March 11, 2013

Kawah Ijen. Worst job in the world?

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.

Kawah Ijen
Such is the working life at Kawah Ijen in East Java, one of the hardest places in the world to make a living. It’s a daily grind filled with backbreaking journeys, heavy loads, poisonous gasses, low pay and a life expectancy of less than 50. Yet, despite the hardship and marginal working conditions it is one of the most dramatically beautiful places I have ever visited in my life.

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
The road also seemed to give up its domesticity and our jeep struggled to find a footing along the once long ago paved road. “Just like Jurassic Park,” says our driver, Hasim, of the misty, towering forest. It is the only English he seems to know but it gets a laugh, and that’s all you really need to communicate sometimes. But make it to base camp we do and we load up with water and biscuits and small denomination notes before heading on up the path to the crater rim through coniferous forests filled with song birds and troupes of langurs, the large black monkeys endemic to the area.

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
For the tourist, it requires a medium effort to hike the three kilometres to the top, making it pretty much accessible to everyone. The track is wide and in good condition with covered rest areas along the way. At the 2km point is the weighing station where the workers stop to tally their loads before carrying on down to the collection point. The last 500 metres become quite barren with scarred scrub and ferns and scorched trees, and at every corner is unveiled an impressive view back down the valley - but it’s nothing compared to what waits for us at the top.

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
For the workers, the journey isn’t over just yet as they still have to descend over 200 more almost vertical metres down to the lakeside and into the heart of the mine. An active vent at the edge of the lake is the source of elemental sulphur and it is here that escaping volcanic gasses are channeled through a network of ceramic pipes resulting in the condensation of molten sulphur. Deep red in colour when molten, the sulphur pours slowly from the ends of these pipes and pools on the ground, turning bright yellow as it cools. Amidst the toxic fumes the miners break the cooled material into manageable pieces and carry it out in loads of about 80kg up to the crater rim and then down the mountain. Few have decent walking shoes and almost none have gas masks.

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
Despite the very real tragedy playing out in its mines, Kawah Ijen’s mines are the only source of income for the men in this part of the world. Several years ago a suggestion was made to employ mules and horses to shoulder the burden but it was met by howls of protest from the workers. How else would they feed their families and educate their children, they cried? So, the daily march to an early grave carries on regardless, but strangely enough, we tourists have become a vital part of the supply chain with the extra money the miners make from posing for photos and selling small pieces of sulphur going a long way to padding out the household expenses for people like Antok.

Antok takes a welcome rest
Because of the stark contrast of lush green agricultural landscapes and the barren wasteland of the crater, Kawah Ijen has to be one of the most sublime areas of the world in the truest sense of the word. In all, we spent about four-and-a-half hours up there, clamouring over rocks and scree, sitting on the denuded hillsides and pondering the dark beauty and awesome power of nature, while being bombarded with the acrid steam clouds that pour out of the sulphur vents. It’s beautiful and it’s tragic, but the Banyuwangi region of East Java is a place that has so much to offer the tourist looking for something more than just Bali. If more visitors would venture to this land of rice fields and volcanoes, the long term opportunities for Antok and the people of the region could be made just a little bit better.

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