Setting off from our accomodation outside the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park at no later than 10am, we face yet another long journey to see yet another volcano.
I have no idea what the pull of Kawah Ijen is; our South-East Asia for cheapskates guidebook was too concise to reference the immediate area of Ijen National Park and the huge caldera that houses several active volcanoes, located as it is a couple of hours inland of the main route and rather inaccessible to an independent traveller.
Fortunately, whilst at the Tourist Information at Probbolingo station, another couple were also contemplating a similar route to ourselves and seemed slightly more clued-up than us.
Laura, who along with her partner Paul, forms half of a very companionable pair from Stoke was most keen on the visit. So much so that she really wasn’t too fussed about going to Bromo at all but would rather head straight for Ijen.
The low cost of the proposed 2-night trip that would get us firstly to Bromo, and then to our port of departure for Bali via Ijen, all in time for our first nights booking in Bali meant the offer was too good to forego.
After a night spent in a coffee plantation “resort”, where we had both a pool and a spa bath to chill in, a second consecutive pre-4am start had us loading the minibus in readiness to climb the mountain.
The ascent of Ijen was deceptively steep (I slipped on my ‘arris a couple of times on the way down as the path was very dry and dusty) and it took a good 90 minutes to come up through the forest, finally to reach lip of the crater above.
The trail up Ijen offered splendid views of the area with soaring volcanic peaks wreathed in white wisps of cloud.
It also provided a first insight into the labour of the local community.
With 11 Kilograms of “The Boy” strapped to my back, we panted our way uphill, passing as we went, the strange sight of stocky men descending at pace past us carrying baskets loaded full of some unusually bright, yellow mineral.
The men appeared trance like as they paced thier way downhill. The bamboo poles which suspend a rattan basket at each extremity are strung across their shoulder and creak in time to the rhythm of their descent like an poorly oiled suspension spring or more accurately even, a loud bicycle pump.
Some of the men would stop and offer us hand-sized carvings of turtles or unusually set lumps that resemble candle-waxings. Upon enquiry, we discover they are formed from the same mineral loads that they shuttle downwards.
One worker (an Indonesian doppelganger for a young Chris Eubank) who was making his way upslope with a set of empty baskets spoke reasonably good English, so I struck up a conversation with him about his work.
The men were sulphur miners. They made this same journey twice a day, ascending 5km from the depot, descending 200m into the Ijen Crater, collecting their load and then returning back quick sharp to base.
The loads that they carry are used primarily for sugar refining, but also were destined for amongst other things, vulcanising rubber, and bomb making.
The man who introduced himself as Hartomo was sporting what appeared to be a reasonably new BBC cap, and intrigued as to how he got hold of it I mentioned that I used to work for Auntie back in the day.
He informed me he had recently been the subject of both a BBC TV documentary and a BBC Radio Wales article about the sulphur miners of Ijen and the tough conditions they face.
It was then that the penny dropped. I knew exactly where I was. .
I was no more than 2km from one of the harshest working environments on the planet. A contemporary ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno, where men would endanger their lives on a daily basis in order to provide for their families.
Continuing the climb, I continue to discuss things with Hartomo, learning some useful Bahasa Indonesian in the process. He tells me that he works six days on three days off. No work, no pay
.We stop a short climb from the top of the crater at the mountainside weighing station and observe as the runners dismount their loads at a large set of balance scales. One squat fellow slips and falls, becoming buried by a heavy weight of yellow rock. His co-workers rush to his aide.
Most loads weighed at around 75 to 85kg, though one individual who we laughingly referred to as “Rambo” was carrying an exceptional load of 93kg.
To put that into context, I estimate that my (progressively less) fat-wrapped 6ft 2inch frame currently weighs in at something just shy of this weight.
Rambo was a human ox.
Switching “The Boy” onto the back of the 0.5 we cover the last steep incline in good time and the path flattens out as we begin to approach the crater.
On reaching the rim, a stunning panorama opens around and beneath us as in the distance a bowl of rock walls drop sharply 200-300m down to an impossibly turquoise crater lake.
The alluring lake looks like a glorious place to swim, though anyone choosing to do so would soon be regretting the decision as his or her skin started to painfully melt.
A few years ago, a braver man than I, ventured out onto the lake in a rubber dinghy and measured the acidity levels of the water. It was as low as 0.5 pH, the equivalent of car battery acid.
From deep within the crater bowels, clouds of white gas which one could take as being steam puff up and blow in unpredictable directions.
Hartomo informs us that these are the vents from which they mine the sulphur and that the gaseous blasts are not just good-old H2O, but a potent cocktail of toxic sulphur-laden vapours
We stop for a photo shoot with Hartomo acting as cameraman (no doubt influenced by his BBC experience), and he offers to accompany us down to the crater base.
