Where beauty meets danger

Text and photography: Jürgen Höntsch

When I retired at the age of 60 there were still many things I wanted to do and places I wanted to visit. So when an old friend asked me a favour, to help a friend in far-off Indonesia, I accepted without hesitation.

This part of the world had always fascinated me and now, years later, I have returned many times and it continues to fascinate me.

There my work (in the ceramics industry) is appreciated, and as an added benefit there are all sorts of leisure activities to keep you entertained: sightseeing, off-roading, hunting, fishing, and diving, in exotic places like Sumatra, Borneo, Celebes, Komodo, Bali, among the 17 000 islands that make up Indonesia. And, for the brave, there is my favourite activity: climbing active volcanoes.

Indonesia is an adventurous destination, and my latest trip there was very eventful: bomb attacks at two of Jakarta’s luxury hotels just after I arrived, a mountain hike that was almost fatal, and an earthquake that measured 7,3 on the Richter scale!

The earthquake caused minor damage in the capital city (and chaotic traffic-jams) but in the surrounding countryside over a hundred people were killed, and tens of thousands lost their homes. It was encouraging to read that members of the Bandung 4×4 club were among the first to provide help to people trapped in a mountain village, isolated by a landslide.

The destination for my trip was Mount Ijen in East Java. Earlier in the year I had watched a National Geographic TV documentary on the sulphur miners who mined in this volcano, and the spectacular images stuck in my mind. I was determined to see it for myself.

Reaching Mount Ijen is not simple, especially when you are pressed for time. There are basically two routes to get there from Jakarta: The first is via Surabaya, and takes about seven hours by car. The other is from the east, and is more complicated. Nevertheless we decided on the latter, and on a long weekend in August we set off.

The first step was flying from Jakarta to Denpasar, the capital city of Bali. From there we travelled by car to Gilimanuk in the west of Bali, where we caught a ferry across the Bali Strait to Java, arriving at our hotel that afternoon.

We had arranged a Daihatsu 4×4 for our trip, and at 4am sharp the next morning we set off in this little vehicle, the four of us in great spirits about the adventure ahead of us.

We drove through dense virgin forest and then, higher up, through cool, green Arabica coffee plantations. But in the pre-dawn gloom our views were limited. After driving for an hour and a half we arrived at the Paltuding forestry post at the foot of Mount Ijen. Here, at an altitude of 1850m, we joined the paved walking trail up the mountain.

Encouraged by the chilly morning air we climbed towards the crater’s rim. Though the climb was steep and tiring in places, we were consoled by spectacular vistas of glorious mountains bathed in the morning sunlight.

Along the way we met up with some of the traditional miners, heading to the crater to harvest sulphur. My friends were in need of a rest, and while they did just that I continued with one of the miners.

As we trudged along we passed a number of miners heading back down the mountain, chunks of solid sulphur slung over their shoulders in bamboo baskets. In a mix of English and the local Bahasa the miner and I made conversation, and I learned that the miners carry between 60 and 90kg per trip. They are paid about Rp600 (R0.50) per kg by a cosmetic factory near the Paltuding forestry post. So, if they do two trips a day they earn about US$9 (R65): a poor return for such back-breaking labour.

As we walked the miner pointed out the neighbouring mountains, Merapi and Raung, towering above us at over 3300m. Mount Ijen is only 2800m high, and the crater itself is obviously a bit lower. Bird calls echoed through the wakening jungle. Then I heard a strange croaking sound that I had never heard before. “Ayam utang,” my new friend smiled. A forest or mountain chicken, in English.

We walked for an hour and a half before we came to the next landmark, Pos Bundar. This is a relic of the Dutch influence on the area, and is a weighing station where the miners weigh their sulphur loads. I waited for my friends to catch up to me, but when they failed to arrive I decided to carry on alone.

Getting to the crater lake isn’t easy, and the trail is a constant ascent all the way to the rim. The attraction of seeing that lake for myself, though, kept me going. When I finally reached the crater rim I was greeted by a stunning view of the dark, jade-coloured water far below, wreathed in a dense fog of sulphurous fumes. Then the sun rose above the rim and struck the water, turning it into the most spectacular turquoise and emerald green I have ever seen.

Tourists intending to visit Kawah Ijen (the lake) are advised to get going very early in the morning because later in the day the lake is often blanketed in the sulphurous fog. Not only does this fog make it difficult to see the views, but it also makes it difficult to breathe, and can be dangerous.

The water of Kawah Ijen is extremely acidic, with a Ph level of zero – strong enough to dissolve clothing and even flesh. A French tourist once ignored his tour leader’s advice and plunged into the water, with fatal consequences.

My companions had still not arrived at the rim and the blue waters were tempting me closer, so I followed a group of tourists down the narrow, steep trail. The sulphur fumes get denser as you get closer to the water, and visitors are strongly advised to use a mask, or at least a damp handkerchief, to cover their nose and mouth. My mask was still with my friends, but a breeze was keeping most of the fumes away from us and so I went closer to the miners, taking some fantastic photographs.

I walked towards the west wall of the crater, where miners were collecting sulphur. Extremely hot sulphur gas escapes from the earth, cools into an orange-brown liquid, and then solidifies. This pure sulphur is broken into lumps by the miners and carried out of the crater, and then down the long trail to the cosmetics factory.

A few French students joined me, and we gazed into vents in the earth, filled with stalactites and stalagmites of varying hues, all made of pure sulphur. While we were taking photographs the wind shifted direction and within seconds we were enveloped in a cloud of poisonous fumes. Battling to see, and battling even harder to breathe, we made our escape, coughing like chain smokers. I decided to wait for my mask before I did any more exploring.

In the meantime the arrival of the sun had changed the scenery into a kaleidoscope of colours, and I carried on walking around the lake taking photographs. Finally, though, my friends arrived and I got my mask.

I sent my friends to the places I had seen, and then (with my mask on!) went in search of a souvenir. The area I headed to was a bit secluded, and no one was mining it at the time. I climbed a gully, not far from the water’s edge, scrabbling over loose gravel. Beautiful golden stalactites surrounded me, and I thought that a piece would make the perfect memento. I reached out for one, but it burnt my fingers. I tried another one, and all of a sudden all hell broke loose.

I was immediately covered in thick fumes, blind and unable to breathe, and my expensive mask didn’t help at all. My lungs were burning as I tried to escape, bumping into rocks and rolling down the gully. I still couldn’t see a thing, but I knew I had to keep to the right so that I didn’t stumble into the lake. I fell, and crawled towards where I thought I would be in the clear, but rocks barricaded my way.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I saw silhouettes through the haze, and struggled in their direction. With what felt like my last bit of energy and willpower I made it into the clear. I was exhausted like never before, and my head and lungs felt like they were ready to burst.

After minutes of recovery I took a long hard look at the situation I had put myself in: you’d think at my age I would have known better.

With shaky legs I started my climb out of the crater, and about halfway up was again caught in fumes, although they weren’t as bad this time. At the rim I couldn’t help but carry on walking. The air was clean, I was feeling better, and beautiful photographs made it all worthwhile.

Later, when we had walked down to the forestry post, my legs felt as though I had run a comrade’s marathon. I still wanted to see the nearby Blawan waterfall that cascades 30 metres, and has water of two colours, but we decided to leave that for next time. As it was Kris, our financial person, had to be carried out of the crater on a stretcher!

So, with unbelievable memories of a day that was wonderful, terrifying and exhausting we made our way back to the vehicle for the trip back to Bali. There we finished the day off with seafood at sunset on the Jimbaran beach, one of my favourite places of all time.