We had just enough time before our flight from Surabaya to return to the volcanic highlands of Kawah Ijen in East Java. When we had visited a few months earlier the area had been too dangerous to visit due to eruptions of poisonous gasses from the lake. Things were now calm again and the sulfur miners were back at work. For the first time in Indonesia, we decided to take the train. It was a pleasant way to travel, much better than the heavily congested roads, and the scenery was better. We passed lush rice paddies and swaying palm trees, the ocean glittering in the distance. To get to Kawah Ijen from Banyuwangi we rented a motorcycle at the base of the access road and rode up the mountain through lush highland rain forests of giant trees. From the national park headquarters at the base of the volcano, we hiked to the rim of the crater with one of the sulfur miners.
All along the trail we passed baskets piled with strong-smelling yellow rocks. The double baskets, suspended from a bamboo pole, looked light enough, but they turned out to be so heavy that we could not lift them off the ground! As we continued up the trail we passed men resting by the side of the trail or carrying full baskets. The miner who accompanied us tried to guess how much each load weighed: 73 kg, 80 kg, 90 kg . but we didn't really believe him. How can the human back support so much weight? When we reached the crater rim a giant, smoking turquoise lake spread out below us. The steep crater walls were shades of red, green, yellow and blue. Far below, brown smoke erupted from vents by the water's edge. We could see people working in the billowing fumes. Disregarding the “DANGER” and “TOURIST PROHIBITED” signs, we followed the miners down the steep, rocky trail to the bottom. Clouds of foul-smelling, throat-burning gas swept over us as we picked our way down. As we approached the bottom one of the miners said we should turn to the right, so that if the wind blew a cloud of noxious fumes our way, we could escape.
At the bottom one of the miners advised us to bite down on a wet handkerchief to reduce the effects of the fumes. Workers were hacking away at the newly deposited sulfur. Metal pipes channeled the fumes from the vents to where the drippings solidified to be mined. We couldn't stay long because of the foul, burning air. As we climbed the trail we passed miners shuffling, sometimes barefoot, with baskets full of sulfur balanced their backs. Once over the rim we stopped at the weighing station to drink tea. The miners were indeed carrying more than 70 kg on their backs! One small, older-looking man with bare feet was carrying 90 kg! All of them were in good spirits, smiling and joking with us all the way down. With one 70 kg load of sulfur, a day's work, a miner can make about 25,000 Rupiah, a little less than 3 dollars. This is considered good money by Indonesian standards.