Residents of Java are well accustomed to the presence of volcanoes in their lives. Take a dawn climb to any one of the island’s 40 or so peaks, and a glance to either the east or the west of you will normally reveal a scene worthy of the set of Jurassic Park as you will see a line of prehistoric chimney tops trailing off into the distance above the early morning mist.
From the infamously destructive Krakatoa off the far western coast, to the mystical peaks of Merapi and Lawu at the centre of the island’s indigenous magical traditions and on to the tourist’s favourite photo opportunity of Mount Bromo in the east, this chain of volcanoes forms part of the western section of the Pacific region’s so-called Ring of Fire , a destructive circle of tumultuous geologic activity forming the extreme borderlands of this immense tectonic plate and incorporating such world famous peaks as Japan’s Mount Fuji and Mount St. Helens in the USA.
So, after all this time travelling around the world for Human Planet, it is atop the heights of the far east of Java that my journey has finally come to an end amidst the fantastical moonscape of Mount Ijen.
Ijen’s topography is breathtaking, a landscape that has arisen from the effects of incredibly powerful forces, the presence of which you can feel lurking ominously within the terrain beneath your feet as you descend into the smoking crater towards its turquoise acidic lake.
Spending time among the phenomenal panoramas of Mount Ijen on this trip has reminded me once and for all that deep down, I am a mountain person, an opinion shared by every one of our 5-strong team on this shoot who admitted that their hearts also lie in the loftier regions of our incredible planet. That’s not to say that Ijen by any means offers a high altitude experience. Every day, a plethora of tourists come here in all shapes and sizes, dropped off at the end of the tarmac road ahead of the 2 hour trek up the side of the mountain, each conquering the steep walk with differing degrees of success. Upon arrival at the rim, the number who choose to continue on into the crater is somewhat diminished, with just a handful each day making the full journey 500ft down to the lake, something that I would urge anyone visiting this place do so for no other reason than to gain some kind of genuine empathy with the incredibly tough men, both young and old, who make a living here mining sulphur.
If you happen to be a sulphur miner working here, your day probably starts at about 4.30am when you have to grab your baskets and jog up to the volcano rim (possibly stopping for a quick cigarette on your way as you pass colleagues on their way down from the night shift) then down into the crater where the sulphur is to be found bubbling out of the ground. Far fewer men work the night shifts, so there are rich pickings to be had at first light when the sulphur deposits have had a few hours to build up untapped.
Upon arrival at the sulphur pits, the game of cat and mouse with the choking, poisonous clouds will begin as you try to prise chunks of sulphur from the pits with iron bars whilst avoiding inhaling the toxic smoke bellowing from the ground beside you. Unfortunately, you probably won’t have any proper breathing apparatus, just a wet rag over your mouth and since there’s no sulphur without smoke, you will have to rely on unpredictable changes in wind direction to time your digging forays.
No matter how hard you try, however, you will inevitably end up regularly inhaling harsh sulphurous smoke into your lungs and the sulphur dust deposits left on your eye lashes will make your eye balls feel as if they’re on fire every time you blink.
After about 45 minutes chipping away at the sulphur you will retreat from the pits in order to consolidate all your sulphur pieces and arrange them in baskets so that they will balance on your shoulders successfully. If you are an old man, you will probably be intending to lift about 75kg, but if you are fortunate enough to be a strapping young fellow, your performance-related pay slip will certainly reflect this fact since you may be able to carry as much as 100kg per load.
As you walk away from the smoking pits with the incredible weight on your shoulders, you will no doubt glance up towards the crater rim, some 525 feet above you, and you may well choose to temporarily block that image from your mind at this point, choosing instead to concentrate on the next step in front of you…
…as you begin the climb.
After nearly an hour of pacing upwards… a chance for some respite and cleaner air. Atop the crater, the pathway levels out and you begin a much more up-beat rally towards the side of the volcano, and the beginning of the 2 km path through the woods down the side of the mountain.
The view down into the forest below is lovely, but you will rarely take your eyes off the path in front of you. You still have 2 km of walking left before you reach the processing factory below.
At the end of the forest path, the way flattens out and this is the sign that tells you that you’ve reached your destination. But don’t get too excited just yet. That was only your first run today.
Now go back and do it all over again.
. . .
So what kind of pay packet should you expect for this kind of work?
Well, the going rate for a kilo of sulphur mined from the volcano is 600 rupiah. After watching these men for a few days I can see that the average load is 80kg per run, so that’s Rp 48 000 per load (about $5).
Just to put that into perspective a little. A large mocha at a popular American chain of coffee shops in the nearby city of Surabaya is Rp 47 500.
At these wages and under such harsh working conditions, one would suspect that there would be a high turnover of workers at Ijen sulphur mine but, incredibly, these guys actually think themselves quite lucky to be working here on piece rates that are well over twice the money they would be earning if they chose to serve the world’s caffeine-consuming populace by working on a nearby coffee plantation, which is the other main option for an income if you’re a local in this part of East Java.
My hat comes well and truly off to these guys.
. . .
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