Climbing volcanoes. It’s an activity that repeats itself regularly on a journey through the Indonesian archipelago. There’s something majestic about those towering masses of rock and ash that calls us to conquer them as if to show them who’s boss. And usually we return with stories of magnificent views and how it felt like being on the roof of the earth. But not all volcanoes are equal.
Lying deep in East Java is Kawah Ijen. It’s not a classic conical-shaped volcano like you so often see in Indonesia. In fact, it doesn’t even really have a peak and thus is simply labelled a crater (kawah). So if there’s no peak, are there views? Certainly there are. On the trek to the crater, stunning views of the surrounding landscape, including across the Bali strait to West Bali, unfold as you rise higher. There are also incredible views into the crater itself, but it’s not these views that are the lasting impression for most visitors to Kawah Ijen. Instead, people return home with memories of the sulphur miners carting unbelievable amounts of raw material from the bowels of the earth.
About 300 metres below the crater rim a series of pipes funnels sulphur gas so that cold water can be used to cool and solidify it. From here, men load up bamboo baskets with their valuable haul and begin the arduous journey up the wall of the crater to the rim, from where a further three-kilometre hike is required to reach the drop-off point, where trucks wait to cart the cargo to Surabaya for export.
Each of the 400 men working on Kawah Ijen earns 625 rupiah (roughly six cents) per kilogram of sulphur delivered to the truck. With the distance between crater and truck being so great, men are encouraged to carry as much as they physically can on their shoulders. They usually haul 65 to 75kg at a time, but sometimes carry as much as 115kg. Depending on the geological activity and resultant sulphur output, most men will attempt two trips per day and earn about double the daily legal minimum Indonesian salary and about four times as much as a typical maid. It really is lucrative work.
But the conditions are hellish. Some men report that once they commence work they find it very difficult to stop, as they are prone to sickness when inactive. Most men rarely take a break and when they do, it’s a slow process to build up enough strength again to carry the incredible weights they are capable of at their peak.
Even though Kawah Ijen and the men of this volcano are incredible sights to witness, far fewer tourists come here compared to the masses in Yogyakarta and Gunung Bromo. And even then, most people arrive on organised tours originating in Yogyakarta and including sunrise tours of Gunung Bromo and onward travel to Bali. Making this journey independently can be more expensive than a package tour, but has the added benefit of flexibility.
For independent travellers, the best way to get to Kawah Ijen is to hire a return ojek from Banyuwangi for about 150,000 rupiah, a jeep for 400,000 rupiah or self-drive motorbike for about 60,000 rupiah. The route from Bondowoso is an option, but also requires the use of ojeks and is a major detour from the main highway through Java, adding extra time to your trans-Java journey.
For accommodation in Banyuwangi, Hotel Baru is popular among travellers, with rooms priced at 40,000 rupiah, or 90,000 for air-con. For Bondowoso our pick of the cheapies is Hotel Slamet, with standards going for 55,000 rupiah and superiors 67,000.
To get from Bali to Java, see here.
Jl. MT Haryono 82-84, Banyuwangi
T: (0333) 421 369
Jalan PB. Surdirman 45, Bondowoso
T: (0332) 421 516
By Adam Poskitt
Last updated on 29th November, 2014.