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IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE SULPHUR MINERS – Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

Just breath slowly in and out and you’ll be fine”.

Chong was holding my hand in the pitch black night as I tried to control my breathing. Our dim torches were the only source of light but they were enough to see that his eyes weren’t letting go of mine for even a second. “It’s just like normal breathing and we’re almost there”, he said, with his soft reassuring voice.

But it wasn’t… and we weren’t…

I rip the gas mask from my face and get a big breath of fresh poisonous air filled with sulphur gasses that tickle my throat and make me cough within a fraction of a second. The smell is penetrating, but I want to take it in. I NEED to take it in. I have to at least do that part exactly the way they do it…

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia


Want all the practical information you’ll need to prepare your visit to Kawah Ijen, with or without a tour? Check out this post!  d


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I’d met Chong the day before when he and his driver Adjani picked me up from my homestay in Banyuwangi, near the ferry to Bali. We’d hit it off right away and the one hours’ drive up to their village passed quickly as we were chatting and listening to Indonesian pop music. After a while the road gets steep and narrow, and from the moment we leave the main road and continue on what you can barely still call a road, I know it’s the start of a whole new adventure. A human one.
In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

I say goodbye to the connected world and get ready for the rollercoaster of emotions that I’m sure will come with this experience. Only 400 people live in the village, and my heart breaks for each and every one of them as soon as I get my first glimpse of it… Tiny houses sometimes built out of nothing more than a few wooden panels, freshly washed laundry drying right next to the dusty unpaved road, a few chickens wandering around in what’s supposed to be a front yard, children dressed in way too big colorful clothes and slippers that would fit an adult playing with an old bike – it seems to be all they have…

It’s one of those moments where – if I had only one wish – I’d take them all home with me and give them a better life…

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

I settle into Mr Paing’s house, Chong’s boss and a former miner, where 3 rooms are available for guests. I’m welcomed by his friendly wife who’s prepared lunch. It’s simple but tasteful, and I enjoy more of Chong’s stories while I eat. He’s 27 and lives a bit further down the road with his wife and 8 months old twin boys. His father’s a miner and he’s worked in the mine himself, too. He’s never left the village, except to go pick up tourists in Banyuwangi, and even though he’d love to visit Bali or maybe even a foreign country one day, he’s got a whole other dream that he’s trying to fullfill. He’s learning English and French and works as a tour guide to provide a better life for his family and to make sure his children never have to work in the mine. He talks about it with the biggest smile and with such determination and passion that I can’t do anything else but admire him.

I realize once again how relative dreams are, and that we all strive in exactly the same way to achieve ours. Dreams don’t need to be as big as possible, they need to be achievable, and I find it far more impressive to see someone who doesn’t have the world at their feet be thankful for what they have and have THAT kind of smile on their face. I know that no matter how small someone’s world may seem compared to mine, I probably have more to learn from them than what I have to teach them with all my western ‘knowledge’…

Lessons like these aren’t taught in university, we have to go looking for them in tiny villages like this one.

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

After lunch we head out for a visit of the town and its surroundings. We stop at a waterfall, a coffee plantation, rice fields and – the absolute highlight of the day – we’re lucky to participate in a local wedding. With only 400 people living here, that obviously doesn’t happen every day! The whole town’s gathered around the place where the bride and groom get dressed. Flowers and ornaments arrive from all sides and the local band starts to set up their instruments. No fancy clothes, color coordinated brides maids or limousines over here, but genuine smiles and a sense of community like I haven’t felt in a long time. I wonder if it even still exists, in our big modern European cities where people stare at me as if I was a crazy woman for just saying hello…

I stay for a while and return to the guesthouse not really knowing wether my tears are happy or sad… But I know I’ll go home a richer person.

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

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It starts around 1 am on day 2, when we get in the 4×4 and leave the village to drive for about an hour up to the base of the volcano. From here, a path winds up around the edge and it’s moderately steep for about 1 km. I know this isn’t the hardest part of the hike and quickly realize that I could have spared myself the weight of a winter jacket in my backpack.

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

After 20 minutes the real challenge begins – or at least part 1 of it. In little over a kilometer, we climb from 1900 to 2400 meters to reach the caldera rim. That’s an average slope of almost 50 degrees… I have to stop every 100 50OK let’s be honest – 25 meters to catch my breath and at times proceed so slowly I nearly fall backward. Chong is clearly capable of going faster but never leaves my side and does the best job encouraging me.

He’s clearly not just here to guide me up the volcano and tell me a couple of random facts about it. He’s here to share a part of his life, make sure I have the best possible experience and, litteraly, hold my hand when it gets tough.

Today, he is my sports coach, my life mentor, and my friend.

On our way up we talk about life some more – well basically he talks while I try to simply stay alive… Chong’s father has been a miner for most of his life. He climbs up this volcano every 2 weeks, or sometimes even daily, just to get to work… He sleeps in the ‘camp’ we just passed – the most rickety shack you’ve ever seen – or down in the crater, to ‘take care of the volcano’. I haven’t even finished the hike yet or been in the crater to see the working conditions, but I know I’m slowly discovering what has to be the worst job in the world…

I realize I’m getting a first glimpse of a life that NOBODY deserves…

By the end of this part I’ve died at least 7 times. Miners offered to bring me up there in their ‘taxi’, which is simply the small cart they use to transport their belongings up and down the volcano, but I refuse to quit – and to have them push me all the way up.

