Kawah Ijen: All in a day’s work

This is Kawah Ijen: a group of remote volcanoes in East Java, Indonesia.  Getting there is not the simplest task: the one road in and out is only really used at night due to safety reasons.  However, this isn’t as backward as it sounds when you take into account the road being so narrow that trees are constantly slapping both sides of your vehicle.  While it is technically a two-way road,  in the day you can’t see oncoming traffic until it’s too late.  At night, headlights help alleviate this fear – somewhat!  There were a few points where the driver had to ask our loaded vehicle to empty out while he rebuilt the road by moving a few key rocks into deep potholes and navigating the steep grades with a little less momentum.

In the end, the destination is totally worth it, regardless of the treacherous journey.  If you stay at a rustic coffee plantation in a town nearby, you’ll get to try the famous Kopi Luwak for the unbelievably low price of a dollar.  In fact, you might even get to meet the little critter who played a part in the creation of the rare coffee.

This series of photos highlights the local sulfur mining operation in Kawah Ijen that few get to see.  An active vent at the edge of the sulfuric lake at the bottom of the volcano’s cone is a source of elemental sulfur.  Every morning, well before sunrise, the local men hike the many kilometers to the top of the volcano and then down to the edge of this vent.  They enter the cloud with a crowbar to knock off yellow chunks of sulfur to fill their baskets with.  Some use a shirt to filter out the acidic gas, but most don’t.  (I had the unfortunate experience of inhaling the caustic vapours when the wind changed suddenly and let me tell you, it hurts.  I can only imagine the toll this takes on the body.)  Then the workers climb all the way back out and down with a load weighing somewhere between 75 and 125 kilograms.  That is a lot of weight to bear on your shoulders with a thin board!  I could barely lift a load on my shoulders never mind climb, or even walk, with one.  They sell the sulfur to a local sugar refinery for 625 rupiah per kg (so at 100kg they make ~$6.25 CAD a load for their hard work).

What was more incredible than experiencing this foreign landscape was seeing the pride and dignity with which these people went about their work.  It certainly makes sitting at a desk for eight hours a day seem like pure luxury.

FACT: Peanut butter sandwiches are always good pick me ups.  The jar of peanut butter in my backpack was empty by the time I returned to the base and I can happily say it brought some cheer to a lot of people that day.