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Mining Pure Sulfur in the Smoking Crater of Mt. Ijen, Java

High up in the mountains of East Java, Indonesia, Mt. Ijen’s crater smokes and bubbles with sulfur gas. The sulfur hear leaks out of the volcanic crater in a giant plume of smoke, and local miners, wearing little more than gas masks, collect the sulfur and hike it out of the crater on their backs.

After returning to Bali from Komodo, Jan and I decided to travel together for a bit. Our schedules were compatible, and we both had to meet people in the western part of Indonesia around the same time. After a good experience on the boat with Perama Tours, we decided to book with them again on a westward leg which would take us from Bali across to Java, onto Mt. Ijen, then Mt. Bromo, and finally dropping us off in centrally located Yogyakarta. Pics.

The first leg of our journey was getting out of Bali. We rode by minibus from Kuta, Bali up to the northwest corner of the island. From there, a quick car ferry took us across, and then we boarded another minibus to Ijen.

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Once we got to Java, we realized that the otherwise excellent Perama Tours was actually just selling us a transportation ticket with a number of different carriers, with varying levels of quality. The transportation worked, but overal I think we would have preferred a bit better transportation, and drivers who spoke better English. I can’t recommend the transportation carriers that Perama Tours contracts with on Java. However, the actual locations of our journey through Java were absolutely incredible. Perama Tours, you need to inform your customers of exactly how you arrange the transportation, and state clearly in your brochure that the drivers do not speak english and are unable to provide any information or support. More info on our tour package – note that while the things we saw on this tour were great, the organization by Perama Tours left a lot to be desired.

Anyway, after a bit of a drive across Java, and an epic ascent up into the mountains around Mt. Ijen, we arrived for the night at the former Dutch Coffee Plantation of Kaliklatak and settled in for the night.

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An early morning 3am wakeup, and we were off across the mountains towards Mt. Ijen. Sunrise was beautiful, and a bit apocalyptic in feeling. In addition to the mist covering the flanks of the stratovolcano, wisps of toxic sulfur gas wafted from the crater, mixing with the mist. As we hiked up the side of the volcano to the crater rim, the smell of sulfur became stronger and stronger. There’s one main trail connecting the village at the base to the mining area, and that trail is used by both tourists as wll as the sulfur miners themselves. On our way up, we saw a number of miners, each carrying close to 100kg of sulfur on their backs. The trail was littered with pebbles of yellow sulfur, which stuck out from the black background of volcanic ash.

More on Ijen, from Wikipedia:

The Ijen volcano complex is a group of stratovolcanoes, in East Java, Indonesia. It is inside a larger caldera Ijen, which is about 20 kilometers wide. The Gunung Merapi stratovolcano is the highest point of that complex. The name of this volcano resembles that of a different volcano, Mount Merapi in central Java, also known as Gunung Merapi; there is also a third volcano named Marapi in Sumatra. The name “Merapi” means “fire” in the Indonesian language.

West of Gunung Merapi is the Ijen volcano, which has a one-kilometer-wide turquoise-colored acid crater lake. The lake is the site of a labor-intensive sulfur mining operation, in which sulfur-laden baskets are carried by hand from the crater floor. The work is low-paid and very onerous. Workers earn around $5.50-$8.30 (Rp 50,000 – Rp 75,000) per day and once out of the crater, still need to carry their loads of sulfur chunks about three kilometers to the nearby Pultuding valley to get paid.[1]

Many other post-caldera cones and craters are located within the caldera or along its rim. The largest concentration of post-caldera cones forms an east/west-trending zone across the southern side of the caldera. The active crater at Kawah Ijen has an equivalent radius of 361 metres (1,184 ft), a surface of 0.41 square kilometres (0.16 sq mi). It is 200 metres (660 ft) deep and has a volume of 36 cubic hectometres (29,000 acre·ft).

In 2008, explorer George Kourounis took a small rubber boat out onto the acid lake to measure its acidity. The pH of the water in the crater was measured to be 0.5 due to sulfuric acid.[2]

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At the lip of the crater, there were a fair number of tourists, and a clear view down to the smoking sulfur lake and sulfur vents below. The wind was blowing the day we arrived, and everyone we talked to – even the miners, said that there was no way we could descend into the crater – if the winds changed and blew the gas towards us, without masks, we risked suffocation and poisoning.

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However, Jan and I had come too far, and gotten too excited about this place to just give up and go home. After evaluating the wind conditions for a while, we decided to try the hike into the crater anyway, and just hope that the winds didn’t shift on us. As we started the treacherous decent, we were accompanied by two other Chinese tourists – and watched by the 100 or so other tourists who told us we were crazy for trying.

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At the bottom of the crater, it looked like another planet. Sulfur coated all the rocks, and everything. As light wisps of gas drifted over us, we could feel it collecting on our sweaty skin, and in our lungs. Luckily it was only wisps, and not full clouds of gas. There were two miners at the sulfur vents when we arrived. In addition to mining the sulfur, they were taking small amounts of the hot liquid sulfur and pouring it into molds for tourist trinkets. It was certainly very strange to see a Hello Kitty figurine made out of pure sulfur. One of the miners, wearing a gas mask, took us over to the actual vents, and showed us how they break up the slabs of cooled sulfur into chucks small enough to hike out. We were right on the edge, about 2 feet from the deadly sulfur vents – and luckily the wind didn’t shift.

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After making it safely out of the crater – with only one serious cloud of gas drifting over us and choking us for a brief moment, we stopped at a little cafe on the hillside for a “hooray we survived” refreshment, and then headed off to the next stop – Mt. Bromo.

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2 comments

  1. ankur says:

    Nice pictures and Details. I recently visited Kawah Ijen and Bromo and was floored by the beauty. Planning to go back again next year. :)

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