Ijen Volcano, in Java, Indonesia is one of the only places in the world where people mine sulphur.
If I had ever seen such a desolate workplace I could not recall it now. Before me volcanic air was bursting from the ground at 600 degrees celsius. A continual stream of sulphur overwhelming its containment and bellowing into the world. The gas condenses as it hits the cold air, first into liquid and then eventually, a solid.
Two hours before the miners had arrived we’d been treated to a wholly different sight. Blue fire had licked the pit of this crater and thrown itself into the air against the jet-black night sky. We had stopped and gaped at the incandescent phenomenon, something we had dreamed of seeing and the reason we had woken 1am. Only a slight wind had disturbed our gaze as it shifted the smoke in our direction, a gust of sulphur so putrid we had to block our nose with our sarongs to be able to breathe.
With the arrival of dawn these flames had been extinguished from sight like a natural magic trick. Even now, we know they are there but cannot see them. In the switch of daylight the pit is now a luminous yellow, molten sulphur transformed into rock. Our attention is now drawn to several disjointed shadows descending into the crater, locals arriving early to escape the sweat of the midday sun. Upon reaching the volcanos core they settle straight into work.
Their strong muscular shoulders plunge the pickaxe easily into the soft sulphur. At first they ignore the small scattering of tourists but pause for a photograph if a few coins are offered, happy to exchange their tough physical labour for easy money. This trade off is a sign, a slow evolution of a culture before my very eyes. Filling their baskets, a load of almost 80kilograms, the miners then step up to the real challenge, exportation. A sense of respect emanates through the onlookers as he shifts himself into position, one shoulder between the two attached baskets. I marvel at their strength and health, not expecting it from someone coming into contact with toxic sulphurous fumes every day. Balancing their load they make the steady 200m climb up to the summit of Ijen volcano before beginning a slow descent from 2800m through the ominous volcanic landscape. Three kilometres later they will reach the sugar refinery and payment, pulling in almost six pounds and starting off on a second lap. It mightn’t sound like much but in Indonesia, whose daily minimum wage can be as little as two pounds, this is a respectable income.
As a wave of chilly fog rolls over us I glance once more into Ijen’s depths. In that instant I do not recognise the desolation I once saw, instead I see a volcano making a constant offering to its people, its own source of gold. A unique location designed for a very unique kind of person.
Interested in visiting Ijen Volcano? Use our budget guide to Ijen volcano for independent travellers.