An unusual stop off shows George Shankar another side to life in Indonesia
The gas obscures the scene briefly and I shut my eyes tight, hoping to prevent the burning sensation from worsening. Yet in the nauseating blackness, I can still hear the shink, shink, shink, of the vent miner’s pick. My eyes sting and I pant heavily through my gas mask, struggling to breathe. Before I’m overwhelmed, the smoke clears and Adi stands before me holding a creamy-yellow shard of rock: sulphur, brimstone, devil’s gold.
Kawah Ijen in Eastern Java stands at the midway point of my overland journey between Yogyakarta and Bali. In contrast to the cultured chaos of Yogya and the plastic beaches of the Bukit Peninsula, this is no-frills Indonesia. I’m not looking for the perfect picture shown in the guide book, but the struggle and camaraderie of ‘real life’. Now, standing in the wheezing mouth of a volcano, I’m certain I’ve found it.
Adi hands me the sulphur stalactite, grinning. It’s hot and nearly burns my hands, so I hurriedly put it in my bag. More sulphur is already being deposited by the vent, replacing the bare patch in minutes. I stand mesmerised by the fatal beauty of the place: the bright yellow mineral emerges from a turquoise lake and blood red, liquid sulphur pools beneath the vents. Twenty men work around me, their eyes watering and their hands scarred.
Looking down from the crater’s rim is like looking into the underworld. In 1910, Booker T Washington described a Sicilian sulphur mine as “the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life”. A century later, Ijen is one of the last non-mechanised sulphur mines on Earth, a living remnant of the past. Equipped with little more than a shoulder pole and a wet rag as a mask, the miners toil for hours inside the crater of an active volcano – then carry their load down the mountain by hand.
The mountain trail passes through several different zones of wildlife. At 1,200m we spot the bright orange faces of Javan langur monkeys bouncing through the acacias. The blue sky frames Gunung Merapi, smoking in the distance. The Ijen volcano complex of Banyuwangi Regency may be less known, but it’s no less spectacular than adjoining Bromo National Park.
While I catch my breath, working men carry loads of 100kg down the mountain. Adi takes pleasure in pointing out the weight of each of his colleague’s baskets. “Ninety kilos,” he says, pointing at a young-looking miner at the crater’s edge. Another passes. “Seventy kilos.” A short, grizzled man comes into view. “A hundred and twenty kilos,” he whistles with respect.
Making up to three trips up and down the volcano each day, the job takes its toll on the miners. At the weighing station, lithe, sinewed 25-year-olds proudly show me their burns and hypertrophied shoulder muscles. Their backs are twisted and their legs are bowed. Few last more than 20 years on the mountain and even fewer live beyond 60. One of the younger miners defiantly lights up a clove cigarette and jokes about the smoke. In spite of all their hardship, their smiles are sincere.
I depart, humbled, suddenly and intimately aware of a distinctly Javanese brand of stoicism. The depth of their courage and optimism is almost spiritual. As he leads me to the trail end, Adi tells me to return to the mountain at night.
Darkness falls and the huge silhouette of Kawah Ijen stands like a foul-smelling titan before the stars. Along with a few other curious travellers, I hike to the peak, staring into the crater until I notice a strange light; an ethereal flame enveloping part of the mountain. One by one the vents catch alight and electric blue rivers of burning sulphur flow towards the lake.
In the flickering ghost light, I turn the sulphur shard over and over in my hands, trying to understand what draws young Javanese men to the mines. Is it the promise of wealth, the sense of adventure, the prestige of risking one’s life in order to provide for their family?
In the flames, rising two storeys into the sky, everything is illuminated: the danger, the bravery, the beauty. The mines offer them opportunity, and, for these men, opportunity is worth a trip to hell.