Ijen Crater & Sulfur Mine, Java, Indoneisa


A few months ago my wife & I had opportunity to visit world-famous Mount Ijen crater in East Java, Indonesia.  This volcano has been featured on many documentaries & special TV broadcasts.  This is the place where famous French volcanologists Katia & Maurice Krafft dared to float on a highly acidic sulfur crater lake in a rubber raft. 

A German couple we encountered told us they learned of Ijen on a TV show about the Worst Jobs in the World.  And just last night my wife & I watched an excellent piece about Ijen’s miners on the BBC’s Human Planet series (Mountains).

The caldera here produces high volumes of raw sulfur sought by pharmaceutical industries.  So, in Ijen's remote area where low skill jobs are hard to come by, there’s one way for laborers to make a living—if they’re willing to do a very strenuous & dangerous job.

Mostly Javanese & Madurese village men have been coming up here for decades to mine sulfur in the most primitive conditions.  In the past I’ve seen small-statured men checking in at the mine weighing station carrying over 80 kilograms of sulfur on shoulder poles.  It was only with great difficulty that they were even able to get the poles off their shoulders.  In 2000 a man could make the trip twice in a day netting about US $3.90 per day—better money than the $2.70 an unskilled laborer would get in the Jakarta. 

But the crater is positively dangerous.  Over 70 miners have succumbed to the fumes & died in recent decades.  Others suffer permanent lung damage.

But when we came this time we’d been warned.  No miners were working this day.  Recent volcanic activity had made it too hazardous even for these miners who would normally scoff at the danger.  Tourists too were discouraged from climbing.  We saw that a few entering & that the guard only half-heartedly resisted people going up.  A chat with locals head revealed that Mount Ijen had been very dangerous a few months before when the mining was closed down, but recently it had been pretty tame.  Everyone was just waiting for the “all clear” to start mining again & allow tourists entry.

The path from the nearest road up to the crater starts out idyllic—like something out of Frodo’s quest in the Lord of the Rings.

Along the trail we were amazed to find abandoned shoulder-pole baskets full of sulfur.  This is like cold cash laying around—a testimony to the haste with which the mine was closed down months before. 

The almost flourscent chunks of sulfur seem to emit light in the dim jungle forest.

After a while we come to the mining office & see more miner’s baskets stacked. 

We come to the scale featured on so many TV documentaries—where miners strain to lift their torturous loads from their shoulders to weigh in & get paid.

Now the mining office is closed—announcement boards are bare; green lettering blares that miners must surrender their coupons.

From the mining camp we continue up toward the crater—now encountering almost an overwhelming stench like rotten eggs.  We see clouds of volcanic steam & ash rising over the rim. 

I pause as my wife catches up at the tree line, framed by small dormant volcanoes & huge Mount Raung in the background.

As we breach the saddle of the rim we see a German couple ascending the crater ahead of us—assurance that though the sulfur stench is stronger than we’ve ever experienced, it’s safe at least as far as where they're standing.

We catch up to them—all trying to see down into Mount Ijen’s famous crater lake—now shrouded in sulfur mist.

Finally, the wind shifts and we can see the lake & the active volcanic point where miners collect sulfur.

My wife grabs my camera & takes a photo of me.

The wind shifts again & covers us in sulfur fumes.  It’s definitely not a good day to go down to the active volcanic site.  We turn & start retreating from the stench-packing mist.

Eventually the air begins to clear of fumes. 

We arrive back by the road head—invigorated, but tired & hungry.  Today we’re fortunate—we find Mrs. Umi’s warung “small shop” open for business—selling souvineer scarfs & breakfast. 

We chat with the locals as Umi cooks us up some hot noodles.

We learn that the reason Mount Ijen is closed to miners is no longer because of volcanic activity.   Volcanic activity at the crater had ceased to be a real factor.  Rather, now there’s a local political argument.  The path we’ve just climbed follows the border between two counties.  The county commissioners for two  counties are in a cat fight over who gets to tax the mine. 

Sometimes petty politics makes you shake your head in disbelief.   These miners are so desperate for work that they’ll risk their lives doing brutal labor for a few dollars a day.  Yet county politicians dare to force these Javanese miners into unemployment for months over the mine’s tax revenues.  If the taxes on the operation are worth so much, why not assure that the miners get a living wage?  The injustice & perverted values are striking.

Later in the day we’re on the ferry crossing from the eastern tip of Java to Bali.  We look back from our boat to see East Java & Mount Ijen surrounded by coastal hills & barely visible in the afternoon mist & volcanic ash. 

BTW, a couple months after our visit to Mount Ijen the counties settled their differences & allowed the sulfur miners to resume work.  We expect to see these men again next July when our Java-Bali photo workshop tour spends a morning there. 

Join us September 14-21 for our photo tour of Java & Bali including Mt. Ijen & these sulfur mines.  See info on Matt Brandon’s site at: 


Sign-up here:  http://www.eventbrite.com/event/5293232200?ref=ebtn

And, hey, as long as you're coming, sign-up too for the Borobudur-Jogjakarta extension tour!