of the wind, of biscuits, half a roll, some fruit and hot coffee (I am always well prepared when it comes to food and hiking- I can fit a lot in that pack of mine. I love my thermos!).
Take a lot of photos and wander around some more. Whilst there are a few people up there it's not crowded and I really feel sorry for all the people waiting for that sunrise further down the crater (where it is very, very crowded). I'm reluctant to leave even after more than 2hrs of being up on the rim but Dosi has turned into a popsicle. From there it's a downhill hike back to the car, the temperature has warmed up significantly and lots of day tours are arriving. My miner guide suddenly reappears but I bite my tongue. Message to readers- go to the top of the rim for the sunrise - it is absolutely superb,
don't be swayed.
Jump in the car and we take a visit to a very cool waterfall nearby- Air Terjun Blawan. It's a pleasant short hike from the carpark and well worth a visit. There are some small natural springs and pools of hot water on the way plus lush, lush vegetation. The waterfalls are massive and kick up a lot of spray- very beautiful. From here we head off for a soak in the local natural (really, really) hot springs nearby (Blawan Hot Springs). There is a small entry fee (included in my trip so I'm not sure how much it cost). There are change rooms there and a warung style shop selling cool drinks. I soak in a t-shirt and my shorts in the coolest of the hot pools, the other pool is boiling hot. It is a really relaxing way to cap off the morning, lying on the concrete edge looking up at the forest with hot water lapping over me. Perfect.
My Java adventure is almost over. Boohoo.
Another 2 hr drive gets me to Banyuwangi. It's a much bigger town than I had imagined. We stop for lunch at a local resto-
Miner Heading Up
Full baskets of sulphur
delicious Javanese food and a litre of hot, black tea. Dosi drives us to the the harbour where I say goodbye (he was a great driver guide!) and pay 60c to catch the ferry to Bali. It's not clear where to go really after buying the ticket but there are no shortage of people to point me in the right direction and casually inquire whether I want to buy sunglasses, or a watch, or cigarettes, or a drink..... The ferry is huge!! Several cars drive on and lots of motorbikes. Head up the stairs and enjoy a windy, sunny crossing across the strait to Bali. It's a lovely boat trip looking back at the mountains of Java.
Get picked up by another driver in the terminal carpark in Bali who has been sent from our next accommodation. Drive for 30 minutes and still exuding sulphur fumes I say Hi to Geoff! We've both managed to arrive within 15 minute of each other at our Airbnb place in Sumberkima- a cute little Javan joglo building perched on top of a hill overlooking the West Bali National Park with views across to Java.
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