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Alternate Routes · Asia · indonesia · Indonesia · Irena Frīdenšteina

Sulfur Crater in Moonlight

Author: Irena Frīdenšteina0 COMMENTS

Sulfur Crater in Moonlight

Indonesia. What are our first associations when we think of this place on the other side of the globe? Palm trees... paradise-like beaches... Bali Island and rice fields... A perfect, laid back vacation spot. That's very true, yet my route leads me to a less known location, namely, sulfur extraction site inside the crater of Kahaw Ijen volcano on Java Island. I want to meet workers who are doing their daily job under these incredibly difficult conditions and are obtaining sulfur from a crater of an active volcano. It is among of the most dangerous jobs in the world!


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


In the Dragons Throat
We have had a pretty intense day from early in the morning already, with getting up at 5 am to fly from Borneo to Java, which was followed by a several hours ride in a public bus to Probolinggo. We have been going without any breakfast, just nibbling on banana chips bought from a local vendor. By the way, you cannot imagine Indonesian public transport without banana chips and cheerful transport musicians, performing there. Then we find a driver who can take us to Gurung Bromo volcano. We have a look around there and then, after watching a sunset, we continue our way to Kawah Ijen volcano. It takes us seven hours. Around midnight we are there and can finally check in at the guest house, located next to a coffee plantation.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Instead of getting proper rest, however, we quickly shower off the dust and take a short nap for an hour, so that around 2am we would be able to hop in a jeep, ready to explore the unknown. Why in the middle of the night?! There is a security check point and the crater can be accessed only during daylight, from 6 am. Why should we dash somewhere in the dark? Yet our driver seems to be well-informed and persuades us that blue flames inside the crater must be seen while it's still dark. Few quick words with the guard and we are allowed into the crater territory and even provided with flashlights, shooting feeble rays of light.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


The driver isn't going to accompany us. Cocooned in his warm clothes, he is prepared to spend the chilly night in his car. He urges us to go ahead along the narrow trail for about 3.2 km. Although moonlight is a good companion, we stumble almost on every step, while a slanting slope blends into the dark right next to our trail.
We are panting and trying to make our way upwards along the snaking path for about an hour and a half. It's 3am already. We meet some sulfur miners who have started their work about an hour ago already. It's not that they suffer from insomnia - just it's not possible to work in the scorching heat of the daytime.
Finally we reach the rim of the crater. Which direction to take now? The driver had mentioned that we should stick to the left side of the crater. There is zero visibility and we decide to turn to the right where flashlights of mine workers are twinkling in the distance.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


A steep and slippery trail leads downwards and a story of a French tourist, who had crashed down near the crater lake and died, crosses my mind. Clearly it would be more reasonable to continue our way in daylight. Blue flames become visible deep in the crater and lure us closer, yet there is still a long way to go. We discuss our options and decide to keep going in the dark, just being as careful as possible.
The trail winds downwards. There are steps on irregular intervals, and some are very steep. One careless movement and you can tumble downwards onto the sharp rocks several meters below. Now and again, we have to make way to workers who are trudging upwards with heavy baskets loaded with sulfur on their shoulders.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


The visibility is still very poor. We can only hear squeaking of baskets and notice dim figures hovering by in the dark - a truly surreal sensation! We politely greet these people and try not to get in their way.
The sun rises at 4 o'clock yet we have reached the bottom even earlier. It's still completely dark as we are approaching flickering flames in the distance, making it difficult to estimate the actual distance. We step a little closer still...Finally, standing between two huge blocks of stone just a few meters from the flames, I try to use tripod to stabilize my camera and take some decent shots. My efforts are to no avail, as everything is covered by smoke. Suddenly some pungent gases enfold us! Panic sets in and it's impossible to see, which direction to take, where to run. And you cannot run across those rocks anyway...


