Sunday, June 02, 2013

Kawah Ijen and the Story of its Sulphur Miner

Kawah Ijen is the world’s most acidic lake. It is an active volcano that is part of a group of stratovolcanoes in East Java. It is also the source of elemental sulphur. But, it is not these attributes that gave Kawah Ijen international recognition. Instead, it was Kawah Ijen’s ordinary Sulphur miners who gave it recognition through their work in the yellow hell.

Alit and his 85 kilogram sulphur load - Kawah Ijen, Indonesia
I have been on a volcano path in Java as I had never seen volcanoes before Indonesia and have been visiting some of the most deadliest in the world (Gunung Merapi in Central Java), some of the prettiest in the world (Gunung Bromo in East Java) and of course, Kawah Ijen, the world’s most acidic lake. But, it was not its natural beauty that drew me to it. It was the miners that drew me to it.

These sulphur miners carry more sulphur than their body weight
I will be lying if I said I did not find the blue light of Kawah Ijen, its toxic smoke and its beautiful mountain views appealing. But, a couple of months back I saw a TV program on National Geographic about the Kawah Ijen miners and that is when I decided that I would visit this place and see how the sulphur miners live their daily life.

Kawah Ijen - the lake of molten sulphur
And when I did spend a day with them, my heart warmed for them and I felt that my job is the easiest in the world when compared to the hardships these Sulphur miners endure. Unlike the other places where I go about photographing the place at every opportune moment and angle, I decided to take it easy on my photography and spend more time talking to these miners.

A sulphur miner and his wages for this one load
What I found out is possibly one of the toughest life stories I have ever heard. Each of these sulphur miners, who live in neighboring villages collect Sulphur for a company that manufactures rubber products. Sulphur is one of the main elements required for the vulcanization of rubber and hence the high demand for free Sulphur from mother nature.

Kawah Rawu as visible from the trek to Kawah Ijen
These miners who come from a poor background take up this much needed job to make money. The rubber companies promise them money better than what they would earn, but that’s about it. They get no other benefits. These miners brave a tough climb, a steep descent and lots of toxic gases to first solidify the molten sulphur and then carry it on their shoulders up to the crater rim and then down the steep slopes to the unloading point.

Alit and his fellow sulphur miner at Kawah Ijen, Indonesia
If a miner’s body weight is 60 kilograms, he aims to carry at least 80 kilograms of sulphur. If a miner weighs 80 kilograms, he tries for 90-100 kgs of Sulphur. They 2 do such trips every day. What this means is that they carry about 120 to 200 kilograms of Sulphur on their backs every day while walking close to 20 kilograms up and down steep and narrow slopes of the volcano.

Tourists enjoying the Kawah Ijen view
And for this hard work, they get paid 700 rupiah per kilogram, which equates to about 105,000 rupiah (or ~10.5 USD) if they lift 150 kilograms of Sulphur. This amount is a pittance when compared to the hardships that these miners endure. But, this money is much better to the normal daily wages of other jobs and that is the reason why these miners endure these hellish work conditions.

Kawah Ijen - the world's most acidic lake
The worst part is that they get paid only for the Sulphur they bring. This means that they are not employees and do not have any health or insurance benefits. If they fall sick or ill, which they do from time to time, they don’t get paid. They are simply daily wage earners who get paid for the work.

Cloud of Sulphur surrounds Kawah Ijen, Indonesia
Due to the hellish conditions, the toxic Sulphur fumes and the heavy weightlifting and climbing, these miners face a variety of problems that range from respiratory illnesses, black and burnt shoulders, knee problems, eyesight problems and many more. If they stop, the suffering increases and the money dries up. And that is why these miners keep lifting Sulphur till their last breath.

The Sulphur that defines the life of the miner at Kawah Ijen
You would think with these kind of hardships, they would be stone-hearted and not enjoy life. Instead, they are just the opposite. They are full of smiles, whistling away and singing as they walk with the sulphur loads on their shoulder. As a tourist, I found them returning my salutations and engage in interesting conversations with me. Some of them speak bits and pieces of English and being an Indian always ensure that I get asked about Shahrukh Khan and the Bollywood dance.

Sulphur Miners at work at Kawah Ijen, Indonesia
If you wish to see Kawah Ijen and understand the story of these sulphur miners, I would recommend that you either base yourself at Banyuwangi or Ijen village. If you are staying at Banyuwangi, rent a motorcycle, a motorcycle taxi or a 4 wheel drive to climb the steep ascent of 35 kms. This steep ascent through dense vegetation should take about one hour.

Carrying a heavy sulphur load in hellish conditions at Kawah Ijen, Indonesia
If you wish to see the blue fire, be prepared to brave the cold or carry thermal wear. If you just want to see the day’s events, start at 4 AM so that you can be on the top latest by 6:30 AM. Typically, the mornings are always clear and the clouds invariably start coming in by 9 AM and most of the afternoons are either raining or covered in dense clouds. Once you reach the parking spot, you can have a hot tea/coffee to warm yourself up. Then, begins a gradual climb, which turns into a steep one very quickly. As you see views of Kawah Rawu and the sun’s first rays on the surrounding green mountains and pant for breath, you will reach the canteen, which also doubles up as the weighing station for these sulphur miners. From here, the way is more or less gradual to the rim of the crater. Somewhere near the top, you will have to make your handkerchief or towel wet and tie it around your nose as you will be crossing a sulphur cloud blowing from the crater towards you. Shortly, you will reach the top. Here, there is a sign asking you not to go down. But, many tourists go down, albeit on their own risk. Remember that if you go down and if it gets cloudy, it might get very difficult to breath. Use proper glasses and masks while you are downstairs. The walk back is even tougher as the steep descent batters your knees. The success factor here is to take it nice and slow and be very careful.

The steep and narrow climb with the sulphur load from the Ijen Crater, Indonesia
A humble request to all those who plan to visit Kawah Ijen. The miners here do not get proper food and water and of course are low on money. So, if you can afford and carry, do bring along some food, water, cigarettes (though it causes harm, it gives these miners joy) and money. The miners always ask for biscuits and water as they are always away from food and water when they are working. If you can afford, pay them small amounts and instruct them not to blow it away in beer and/or cigarettes. If you bring shoes, jackets, masks or any other type of protective gear, the miners end up selling it in the market to make money. Hence, do not bring such items. Food, water, cigarettes and money should suffice. Medical supplies would help, if you could. Apart from simply going to Kawah Ijen and just enjoying nature’s beauty, it would be better if each one of us did something in kind for these sulphur miners who are the tough, yet poor soldiers of this area.

P.S. There is no entrance fee for Kawah Ijen and a motorcycle taxi (return trip) from Banyuwangi should cost you 150,000 rupiah, while a 4 wheel drive (return trip) from Banyuwangi costs 500,000 rupiah that can be shared across 4 people.

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