Sulphur miners risk their lives on an active volcano. How do they do it?
Agus Alam turned from watching me struggle up towards him, and looked down the mountainside beside the steep path to the squares of rice fields far below. Beyond him, the stubby grey-treed slope, folding and unfolding like a fan, was cut with a path like a fault-line. The first miners were beginning the first descent of the day down it from the smoky crater high above. Slung across their backs were woven baskets filled to the brim with brilliant yellow ore. Sulphur.
In Kawah Ijen (One Crater), far eastern East Java, sulphur ore is mined by hand from an active volcanic crater. On a break from my studies in Yogyakarta in April, I took the night bus heading out that way with vague intentions of photojournalism and trying to understand what a life of hard physical labour would be like. I came back knowing only that I would probably never be able to understand the lives the people I saw, and that to write about them here as though I did would be a flat-out lie.
Java's buckled spine of volcanoes, from Krakatau off the west coast to Gunung Merapi and Kawah Ijen in the far east, form part of the 'ring of fire' that surrounds the Pacific Ocean. Earlier, as my motorcycle taxi buzzed towards the volcano and up its slopes, I had seen the nearby peaks by the vast triangles of stars they blotted out in the pre-dawn sky. Now the sun was feeling its way across the slopes, slowly unfolding them to me, yet leaving so much hidden.
I had caught up with Agus as I began up the path that led from the end of the road and the weigh station where the transport truck was parked. It was 3km up to the crater rim. Short and simple hair, a dirty tee shirt, shorts and thongs; he was in his twenties, about my age or younger, and walked slowly, unwillingly. It was his first day as a sulphur miner.
Agus Alam quietly answered my questions as we ascended. He said he had come to work as a miner for the same reasons his father had many years before. They were poor and owned no land. Agus told me how every day his father left their home well before dawn to walk almost 20km from their village to the crater. Sometimes he stayed away for a couple of weeks and lived on the mountain in a shack shared with other miners. Agus would only ever see his father in daylight on the days he was too sick or tired to work.
His father, I imagined, suffered from many of the ailments I was told are common to those who work in the sulphur clouds. Bad eyes, sore lungs, teeth corroded from the acid fumes. Agus must have known that he too would develop the calluses on his shoulders where up to 100kg of sulphur was balanced for three descents from the crater every day. He said he hoped not to work there long. You could earn a fair bit of money, especially if you were strong. The miners were paid for the weight they carried: about Rp200 (less than 5 cents) a kilo. He would save enough, perhaps, to buy a motorbike and cart around the throngs of tourists that come to see the crater and snap pictures of themselves and a miner in the dry season. But Agus carried his fear as a burden up the mountain, just as later he would carry those yellow rocks down, the load measured with every step.
We came to a station on the path where the sulphur is weighed and the miners' shacks stand that Agus had told me about. In one shack, before my eyes became used to the gloom, it seemed as though stars surrounded me. I remembered for a moment the stars that had been blotted out from the night sky by the mountains. These pinpoints of light, however, turned out to be a thousand holes in the walls and roof. I wondered what the miners did when it rained. They would never be able to avoid a drip from the ceiling or a draught from the walls. The black soot coating everything and the pile of wood in the corner bore testament to the way they staved off the cold and clogged their lungs with smoke at the same time.
Up the path the vegetation began to thin out. There was less lush green. The trees were getting greyer and the undergrowth withered to a scrubby, stunted tangle. And then, as I turned a corner in the path, just by where an old miner had stopped to adjust his load of brilliant yellow rocks, I was there. It was as though the peak of the mountain had been struck and shattered. The grey, gaping wound was filled with a grey, steaming lake. The crater rim, jagged like torn paper, encircled it. I could smell the sulphur; I could see it too. Yellow steam roared out of vents in the rock below me. It twisted upward and was carried east by the morning breeze. To the west, up an invisible path through the exploded landscape, the miners ascended, visible only by the way their burdens flared against the dead landscape. It was like Jacob's Ladder in reverse. But these were men, not angels or devils.
Gas would drift over me and I would be reduced to a hacking, coughing mess between the grey rocks.
My descent into this pit was graceless. The miners, balancing the baskets of ore on their shoulders, knew where to place their sandaled feet. They heaved their way up the occasionally vertical route to the rim. I clambered over boulders and slid across sections of gravelly stones, thankful I had my steel-capped work-boots on. The path seemed to go on forever. The rim thrust up above me like a wall. I crossed a stream of hot water where a miner washed the yellow from his hands and then I was at the mine face.
The sulphur vents were far above me. Spilling down from them was a wall of congealed sulphur ore, that brilliant, noxious yellow. Pipes had been built to capture some of the gas and carry it down the slope and let it sweep back up, aiding the process of congealment. The miners would climb up by the pipes and break off the ore, their eyes and lungs stinging from the fumes. By the time I got there though, most of the miners had gone. Just a few old men were left, making artificial sulphur stalactites for tourists by getting the sulphur to congeal on twigs and leaves. I would have to go soon, they said. The wind was about to change and blow the gas westward, over the path to the rim. I watched the rushing steam and the dead lake for a while and then climbed back up the crater wall. Occasionally the gas would drift over me and I would be reduced to a hacking, coughing mess between the grey rocks.
I can never place my feet in their sandals and walk that ruptured path to the rim. I can't tell you what it is like to wonder if one more rock will feed your family or break your back. All I can do is tell you of the shadows of desperate men I saw up there. Some old, trapped in a job that will destroy their health and perhaps ultimately kill them, but that provides for their families, as long as they keep carrying ore. Some young, with their eyes constantly turned down the slopes, working at the mine only so that, one day, they will not have to any more.