Sulphur miners at Ijen volcano crater

In Indonesia’s East Java province, the Ijen crater is filled with one of the largest sulphuric lakes on the planet. Here, sulphur miners brave the hazadrous environment to extract blocks of pure sulphur using simple tools. Sulphur, referred to in the Bible as “brimstone”, is an essential element for all life on Earth. But its derivatives, such as sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid, can be very dangerous for the lungs and eyes and can cause very serious chemical burns.

Ijen - Sulfur Miners Going to Work

Perched high above the Banyuwangi Regency of East Java, Indonesia, is an active volcano that sits spitting 600C blue flames as noxious gases spew from its cracks. It’s one of the most toxic places on the planet but 24-hours-a-day, men can be found scurrying into depths of the smoky, poisonous crater in order to collect the volcano’s useful yellow contents. In a single day, a miner in Ijen can haul up to 100kg (220lbs) of sulphur. All for as little as $12 a day.

The sulphur is used in the paper industry, to bleach sugar and to make matches and fertiliser. The starting point of the trek is Pos Paltuding, in the middle of the Ijen Plateau, a sparsely populated highland area on the eastern tip of the island. There’s little at Pos Paltuding beyond a basic shelter where you can spend the night. Accommodation options close to the trek are limited to budget homestays; for mid-range options you need to stay further afield, such as along the east coast. My base is Arabica Homestay, on a nearby coffee plantation, from which we make a sleepy departure for our ascent at 4.30am – the turquoise acid crater lake is best seen in the early morning, before cloud descends and obscures the view.

Ijen - Sulfur Miner Returns

According to Dr. Handley, other countries once mined volcanic sulphur deposits “such as the White Island in New Zealand, which was mined during intervals from the 1880s to the 1930s” as well as Japan, Italy and Chile. However, the Ijen volcano represents the remaining bastion where one can witness this crazy scene.

So how does the Sulphur form? 

The Ijen volcano emits gases through fumaroles in the southeast side of the crater. In 1968, local miners caped these fumaroles and channelled the gases through ceramic pipes down to barrels, where it escapes with a loud rumbling sound. Inside the pipe network, the sulphur condenses and drips into the barrels as a red hot liquid. After a while it cools, turning orange, then into yellow rock-hard sulphur. To assist in the cooling and condensation inside the pipes, and to extinguish the small blue flames, miners spray water on the pipes from a small nearby reservoir.

The men work around the clock in three separate eight hour shifts, thus there is usually always someone in the mine. Most make two trips up and down the 3.5km face of the volcano, carrying baskets weighing up to 80kgs. The physicality of the job is gruelling and those that have been working in the mine for a long time bear the scars and skeletal deformity that unavoidably accompanies the work.

Ijen Crater Lake 1

However despite the dangers and seemingly meager pay, it offers villagers a better level of income than working in the surrounding rice fields. For one miner, he could make it to the volcano once a day and carry a 60kg load of sulphur that would earn him just under $8-10 dollars a day while working in the farm he would make closer to $3-5 a day.

Getting there

Jakarta is the main international airport. It is served from Gatwick by Garuda via Amsterdam. Airlines such as Qatar, Emirates, Etihad, Singapore Airlines  and Malaysia Airlines fly from the UK via their respective hubs.

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