Tag Archives: South East Asia

Things that I Didn’t Photograph

You know that photograph that you didn’t take, probably a time before smart phones? A time when every second of our lives wasn’t recored or shared. That time when you ran out of film. That time that you didn’t have your camera with you. That “Kodak moment”, as we used to say. Do you remember? I am lucky to have seen many wonderful things in my life so far, a whole reel of Kodak moments. For every memory I have recorded with photography, there have been countless times when I’d wish I had my camera with me. And times I was too busy enjoying the actual experience to think about photographing it.

Floods destroyed most of our family photographs, so I don’t have many snapshots from my childhood.  Consequently my childhood memories are mostly based on what I actually remember, not what was photographed. Although I do recall seeing some photos, so, perhaps it’s the memory of the photograph, not the memory of the event?

In more recent years the reasons for the lack of captured images are usually due to the camera being out of reach. Or out of battery. Or me just not being quick enough. So I have began a list of “snapshots” that will not forever just remain memories. Instead, I can have my Kodak moments, at least as I remember them. Writing things down, like photography, makes my memories real.

I had originally intended to compile this album of snapshots all in one go. As I began to remember, the list became too long, it would be a heavy volume. So, I’ll start with just three…

Snapshot #1 – That time, on the ferry to Lombok

The ferry trip between Lombok and Bali is a long four hours, with nothing to see except sea. I was dozing in the stickiness. The sea breeze wasn’t reaching inside the smokey airless cabin. The vinyl seat was sticking. Some of the other passengers were asleep on hired mattresses surrounded by half eaten nasi bungkus (take away rice packets).

A rumbling of voices woke me from my drowsiness. The ferry seemed to be tipping to one side. I looked up and it appeared that all the passengers had now woken and were leaning over the side of the boat. I jumped to join them.

As far as the eye could see, on every wave, large and small; pods of dolphins were surfing and playing. There must have been hundreds, five or more to each wave. They jumped through the wake of the ferry, twisting and turning, floating and sliding. Performing like synchronised swimmers. They were having so much fun. I had never seen this many dolphins before (nor since). Film like. Magical. But it was real. I didn’t have my camera.

©Sally Arnold
View from my balcony, sans squirrel . Ubud, Bali

Snapshot #2 – Early morning in Ubud

I was preparing breakfast in my small kitchen in the ‘burbs of Ubud. The dew clung to the leaves of the surrounding banana trees. The golden morning light flooded the room. Something caught my eye. A tupai – squirrel, or more correctly an Asian treeshrew, was jumping from leaf to leaf. I stopped to watch him. He then proceeded to perform his morning ablutions. Scooping up the dewdrops and washing his face and paws. His eye caught mine, but he continued with his bath. I ran to get my camera. In the moment I had gone he disappeared into the thickness of the foliage. I could have made a fortune on YouTube. Dam squirrel.

©Sally Arnold
Morning on the Kinabatangan River. Sabah, Borneo

Snapshot #3 – A Duel on the Kinabatangan

Our tour in Borneo involved a couple of days camping in the jungle and staying with locals as part of a community tourism project run by MESCOT. Our base near the Kinabatangan River, the longest in Sabah, is one of the most prolific areas to see wildlife.

The day began with a pre breakfast boat ride. Mist rose in whisps from the water, as early light filtered through the monochrome trees. The first birds were starting into song. Cicadas buzzed. A melodic whistling gibbon’s call could be heard in the distance. It was still cool, the closeness if the day was not yet upon us. The wide brown river flowed calmly, but we all know still waters run deep. A log from the upriver industry floated past. The encroaching palm oil plantations creeped up on one side of the bank, the other side still thick native rainforest, protected for now.

There was a movement in the mud flats. As we drew closer, two large mud-coloured monitor lizards embraced in a duel. They had both risen on their hind legs as their arms entangled. The weight of their meter long tails counterbalanced the huge bodies as they thrashed about in the mud, climbing upon each other. Muscles rippled, it was a well matched match. They became one large symmetrical monster as they clung upright, together. In this prehistoric wrestling match, all bets were off. As we floated past, I was too mesmerized by the scene to think of my camera.



