Gallery: Sulfur slaves of Kawah Ijen

Gallery: Sulfur slaves of Kawah Ijen

Hellish working conditions inside a live volcano, and all for US$10 a day

Sulfur miner, Kawah IjenThe next time you head butt your desk because the Internet is a little slower than usual, click back to this story and scroll through these images.

The daily routines of the sulfur miners on Kawah Ijen, the “solitary crater” of East Java, Indonesia, will make any office-worker frustrations appear trivial at worst.

Surrounded by noxious sulfur fumes, these men work inside a live volcano, within spitting distance of its acidic lake to collect crystalline sulfur, which they sell to a refinery.

Click through the pages to see what they have to endure for around US$10 per day.

Workers have very little by way of safety equipment or protection from the sulfurous fumes, which pour from cracks in the ground.

Many simply use rags or old clothes to protect their shoulders from the 70-80 kilogram loads of crystalline sulfur, which they carry in yoked baskets to a nearby refinery.

Lung, eye and skin problems are common complaints.

Sulfur miner in Ijen crater

Workers start around 3 a.m., making a steep 90-minute climb up to the rim of Kawah Ijen. They scramble down into the crater to collect 70-80 kilograms of sulfur, then haul it back up the track and deliver it to a refinery several kilometers away.

Typically they will complete three round trips in a day.

Kawah Ijen lakeA fleeting glimpse of the crater lake of Kawah Ijen caught between clouds and fumes, its waters tinged an eerie color by sulfur and other volcanic minerals. 

The volcano is active, with a small eruption occurring in 2002 and more activity, where the lake changed color and emitted sulfurous rocks and foam, causing it to be closed to tourists in 2004.

Inside Kawah Ijen crater
A laborer edges up the precipitous track out of the crater. His only protective equipment is a plastic hard-hat -- and that’s one up on many of his co-workers.

The paths are treacherous. In 1997 a French tourist fell and died here.

Sulfur deposits in Kawah Ijen

The sulfur is collected from the crater via a network of pipes that bring red, molten sulfur to the surface. It then cools and hardens to its yellow form, when it is shoveled into wicker baskets.

Smaller deposits are collected by the miners and sold to tourists or could be exchanged for a pack of pungent Javanese kretek or clove cigarettes -- a small luxury appreciated by a passing worker.

Sulfur collection in Kawah Ijen

Once at the bottom of Kawah Ijen the loads are transferred into trucks to be delivered to the refinery. The sulfur is used to whiten sugar, make matches and vulcanize rubber.

Weighing sulfur at Kawah Ijen

A miner eases the awkward load off his shoulders at the weighing station. An ancient beam balance tallies each load for payment at INR 400 per kilogram, less than US$4 a trip.

With three trips a day a worker may earn up to US$12, better than average for the area.

Ijen Resort

In stark contract to the daily conditions of the Ijen miners, nearby resorts offer comfortable accommodation to tourists. 

On a clear day Bali’s volcanoes can be discerned through the haze.

Getting there

Kawah Ijen is located near the eastern edge of Java. Ferries make the 20-minute journey from Bali to Ketapang, Java every day. Tours to Kawah Ijen are available from Ketapang itself, or you can take the bus to other nearby towns such as Bondowoso or Banyuwangi.

Hotels and hostels in the vicinity can all arrange guided tours in jeeps or 4x4s.