Day 209: Suffer For Sulphur

Sun. 10th March 2013

Sunrise and our first glimpse of the volcanoUsually we are ready to go out at around 10am, but today we have already been out for 6 hours and are on our way back to the hotel. We were collected at 4am and set off in a rickety jeep with our packed breakfast heading for Mount Ijen, which is an active volcano full of sulphur. It was still dark and the roads quiet but on the edge of town we saw some lights, then a mass of parked scooters all surrounding a bustling market. I had to rub my eyes, was I really seeing this before 5am on a Sunday morning? Definitely, yes.

Views on the way to the topAs we headed off down tree lined roads still in the dark, I had a quick zzzz and woke again just as the sky was getting light. There were many kids walking along the road, laughing and happy. In the UK they would be on their way home from a Saturday out, but here it was not the case. The 5am call to prayer is making more sense now I see so many people around this early in the morning. It is also cooler to making labouring more tolerable.

Around the rimWe begin to glimpse the sun rising over the mountains through the trees and see Mount Ijen for the first time and we experience yet another wow moment. The photos we stop for do not fully do it justice – though I like the way the mountain seems to be peering out from both clouds and trees in the pinky-orange light. Two minutes later we stop again at a checkpoint and the trees have gone so we get the full view, but we are just a few minutes too late and the sun is over the mountains making photos impossible. If only we had not stopped for photos or the driver had not been late collecting us maybe…

The view from the crater rimIt is still a fair way to the foot of Mount Ijen and the road winds its way through coffee plantations and little villages which are already bustling even though it is barely 6am. Only a few scooters pass us and we pass a few trucks on the road. Suddenly around a corner we see another checkpoint and dozens of 4x4s parked on the side of the road and much activity. We have arrived and from nowhere there are masses of other tourists mainly Asians of various nationalities, including groups of teenagers, preparing to climb too. Amongst the throng are the workers, guys carrying empty baskets up the hill and ones full of sulphur rock down.

Work and playIt was a 3km steady climb to the top and tourists walk in between the sulphur carriers. We were glad it was not the heat of the day. As we walked it reminded us of giving way to the porters on the Inca Trail, letting the heavily laden men past with their baskets, reported to weight up to 70kg on their shoulders – 4 times the weight of my backpack. The sulphur chunks looks like polystyrene and the baskets squeak under the weight reinforcing this thought, but we picked up a small piece from an unattended basket and can confirm it is rock like and therefore heavier than it looks.

Baskets of sulphur awaiting collectionAs we approach the top the trees, gave way to a volcanic landscape looking up to the rim of the crater. Initially, when we arrived at the top we could not see into the crater through the smoke but as it cleared we caught glimpses of the blue water. We stood and watched the sulphur collectors descend into the crater itself to fill their bags and baskets with the chunks of sulphur. As we climbed up we thought they only had to carry it down the mountain but no, first they have to carry it up from the inside the crater. That path into the centre was much more windy and rocky than the route we had walked up. We stood and watched their ascent and there were some weary faces at the top. Dave walked down into the crater and he was puffing on his return to the top without a 70kg load!

The sulphur 'factory'Down at the bottom of the crater there are concrete pipes which funnel the sulphur into old oil barrels which have open panels cut in the top, out of which the dense smoke billows. The sulphur must be channelled down through the pipes and condense as it goes – there was relatively little orange coloured molten sulphur – all of it seemed to be yellow and crystalline as I remember from my school chemistry lessons. It then seems to be harvested in lumps and loaded into the baskets to be lugged up the crater.

A vivid colour paletteClose up of the "factory"Away from the smoke and fumes the air is clear and the views out over the lake are stunning. Whilst the water looks inviting, apparently it can warm up to 60C. All around the landscape is surreal – nothing grows down here and the colour scheme is a mix of white, yellow and orange rocks all set against the differing shades of blue in the lake and the sky. We have seen some weird volcanic landscapes on our trip – most notably in New Zealand and in Bolivia but this ranks right up there with the best of them.

Making a stalactite statue for the touristsIt is far more touristy than I expected and sadly it is back to locals who are constantly after money for photos or sulphur carvings, water to drink or biscuits to eat. The working conditions and pay are not good and those sulphur fumes can’t be healthy (let alone the self-inflicted cigarettes), so we did not mind giving them some food and water. As we stopped for a rest and sweet on the way down an older guy took a rest next to us so unprompted I gave him a candy and he offered us a lump of sulphur in exchange. I could not accept it as he is paid by weight and I did not want do him out of the money he would receive for the chunk of sulphur (or carry a big lump of sulphur around). It was good to see they were not all money grabbing.

Incredible landscapeOur driver was waiting for us on our return to the road and we headed back the way we came returning to the hotel for an early lunch as we were famished. I had thought an afternoon swim would be good but not in the rain. A siesta was called for before remembering it was Mother’s Day so we had a lovely chat with Dave’s mum.Thanks boys for your messages and I remembered to send one to my mum too!  We also talked on Skype with Rob and Katie who are counting down to their wedding in August with excitement, but we are less keen for the time to pass as it will mean our travels will be over. We may not be looking forward to returning to work but at least it is not as arduous as carrying sulphur.

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