The clouds of sulphuric smoke in my eyes and lungs left me coughing and rubbing my stinging eyes until the next day. This is the unexaggerated common fate shared by those who venture into the sulphur mines of Kawah Ijen, a volcano in East Java, Indonesia.
The burning gases inside this crater creates an surreal inferno, especially stunning and dangerous at night:
The natural gas that fumes out of the cracks in the volcano burns blue and is only visible at night.
I began my ascent to Kawah Ijen’s crater rim and descent into the crater at around 3am, guided by the lights of miners working through the night. By 6am, the sun had transformed this whole Mordor-like world into a stunning lakeside view. Unfortunately, not even aluminum cans could have floated around in the turquoise lake without being dissolved by the water with a pH of 0.5…The acidic fumes actually corroded the exposed metal parts of my camera.
About a hundred miners trek into this crater everyday to collect the sulfur that oozes out of the volcano’s vents.
The lucrative mining operation pays workers just 900 Indonesian Rupiahs ($0.09) for every kilo (2.2lbs) of sulphur they can carry out of the crater to a unpaved road 4 kilometers away. The miners load anywhere from 60 to 95 kg of sulfur onto their shoulders before making the strenuous journey that can take hours. The largest load I witnessed at the weigh station clocked in at 95 kg (209 lbs), bringing in $8.81. The average miner can make two trips in a day, banking a mere $13. These wages are laughable by western standards; yet, for the Indonesians, this is 50% higher than the average.
The toxic volcanic fumes and demanding working conditions compounded with no safety standards make this mining operation extremely dangerous. Most men will develop chronic lung and eyesight problems just a few years. But cash is king.