Heavy Duty

National Geographic story

Kawah Ijen

Only some 20km west of the narrowest part of the strait that separates East Java from the paradise island of Bali, a few dozen of miners descend every day into the “gates of the hell-like” crater of the Kawah Ijen volcano. In the night, this crater is home of the surreal scene: one of the only two “blue fires” in the world – the ignited sulfuric gas, whose flames reach several meters height, as well as temperature of 600C. Being an abundant source of sulfur, used in various industries, this steamy and stinky crater represents an attractive source of income for many people from surrounding villages. Numerous hikers, who explore the magic of this volcano, passing on the way to its rim the same 3km route as the miners, reaching at the end the altitude of some 2.500m, usually hear first the squeaking sound of the bamboo baskets, in which they carry on 70-90kg of sulfur chunks, and only then see their hunched bodies and stoic faces.


When met at this route, the miners already have behind them the toughest and most spectacular section of the path – a very steep, several hundred meters long, climb to the crater rim, looking more like a goat trail. Twice a day they repeat the same routine: on the shores of the largest highly acidic crater lake in the world, surrounded by hot sulfuric steam, they break into large pieces the cooled yellow sulfur, and carry it away in baskets. The sulfur is channeled through a network of ceramic pipes, and reaches the surface having temperature of approximately 200C. These superhuman efforts, carried out over the course of many years, have negatively affected miners’ health – respiratory, cardiovascular, and joint problems are common. However, despite not having any health insurance (only 24 of permanent staff of the company which owns the mine has it) the miners find US $ 5-6 per load as a sufficient motivation to continue with this heavy duty.