At the bottom of the crater of Ijen volcano in East Java, workers endure harsh conditions to mine sulfur. Also known as brimstone, this yellow mineral has many industrial uses. It is used to make fertiliser, glue, cement and many other things.
The crater is dominated by a one kilometer wide turquoise-coloured acid lake. Beside the lake, volcanic gases welling up from the Earth’s crust are channelled through a network of clay pipes which results in condensation of the gas into molten sulfur that pours from the pipes and cools to become a yellow rock called sulfur. The miners break up the rock and fill two reed baskets which they carry across their shoulders. Few of the miners have gas masks or goggles to protect themselves from the choking toxic fumes and eye burning sulfur gases.
A miner’s full baskets weigh between 75 – 90 kilograms. They then climb 300 meters to the top of the crater. Most of them leave their baskets at the top and then return to the bottom of the crater to get a second load. From here they put their sulfur into a trolley and take it 3 km down the mountain to an area where it is weighed and sold. They can expect to earn around ten dollars for a day of back breaking labour.
I visited the volcano while on a tour of Java in 2015. I had seen photographs of the miners carrying the sulfur out of the crater which inspired me to go there. My hike from the base of the volcano started at 3 o’clock in the morning. The 3 kilometer hike to the lip of the volcano took about two hours in the dark using a touch to find the way. Then it took another 30 minutes to climb down into the crater to get to the active vents where the sulfur is mined. At night blue fires can be seen where the sulfur gases burn at 600 degrees Celsius. The miners could be seen picking at the sulfur and filling their baskets in the dark. I tried to get close to take some pictures, but was overwhelmed by the sulfur gas. It burned my throat and lungs causing me to cough and gag while my eyes stung.
As I climbed out of the crater I took many photos of the miners who were struggling with their heavy loads up to the lip of the crater. The miners ask for a small fee for taking pictures. The Lonely Planet states that many of the miners accept a cigarette as payment. If you go there, please give them a small amount of money. It’s an insult to offer them just a cigarette. Give them some money and they will be happy to pose for your photographs.
I wanted to understand better what it’s like to do the miners’ gruelling work, so I tried lifting two full baskets. I knelt down and put the wooden stick that supports the two baskets over my shoulders. I couldn’t even stand up it was so heavy. I then tried lifting baskets that were half full. I could lift them, but I wouldn’t have been able to climb to the top of the crater with them. The weight of the baskets leaves scars across the top of the miners’ backs and their spines bent and crooked.
Seeing how hard the miners worked and knowing how little money they earn, made me think how lucky I was living a life of ease and comfort compared to their difficult lives. It was a unique experience that made me count my blessings and one that I will always remember.
All photos taken by me. Check out more of my photography here: https://www.dreamstime.com/Mfharrison_portfolio_pg1#res2530922