The Kitchenware Specialists of East Java

All over the world, most pots and pans are machine made;  yet in Indonesia, many small home industries exist that produce aluminium cookware entirely by hand. Near Banguwangi in East Java a row of these small factories stand side by side flanking both sides of the highway.

Making rice and bakso steamers by hand. Banguwangi, Indonesia
Hand beating pots into shape. Banguwangi, Indonesia.

Banging and hammering noises rhythmically reverberate from behind the street-front shops displaying all manner of utensils and containers. All are the same, every shop. They compete selling identical products.

A walk behind the scenes, and we enter a dimly lit world. Large rolls of Aluminium sheeting wait to be turned into rice steamers or woks. Groups of men bang and bend the metal, all sitting barefoot on dirt floors. Razor-edged curls of offcuts and sharp pieces of wire litter the ground. They are surrounded by half drunk glasses of coffee, overflowing astrays and mobile phones. Facebook statuses need to be updated regularly. One man had three phones, I joked that he must have three girlfriends. He smiled wryly. In the corner of most workshops a wooden fire burns, and a blacked pot sits steaming the rice for the next meal, or heating the water for the next coffee. The sheltered dark rooms are cool, but the lighting is poor. There are light fittings, but all are turned off. Electricity is expensive.

Sheet aluminium to be made into cookware.
Garuda cake tin, a perfect souvenir.

Back on the street, the shops are the women’s domain. Once you show an interest and ask a price, the bargaining begins. If they don’t have the item you’re after, they’ll get it form a nearby store – for a commission. Cake tins, biscuit containers, kettles, steamers, ovens, rice moulds, you name it they have it, or can make it for you. This visit we bargained for Garuda shaped cake tins, the eagle emblem coat-of-arms of Indonesia and the perfect souvenir for the cooks in our group. Several were to be purchased, so we had the bargaining power of a group sale. The first stall owner had none, but asked us to wait while she quickly ran next door to get one. Her price was too high, so we moved to the neighbouring shop, where the tin had originally come from, and settled on a price. My group and the seller were happy. Being the experienced businesswoman that she was, the owner was convinced that we would also like a  butterfly cake tin, or perhaps a rabbit?

"Just one more?" Banguwangi, Indonesia
“Just one more?” Banguwangi, Indonesia

Yogya Street Art

Yogyakarta is one of my favourite cities in Indonesia, in fact it’s one of my favourite cities anywhere. It’s chaotic, ugly, confusing, overcrowded, polluted, but vibrant, charming, and full of energy. There’s never enough time. Beyond the regular tourist sights, one of my highlights is to wander the streets and back lanes to see the ever-changing gallery of street art.

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Blindfolds and Chicken Cars

I don’t know which is more fun: trying to walk blindfolded through two trees (well watching other people try to do it), or riding the chicken car.

Whenever I visit Yogyakarta in Central Java, Indonesia I try to convince my groups to join me for an evening of fun and games at the Ulun Ulun Selatan, the southern square of the Sultan’s Palace. As here, every evening Large crowds gather to try their luck waking blindfolded through two large and ancient Banyan trees, as the local belief is, if you succeed in this task your heart is pure. The game is known locally as “Masangin“, an abbreviation for masuk antara beringan, literally ‘entering between banyan trees’. It may seem a simple task, as the trees are rather far apart, but it’s surprisingly difficult, to a degree that I’m sure there’s some magic involved.

The “magical” trees of the Alun Alun Selatan. Sultan’s Palace, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Yogyakarta and particularly the Kraton area (Sultan’s palace), are full of mystical stories and legends. It’s a melting pot of Animism, Hinduism, and a Javanese mystical version of Islam. The palace itself is the geographical centre of Yogyakarta, and is also the centre of an imaginary line running form the very active volcano, Mt Merapi in the North, to the wild and dangerous sea at Parangtritis Beach in the South. Legend has it that the Queen of the sea is the spiritual wife of the Sultan, and once a year she comes for him in her chariot following this very road.