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


We dash upwards, hoping that the smoke will be less intensive there. Our eyes are watering and there is a burning sensation in our nostrils and lungs. With every breath we take, it becomes only worth. We realize that these gases may be poisonous or even lethal. Sulfur, by itself, is not toxic to our bodies yet in reaction with oxygen it forms toxic substances that may damage eyesight, lungs and other tissues. It's a theory, which now we experience on our own skin! When we finally get higher up, we cover ourselves with a sleeping bag and try to breathe. We dearly hope that the cloud of gases will dissolve soon. About quarter of an hour later the situation improves and we can start breathing normally as the first rays of sunshine greet us, peeking over the rim of the crater, painting the sky pink.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Only now we can clearly see the place where we had wandered into - the very throat of the dragon! Even though it has been a scary and unpleasant experience, we are ready to go down to the lake again where workers are doing their hard job. With every minute the sun raises higher, coloring the sky in different shades of pink and yellow. Soon it is completely light and there, at the lakeside, we can observe unparalleled magic created by nature.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Sulfur Crater: Turquoise Lake and Powder Beach
Kawaha Ijen crater is 2600m above the sea level; the radius of the crater is 361m, its depth - 200m. Crater edges are pale yellow and there is a 1 km wide turquoise-colored sulfur lake in the centre. Such lakes can be found also in Japan - Kusatsu-Shirane and in Costa Rica - Poas volcano, yet this one in Indonesia is the largest one of its kind. The lake contains rainwater and substances of the crater itself - 600 000 tons hydrogen chloride, 550 000 tons sulfuric acid, 200 000 tons aluminum sulphate and 170 000 tons iron sulphate. The water temperature is +34°C and sulfur bubbles can be seen on its surface. The whole area is covered with a layer of sulfur powder that crunches under your feet, like snow. Due to sulfur dioxide the smell all around there is pungent and irritating.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


In 2008, explorer George Kourounis took a small rubber boat out into the acid lake to measure its acidity. The pH level of the water in the crater was measured to be 0.5, which is analogous to acid concentration in batteries.
Elemental sulfur, released from the crater, in contact with oxygen forms a toxic gas - sulfur dioxide, which in daylight is visible in the form of thick, white smoke. It's not visible at night and therefore, for safety reasons, tourists are not allowed into the crater before 6am. In the depth of the crater, the temperature may reach almost 300°C. Gases emitted by the crater are directed down the slope through ceramic pipes. As a result of condensation, bright red molten sulfur flows out of them at the bottom, its temperature being 120°C. As it cools, its color changes from red to orange and finally to yellow - a color of completely cooled and solidified sulfur.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Way of Sulfur and Scarred Shoulders
Despite the heat and the constant risk of intoxication, workers are separating sulfur from the pipes using simple metal rods. Sulfur that has flowed out on the ground is divide it into chunks or slabs, cooled and shaped into manageable pieces, which are then accurately put into baskets. Sometimes pieces are fixed by pouring hot, liquid sulfur onto them. It fuses pieces together, making the load more stable.
Baskets and connection poles are made of bamboo, which is an extremely durable material. There is a special method how workers put the heavy baskets on their shoulders, as just lifting them from the ground wouldn't be possible. Baskets are elevated above ground, on pieces of pipes, for example, already while being filled. Then a worker steps underneath the pole and lifts the load on his shoulder. Now he is ready to start his way up along the steep trail.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


The load is placed from one shoulder to another, yet nevertheless shoulders of these men are covered in scars. Depending on each worker's physical capabilities, these baskets are filled with 50 to 90 kg of sulfur. First they have to overcome a difficult ascent of 200 meters along the rocky trail and then to walk for 3.2 km down from the crater's rim to the sulfur drop-off point where baskets are weighed. At the end of the day sulfur is loaded into lorries and taken to Banjuwangi 37 km away. Overcoming this distance without even anything to carry requires a considerable physical effort, but with 80 kg on your shoulders - it's the most grueling work you can only imagine! My companion - a young and tall man, manages to lift only one basket and just for about 15 cm.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Sulfur crater workers are between the ages of 25 and 60, possibly older, and their appearance doesn't indicate their unique strength and endurance. They are cheerful and smiling, and perhaps some song flows from their lips. No one complains of their fate.
There are about 300 people working in the crater and they don't belong to any company. They all are self-employed, without any social guarantees and state support available. As long as their health is good, they continue to work, yet if an accident happens - a family is left without any income and children are forced to leave schools.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


