Sunday, 21 March 2010

Hard Labor in a Ghostly World: East Java's Sulfur Mines

A Journey to the Ijen Plateau, East Java

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 03/02/10

The rising road is a mess of pebbles and potholes, and the engine of my motorbike strains as I wend my way between the ruts. It is an hour since I left the neat, sleepy little town of Bondowoso, riding first between luminescent rice terraces and red-roofed villages, and then uphill into the forest. A few more lumps and bumps, a few more steep switchbacks before the road suddenly levels and a view of a lost world opens below. Surrounded by dark ridges is a swathe of rolling forest under a veil of yellow haze. Welcome to the Ijen Plateau.

The chain of volcanoes that runs the length of Java ends in style in the mighty Ijen-Raung Massif. Rocketing from the rice terraces this mighty complex of peaks – flanked by the 3332-meter Gunung Raung in the west and the 2800-meter Gunung Merapi in the east – can be seen from Bali on a clear day.

Rolling down through the trees I reach sleepy Sempol, the main village of the Ijen region, home to the men and women who work on the surrounding coffee plantations. On the outskirts of the village is the Arabica Homestay, a guesthouse owned by one of the coffee companies, and the overnight base for my journey to Ijen. More than 2000 meters above sea level the air here is fresh and invigorating, and a cup of sweet local coffee is all I need to recover from the bumpy ride from Bondowoso before I head out to explore.
Beyond Sempol the road rises through tiers of glossy-leaved coffee bushes. When I reach Pos Paltuding, the trailhead for the hike to the Ijen crater itself, the sky has darkened. It’s hardly ideal weather for an afternoon stroll, but I set out along the trail anyway. Within minutes a torrential downpour has begun, and I duck beneath the dripping roof of a concrete shelter beside the path.
Despite the inclement weather the trail is busy – not with hikers, but with workers, surely some of the toughest men in Java. The Ijen crater is an active volcano, and it produces a continuous supply of high-grade sulfur, an important ingredient in sugar production and pharmaceuticals. The mining operation here continues as it has done for generations – completely without mechanical aids. Some 400 men head up the steep slopes each day to collect sulfur from the crater, and then carry it in wicker baskets along the five-kilometer trail to a weighing station at Pos Paltuding.
As I sit shivering in the rain I watch a steady stream of workers trotting downhill, loaded baskets balanced on creaking bamboo poles across their shoulders.
One of the men takes a break to join me. His name is Aripin. He is 41 years old. While the workers on the surrounding coffee plantations are ethnic Madurese, Aripin says, those who work on the mountain are mostly Osing Javanese from the Banyuwangi region. Aripin himself comes from the village of Licin on the volcano’s eastern slopes. He carried his first load of sulfur from Ijen at the age of 12, following his own father.
Aripin explains that he is paid for the sulfur by weight – Rp 600 per kilogram. Most men carry two loads of between 60 and 100 kilograms every day. I try to do the math on my fingers. Aripin helps me out: “I make about 80,000 rupiah most days.”
This puts his income above that of many graduate office workers in the cities, but when I point this out Aripin laughs: “Are any of those office kids strong enough to do this job? I don’t think so! The money is good enough, but you need both mental and physical strength. How much you make is up to you; you can’t do well unless you can motivate yourself.”
Aripin works fifteen days out of each month, sleeping with the other workers in a hut on the mountain slopes. The other fifteen days he spends with his wife and two small sons in Licin. “I can make enough money to live on in 15 days.”
The rain is still sheeting down, and an early twilight is falling. “Come back in the morning,” says Aripin; “the views are better.” It is sound advice and I follow him back down the muddy trail.


The mountains are dark facades in the dawn under an empty sky. I hurry uphill, falling in with the gangs of sulfur carriers. The trail winds through the pines and to the east a view over thickly forested slopes opens. I pass Aripin heading rapidly downhill. He was awake at 4am; he has already lugged his first load up from the crater.
I reach the rim as a morning haze is creeping up from the forest. The slopes here are bare of vegetation, and far below I can see the cobalt-blue lake that fills the belly of the Ijen crater. Rising from its shores is a plume of thick white smoke.
The trail down to the crater winds steeply over a landscape like builders’ rubble. Long trains of men are sweating uphill under heavy loads.
A man named Saudiq pauses to catch his breath and chat. He is carrying 70 kilograms, the first of his two daily loads. The strongest workers of all, he says, can carry as much as 125 kilos. Like Aripin, Saudiq has no complaints about his income. “It’s enough to live on,” he says with a wry smile, “but this is hard work…”
Just how hard is obvious down at the sulfur vents: with nothing but old handkerchiefs for protection from the hellish fumes men are hacking at the fresh, candy-colored deposits and loading their baskets.
“I usually make about 2 million rupiah a month,” says one man, pausing from his work; “one million for food, and one million for fun!” he adds with a suggestive leer. It’s not a job I could ever do – walking back up the steep trail to the crater rim carrying nothing more than a camera is enough for me!
The rain has returned when I reach the trailhead, and I head east on a steep, deteriorating track. The dripping forest is full of furious insect noise, and I recall the tale a National Park Ranger back at Pos Paltuding told me: travelling along this same road by motorbike one moring, he saw a black panther emerge from the undergrowth. It watched him for a long, fearless moment before vanishing into the trees.
I am too busy concentrating on the dreadful road to look out for big cats. Rivers of rainwater gush along the ruts and my bike bounces over fist-sized rocks. Finally the road levels, and as it does the rain suddenly stops. I am in the village of Licin, close to Banyuwangi. Ahead of me the dark hills of Bali rise above a slate-gray channel, and behind, fading into blue cloud, is the eastern wall of the lost world of Ijen…

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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