In the square, blindfolds can be hired for 5,000 Rp (about 50 US cents), but some just tie a scarf around their eyes. It’s hysterical watching the participants in this blind man’s bluff – some make a beeline to the gap between the trees, then suddenly, at the last minute, turn abruptly off course. Some start off badly; from the beginning taking a direct route to the grassy area at the the side. Others seem to walk around and around circling the square, never making it near the trees. Groups of friends gather to guide and yell “Permissi!”, “Awas!”, “Excuse me!”, “Watch out!” to people in the path of their blindfolded friends. Everyone is laughing, photographing, and pointing to the hapless trying. Ironically there are usually a couple of blind beggars too, adding more obstacles to the task

The chicken car – a mobile karaoke extravaganza.
Pedal cars and real cars and motorbikes fight for space on the road. Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

In recent years this game has become so popular, that other businesses have taken advantage of the instant crowds, and have opened here too. The are many stalls selling glow sticks and flashing light novelties; food stalls, and the aforementioned chicken car. Actually there is more than the chicken, there is the shark car, and numerous cartoon character covered beetle cars. They are pedal powered mobile karaoke machines covered and adorned with multicoloured flashing lights. You pay to peddle one or two circuits of the square jostling for space on the road amongst the regular cars and motorbikes. I’ve paid between 30,000 Rp and 80,000 Rp ($3–$8 USD) for the same journey, so depends on your bargaining skills and how many in your group. The chicken car, however, is rather special. It’s powered by four people peddling, with space for two extra passengers on the bottom (5 extra if you’re Indonesian), and another 4–6 passengers on the top level (there is a ladder to climb). The music blares from the speakers and everyone waves to each other as they pass. Some take their time and slowly meander around the street, others hoon on by, narrowing avoiding other cars. I can’t guarantee the health and safety of this activity, but I can guarantee that it’s LOTS OF FUN! However, be warned, don’t combine the two and wear the blindfold while, driving!

The Condom Factory

Growing up in Australia in the early 70’s, it was a common Saturday afternoon treat to go to the cinema (we called it ‘the pictures’). There was the main feature, of course, sometimes a double feature, and usually preceding this, a short film followed by intermission – a chance for the candy bar to increase profits. The short was often a documentary produced by the Canadian Film Board. It was often about the rubber industry. Often. Odd. We saw how the trees were tapped, and the latex collected in small coconut cups. The collectors were always wearing pointed hats from some generic South East Asian country. The formal voice over in a plummy, trying to be British, but with a Canadian twanged accent, explained the process. I knew all about rubber. Well that was my memory of it anyway.

Collecting latex. Glenmore, East Java.

Having spent several years now in South East Asia, escorting tour groups – I too have been explained this process again by our local guides, as they have shown my groups around rubber plantations in the various countries I have visited. I have seen the sticky latex collected, poked my finger into the gooey liquid, and let it dry, then peeled it off. I’ve wondered if it hurt the trees as they bleed. I’ve even slept in dark and smokey longhouses in the jungles of Borneo surrounded by stacks of the stinky semi processed rubber matts. It was not until recently that I have learnt more about this process and seen the next steps in the production, as one of our trips take us to Glenmore plantation in East Java, Indonesia.

Glenmore, an incongruous name for an Indonesian village, was began (so one story goes) by Scottish mercenaries who had been in the service of the Dutch some time in the mid 18th Century. As they had been fighting the British crown, they were no longer welcome in their homeland, and exiled to make a new life in the Dutch colonies. Today the plantation here is still the largest employer in the village, and the rubber processing factory continues to operate much in its original condition.

I love stepping into the ‘living museum’ of an office here to pay for our tour. The time machine takes me into a room where the fan whirls slowly as a uniformed lady always types out my receipt. Yes, types clickity clack with an actual typewriter. With ribbon. And carbon paper. Often a group of uniformed men sit around smoking and drinking coffee. Yes, smoking cigarettes in the office – this is Indonesia where the anti-smoking laws have yet to take effect in many areas.

Watch Out! – “There’s a barrier”

Our tour of the factory begins in a large airy white room. The cement floor is wet and the whir of the rollers occasionally override the constant hum of the machinery in the adjoining room. Workers, both men and women, are dressed in faded flowery sarongs and stained T-shirts. Some of the woman have headscarfs. All are wearing flip flops. Large water filled vats line one wall, and a watery conveyor belt ends with a series of rollers. A few ancient looking safety posters adorn the wall warning workers not to trip on the belts and machinery.