From behind a turn in the path appears the first smell of sulphur. Chong tells me to put on my gas mask but I find it impossible to breath wearing it. I rip it from my face and get a big breath of fresh poisonous air filled with sulphur gasses that tickle my throat and make me cough within a fraction of a second. The smell is penetrating, but I want to take it in. I NEED to take it in. I have to at least do that part exactly the way they do it…

The last kilometer is almost completely flat but at the end of it, the descent into the heart of the crater awaits. There’s not even a path, just rocks randomly leading us down towards the first highlight of our visit: the blue fire caused by the sulphur gasses. It’s only visible before sunrise and it’s already 4 am when we arive at the caldera rim, so we can’t afford to loose any more time. I try to hold on to the rocks but slip several times and even fall in spite of my very decent hiking shoes. Arriving near the end, another guide informs us the flames are at their best and that the miners are probably gonna put them out soon (they do this when the flames get too big – the flames don’t really go out but soften and it also creates a huge amount of smoke, making them less visible).

Come on!!!” Chong grabs my hand and starts going faster down the rocks. Not much later we’re running like 2 crazy people towards the flames, holding on to each other in a (not always succesful) attempt to avoid falling. We arrive literally 30 seconds before they put them out…

It is the most breathtaking thing I have ever seen…

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

I forget the strenuous climb in an instant and don’t know what to do first: hug him, jump from joy, take 7000 pictures or just sit down to quietly take it all in but by the time we leave the place more than an hour later, I’ve done them all at least once.

I sit down on the platform facing the flames, the only other thing I see so far being the shadows of the workers against the light that illuminates their working space. It might be the brightest yellow, but I can literally smell the cold and harsh truth I’m about to discover as soon as the sun will rise. Chong sits by my side nearly the whole time, keeping me warm and not once telling me to hurry up or that it’s time to go.In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

The next time I look behind me, I realize I’m almost the only tourist left – and it was quite crowded when we arrived. The sun is up, the stunning bright green acid lake has appeared out of the darkness and I finally get to see what the crater actually looks like.

It is from another planet…

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

I try to imagine how on earth we ever got down here – and how on earth we’re ever gonna get back up – over what seems to be hundreds of thousands of rocks just piled up on top of each other. But those are worries for later, right now I have something far more important to do…

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

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This is the main reason why I chose THIS particular tour. I know it’s gonna be the hardest part, but I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world. Unlike what seems to be 95% of all visitors, Chong and I go all the way down into the very heart of the crater. Unlike most other tours, this one doesn’t just show you the jawdropping part of Kawah Ijen, but the harsh and ugly truth.

The shadows that almost seemed to be happily dancing around at a distance not so long ago now have faces. They have a name. A family. And eyes without a spark of hope… I wonder if they’ve ever even had a dream. Or if they gave up all hope from the very start. I don’t even know which option would be less sad…
In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

The few men working in the heart of the crater extract the sulphur with nothing more than a steel bar and their bare hands. Only a few of them wear gas masks and none of them have any other protection. Others cary the bamboo baskets filled with at least 70kg of sulphur all the way up out of the crater and all the way down the edge of the volcano. At least twice a day. Because the more sulphur, the more money…

Around € 14 a day, to be exact. Fourteen.Fucking.Euros… For a day in hell… It’s a lot more than the average Indonesian salary, but no money can justify this… No billion dollar industry (sulphur is used eg. for refining sugar and in cosmetics) should be able to get away with this kind of situation…

NOBODY should have to go through this…

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

I realize being here is a privilege, not a right, and that the money I paid for my entrance ticket in no way obligates these people to share their lives with me. This isn’t about MY experience or the life lessons I think I need to learn. This isn’t a theatre. It’s not even just people’s working space. It’s people’s whole life. It’s their health, their safety and their only chance of having a more or less bearable future, and it is in no way meant for my ‘entertainment’. But I’m not here just for my fake look-how-strong-I-am-I-can-also-carry-a-basket-filled-with-70-kg-of-sulphur selfie, and I think they quickly realize it.

We chat for a while and I have a hard time holding back my tears. I knew it would be hard, but there was no way of being prepared for THIS. I burst into tears as soon as I get a moment to myself climbing back up to the top of the crater…
In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

 

We climb out of the crater alongside the miners, and my heart breaks over and over again. They’re not even wearing decent shoes and switch shoulders every few minutes to keep on going. I’m wearing nothing but a camera and a tripod in my backpack but I barely manage to climb faster than they do. Yes, it is THAT hard… and descending from the top of the crater back to the base of the volcano isn’t much easier. By the time we get to the car I’ve died another 7 times but I didn’t give up, I didn’t even let Chong carry my bag, and it’s not as if he didn’t insist.
In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, IndonesiaIn the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia
Gettig back to the guesthouse I hand my gas mask over to Chong. I’m happy I didn’t use it (except for standing right next to the flames, as do the miners). I’m happy I got that big breath of fresh poisonous air filled with sulphur gasses that tickled my throat and made me cough within a fraction of a second. I’m happy I did at least that part exactly the way they do it.

I physically died about 14 times that day on Kawah Ijen, and I died once more the next morning when I tried to get out of bed. But climbing up that volcano was the easy part of this experience.

Today, I saw what hell looks like. Today, I discovered the worst job in the world.

And I’m sure I’m not finished crying over this life that NOBODY deserves…

In the footsteps of the sulphur miners - Visiting the sulphur mine of Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia


PRACTICAL GUIDE: Kawah Ijen sulphur mine, Indonesia with or without a tour
Want to do this tour as well? Check out my full practical guide to Kawah Ijen to help you prepare your trip. When to go, insider tips, how to get there, visiting with or without a tour, … it’s all in there! 

Thinking about visiting that other Javanese volcano? Check out Dan Flying Solo’s guide to Mount Bromo without a tour. Or read Viktorija’s guide to the temples in Yogjakarta for some other highlights of Java.

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Disclaimer: This tour was fully paid for by yours truly and the tour company was unaware that I’d be writing this article at the time of my visit. All opinions are my own and straight from the heart, as always.

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