Breathing In The Fumes On Mount Ijen

The second leg of my mountain-climbing adventure in Indonesia created some trepidation. The first leg of my adventure started in Bali when we climbed Mount Batur in Kintamani.  There, I struggled and took an hour longer than my friends to peak, and my fears almost crippled me to a standstill when I slipped on scree while coming down the mountainside.

My experience created personal embarrassment because I had slowed down my friends who were more fit and brave. As a consequence, I was nervous about climbing another mountain, Mount Ijen on the eastern part of Java. I did not want to relive the same difficulties I had encountered in Bali. Yet, at the same time, I tried to think positive because many travelers had climbed it fairly easily.

Three of us had traveled from Kuala Lumpur to Bali, and after the Mount Batur climb, another friend, met us in Bali and became our latest addition for the Mount Ijen adventure. We drove to Gilimanuk on the westernmost tip of Bali, which is the departure point for ferries to Java. The ferry crossing took only forty-five minutes. Upon arrival in Ketapang port in Java, we were whisked off for a quick lunch and then to our accommodation (Ijen Resort & VIllas) in Banyuwangi province where we stayed the following two nights.

*For reviews on Ijen Resort & Villas, click here

mount ijen ketapang ferry to banyuwangi

Just a short distance from the hotel, our driver dropped us off at a nearby village, so we could walk around and enjoy the beautiful views of the terraced rice fields and the tranquil atmosphere of the village. It was a lovely walk – the weather was slightly cloudy, the air was fresh, no traffic – it was peaceful. It was also the month of Ramadhan and we could hear prayer recitations broadcast from a nearby mosque.

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mount ijen landscape

At the hotel, guests were mainly preparing for or recovering from the hike. We spent our first evening whiling away the hours at the patio drinking Bintang beer (I guess that wasn’t a good way to properly prepare for mountain climbing!), chatting and listening to crickets.

After a hearty breakfast in the morning, we set off for Mount Ijen at eight o’clock. Remember how nervous I was about this climb? Well, it was not as bad as Mount Batur in Bali. The climb was gradual and the surface of the tracks was not rocky.

Mount Ijen is a volcano which has a one-kilometre wide, turquoise-coloured, acid lake crater. Ijen Crater (Kawah Ijen in Bahasa Indonesia) is also the site of a labour intensive sulfur mining operation, where workers climb up and down to the crater, mine the sulfur and carry baskets of sulfur chunks on their shoulders. Each basket of sulfur weighs about seventy kilos and some workers carry up to ninety kilos. They may take a breather or two, but never rest long. I was told some of them actually sprint their way up and down the mountain with their sulfur-laden baskets! We wore proper hiking shoes to climb the volcano but I saw these workers wear normal rubber boots and some only wore rubber slippers.

It is a risky and hazardous job, mining done only twice a day but up to two weeks in a month because the toxic fumes from the sulfur make them susceptible to respiratory ailments. The workers do not earn much, an average of only US$5 a day. There is a weighing station at mid-point of the mountain, and this is where the workers weigh the “fruits of their labour”. I rested at the weighing station and observed the workers arriving at the station, looking tired and worn from the hike but being paid very little. It broke my heart.

mount ijen crater weighing station

We continued climbing, and I could sense we were about to reach the crater rim. The air changed to acrid smoke and I could see clouds of sulfur smoke blowing in the distance. The landscape changed from thick greenery to sparse, dried up branches. Luckily I brought a mask to cover my mouth and nose – at one point, I could not really see what was ahead of me as there was a lot of sulfur smoke. In spite of that, these workers did not wear any masks.

Related Post: Mount Bromo, Indonesia – A Weekend Getaway

mount ijen crater sulfur smoke

mount ijen crater sulfur smoke masks

Our guide brought us closer to the crater rim and at that moment, the wind changed direction, and we got a clear view of the crater. It was breathtaking! The colour of the lake crater was indeed turquoise and some parts of the lake took on an emerald colour. Two of my friends went further to climb down to the lake to watch as the workers mined, scraped and collected sulfur. One friend tried to carry a worker’s basket, and despite his athletic fitness and strength, he could not carry the basket for too long because it was too heavy!

mount ijen crater rim

mount ijen crater turquoise

mount ijen crater sulfur

We stayed at the crater for a little longer to rest, though the air was not exactly safe for to breathe. I reflected on my physical (and sometimes mental) struggles to climb the two mountains during our trip – Mount Batur and Mount Ijen – and realised that no matter how slow I was, trudging up the mountains, I was a very fortunate person. I wore proper shoes, and a mask to cover my nose and mouth from the acrid smoke. I rested whenever I felt tired. I drank water when I was thirsty. The workers, on the other hand, didn’t wear masks and some only wrapped a ragged cloth over their mouths. They hardly rested because they needed to mine as much sulfur as they could within a short period of time. More sulfur means more income. They didn’t drink a drop of water because it was the month of Ramadhan – they were fasting.

mount ijen crater miners

My struggles were nothing in comparison with these workers who struggle daily to make this hazardous journey – breathing toxic fumes – to earn money, whatever little it may be. That perspective gave me some reassurance that I could still climb mountains – just train harder and not to give up easily.

*This post was reproduced in Suja Travel on 4th March 2016. 


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*Linking to #FarawayFiles.

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  1. Wow. Thank you for sharing this post. It is indeed a beautiful spectacle once the clouds push back. What an intense job, something I have never seen before. I appreciate your respectful perspective on how hard it would be and the toils it entails. Thanks for linking with #FarawayFiles, Erin

  2. Wow,I didn’t even realise these was such a thing as sulfur mining! Thanks for writing about your visit, I’ve learnt something new today. I’m also glad your climb went better than expected!

    1. I didn’t know that sulfur can be mined from volcanoes – I had always thought sulfur mining was similar to coal mining. Thanks for your comment Christine, glad that you enjoyed the post 🙂

  3. This is such an interesting and thoughtful post, Kat. Good on you for being brave enough (both physically and mentally) to make the climb after your difficult first experience. It’s so hard to read about the difficult living conditions of these workers though. Thanks for highlighting it on #FarawayFiles

    1. Thanks Clare, I haven’t climbed another mountain or volcano since that trip though I have made efforts to overcome my fear of heights by climbing hills slowly. The Ijen Crater was certainly an experience to remember for a long time – we are very lucky indeed not to resort to this type of work to make a living.

  4. What a beautiful place and experience! I am not goof climbing mountains, hills or anything with an incline. I know I have to work in becoming a bit fitter. However, like you, I am thankful for the opportunity to make it to the top. #FarawayFiles

  5. What a stunning colour and a fascinating experience but it sounds a dangerous and arduous life for the workers – a real insight for me into somewhere I didn’t know of. #farawayfiles

  6. Wow! Absolutely stunning! But a little surprising that tourists are allowed to visit an active mine which is harmful to breath in the toxins, but I can totally see why! It’s goregous! Glad you got over your slight fear of the heights! #FarawayFiles

  7. It looks sad with the way workers are carrying those baskets!
    It’s not much that they are paid too…and the conditions (smoke) would take a toll on health also.

    Hope you are feeling better though with the first hike problem.

    1. Yes, it was heartbreaking to see them carrying those heavy baskets especially in those conditions and the circumstances that forced them to do it 🙁 I’m going to climb another volcano in Indonesia in mid-Feb but from what I read, there are steps built to ease the climbing experience hahah..will see how that goes, wish me luck!

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