No plants, nor insects, live here. But from within a dense cloud of sulphuric mist, a hacking cough and long sighs can be heard.
A figure emerges from the fog. Ah Rori wipes the sweat from his face.
“Very hot,” he says.
“Sure, we cough, but this is the job. We must breathe calmly and be strong. If you are not strong enough you can faint,” says his friend and colleague Beni Hermanto.
Rori and Beni are miners. They extract sulphur from an active volcano. And they often talk about the importance of being strong.
Beni Hermanto, left, and Ah Rori mining sulphur.
Sulphur from Kawah Ijen has been used to make gunpowder since at least the 18th century. The Dutch colonial power sent several research expeditions to the crater to investigate how to best make use of the “devil’s gold”. But it was not until 1968, after Indonesia’s independence, that industrial extraction began.
Until the end of the 19th century, there were similar sulphur mines in active volcano regions such as Sicily and the Andes, but today Kawah Ijen is the only remaining mine of its kind.
Elsewhere, extraction methods were modernised a long time ago, but in Indonesia, cheap labour is in abundance. And hazard pay is an unknown phenomena. The owner has no incentive to rationalize. Instead, the miners literally carry the operation on their shoulders.
In recent years, they have also become the main feature of the launch of Kawah Ijen as a tourist destination.
“See the blue lake and witness one of the world’s most dangerous jobs,” entices a travel company through its website.
“Experience the life of sulphur miners first hand,” exclaims travel book publisher Lonely Planet.
Rori and Beni fill wicker baskets with sulphur, about 40 kilos in each. Positioning the yoke across the shoulders resembles a weight-lifting routine. Lifting it from the ground and placing it on a rock structure, they crawl under it, and push the weight up with their legs.
But where the weightlifter’s challenge is over, that of the miners begins. The road out of the crater is close to one kilometre and requires mountaineering rather than walking. The slope averages around 45 degrees.
Rori and Beni stop half-way up. They are soaked in sweat and it’s time for a cigarette break.
Sulphur is used in a number of industrial processes. To bleach sugar, make matches and vulcanise rubber.
“In solid form, it’s not poisonous,” says Beni, throwing a sliver of sulphur into his mouth to demonstrate.
However, exposure to sulphur dioxide has a variety of adverse health effects. The levels in the crater far exceed European safety limits. Eyes and lungs are damaged, while tooth enamel erodes.
“I began wearing a mask two years ago, before then I only had a fabric cloth in my mouth. I've lost my teeth because of this job, says Rori, showing what’s left of his rotting teeth.
Ah Rori started wearing protective gear two years ago. By then his teeth had already rotten.
Protective masks are a new occurrence at Kawah Ijen.
“We get them from the company that owns the mine. It’s a Chinese company but the managers are Indonesian,” says Rori.
A few years ago, the mine was closed after a serious gas outbreak. Authorities demanded that the workers receive protective gear before allowing the operation to resume. But the requirement only covers employees. Most of those working in the crater are day labourers who sell sulphur to the mining company for a fixed kilo price.
In addition, the quality of the safety equipment is poor. Rori’s mask lacks proper filters. Instead, he has fastened disposable protective masks using rubber bands.
Both Rori and Beni are among the 30 or so miners directly employed by the mining company. They spend eight hours a day maintaining the pipes that lead the sulphur smoke down to the mine. The sulphur dioxide stemming from the volcano has a temperature of several hundred degrees Celsius and naturally solidifies when it encounters the significantly colder air. But the pipes condense the smoke, accelerate the process and collect the crystalized sulphur in one place.
The work is complicated by the fact that Kawah Ijen is burning. Hydrogen sulphide leaking out of the underground burns invisibly during the day, and with pale blue flames at night. The pipes must be regularly cooled so as not to crack.
“Up by the pipes, the smoke is even worse, and you have to work in it for a long time. Even if you wear a mask, the smoke penetrates it,” says Rori.
“But otherwise the pipes will burn up completely and nobody can mine sulphur,” Beni adds.