Its was from one volcano to another as we began our journey to Ijen, a less popular attraction / volcano where the sulphur was solidified and effectively mined from volcano. The group parted ways at this point and it was only Marie, Alan (the French couple) and myself who began the onwards journey. After a few goodbyes even to the moody Russians we were treated to a whole 6 seater van to ourselves where we spread out and got some well earned sleep. The usual stop for lunch at a somewhat expensive road side cafe and we arrived early afternoon in a very quiet village around 10 miles from the base of Ijen. The guesthouse was deserted and the only food offerings they had to give us Nasi Goreng and soup and a variety of out of date chocolate biscuits. Not exactly the carb busting meal you want before an early morning trek. However we ate chatted about their recent exploits in India in preparation to what I was heading to in less than a weeks time.
Another early morning lay before us and we had another early night. 3.00am the next morning I dragged my body out of bed this time in full knowledge that this would be the last of the early mornings for a while and excited in expectation of seeing the turquoise acid lake and sulphur mines that lay before me. A 45 minute journey to the start of the trek was enough to get in a cheeky little sleep albeit not long enough to suppress the tiredness. The start of the trek was easy enough a gentle climb up the winding dirty tracks following one of the workers who was giving us a brief insight as to his daily routine who asked to be paid a small fee for this insight.
Within half an hour we had reached the weighing station where we saw for the first time one of the guys bringing down the first load of the day. Each miner brings down around 70 – 100kg of solid suplhur in two baskets twice a day and for a miniscule fee of around £3 per day. The loads are back breaking as I experienced first hand while trying in vain to pick one up. I could hardly lift the baskets off the ground yet these guys could lift and carry these loads up from the base of the crater (around 200m) and down to the base of the hill which was another 3 miles. A quick coffee break and we headed for the rim up some steep and slippery paths.
The sight at the top was something else, behind us lay a blanket of clouds broken only by a small mountain and in front of us lay the active crater. The crater has a radius of is around 400m where the below at the bottom lies the escaping volcanic gases. Another treacherous and snaking path down to the crater bottom was where we greeted by the foul smelling sulphur that we had experienced the day before. Here was saw first hand the harsh and dangerous conditions these men work in and without any protective masks or clothing.
The sulphur which is deep red in colour when molten is collected in pipes that are feed directly into the volcano mouth. The molten sulphur then pours slowly from the ends of these pipes at a collecting pool where it forms and solidifies. The cool material is then broken up into large chunks and put into the baskets for the men to then carry back up the crater and out tot he weighing station and down the mountain. Watching the men collecting the sulphur working in the mists of sulphur coughing and spluttering was heartbreaking. Once close enough you could see small droplet of sulphur that had formed on the eye lashes of the workers. The pay must be worth it in comparison to local wages as there must have been around 100 workers down there all scurrying around involved with various jobs from packing, collecting and carrying.
Each time a new wave of sulphur mist drifted over the camp everyone of us took refuge, held our breaths and closed our eyes where as the locals carried on their duties. We made a brief foray down to the acid lake but soon it became too much to bear and we started to make our way out of the crater leaving behind the mass of workers. We paid our guide around 2 days wages which he was more than happy with before he loaded up a couple of baskets for his daily routine. It was a relief to reach the top where we were able to breath clean fresh air again and once more admire and sight all around us but with a sense of despair as we left the men behind. Watching the men struggle their way up the carter we made a pact that we would never complain about our work ever again after seeing what these guys had to do to make a living.
As we descended our way back the down the volcano to our awaiting minibus we must have passed around 20 guys struggling with the last section of the journey. Surely there was a mechanical solution to this back breaking work however how many jobs would be lost and as a result how many families would not be fed. It was definitely a bit of a catch 22 situation. Stinking to high heaven of sulphur and eyes stinging we were on the final leg of our trip which was back to Bali where we would part ways. Marie and Alan would be heading towards Ubud and I was off to Nusa Lembognan (a small island off Bali) to my last bit fo diving for a while and to search for the mysterious Mola Mola – the Sunfish.