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.
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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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It’s a funny old world we live in. Today I’m sitting writing this in a hotel room at São Paulo airport, our flight home cancelled indefinitely because a volcano has erupted in Iceland, almost 10,000 km away. Yesterday, on our boat in the Amazon, if you’d have asked me to make a bet on the possibility of this particular reality transpiring, you’d probably be smiling your way to the bank right now with a fist full of very easy money.
It’s always a strange transition, traveling back to the urban environment from isolation in nature. The Amazon river is a formidable force of nature that consumes you with its magnitude and majesty, much like the awe-inspiring images of Iceland’s bellowing clouds of ash that I’ve seen here on CNN in the last few hours. I can’t help being reminded that whilst we continue living the somewhat strange contemporary lifestyles that many of us now do, it’s so easy to forget that we are still very much an intricate part of Mother Nature, even whilst we are sitting drinking a cappuccino in some faceless airport departure lounge. She can reach out to us at any time and completely redirect the course of our lives in a moment, something that the people with whom we’ve spent the last two weeks filming know only too well.
We have been living with a small community of 4 families who live on a small sand bar on the Rio Negro, about 2 days’ boat ride up river from Manaus. Our story here has been centred around the trials and tribulations of this isolated community who live within the ebb and flow of the largest fresh water mass on the planet. The seasons of the Amazon basin result in great changes in the volume of water surging down its arterial waterways. At this time of the year the people of the Rio Negro are preparing for the coming of the high waters and for our new friends here, this means the yearly ritual of saying a temporary farewell to the terra firma of their island existence as they retreat to their stilted houses for the 2-or-so months when the river surge completely floods the forests around their village, forcing them to adapt to a waterborne existence.
What none of us really understood very well before we came here, is that this small group of people have built up a beautifully inspiring relationship with some of the other non-human residents of the Rio Negro, and it is this story which has completely consumed me on this trip and the one that I have chosen to recount here.
On the day that we arrived we were greeted by our new hosts and promptly taken to see the water cages in which these people are nurturing thousands of young river turtles to be released back into the wild. It is a community run project attempting to swell the numbers of wild turtles in the Rio Negro which form an important source of food for the local inhabitants. By rescuing the buried eggs from well-known spawning beaches around the area and then allowing them to hatch within the safety of their own village, these people are safe guarding the young turtles from a short, hard-boiled life destined to appear on the dinner plates of local villagers.
Whilst we were standing waist deep in the Rio’s black waters observing the baby turtles, a dark shadow brushed past my leg and to my amazement, promptly swam up to one of our hosts and nudged her dangling hand with its long beak. ”Botos”, she mumbled as she grabbed its protruding nose with both hands, bursting into laughter as they momentarily play-fought in the water.
Botos are the Amazon’s resident river dolphins. At many spots along this part of the Rio Negro they are a common feature of people’s day-to-day lives due to their incredibly friendly nature. According to Wikipedia, ‘The brain of the river dolphin is 40% larger than a human brain‘. Now, whilst I can’t back up that fact with any of my own scientific evidence, I must admit that after a week of intimate interaction with these fabulous creatures in their natural habitat, I have to say that there is definitely something other-worldly about an experience within their wonderful auras. I feel very much more connected with the natural world right now.
The other day as I was resting on my bed in our boat, a small brown nondescript moth flew into my cabin and landed on the wall beside my head. Mesmerized, as I lay there staring at it, I realized that for the first time in absolutely ages, possibly even since I was a young boy in my family garden, I was looking at it with a genuine sense of awe and fascination. Such a seemingly mundane and insignificant creature had become an incredible manifestation of the beauty of nature with a huge beaming personality to boot! I am sure that it has been my interaction with these terrific river dolphins over the last week that has prized open that childlike side of me again.
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A close encounter with a wild animal is always a humbling experience. Dolphins, however, appear to be one of those rare organisms on our planet that genuinely appear to want to reach out to our species. There’s a reason why dolphins have captured such a special place in hearts of many of the world’s cultures and that’s something that I hope will continue for many millenia into our shared futures.
If you ever want to feel like a kid again, go out into the world and see if you can meet a dolphin. You won’t be disappointed.
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