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Working the Inferno

You have to go to Kawah Ijen in East Java. It is easy enough to reach, even if the last section of the road is decidedly bumpy and uncomfortable. There’s nothing so indescribably unique, unimaginable and also heart-wrenching. For over two hundred and fifty years, every day, in all weathers, men cut out slabs of almost pure sulphur from hot vents in the heart of the crater of a volcano. They carry anything up to 80kg in paniers strung across their backs, two times a day, to bring them to weighing stations in the village three kilometers away. That’s a steep trail too, for first they must climb out of the crater itself, then walk briskly down the trail that curls around the flank of the volcano itself, all the time trying not to slip on the mud-and-dust pathway.

I know the path personally, for I walked it up from the parking lot for visitors, over the rim of the crater and into its lake-filled heart – and then rushed down with the workers a short time later. It takes the breath out of you even without a load of sulphur on your back.

What hits you first as you step over Ijen’s rim and gaze into the volcano itself are the colors: soft grey, bright yellow and vivid turquoise. If the day is clement, a great white cloud also rises from where the sulphur is cut and prepared, way down near the lake’s edge. If the day is a bit rough, then all the colors mix together in some Turner-like impressionist swirl.

And in its very midst, an Indian trail of men, small as ants at the base, curling up a single track, sometimes lost in the steaming mist, to cross great boulders, climb steep and treacherous slopes, and carefully make their way out of their Inferno. Only to clamber back down again a few hours later.

I will never forget what I have seen here. It is truly awesome. It is also completely humbling.

First published on September 28, 2012 on the Reveal Indonesia Facebook Page