The Ring of Fire: the sulfur mines of Mt. Ijen, Java

My motivation behind visiting Mt. Ijen was to see one of Java’s most beautiful volcanic lakes, not to watch human pack mules  toil away at one of the worst jobs on earth.  However, watching  the intense labor and  man’s battle with nature  made more of an impression on me than the lake ever could.     

If the sunrise view at Mount Bromo made me feel one step closer to heaven, then the Ijen landscape of dead trees, eerie mist, and the stench of sulfur  conjured up a  Bosh-like vision of the underworld.    I imagine if Satan  himself asked you to pull his finger, the result would be identical to this spurting sulphuric cloud spewing from the caldera at Ijen.   Mt Ijen:The hemmeroids of Hades? 

And yet, fertilizer and matchmakers of the world must have Ijen’s cakes of   sulfur for their  products.   The poor souls destined to collect these dingleberries of the underworld would begin their day of toil at dawn.  A  steady stream of flip-flop clad miners make their way 3 km up to the rim of the mountain and then 200 meters down into the fuming and suffocating crater, where they time the picking and shoveling  between sporadic spouts of toxic fumes.  At only 4 cents per kilo, the men must haul loads from 70-100 kg per trip… and do it twice in one day!  

Being suffocated by sulfuric smoke is an experience I hope never to repeat.  My eyes, lungs, throat, and ever fiber of my being burned, stinged, and cried out for mercy.  When the wind picked up and engulfed me in the smoke, I was blinded by a sea of stinging yellow, unable to breathe, and unable to think of anything but escape.  My lungs were still hurting  5 hours later and I my clothes still reek of the fumes after 2 washings.   I think I will have to throw them away, or risk alienation on every bus from here on out.   

The next time I have a hard day at work at whatever job I am toiling away at,  I will try to picture the sulfur mines at Injen for just a little perspective!   

Baskets of Sulfur


Miners must time the collection between suffocating belches of smoke.


One man shows me his deformed back and blisters. I am glad he can't show me the insides of his lungs as well.


Human pack mules


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