Our guide jokes that we are in the “condom factory”. He lifts one of the frames from the vat of water and revels a large spongy white sheet about 3cm thick. He explains that at this stage, acid has been added to the latex, and after several hours, it coagulates into this form. The sheets are then transferred to the belt, and are fed through the series of rollers. A worker aiding its journey by guiding it with his bare hands pushing the sheet into each roller, no safety guards to stop if his fingers accidentally follow the path of the sheet.The rollers wring out the excess liquid, and leave a criss cross ribbed patten, branding the mat with the Glenmore logo.

Rubber sheets drying. Glenmore, East Java.
A woman sorts and grades rubber sheets. Glenmore, East Java.

These thinner, firmer matts are now carried to the adjoining building, the door is opened and a blast of acrid heat whooshes out. This is the smoke-room. Underneath we can see the wood fuelled furnaces burning, heating the room to 50° C. The matts already hung drying for up to a week, have changed from opaque white, to a translucent golden brown, like flayed skin hanging over the bamboo poles. It looks like a serial killer’s storeroom. The smell and the heat are overwhelming, and our guide quickly shuts the door. The building opposite, also a similar drying room houses the poor quality rubber, the froth that’s skimmed from the tops of the vats. It’s black and bubbly, more like a filthy kitchen sponge. This will be used for the local market to make flip flops and foam mattresses.

“Clean is Healthy”
Baling machine. Glenmore, East Java.

Our tour continues to the sorting and packing room. A hand painted sign in beautiful calligraphy announces ‘Bersih itu Sehat’ Clean is Healthy. We must remove our shoes before entering. The now dried and smoked rubber ‘hides’ are inspected on the surrounding light-boxes. Small deformities are discarded using a blade cutter. The sheets are then graded, and sorted. There are two baling machines in the opposite corner where stacks of the rubber sheeting are compressed into large cubes. The huge vice is turned by a shirtless muscled man, the sweat beading across his shoulders. This is hard manual labour. Everything is manual here.

The whitewashed bales are causally placed on the slightly raised whitewashed wooden platform, like cubed chess pieces in a contemporary art installation, ready for export. Each one is worth several months wages for the workers.


Rubber bales waiting for export. Glenmore, East Java.

The heat of the day becomes too much for the group, so we exit and walk towards the shady forest of rubber tress. They are planted in even rows, and all bend slightly in the same windswept position, as though they are made of… rubber. Our guide expertly scrapes a slither of bark with his pocketknife, and the tree begins to bleed. I am back in the cool cinema of my childhood, all that is missing is the Canadian voice over.

A Sea of Yellow Krupuk

Curly yellow flower buds spread across the yard on woven bamboo sheets. These are not flowers, but the makings of krupuk, the popular crunchy Indonesian snack. Krupuk comes in many forms, and these particular ones are made from fish, tapioca flour and turmeric, giving them their bright yellow colour. We are visiting a small home industry near Pangandaran, West Java, Indonesia.

Krupuk or ‘prawn chips’ or ‘crackers’ as is often the translation (sometimes misspelled ‘creakers’) is the generic onomatopoeic name for a variety of crispy type snack foods in Indonesia. They can be made of various types of flour, but usually tapioca or rice flour, and are sometimes flavoured with fish or prawns and spices. There is even one kind that is flavoured with sulphur. Some are also made from fruit, or animal skin. They are ubiquitous, and often accompany many local dishes.

Sacks of tapioca flour wait to be turned into krupuk. Pangandaran, West Java.
The “3D Spirograph” krupuk machine. Pangandaran, West Java.

This small family business produces thousands of krupuk per day, and we have arrived on a day when the sun is shining, perfect for drying the dough, hence, the carpeted front yard. The small factory is busy when we enter. In one corner a large mixer is kneading the tapioca flour, fish paste and spices into a thick dough. The nearby walls and floor are covered in flour. Bags of the fine white powder sit stacked neatly against the wall, as though they too are waiting their turn. A large green machine clunks and whirls, as a young man climbs to fill the chute with dough, underneath another man is fitting mesh sheets into the base that will receive the curly noodles of paste. The machine begins the spew out the small, even, curly circular discs of spaghetti like strands. It’s a 3D spirograph. He picks one out of every batch, and discards it. I ask is it to let air in when they steam it? He replies, no, one of the spigots is damaged, and that krupuk is not up to standard. Quality control.

