Indonesia: At the bottom of the well


As through the world we take our way

How often times we hear

The praises sung of wealthy men,

Of prince, and duke and peer.

The poets tell us of their fame,

They are lauded o’er the land,

But you very seldom hear them sing

Of the honest working man.*

Through the darkness of a humid night in the jungles of East Java we start our ascent of the Ijen volcano with our guide at a little past three in the morning. Over several kilometers we venture forth across increasingly difficult and steep terrain with simple phone lights in our hands to guide us along the path.

After some time I venture ahead to catch the blue flame at the crater floor while my wife continues with our guides. Much of the way I follow the lights of other adventurous souls, but most of the time I’m alone as the sweat on my brow slips down into my eyes.

Pushing upwards and further into the dark I come across a lone sulphur miner making is way down with baskets heavy with sulphur in jagged and dirty yellow chunks. He walks slowly and devoid of any noticeable discomfort as I pass by only observing his fortitude as he presses forward.

Eventually the strenuousness of the hike and humidity forces me to rest and recover before proceeding. At the next rest station I find myself sitting alongside a few sulphur miners eating their breakfast. They are polite and friendly as I offer the few words of greetings I know in Bahasa Indonesian to them. One even offers a part of his breakfast of rice and grilled fish, but I politely decline as he will need it more than me.

With only a few hundred meters ahead of me I can start to see great clouds of smoke emerging from the crater’s rim. Even in the early morning darkness the plumes of sulphur are evident. The rising smoke blurs any opportunity to observe what’s left of the night sky.

Towards the bottom of the crater there’s a glimmer of a partially blue flame emerging in the midst of sulphur gas and dust. Most people visiting the Ijen volcano come to see the blue flames emerging from leaks in the rocks. The blue flame or fire is sulphuric gas that’s been ignited with a temperature anywhere from 500 – 600 Celsius (900-1100 Fahrenheit).

As you descend all you can really sense is the increasing grittiness of the air and the harshness of the sulphur as it burns your eyes and throat. You pray that you don’t lose your footing along the slick rocks of pumice or ash. One of the miners was helpful and aware of my leeriness with each slick step downwards.  He was patient and pointed out where to step and pause to allow miners with baskets full of sulphur to pass by as they went up the path towards the crater’s rim.

The presence of sulphur was evident with every breath and sight around us. Everything was covered in a heavy yellow sulphuric dust. Thankfully my respiratory infection helped prevent the full intensity of the sulphur to terrorize my throat and sinuses as it did other morning visitors, but the burn to my eyes was something I had never experienced before.

Workers with makeshift masks of cloth churn and tear away at the hardened sulphur walls as they break away pieces for the miners and their baskets waiting for their turn to go back up. With each load the miners average anywhere between 75 kilograms to 100 kilograms per load at basically 900 Rupiah per kilogram. That works out to be about $6 USD per load of sulpher.

The movement of the sulphuric gas is a constant as it sweeps across the crater floor and up along the walls heading skyward with unyielding intensity and veracity with only the wind with the courage to push it around. In such conditions of sulphuric smoke and dust the men of Ijen push forward with their kilos of sulphur up slick and dangerous steps while I stand, incredulous, of what they do on a daily basis.

* From Marie Joussaye, The Honest Working Man

1 Comment

  1. Matthew. That was very poetic writing you just did. You are a really good writer! You described the place very well indeed, I can picture it. Don’t want to go there, sigh. You guys are doing it for us, thank you. I hope you guys are having a fantastic experience, it sounds like it. I am using our World Atlas to try to see where you are at all places. Take Care, our prayers are with you, be safe. lv, Daleene/Mom

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