We have changed cars twice before lunch and the last driver ditched us just after lunch break stuffing us into a almost full minivan with another group on same itinerary. In one hand that was more fun, but it was definitely less comfortable. This time we have arrived to our accommodation for Kawah Ijen still by daylight, but it was getting dark quick. Sempel is an unassuming little village and it was pretty much deserted the time we got there. There was however a chance to buy a wildly overpriced diner. We shared one with Majka and went straight to bed.
Our instruction were to be ready at 1am with all our stuff packed and ready, so we woke up shortly after midnight, got into our hiking gear, packed and we're ready to leave for the next adventure. Shortly after 1am we were all ready sitting in the bus. It was still a good part of an hour ride away, before we could start our hike up Kawah Ijen. I have not realised until our descent that this is the best way to hike. In pitch black you just keep pushing, not thinking about the distance ahead. It was hard and exhausting. It took about 2 hours to climb Ijen and we have rented respirators on the top of the mountain. At first we thought is a fraud, making tea money, as the local Sulphur miners did not use any masks other than a piece of cloth, however trust me, you do need one! From the rim it is another about 30-40 minutes descent to the crater still in complete darkness. You are asking now why go through this in the middle of the night?! Well, it is the coolest part of the day and the only time we may get a chance of spotting the blue flames of burning sulphur, which we did have a glimpse of at the end. Kawah Ijen is a natural sulphur mine and the volcano spews out quantities of the natural mineral. Local miners take this hike up Ijen and down to the crater 2-3 times a day while carrying 75-100 kg loads on their back out from the crater and down to the village 5km away. They go down into the crater in their flip flops with only a piece of cloth for respiratory mask and right into the poisonous yellowish clouds of sulphuric steam. I got caught up in the steam on a couple of occasions and it is very unpleasant. Eyes go watery and burning right away and breathing is painful with the sting of sulphuric gases even through the masks. There is no way of seeing my own hands on front of me, let alone navigating the difficult terrain of the crater. It is a very difficult job for the locals and the conditions take a huge toll on their health. This work is not less than heroic and I feel for these miners. I tried to leave a little tip every time I've photographed, hoping that the tourists who outnumbered the miners 10 to 1 are doing the same. I can only imagine the odds in the high season are closer to 100 to one and even though the experience sometimes resembles a circus, specially with some of the 'photographers' I've encountered, it is still no less than heroic. Our guide Suki is one of the miners, but because he picked up English from the tourists he now makes one easy trip in between the 2 heavy load trips every day. One 90kg load is worth a bit more than £4 down in the village! And you thought your job sucks?!
By 8am we are standing in the car park by our bus, while whole way down Kawah Ijen I kept wondering whether I have really walked up the same way. It's probably the best that we have not seen where we are going and how much further. The sulphur mines and the miners on the other hand are unforgettable and almost distinct. After all, who in his right mind would want to breathe that poison day in day out?!