The day after my first amazing volcano adventure at Bromo I was keen to get to the next one – the Ijen krater. A 2600 meters tall active volcano.
It’s only a few hours east of Bromo but we missed the local transport from Probolinggo which only leaves in the morning so we were forced to pay for a van from a tourist office. We refused to book a whole package which would include a hotel and the tour to the Ijen krater as we were hoping we’d be able to do it all ourselves for cheaper. Only problem is, Ijen is not such a popular tourist spot that you’ll have plenty of choises which we learned when we arrived in the small village Sempol… known for all its coffee plantations and coffee roasting. The only hotel there was full but we still managed to find a free room in a homestay for £3 each which was good enough.
Then we learned that trekking up to the Ijen krater is near impossible if you don’t go on a tour as Sempol is the closest to Ijen you can sleep, and that’s still an hour drive away. You could hitch hike I guess but then you wouldn’t make it for sunrise. So we were forced to pay for a van anyway and we decided to include the transport to Bali afterwards too to simplify things. We paid 200,000 ruphias for all this (£13).
At 3am we met the group back at the hotel, had a strong freshly ground Arabica coffee, and then we headed off into the jungle towards the volcanoes!
The car drops you off at the bottom of the mountain and from there you trek up on your own which takes an hour if you walk fast. It’s steep but easy and you have the views of the surrounding volcanoes around you and once in a while you’ll pass the sulfur mining workers who started working much earlier in the morning.
These brave men work in the sulfur mine down in the Ijen krater and are happy to have their photos taken in exchange for a cigarette, a cookie or some money. They have one of the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the world – right in the middle of the poisonous gasses they hack off bits of sulfur which they then carry all the way up the crater and onwards all the way down the mountain. It’s a several kilometers long trek and the loads, which they carry on their backs, can weigh up to 100kg! They get paid depending on the amount of sulfur they carry: 1kg= 600 ruphias= £0.04 which means not more than a few quid a day… The sulfur is then used for soaps, makeup or bleaching sugar and many other very important things.
Most people are happy to stop their trek at the top of the krater but a few decide to descent into it as well, including myself. We were lucky with the weather and wind so could do so fairly easily. If it’s very windy the sulfur gases would prevent you from climbing down.
The minor’s office – right in the gasses which is a mix of highly concentrated hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide gases.
Me and a couple other guys went up close to watch them work when the wind changed and we got stuck in the smoke cloud… not a good situation to be in and very scary. It hurt so bad to breath, it hurt so bad to have your eyes open! Besides, you couldn’t see anything for the smoke so I didn’t know what direction to run. I thought I was going to die, or pass out and fall into the acid lake. Thankfully a miner called out for us and guided us out of the smoke. It’s hard to think these guys go through this every day…
The Ijen krater also contains the world’s largest acidic lake, with a pH value similar to battery acid. It can break down clothes and even metals. It’s got a perfectly turquoise colour and is almost a kilometer wide, it fits beautifully next to the yellow sulfur mine but absolutely nothing can live in this dangerous water.
As the gases from the mine can quickly break down a camera I was pretty keen to get out of the krater shortly after we got stuck in the smoke cloud. Together with the miners I climbed the steep rocky path to the top.
When I got back up at the top I felt happy that I only had to do that once… It’s difficult to think that these miners do this several times a day, for several years. Most of them die early due to various health problems and 75 workers has died here in the last 40 years after being overpowerd by fumes. It’s a dangerous job but they say it pays more than any other work. Sad but true.
To visit the Ijen krater is an amazing experience which I’d encourage anyone travelling to Java not to miss. It’s like being on another planet where everything can kill you. The beauty of the yellow sulfur, the white smoke cloud rising towards the sky, the warm turquoise water, the stunning views from the top of the mountain. All a devil in disguise, ready to kill if you come too close.