Even in daylight, it looked like a Dantesque circle of the inferno.
200 to 300 meters below us, on the edge of a tranquil turquoise crater lake, steam spurted into the air drawing sulfurous vapor with it and painting the sides of the crater in yellow. Local men hacked at the hillside amid the fumes. Others loaded the slate-like slabs of hardened sulfur, gleaming yellow, into woven baskets hung in pairs from thick bamboo poles.
We had come here, as do many other trekkers, to see the remarkable crater of Mt. Ijen in east Java. Those who come in the dark enjoy the sight of sulfurous plumes burning vivid blue, or the unfolding of the dawn’s colors lighting up the smoke.
All witness the huge turquoise lake (acidic as battery fluid), a kilometer across, and its color variations as the daylight changes. Rising around it, the crater’s sides show grey jagged features on one side and a forbidding ashen bowl scraped deep by acidic ravines on the other.
It’s the beauty and strangeness of the place that draws people up 600 meters in altitude along the challenging incline of the 3 kilometer trail to the rim, and sometimes down inside. Most, we suspect, are surprised at the dirty little secret they discover.
Every day, over 10 tons of sulfur are carried in those baskets by a few hundred men in loads ranging from 70 to 90 kilos per trip, twice a day. Most of these men couldn’t even weigh 50 kilos themselves.
They labor up from the lakeside for an hour or so, then plod downward to deliver the sulfur for 1.5 to 2 hours along that same trail the tourists use. In the narrow passages, trekkers even have to scramble out of the way. Bits of sulfur mark the trail, struck off as the loads bounce on their shoulders as the haulers stride along.
Soon after heading down, they weigh their load and rest for the arduous descent. Their pay, good by local standards, is 100,000 rupiahs per load, or about $8 USD.
It’s nasty work. One carrier showed us the leathery, purple callous on his shoulder, a kind of badge of the trade. That’s the least of his problems apparently, as all the workers inhale acidic sulfur fumes when near the smoke plumes or when the winds shift and blow the fumes along the trail. That’s a whole lot more hazardous than the cigarettes nearly all smoke as they hobble down the trail.
So it’s an odd mix of brutish day labor on the trails alongside well cared-for tourists from far-flung countries paying well for their guided day trip. While we were at the rim, a handful of Chinese trekked partway down the crater for photo-ops with the sulfur backdrop. A few enterprising haulers stop passers-by and ask if they want a photo. Others proffer shiny yellow turtles, Hello Kitty items and decorated hearts whittled simply from sulfur cake.
The contrast is painful, but no more so than the broader irony of these men struggling to deliver to the indifferent world the raw material for medicines, cosmetics, and so on.
Beautiful and striking as Mt. Ijen is to see, it hides a hell within.
(Also, for more pictures from Indonesia, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the Indonesia itinerary page.)