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.
. . .
Interested in more stories from Indonesia? Try HERE TASEARCHINDONESIA
Still reading? Join in the discussion on my Facebook page.
Indonesia is one of my favourite countries in the world. I spent a lot of time here in my twenties, just roaming around, visiting as many as I could of the seventeen odd thousand islands that make up this immense archipelago. Back then, coming to the remote island of Lembata would probably have involved a gruelling week long journey sleeping on the deck of one of Indonesia’s fabled PELNI cruise liners that were the preferred form of long distant transport for backpackers like myself at the time. That’s not to say that in 2009 getting here is an easy task, not least from Mombasa, my last port of call for Human Planet, which, as you would imagine, is by no means a well trodden path. It took four days as it turns out, each one adding to the growing expectation of what I might discover in the famous whaling village of Lamalera, which was to be my final destination.
Lamalera’s Whaling tradition is quite well documented, often cited as being a good example of a sustainable whale cull due to the local fishermen’s reluctance to embrace modern whaling technology, preferring instead to stick to their traditional method of hunting with paddle-driven peladang’s and bamboo harpoons. The concensus opinion suggests that the best time to come here to experience a whale capture is between the months of May and September when the seas are at their calmest, but in reality, whales are caught here all year round on an as-and-when basis, forming just one portion of the immense plethora of nutritious bounty prised from the waters around this island destined to end up on the dinner plates of Lamalera’s inhabitants.
Arriving at our house overlooking the beach last week I was greeted by BBC cameraman Jon with the surprising news that no whales had actually been caught here for over 2 months. He arrived a week before me and was already well accustomed to the daily ritual of going to bed at 8pm then rising at 5am to begin 10 hours of searching for ways to pass the time whilst keeping one eye on the ocean for the chance of glimpsing the distant plume from a whale’s exhalation on the horizon and the possibility of filming this age old Lamaleran spectacle.
As I write this, I’ve been here nearly two weeks and still no sign of any whales. Maybe they finally got wise to the fact that swimming near Lembata is not a good idea at this time of the year. If they have then they are certainly alone in this wisdom amongst their oceanic co-inhabitants. Judging by the size of catch that fishermen here are pulling in every morning I think it’s fair to say that the waters around here are not facing any impending environmental catastrophe. Below is a photo I shot this morning of an average night’s net fishing from a small paddle boat just off the coast from where I’m sitting. I say average because last week one fisherman came limping home with his boat practically submerged due to its bounty of 7 huge marlin, a couple of them topping 7 foot in length.
I can think of worse places to be stuck twiddling my fingers. Lamalera is a friendly village, currently playing host to no fewer than 3 camera crews from France, Malaysia and the UK as well as an American photographer and myself, which can make for an interesting comedy of errors when anything remotely interesting happens in the vicinity. Luckily, packs of playing cards are plentiful here and many of us had the foresight to load up our hard drives with unwatched AVIs, the current favourites doing the rounds being the brilliant Flight of the Concords and a beautifully funny documentary called King of Kong which charts the sublime lives of a group of ageing world class classic video gamers in the States
3pm every day signals the traditional cut off point for any potential whale capturing activities by the fishermen and offers us all the opportunity to get out of the house and into the ocean for a spot of fun, for myself a chance to live out some personal Big Blue fantasies that I’ve been suppressing for quite a while since the last time I visited a pristine turquoise ocean. Evidently I’m not alone in this desire, sharing it with amongst others, Paul (below), a lucky intern from the UK working with our underwater team and currently missing the new university term in order to stay on for this ever-expanding waiting game.
. . .
Interested in more stories from Indonesia? Try HERE