Sulfur have often been associated with the devil, even the bible have made this reference. Whether the devil does exist, and if he truly smell of Sulfur, is beyond me. What I know is that there are people in the world who deal with hellish conditions to make a living in order to, well, live. The Sulfur miners of Ijen are such people.
Walking along the path to Kawah Ijen, you’ll encounter several Sulfur miners also heading to the volcano. They take this trail from as early as 3 am, a typical work day for them.
After collecting two basketfuls of yellow gold, the miners make their way back 3 kilometers from Kawah Ijen to the checkpoint/weighing area to deposit their burdens and collect their payment. A cycle they carry out two to three times a day.
As we have experienced, most miners will approach you as you walk along the path. Many of them are just being genuinely friendly and want to know where you’re from, while a few will persistently offer to be your guide. This is particularly helpful, though not necessary, if you want to go down to the crater lake of Ijen.
Ceramic pipes placed near the vent, right beside the lake, collect the Sulfuric gas. The condensed gasses then flow from the ends of the pipes in the form of red molten Sulfur, which then turns bright yellow as it cools.
The pipes running down the side of Kawah Ijen reminded me of a scene in the Matrix Revolutions. In part because Neo and Trinity were following the large pipes to get to Machine City, but mostly due of the pernicious vibe of the place.
During our trek, as we encounter more men carrying their baskets with large chunks of bright yellow Sulfur, I realized that I have seen a portion of the BBC documentary about the Sulfur miners of Ijen. The documentary focused on the hard labor, health hazard and little compensation that the workers get.
According to the documentary, the baskets the miners carry averages at 60-90 kilograms and they only get paid about 5 to 8 US dollars for it. That’s why they try to make as many trips as possible. Keep in mind that the trail from Kawah Ijen to the checkpoint is three kilometers. Imagine carrying two persons on your back for three kilometers!
Most of the miners don’t have any special mask to combat the harmful gases that are ever present in Kawah Ijen. Shirts wrapped around their faces are the only protection the men have from the suffocating stench of Sulfur.
We only stayed for a little while at Kawah Ijen and I began to feel some difficulty in breathing as well as a burning sensation in my eyes, nose, mouth and throat. I can’t even begin to imagine what the miners of Ijen are going through. I also tried lifting one of those baskets and I can’t even get them off the ground!
Despite the tourists bearing witness to the terrible working conditions of the Sulfur miners in Ijen, their true state are unbeknownst to most. According to an article I read, most of the Sulfur miners have long-term respiratory illnesses and with the little they earn, they cannot afford to seek medical attention.
There’s no denying the beauty of Kawah Ijen. I confess, my choice of title for this article is a bit dramatic; however, learning of the circumstances of Ijen’s miners slowly being poisoned by the noxious Sulfuric gas, it is indeed like walking into the devil’s lair.
It is ironic that the industry that placed food on their tables and sustained their lives is also the one that will most likely claim it. I hope that these miners get safety equipment and better compensation. An introduction of alternative livelihoods perhaps? Given how friendly the miners are, I think training them to be tour guides is not so far-fetched.