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26 November 2011 / leggypeggy

Ijen Plateau—Java’s well kept secret (16 photos)

A sulphur miner on the Ijen Plateau reaches the rim of the crater.

A few days ago, Poor John and I peeled off from the rest of the group to make a side trip to the Ijen Plateau in East Java, Indonesia. We stopped there last year and were so impressed by the landscapes, the crater (Kawah Ijen) and the acid lake, that a repeat visit was essential. We urged others to join us, but there were no takers. And while I was keen to go, I’ll admit that I wasn’t looking forward to the 3-kilometre struggle to the top.

Maybe that’s what keeps Ijen relatively tourist-free. The crater rim is at 2600 metres, and the climb to reach it has an average incline of 17 per cent. Fortunately after six months of walking long distances and over long hours, I made it up with only a few breaks. Poor John says I was much faster this year and, by not rushing, I was hardly puffed at the top. If you ever get there yourself, note that a concrete pillar marks every 100 metres so you have an idea of how you’re going.

But it’s not just the climb that keeps Ijen a secret from the outside world. The plateau has Indonesia’s most famous crater and acid lake, but the guide books do a terrible job of telling people about them and the remarkable sulphur miners. The Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring doesn’t even mention it. Yet we’ve met plenty of people who say they think Ijen is a more memorable, fascinating and worthwhile destination than Mount Bromo. And I agree.

The sulphur miners are a sight in themselves. These guys—all short and wiry—make the climb at least twice a day. Once they reach the top, they descend another half kilometre into the crater to gather up to 80 kilos of sulphur which they then bring to the top and finally cart to the bottom. Most trips are done in stages. They say the miners start work about 2 a.m., bringing up two sets of carry baskets that rest across their shoulders. After collecting their first set of sulphur, they park the baskets near the top or halfway down, and return to the crater for a second load. From a financial point of view, they think it’s worth it. Each miner earns about 100,000 rupiah a day, or just over $11.

You can snap a lot of pics, but if you get a miner to pose, you should pay a tip. I have done that willingly—what an awful job they have—but the spontaneous shots are always better.

While there are warnings against doing so, you can also descend with the miners. Both years, Poor John and I have declined to do this. The descent is steep, gravelly and slippery. I may be game, but I’m not stupid.

Besides the sulphur fumes are choking. I asked a tour guide how many years a miner is able to work. He said there had been some medical testing done recently that showed they had no ill effects, but larger than normal lungs. That’s good, because almost every miner who passed me on his way up or down was smoking a cigarette.

The lake is also striking. It is the world’s largest lake of highly acid (pH<0.5) and mineralised volcanic water, and is a lurid shade of blue-green. It sits at 2368 metres and has an average depth of 176 metres. In good weather the colour combination—of blue-green, sulphur yellow and red rock—is breathtaking. Unfortunately, this year when we reached the top, we encountered a thick fog plus huge, billowing sulphur fumes. Within 30 minutes, it cleared enough for me to capture some eerie shots., but then the fog settled in again.

The weather was perfect for our visit last year, so I’ll search out more photos when I get home and write an accompanying blog entry. I’m sure there are some better views of the lake.

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Leave a Comment
  1. Derrick / Nov 27 2011 10:37 am

    They had a TV program on about the sulpher miners, it does seem a brutal way of earning a living, and dam hard work, (just think some moan about the 30 minute drive to work, let alone climbing a mountain twice a day)
    It doesnt look very welcoming, and the sulpher fumes must be horrendous, surprised about them having larger lungs though, I thought the fumes would be corrosive and kill em off

    I think I’d like to have a shufti at this when I go (there does seem a lot I am going to look at )

    I agree, it has got to be better shareing something like that, bit like a sunrise or sunset, on your own its just a sunrise or sunset, and showing some one a picture or film clip isnt anything like being there and seeing it


    • leggypeggy / Nov 27 2011 12:06 pm

      I hope you do go see it. If I get anywhere near Ijen again, I’ll do it a third time, or fourth or fifth. Bottom line—don’t miss it! 🙂


  2. Chris Gee / Nov 27 2011 6:04 pm

    Dear Peggy, It’s not in Lonely Planet and I can’t find it in Wikipedia or on Facebook I am checking with Hornet in Rosedale, Chris


    • leggypeggy / Nov 27 2011 7:03 pm

      I’ll see about adding it to Wikipedia, and I know it’s in the Lonely Planet on Indonesia only.This place is amazing and should get more coverage. That said, there’s no need to clutter it up with tourists. 🙂


  3. Deidre / Mar 19 2014 11:31 am

    Hello my friend! I want to say that this article is awesome, nicely written.


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