Kawah Ijen, 2,799m. East Java.By Michael Travers
Antok has a hernia. He has dropped his basket of sulphur and sits against a rock on the mountain path. “Obat, obat - medicine, medicine,” he calls as he clutches his stomach in obvious agony. We have nothing but cameras, passports and crackers. I give him my water bottle and apologies along with a kretek clove cigarette, which he accepts. We walk down to the weighing station to tell the manager about his plight. “Antok sick? Yes. Everyone knows about Anton’s stomach,” he says, as he goes back to stacking bricks of brimstone. We look at each other and shrug.
We had risen at 4.30 that morning for the hour-long drive up the mountain to the start point for the three-kilometre trek up the mountainside to the crater rim. We pass through all the wonders of tropical agriculture along the way. Rice terraces and bananas gave way to coffee and clove plantations before we hit the heavily forested slopes of the mountain where the land is too distant and high up to farm.
|Endemic langurs watch|
curiously from the trees
We hear the miners before we see them: the creak-creak-creak of bamboo against shoulder gives them away. Coming down the mountain with their yellow payloads of sulphur, 80kg of it, the maximum a man can carry, two men stop to chat briefly with us and pose for photos in exchange for cash and cigarettes before we part ways; them down, us up. One worker, Ali, shows us the disturbing scars on his collarbones from six years of toil. He has no plans to stop. He can’t, he has a family.
|Deceptively beautiful: sulphur lake|
The odour of rotten eggs hit us before anything else and turning the last corner we were faced with a colossal sight that, if the sun wasn’t shining, could be mistaken for the gates of hell. Before us lay a huge barren crater, devoid of life, with choking sulphur clouds wafting up from a milky green lake, deceptively beautiful in the sunlight and giving no hints as to its extreme, unfriendly pH of 1. It was ages before anyone said a word.
|80kg loads make heavy work for these men|
But what is it all for? Sugar. In its raw state it has a yellow to brown colour, but by bubbling sulphur dioxide gas through the cane juice before evaporation it turns white, the perfect colour for our kitchen tables and sensibilities. The nearby sugar refinery pays the miners by the kilo and most of them manage two journeys per day earning them about US$6 per trip.
|Men work without masks in the pungent fumes|
|Antok takes a welcome rest|