Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Sulphur Mines of Mt Ijen, Java

I wanted to visit to the Ijen Plateau to see the stunning turquoise lake set in a yellow-rocky landscape, but I left immensely more impressed by the endeavours of hard-working sulphur miners.
Tuesday 2 November: Walking up to the 7,769ft peak of 'Lonely Mountain' the surrounding volcanoes, ringed in cloud, are a fantastic sight. From the rim of Mt Ijen the miners look like a trail of ants toiling with their bright yellow loads. The view of the crater lake is not good, through the haze.
For me it's down into the crater, into the bowels of the earth - this is the stuff of 'fire and brimstone' sermons -
preachings of damnation (brimstone is the old name for sulphur). Acrid yellow gas pumps out from fumaroles - do I really want to go in there?
At the working-face men stuff their mouths with damp cloths to absorb the choking fumes, piping-hot liquid sulphur,
like melted candle wax, pours out - cooling to a solid slab on the floor. Yellow-orange stalactites cling to the condensing pipes only to be snapped off when the miners, harvesters really, gouge out chunks of the concrete-like sulphur to load into the waiting baskets of their beasts of burden - men. These are very tough men, in worn-out rubber boots with rags for socks, who struggle up the slippery paths under their incredibly heavy loads, which I struggle just to hold still. Up, up through the burning-hot breathtaking fumes, to the crater rim, this is slow work involving many stops, and then gently down a winding path, via the tally station, to waiting trucks just a couple of miles further on. Many workers leave their baskets here to tackle the 'easy' downhill stretch later in the day. One of the 'beasts' stumbles shortly after I take his photograph, badly cutting-up his knee. I spray-clean his wounds with antiseptic and give him a sterile bandage (I only have two) - what more can I do?. He hobbles onward under his load - there is no sickness benefit here. This is a hard way to provide for your family.
Each miner has two sets of baskets which he runs in tandem, leaving one basket-load perched by the pathside while he fetches the other, staggering his work to allow a respite from the toil. This is the work of men, 300 or so, with thick bulging calfs and shoulder pads only of muscle, no women are involved.
From this sulphur we get medicine, cosmetics and fertilizers. A load weighs around 15 stone, often more - workers are paid 4,000 Rupiahs per stone (about £4 for each twin-basket load). I will never again whinge or complain about any job I ever have - I will place a Mt Ijen photograph carefully on my desk, just a reminder.
Staying in the valley - in the
guesthouse of the Keburn Kaliset coffee plantation in Sempol, I enjoy free aromatic Arabica coffee all day and Sweet Charlie strawberry juice, also from the estate, with breakfast.
Pictures of Mt Ijen.
Lungs still raw from inhaled sulphur, I take the afternoon minibus back downhill to Bondowoso.

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