Laying steamed krupuk out to dry. Pangandaran, West Java.
Krupuk factory. Pangandaran, West Java.

The mesh sheets are then transferred to colander like boxes, stacked and placed in the large hissing metal steamer where they are cooked until they resemble translucent plastic. If the day is sunny, like this day, they are moved into the yard to dry. After a few hours they become quite brittle and hard, and even more plastic-like in their appearance. At this stage they could be stored for several weeks, or sold for people to do the final cooking at home, however these ones are destined to be cooked here, and sold ready to eat. Once thoroughly dry, the yellow plasticy discs are lowered into one of the industrial size woks filled with hot coconut oil. The fuel is discarded rice husks, everything has a use. Within seconds they hiss and expand and rise to the surface like fluffy phoenixs, then are scooped out to drain and cool.

Young boy helps with a big bag of krupuk. Pangandaran, West Java.

In an adjoining room two headscarfed women sit on the cool cement floor packing the krupuk into plastic bags, and tying the tops with string, ready for sale. They hand us a sample to pass around. Fresh light and crispy, slightly salty, slightly sweet, hardy fishy at all, and very very moreish. It’s hard to stop at one.

A Music Lesson in West Java

Many years ago when I first started learning Indonesian, I found a set of rather curious Indonesian language cassette tapes (remember them) in a thrift shop in Sydney. They were recordings of simple stories on an odd collection of subjects: the weather in Japan, New Year’s Eve in Scotland, the life history of an Australian pop star, and the story of Pak Udjo and his angklung music school in Bandung, West Java. I listened to these tapes repeatedly until I could understand every word and turn of phrase. The last line reminding me, that if I ever had the opportunity to visit Bandung, be sure to visit Pak Udjo.

For many years our trips in Java just passed trough Bandung, we transferred from the train station to the local bus station, with no time to stop in between. I was delighted, when a change of itinerary now included an overnight stop in Bandung, along with the inclusion of a performance at Angklung Udjo.

Angklung is a bamboo musical instrument made from a series of bamboo tubes, that when shaken produce a single warm tone. It is a traditional Sundanese (the ethnic group of West Java) instrument, that is also popular all over Indonesia, and its neighbors. I refer to it as ‘the recorder of Indonesia’, in that (like the recorder), it is simple to learn, and most school kids in Indonesia will have their first music lessons on this instrument. In 2010 UNESCO added the angklung to the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Anklung Udjo Foundation began in 1966 by the late Udjo Ngalagena and his wife Uum Sumiati, with the aim of preserving the cultural Heritage of the Sundanese. The foundation is continued today by their son. The school offers free classes for children from the surrounding villages where they can learn music, dance, singing, and public speaking. The children have the opportunity to preform in the daily cultural performance presented to tourists, earning them a little pocket money into the bargain.

Master angklung maker at work. Bandung, Indonesia

I have now visited Anklung Udjo several times, and am always impressed. The show’s format is a little cheesy, not unlike a daytime TV variety show; but it’s such a celebration of joy, my groups can’t help but love it too. There’s the charming, sometimes funny bilingual presenter, a puppet performance, some cute dancing and singing kids, and the angklung. The performers and presenter are different each time, so a variety of children have a turn performing to an audience, but the basic show remains the same.

One of the highlights is the music lesson – Angklung instruments are distributed to the audience, and following our host and teacher, we learn to play some simple tunes together. I am glad to be lost in the musical crowd. As a child I overheard at my kindergarten concert someone commenting that I couldn’t sing in tune, and have been musically scarred since. I was once unhappily described as been ‘as musical as a door’. Back at school, we learnt the recorder but my playing was always screechy and out of tune. Music wasn’t my thing. I stuck to listening. Being handed an anlklung, amongst the masses was a great relief … How could I go wrong with just one note? I had the freedom to make music without fear.

