Walking into a volcano is a pretty stupid idea. In fact, it is only slightly stupider than climbing volcanos. Today I decided to do both, so I shouldn’t be complaining to you about the fact that I felt like I was going to pass out – but I am. The reason I decided to walk into a volcano today is a pretty simple ones; since arriving in Indonesia I have always wanted to see the sulfur mining in Ijen.
If you’ve never been to Indonesia you might not have heard of Ijen. Most tourists actually come here at 1am in the morning, so that they can see the blue flames – the sulfur is actually burning when it leaves the ground, but you can only see the flames at night (find out more here). Most tourists also stay at the top of the volcano, – there is a good reason for this, Sulphur is poisonous – but after driving for 11 hours the day before, I wasn’t interested in waking up in the middle of the night. Instead we arrived at Ijen at 9 in the morning. From the car park it is a 3km hike to the top of the volcano.
The track to the top is steep and dusty and as we climbed we passed dozens of men, young and old, sitting in the shade with large bamboo baskets filled with slabs of bright yellow sulphur. The first person we passed – he must have been at least 60 – asked if I wanted to lift his basket. A crowd of people quickly gathered around me when I said I’d try. Despite its weight – the basket must have been at least 50kg – I managed to lift it easily. However, lifting it and walking with it for 3km on your shoulders are two completely different things (I would not have been able to walk more than 10 steps with that on my back).
By the time we reached the top of the volcano I was sweating heavily and I could finally smell the sulphur. However, I wanted a closer look at the place where these people were mining, so I decided to go into the volcano with one of the workers. The path down into the volcano is steep and the ground is a mixture of dust and loose rocks. It was a difficult climb down, yet young boys and old men carrying baskets filled with bright yellow slabs of sulphur weighing more than 50 kg slowly walked past us, going the other way back up the hill like mountain goats.
I was less than halfway down the slope when I felt like I was going to pass out. My eyes were streaming from the gas that swirled all around me and each breath a struggle – the sulphur stings the back of your throat. Every move I made seemed to happen in slow motion. My arms and legs felt heavier than they should and I kept slipping on the rocks. While I struggled further down the slope, there was a constant stream of people carrying sulfur going the other way – oh and most of them were smoking, madness.
When I eventually got down to the bottom, there were about 20 people, sitting in ones and twos near to the crater lake. They all had big bamboo baskets, which they had placed close to them; those too poor to afford the baskets had brought empty sacks. A few walked in and out of the steam hacking large lumps of sulphur out of the rock while others pounded the large pieces into smaller bits, which they placed in the big baskets. Whenever a basket was completely full, the person would leave and head back up the slope. After a while at the bottom I followed one of them and over 4km half raced him to the bottom – I’m ashamed to say that he won. I blame it on my heavy camera bag.