His proposal comes with the proviso that one of us has to stay here with “The Boy” as both the descent and what is to be found at the bottom are too dangerous to proceed any further. Strictly speaking, hereon is off-limits for tourists and a sign erected nearby makes this perfectly clear.
Heeding his advice, the 0.5 offers to stay at the rim and do the breakfast duties whilst I choose to venture down to the lake with Paul, Laura and Hartomo.
Out of sight of the 0.5 but still not far from the top of the steep path we need to descend, Laura slips and a cascade of loose gravel and rock is sent plummeting below. Moments later I follow suit and the harsh reality of what we are doing kicks in.
Every few minutes Hartomo turns to us and earmarks a safe place to stop as we give way to human traffic and their burdensome loads. The workers pant a beat as they take short but purposeful steps up the rock face. Every so often they break and swap their load onto the other shoulder before continuing their uphill trudge off a minute or so later.
Even when you are paid only 1,000 rupiah per kilo, time is still money.
Two shuttled loads of 80kg each will see the miners earn £12 today. In this respect, they are relatively affluent in comparison to other villagers.
As we descend lower into the cavern of rock we are able to make out the shapes of workers and get a first taste of the hostile environment they inhabit.
Clad only in long sleeve shirts and trousers with no protection from the toxic gases besides a piece of cloth or bandana wrapped around their lower faces, they appear from clouds of gas before disappearing once more as they are enveloped in a toxic haze.
£12 a day does not stretch far enough as a gas mask to afford some protection from the sulphuric acid that condenses in your thoat and over time causes severe lung complaints.
Only a few of the men wear rubber boots, fewer still wear gloves.
Ceramic Pipes cling leech-like to the lower slopes from which the white gases billow, whilst at their bases, a bubbling, brilliant yellow substance forms and sets.
The pipes are positioned at an opening in The Earth’s cust known as a fumarole. The white cloud is created by superheated water escaping the crust and turning to steam as its pressure drops. The sulphurous vapours that accompany it form mineral-rich deposits in proximity to the fissures, and it is these deposits that provide an income for the miners of Ijen in the form of pure sulphur.
Every so often a group of workers can be seen scurrying for safety as a powerful burst of gas rushes towards them.
Hartomo solicits our willingness to descend beyond the crust-coated outcrop from behind which the setting mineral is mined.
Paul shows reluctance to go any further, sensing an immediate and present danger. In our blissful ignorance, Laura and I persuade him to follow us to the crater base.
We round the huge boulders, sight the vents and are immediately engulfed in a thick fog of gas which forces us to retreat towards a shallow gully some metres away.
The gas is thick. It tastes foul. My eyes already sting and I have great difficulty in breathing.
Fortunately the gases recede quickly, but I am genuinely scared.
Hartomo beckons us forward again, in my nervousness, I’m unsure if either of Paul or Laura accompanies me as I follow him towards the toxic hell in front of us.
As I stand no more than a few short metres from the pipes, Hartomo strides forward wielding a long metal pick and hacks at some recently set sulphur. As he does so I note that the freshly emitted molten element is a surprisingly dirty orange-red and not the crisp yellow of its solidified state.
It takes a moment for me to recognise that this isn’t a photo Hartomo is posing for. This is Hartomo at work.
He hacks at the sulphur and retreats coughing as more gases catch his throat. Moments later he’s back in the death zone, feverishly claiming his haul before the gases have a chance to smother him again.
I’ve seen enough. I’ve been to hell and now I want to go back.
The three of us leave Hartomo to collect and load his bounty, as he waves us away from the work site.
We overtake several young men who are mechanically slogging their way to the rim.
Looking back, we see Hartomo following perhaps 30 metres below. Though he is carrying in the region 70kg of rock, he is almost keeping pace with us.
Paul, a fit 20-something, suggests he is toying with us.
Hartomo smiles broadly and I can’t help but think that Paul is right.
We reach the crater lip and there is no sign of the 0.5. Fearing she has slipped, I look frantically for her before being informed by a German woman that she had already set off downward.
Upon finding her at the weighing station, I prefer not to tell her what I have experienced. Instead I try to wrestle “The Boy” from the clutches of a foreman, “Papa Bahru” as I addressed him, or “new daddy”.
He is reluctant to leave. There must be something addictive in this sulphur business.
I hope this blog gives a good account of the experience both visually and in terms of my writing.
If you want to watch the (rather hackneyed in my opinion) BBC episode of Human Planet featuring Hartomo, click on the hyperlink.
Had I known in advance what I know now, then I would never have gone so far down into the surreal depths without greater protection.
Then again, I would never have seen the things I saw at the gates of hell.
More images can bee seen at my flickr set