Angklung studio. Bandung, Indonesia

As beginners we only have to play one anklung. The professional musicians have about 50 rigged up together and pluck them expertly like a piano keyboard. One note is enough for me. This version of the angklung has been adapted from the pentatonic scale of the original to a, more pleasing to the Western ear, eight note scale. Our host / teacher / conductor is the son of the founder, and has a syrupy warm voice, not unlike the warm sound that the angklung produces. He jokes with us, as we learn some basic harmonies, directing us with a series of hand signals – each representing the note numbers on our respective angklung. We joyfully laugh as we play. Today the audience has visitors from all over Indonesia, Oman, England, Holland, Ireland, Korea, and Australia; a quiet day. The tunes become longer and more difficult we slowly master the simple action of shaking at the correct time. We play uncomplicated children’s songs, that seem familiar to all nationalities present, then some more popular Pop songs – Including ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen, as indeed, we all thought we were.

Eventually, we reluctantly return our instruments as they are collected by the children. Our host askes us “How do we feel?” “HAPPY!” is the unanimous reply. He then explains that this is his father’s legacy. The intention of his father: that by having fun, playing music together, even tough we are from different cultures and backgrounds, will bring understanding, harmony and world peace. I wholeheartedly second those sentiments. So to quote my recoded Indonesian lesson – if you ever have the opportunity to visit Bandung, be sure to visit Pak Udjo.

A Walk in the Village

For the last ten years I’ve spent most of my non-working time in a small village near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. There’s no public transport where I live, and a limited tourist bus system. Most locals rely on motorbikes, which are the ‘family car’ here – sometimes up to five balance precariously along with the shopping and the odd chicken. My main form of transport is my bicycle.

On a recent evening I was going to visit a friend for a birthday dinner. She lives about 5km from me. I usually cycle, but as it was going to be dark on my way home, and it’s rainy season, and that she had promised to organise me a lift home; I decided to walk. The evening was clear, although there was the hint of an ominous looking rain cloud lurking in the distance. It was lovely time for a stroll in the warm twilight.

Ubud View. Bali, Indonesia

As is the custom, everyone was out at this time of day. Farmers had returned from the fields, workers had arrived from their offices, kids were out enjoying the last light of the day. Not far from my house, near the river, was an old Ibu carrying a large basket of foliage on her head. “Mau ke Mana?” I enquired – literally “where are you going?”, but more often used as a polite greeting. “I’ve come from the garden, this is food for the pigs” she replied. “Cantik”, – “Beautiful”, she commented. I brushed off the compliment in the polite Indonesian way, “Oh, Ibu, thank you, but just average. You are beautiful too. All women are beautiful!” We both smiled and I bid her goodbye. Further along the path, the hubbub of a volleyball game was in progress. Every afternoon, in almost every village, groups of young men gather to play volleyball. A group of men on motorbikes had assembled to watch. There was cheering and shouting as the ball went flying out of bounds and one man climbed the fence to retrieve it.

The ‘kaki limas’ – mobile food carts, we’re doing a brisk business. Steaming bakso, meatball soup, was being served up in chipped china bowls; the charcoaly aroma of sate sticks grilling on coals, a group gathering in anticipation. Everyone greeted me with “Hello”, as I passed. “Mau. Ke mana?” many enquired. “Jalan, Jalan”, just going for a walk, I replied. My answer met with a smile or a nod. The smell of ‘nangka’, jackfruit, wafted past. This rather large pungent fruit is a popular local treat, and grows along the roadside.

A group of teenage girls called out, then giggled shyly when I replied in Indonesian. A small gang of young boys whizzed past on bikes way too big for them. I felt a drop of rain, but the sky still looked clear. Mums balancing babies on their hips, while feeding them rice porridge with their fingers, lingered by the gates.

Another volley ball game was in progress… I’d moved on to the neighbouring village. This one had a larger audience, and the cheers, were more rowdy. Another spit of rain, and then another. Time to open the umbrella. As I opened my umbrella, so did the heavens, but this tropical burst was short lived.  A tailless cat scampered by, avoiding a truck laden with lime green LPG canisters. A cyclist sped past, this time a young man in full lycra cycling gear complete with helmet, a sight that’s becoming more common on the roads here. Previously when I rode my bike around Bali, I was only old accompanied by toothless farmers or young kids on bikes.

The light faded as I entered I the village where my friend lives. A couple of old men lounging in the security post at the entrance to the village welcomed me with a warm smile. I too had a grin on my face, and was soon at my destination. I then resolved to get out more; slow down, and take a stroll more often to remind myself why I love living in this delightfully warm and friendly little part of the planet.

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.