©Sally Arnold

Sulphur Butterflies

11pm isn’t morning. 11pm is when I had to arise, after a 3am start earlier that day. Does it count as the next day if I catch a few hours sleep between? I was heading to see the ‘blue fire’ of Ijen volcano in East Java, Indonesia. The reason for my 3am start was Bromo Volcano – I accompanied my group to see sunrise, however there was no sunrise. Well, I speculate the sun did rise, but it was obscured by cloud. I have visited the magnificent Bromo many times over the years, and the moonlike landscape consistently awes me. Unfortunately for this group, the cloud didn’t clear until we had returned to the ‘sea of sand’ – still impressive nether the less.

After a short ride in our charted mini van to the train station, followed by a comfortable train ride to Kalibaru, I was scheduled to do some research and a safety check for future trips at Ijen. I was hoping it was a daytime activity, but from all sources I asked, I could either do a sunrise trip, starting at 4am, or a ‘Blue fire’ trip at 11pm. I have seen enough sunrises in Asia to last me a lifetime. They’re nice, but really, way too early in the morning. What is wrong with sunset? Usually much more spectacular, and a much better time of the day. Blue fire sounded interesting, but it was an all night activity from the information I had found. A two hour drive to the start, followed by a two hour walk to the creator, some viewing time, then reverse, returning to Kalibaru around 8am, so I was told.

So, at 11pm I set out for Ijen. Ijen is an active volcano, and is famous for the sulphur miners who eek out their living carrying up to 100kg of sulphur at a time almost 4km up the steep and rocky path sometimes several times a day. Two and a bit hours later I was walking up the wide, smooth steep path. The smell of sulphur inundated my orifices, but wasn’t, as yet, overpowering. The walking was easy. As it was just the local guide and I, I wasn’t slowing down to keep pace with a group of tourists as I usually do in my job. We quickly made it to a small warung (local stall) where the miners weigh their daily collection in exchange for a few rupiah. My guide commented that I was fast and was an hour ahead of schedule. Well, I had just finished walking 1000km in Europe…

Blue Fire and tourist’s lights. Ijen Volcano

My guide said there was only another kilometer to walk. I was keen, but the sulphur smell was hurting my eyes and throat. He handed me a mask, the kind workman use for paint fumes, with a filter. It was a little tricky to fit, and hurt my nose, obviously built for Indonesian faces with much smaller noses. That was better. It was only another 200m to climb, then the path flattened out before the last few steep rocky meters down to the viewing area of the blue fire. The ill-fitting mask was pushing up my glasses, and as they are multifocals, my focal points were all wrong, and I misjudged a step and went sliding down to the barrier. Oops. A nasty bruise was already manifesting. In the darkness we could see the dancing blue flames below. My guide explained that the flames are the sulphur gasses, and further down a trail of blue ‘coals’ was burning sulphur falling down. He said that the trail of coals was dangerous for the miners below, and they would probably soon turn on the pump. On cue, a rumbling sound began and almost immediately the sound of gushing water. Fire hoses pumped out water, extinguishing the burning trail, and clouds of ash and smoke now covered the dancing flames.

Miner carries sulphur, Ijen.  East Java, Indonesia.

My guide then led me through the gate at the end of the barrier following a few other tourists and the miners who had now began to form a steady trail; carrying empty bamboo baskets across their shoulders. The path was much steeper here, and in the darkness I couldn’t see if the path ending in a sheer cliff or a slight hill. I was cautious after my earlier fall, even though I had now adjusted my mask and glasses. We arrived at a small out-jutting rock, a perfect seat for taking in the wonders of nature below. We had another two hours before light, so I sat and quizzed my guide on all the safety aspects and possible dangers of the walk. He explained that he trusts the miners more than the government warnings. He said that the volcano is like a second wife to them and they know her moods and when she’s unhappy. They will continue to work sometimes when the volcano is officially out of bounds, and conversely stop working when there is no official warning. He said he has to follow the warnings, but will always stop too if the miners think she’s having bad day. I needed a drink, so opened my mask. The burn of sulphur was overwhelming. I don’t know how the miners and my guide could stand to be inhaling that potent gas. The sky was lightening so we continued down the path to the crater lake and nearer the source of the miners income. On the way one of the miners was pouring molten sulphur into small moulds – making Hello Kitty and cute turtle sulphur shapes to sell to tourists. Apparently the lake is the largest highly acidic crater lake in the world, with a pH of 0.5 (whatever that means). My guide dipped in his hand, saying it was warm and ‘buzzy’. Buzzy, as in the sulphuric acid will melt your fingers, no thanks. It was a pretty blue though.

Sulphur Mining, Ijen. East Java, Indonesia
Sulphur Packing, Ijen. East Java, Indonesia

The sun had now risen and the blue fire was no longer visible. But I could now see clearly the ‘mining’ process. Sulphur smoke was being expelled in giant clouds, and underneath, a series of pipes channeled molten sulphur forming red puddles that soon cooled into the familiar yellow rock. Miners dug away, mostly using rocks as tools, dragging away shards of the yellow brimstone. They filled their baskets, first with small broken rocks, then expertly balancing two large slabs pointing outwards in opposite directions. They looked like butterflies. The baskets were then hoisted onto scrawny and weathered shoulders for the arduous journey up. The miners had no masks and most were only wearing flip flops. Groups of them slowly ascended, the butterflies floating alongside. They stopped every few minutes. Those baskets were heavy, and had no padding on the thin bamboo beam that stretched over their backs.

Sulphur Butterflies make their way up Ijen Crater. East Java, Indonesia
An arduous task, Ijen. East Java, Indonesia
Miner, Ijen. East Java, Indonesia.

I followed the drifting butterflies, entranced by the colours around me, the pale whitish rock of the crater, the bright yellow of the sulphur, the flashes of red and blue worn by the miners and discarded plastic rubbish. At the top, near the barrier once more, a warning sign was now visible in the light. NO TOURISTS BEYOND THIS POINT – IT IS FORBIDDEN TO GO INTO THE CRATER AREA. My guide said it was an old sign, but was now okey – it had been erected when the volcano was much more active. Floating along the path of the butterflies I returned to the parking area. I had some questions to ask at the government office before I left. Outside the office were several more waring signs – they looked new. I queried the officials, and was informed, that indeed the crater is not open for tourists, and that guides don’t take tourists beyond the barriers into the mining area. They don’t. Apparently.


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