Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Beautiful World's Largest Acidic Volcanic Crater Lake Ijen - Bondowoso, East Java, Indonesia

The largest acidic volcanic crater lake in the world
We're in Paltuding - 3 km to go

We told Hasbullah, we will be starting our journey after fajar which is about 4.15 am. No hurry, I told him since we're not going after the blue flame. He nodded his head faithfully. In the dark, our jeep hit the bumpy, rough, narrow roads with potholes. At about 5.15 am we arrived in Paltuding (1,850m above sea level), the base and starting point before the 3 km climb to Ijen Crater. Ijen Crater or Kawah Ijen is 2,799m and for us the 3 km hike is a struggle! 

A serious sign board to remind climbers
The signboard says, people with asthma, heart diseases and hypertension are prohibited from climbing the crater. You really do not know what to expect when you're in the crater. The wind can be dangerous if it blows the sulfuric fumes towards you but if you're lucky it will puff towards the opposite direction.   Hasbullah, our driver, bade goodbye and told us to take our time and not to rush the hike up the mountain. 

The sulfur at rest while the miner makes a turn back for another load
Walking about 100 meters we could feel the escalating gradient. This is going to be difficult I thought.  One of the miners stopped to greet us and we chatted him.  He introduced himself as Sur (Suryanto), and instantly, we hired him as our guide for the day but he put no price for his service. He carried our knapsacks, put our water bottles and jackets in his baskets and he walked with us. The first 2 km was hard but our determination kept us going! 

Huge chunks of sulfur
Along the way we saw several baskets loaded with sulfur at rest. We were told that the owner had made a turn back for another load of sulfur. A strategy  to get the sulfur out of the crater as early as possible before the sulfuric smokes get thicker approaching midday. Our conversation had somehow helped us managed the climb and along the way Sur told us a story of how the miners once carried an old lady who wanted to see Kawah Ijen badly. 

Mount Merapi behind us - this is a different Merapi found in Central Java
It is extremely dangerous if one falls or gets hurt along the track. He also told us many people made a turn back after few hundred meters.  We were elated after the struggle to arrive at the first station which meant we have made it to the first 2 km. We had a brief stop at the station, which is actually a small shack which sells coffee and very simple breakfast. The cafe is also the first weighing post where all miners weigh their loads of sulfurs. Take their note and walk another 2 km to the Paltuding station.
Mount Raung just next to Mount Merapi at the background

While it takes the fittest person to ascend Ijen crater in one hour, we did it in two hours and most people did the whole journey in 3 hours and we took five hours :)!  Never mind, we made it and we didn't make or ever thought of a turn back. Once the first 2 km is over, the mesmerizing view is worth all the troubles. The path began to get scenic and we made several stops for photographs. With Mount Merapi and Raung behind us, we can't help turning our heads occasionally to catch a glimpse of the mountains. 

Soon we came to the flattest part of the mountain with a massive view of the caldera laid perfectly before our eyes.  We forgot about our aching feet and trembling knees. The stunning view just took our breath away  We saw the three girls in our group neatly tucked on the slope of the mountain taking a rest.  At about 10 am the wind starts to spread the acidic sulfuric smokes across wider area and by 2 pm access to the crater is closed as hiking is impossible with thick smokes covering the crater. 
Landscape at the rim of the crater
Glad we made it!
Stratovolcano - last eruption in 1999
A worker at the edge of the lake
Water source for river Banyupahit - making it highly acidic and metal polluted
The path down the crater
The sulfur miners exposed to the dangerous sulfur smokes daily
The rocky 'path' the miners climb every day
From the other side of the crater we watched the miner
A miner at rest with his load just after the ascend from the crater
The corrosive blue green water 
Tourists who successfully made up to the top
Beautiful landscape with hardly any vegetation surviving here
The unusual beauty that outweighs the risks
The miner's walk produces the squeaking sound of the bamboos basket, 
The rest point at the mid-way of the journey