These workers are compelled to cope with both muscle pain and chronic lung diseases. Most of them don't use any proper masks, just some dubious quality ones, while others are covering their mouth with some ordinary fabric.
Today's young generation, the sons of sulfur workers, are continuing in the footsteps of their fathers and working in the crater. It's an alternative to farm work in this region and is comparatively more profitable.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Java Island is rich in volcanoes, but the soil there is particularly suitable for farming and coffee growing. Coffee plantations are stretching at the foot of Kawaha Ijen crater as well. Landowners usually hire workers, but the salary is tiny - about 4 to 6 dollars per day. In comparison to that in one day in sulfur crater, covering the distance for 2 to 3 times, a worker can earn 10 to 15 dollars, although it requires many hours of hard work. Purchasing price for 1 kg of sulfur is about 700 Indonesian rupees, for a basket of 80 kg - about 56,000 rupees, which is approximately 5 dollars. In recent years, the price has slightly grown, while life has become more expensive as well.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Climbing into the crater is a chance to earn living for their families and Indonesian people are grateful for it and for the fact that their work is still required. Sulfur is used in the sugar industry - for its refining, in paper production - for bleaching, in production of rubber and explosives, as well as in medicine.
Seeing this insanely heavy and dangerous work one might ask why this process cannot be mechanized. Baskets could be towed up those 200m along the steep slope, using donkeys, and animal force perhaps could be used to cover the remaining 3 km along the dirt trail as well. The answer is simple - the uphill slope from the lake to the brink of the crater is too steep and the further trail - rather rough and narrow, making it impossible to use donkeys there.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


We can also talk about lack of financing or simple fear to lose jobs - less manual work would be required if part of this process would be mechanized. The world is constantly changing and many professions no longer exist. Perhaps, the sulfur workers are the last of the Mohawks as well.
Workers are also creating small sulfur figurines and offering them to tourists as souvenirs, thus earning a little bit extra. Almost every worker that we meet on our way asks if we have biscuits: "Biscuits?" Some tourists give them small change, some others offer cigarettes.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


We have stayed in the crater from 2am until 7am. Some of the workers speak a bit of English and we chat for a while. We take some photos and give them a small amount of money upon leaving. Finally we slowly walk away. Now and again we have gulped in the poisonous gas, our clothes are yellow from sulfur dust and both our cameras are damaged - fine particles of dust have entered them and it means that all our subsequent travel photos will be peppered with tiny gray dots.
I don't regret anything though - we have visited one of the most amazing and unusual spots on the Earth and it has been a truly memorable experience!
During the rainy season, the visibility in the volcanic area is good only in the early morning hours, which means we are very lucky that we came there at night. On our way back, we meet some tourists most of whom speak French.


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Gas clouds expand with every minute, covering the entire lower parts of the crater, so that from a halfway the lake can hardly be seen. These tourists aren't going to be very lucky as their guides will not let them go down - for security reasons. The situation can only deteriorate, so we are glad for the good advice that we received - to go there at night!
We are really exhausted as we haven't slept. Legs are getting wobbly, walking those 3 remaining kilometers. I stumble and almost fall, yet nevertheless I want to stop and exchange few words with the crater workers that we meet on our way and try to take some photos, while my mind can hardly grasp what we have just experienced - it has been so amazing!


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


Foto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in MoonlightFoto: Sulfur Crater in Moonlight


VIDEO
Documentary "Workingman's Death", director Michael Glawogger. The film features six different stories about the most dangerous jobs in the world. The story of the sulfur workers "Ghosts": www.youtube.com


The trailer of the documentary "When Heaven Meets Hell", director Sasha Friedlander: http:vimeo.com


Le 40eme Rugissant: vimeo.com

Julien Gomez: vimeo.com
- vimeo.com _1
- vimeo.com_2


PHOTOS
Two visits of French photographer Olivier Grunewald into the crater. The first one in daytime in 2009 and the second one in nighttime in 2010. The photographer used a protective mask yet his equipment was heavily damaged - after the night's photo session, a camera and two lenses were broken.
- www.boston.com_1
- www.boston.com_2


Follow this link to see all the photos of Irēna Frīdenšteina: http://picasaweb.google.com/mazins1

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