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Part 3 – Sulfur smells

When even your local friends could not tell you anything about the place you were going to, you knew you would strike either gold or shit. In case of Ijen Crater, I did not strike gold, I struck diamond! It is simply one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen, and it definitely should make the top of any Indonesia must-see list.

It is not easy getting to Ijen Plateau. There’s no public transport, you have to take either guided tours or private vehicles. The road to Sempol Village has been ripped off of its top asphalt layer as hundreds of heavy trucks carry workers between their camps and nearby coffee plantations every day. After the first checkpoint at Banyuwangi, our minivan crawled at a painfully slow pace of ~10km/h, and finally got to Sempol Village at dusk. We all got up at 4.30am the next morning for a transfer from Sempol to Pal Tuding. Unlike in Bromo, there was neither jeep nor horse here. Those who made the effort to walk for 3km up very steep slopes then 1km down rocky paths would be rewarded with amazing views: first the majestic cones of Gunung Merapi and Gunung Raung piercing through thick blankets of white clouds, densely forested valleys, then the austere terrain of bare rock crevices running from the crater rim down to a mysterious landscape cloaked with a thick haze of smoke and mist. As the sun rose, the dramatic panorama of Ijen crater gradually opened up to onlookers: layers upon layers of blue hills forming the backdrop in the distance, huge steep caldera walls plunging 200m down the crater into an inviting turquoise green lake, a gigantic column of white-yellow smoke rising up from the edge of the lake like a monster. Dotted the landscapes were tiny shadows of miners descending and ascending narrow treacherous paths, carrying bright yellow sulfur slabs in their bamboo baskets. From a distance, they looked like little ants climbing in and out of a sugar bowl.

As I climbed down from the rim of the caldera, I soon detected the rotting-egg smell of sulfur. Near the mine, thick smoke gushed out from black iron pipes which were connected to the sulfur source. Every time the wind blew the smoke my way, I felt like I couldn’t breathe at all. My eyes were burned, my lung choked, my throat and nose stunk with that horrible sulfur stench. Just a handful of tourists were daring enough to stay near the mine. Hot salt water was pumped down the pipes into the mine to melt the sulfur, then air is pumped in to push the molten hot melted sulfur out. It froze with cool air, forming a bright yellow solid. Miners cut sulfur rocks with crowbars and packed them into bamboo baskets, each load ~60 kg in weight I was told. The miners wore thin pieces of cloth as makeshift air-filter, only few had masks. None of them had any gloves or any other protective clothing on. We wondered how they could do it day in day out without coughing their lungs out and collapsing in their nearby ragged tents.

I also ventured out near the lake. Alluring it may be, it is actually sulfuric acid solution. It is highly corrosive and dangerous, warm and acidic, slowly eating away surrounding crater walls. But this prehistoric-like landscape will always remain in the heart of those lucky ones who have made it here.

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On the way to Ijen Crater

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Going down the crater

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Sulfur mine

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Going up

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On the way back to the carpark

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