Monday, April 21, 2014

The sulfur miners of Kawah Ijen - Bondowoso, East Java, Indonesia

He could hardly lift his head while climbing up the crater

The sulfur miners of Ijen have the most dangerous job and they are constantly exposed to the risk of sulfuric fume which can killed them or shorten their life span. Sur, our guide, did not complain about his job, “This is the only work that I could earn a decent living for my family and all the miners here come from the same village in Banyuwangi” he said. On the way we met several other miners who were on their way up the crater. 
A group of sulfur miners passed us

His load is easily 70 kilos
They look cheerful, smiling, greeting and encouraging us to make it to the top of the crater. The first two km walk was really difficult for me and at times, Sur literally pushed me up the steep slopes. I can’t wait to finish the 2 km route as we will be able to get a short rest at the café. While some tourists are already descending the mountain, we were moving cautiously to avoid slippery track and once a while we looked back to see how high we had gone up.

At the first weighing station
I asked Sur what is his daily earning to figure out how much we are going to pay him. He told us, most miners could carry a load of 70 to 100 kilo per trip and for each kilo, they are paid 800 Rupiah (less than US 10 cents) and they could do at most 2 trips per day. They work at night or early morning and stop before midday to avoid the unbearable heat and the thick sulfuric smoke. We figured for that grueling risky job, the miners would earn around US $11 to $ 15 per day. 

We finally made it to the café which marked our 2 km walk. I stopped to have coffee and gave my knees a break. The café is the first stop where miners will weigh their loads of sulfurs and take a note of their weight from the person in charge. They will then continue carrying their loads of sulfur to the final destination at the Paltuding station where the sulfurs will take its last weighing. Many miners were busy weighing their loads and having their breakfast before they take another load. 

Busy loading the chunks of sulfur
Sweats dripping from his face and it was obvious how exhausted he was!  Still, that was not the end of it, he has another 2 km to go - the final weighing station.  After the brief stop, we continued the last section of our climb.  Sur was very encouraging, "The one kilometer will be flat" he told us.  Feeling tired, only determination and will were the motivating factors for us and finally, the last 500 meters was indeed flat as we approached the rim of the crater. 

Another 500 meters down the crater and just next to the turquoise sulfuric acid lake the miners were busy extracting the sulfur.  Some with slippers, no face mask or any form of protection and with bare hands they dug into the molten sulfur and loaded them in their bamboo baskets or sacks. The smell of the toxic sulfur and the thick fume does not seem to bother the miners. Everyone of them diligently worked to get as much sulfur as they could carry. 

62 years old miner who has worked here for 40 years

We then met an elderly man age 62, who has been working as a sulfur miner for 40 years. His face was drenched with sweat and he was too tired to respond to our greetings but he gave a faint smile. Another miner told us that he has problem with his hearing and due to his age, he could only make one trip a day. We handed a pair of gloves and he thanked us.  The dozen of gloves we brought with us were distributed to the miners as gifts, which they greatly appreciated them.  Wished we would have brought more.  We sat at the rim of the crater watching the breathtaking view of the lake filled with sulfuric acid and hydrogen chloride - with pH < 0.3, corrosive enough to eat up the human flesh and bone!  
They walked fast producing the squeaking sound of the bamboo baskets 
Descending the mountain
Huge chunks of sulfur in their baskets
Breakfast at the first weighing station just after they half completed their work
His body weight is definitely less than the load he carries
As the heat gets more intense!
Down the crater
Just with slippers
Beautiful and dangerous!
Ceramic pipes channel the volcanic gas which then turns into molten sulfur
The red molten sulfur hardens in about 10 minutes and becomes bright yellow
The harden sulfur is broken into chunks of manageable pieces
Condensation of molten sulfur 
Working in the toxic fume surrounding
At the mouth of the pipe lines
Exposed to toxic smoke
Manually breaking the chunks of sulfur
Miner at work
Breaking the sulfur
Filling up their baskets
Walking up the steep, rocky crater
Weighing their load and collecting the weight note
Only half the journey