The Supermen of Gunung Ijen

There are supermen working in the volcanoes of East Java.

If you consult a world map of volcanoes, you will see the  myriad islands of Indonesia dotted with them. The island of Java itself is almost entirely volcanic in origin.

I had the privilege of visiting one of these volcanoes again in March 2013 in East Java, having been on its slopes earlier in December 2010, on another expedition. At a height of 2799m, you would expect Mount Ijen to be a formidable and inaccessible volcano to climb. “Walk” would however be a more accurate term for how you ascend to its crater rim, since you actually begin from a an elevation of about 2000m.

Nonetheless, it is still tough going, especially if you’re new to this uphill walking business like I was. Occasionally, and often unexpectedly, a figure staggers past you, laden with large yellow rocks. You stare, surprised, but you keep going. There is the crater rim to see!

You keep at it. You walk, and enjoy the silence. (You try your best to ignore the weathered forms which lurch past you. The view is great!) The trail is narrow, but it flattens out after awhile.

You walk round a corner, and suddenly great vistas and horizons seem to spring out.  After that difficult climb – the air has been thin, the trail unbearably steep, and you are desperately out of breath – this is one surprise too many. For a moment there is no more breath, simply because it has been taken away by the beauty of the panorama laid out before your eyes.

 

Ijen Crater Lake

Up above is a sapphire blue sky, so blue it almost hurt just looking at it, and before you, a giant, gleaming half of an eggshell cupping a pale turquoise lake.

It is a stark landscape painted with an uncompromising hand, but look closer, near the shores of that turquoise lake. There is a small plume of smoke, and minuscule figures surround that plume. Only then do you realize the sheer scale of the volcano.

It takes about half an hour, but it is actually possible to descend from the crater rim to the shores of Ijen’s lake to investigate the smoke plume. But what looked like a small plume of smoke from afar is actually a massive, billowing cloud of sulphur up close.

It’s here that you finally realise the magnitude of what you had glimpsed earlier. You finally come face to face with the supermen of Ijen, and what they do. You witness firsthand, with mixed feelings, their sheer might.

These are the sulphur miners of Ijen; and those were the staggering figures you stepped aside for on your way up to the crater rim. They stagger under the weight of great sulphur slabs, hauled up from the heart of the breathing volcano. Pause for a moment as they tell you how much they earn for their herculean labour – a luxurious total of about five US dollars a day.

There’s an unfamiliar, uncomfortable itch in the heart as one watches the juddering breaths the miners take struggling from the depths of the volcano up to the crater rim.

Sulphur extracted from mines at Ijen

Suddenly, the beauty of the landscape isn’t that important anymore. Suddenly, the struggle up the mountain isn’t paramount; nor the photos you took. That sense of achievement has been replaced by one of disquiet. Five dollars back home could have bought you an appetizer; five dollars here is an entire day’s wage, an entire day’s titanic struggle.

Ijen is a beautiful volcano, and one that is relatively accessible for those in search of breath-taking vistas with minimal fuss and preparation. It gives one a sense of perspective – not only from nature, but also from the difficult lives of the sulphur miners who eke out an existence on its slopes.

Don’t go back and boast about how you have ‘conquered’ a volcano.

Go back and tell of how you were humbled instead, having seen for yourself the supermen of Gunung Ijen.

An earlier version of this article was first published in the student publication, The Cinnamon Roll. You can read the original which i wrote here.

 

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