Blue Fire and Brimstone – Sulfur Mining in Kawah Ijen

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Kawah Ijen, aka Ijen Crater.

The active volcano of Kawah Ijen (Ijen Crater) in Eastern Java has become an unlikely tourist attraction in recent years due to its exposure by western media outlets such as National Geographic and the BBC.  The media coverage has not only focused on the fascinating natural processes happening here, but also on the humans that make a living mining the sulfur from this volcano.

Ijen Crater is one of multiple volcanoes in a large 20 kilometer-wide caldera on the eastern end of the island of Java. The volcano has the largest highly-acidic lake in the world inside its crater. It also has one of the world’s most productive sulfur vents. The sulfur is collected manually and carried out of the crater by a couple hundred miners who make about $15- $20 USD a day. The loads of sulfur can weigh up to 200 pounds and are carried in double wicker baskets on the miners’ shoulders. The miners in Ijen Crater have been featured in a number of news stories and documentaries which highlight their perilous working conditions (see links further down).

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A miner breaking up the sulfur into manageable chunks.

Seeing active volcanoes in Java was very high on the “to do list” for our trip so hiking Kawah Ijen was something we really needed to do. We hired a driver (thanks Fyan) and headed for Mount Ijen at 1am from the east coast city of Banyuwangi. We set off from the base of the mountain at 2:30am hiking by the light of our headlamps. The only other person on the trail at that point was a sulfur miner heading to the crater.

When we neared the crater’s edge the sulfuric smoke began to hit us and we put on our (fairly useless) masks to try to shield us from the fumes.  We began our descent into the crater on a rocky track that was much trickier than the smooth dirt trail that we had been on. About 3/4 of the way down the blue flames of burning sulfuric gas and liquid sulfur came into view.  After getting bombarded by toxic fumes while watching the flames, we decided to head to the bottom of the crater by the lake to get a closer view of the sulfur vents.

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Sulfur vents and deposits.

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Pipes drilled into the active vent concentrate the sulfuric gas into blood-red liquid sulfur which hardens into yellow sulfur deposits that are broken up and carried away.

After checking out the vents, we headed partway back up the hill to watch the blue flames from a rock ledge overlooking the mining area. We stayed here until dawn watching the flames and mining activity below us (with many other tourists by that point).

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The blue flames – burning sulfuric gas and liquid sulfur.

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Blue flame, yellow sulfur, red headlamp light.

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Enjoying the toxic view.

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Morning light appearing in the crater.

Here is a link to a National Geographic article about the geology of the crater with stunning photos of the blue flames.

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These masks didn’t really help much…we got better at holding our breath and closing our eyes as time went on.

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A miner breaking apart the sulfur in the early morning hours in the video below:

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As the sun came up, the blue color of the lake combined with the yellow sulfur was otherworldly. The huge volcano dwarfed the people collecting sulfur at the crater bottom.

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The morning light revealed the intense colors of the scene before us.

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The loads commonly weigh up to 200 pounds.

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The miners now make some extra rupiah by guiding visitors into the crater, selling pieces of sulfur,  and by letting people take their photos.

Here is a BBC article link about the sulfur miners.

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The steep climb out of the crater.

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Sulfur crystals.

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Volcano tourists…there were about five domestic tourists for every foreigner.

Here is an excerpt from a BBC show about the dangerous work of the miners:

After a few hours in the crater we followed several miners and climbed back to the top. We then headed up to a vantage point on the craters edge. As the sky became brighter, the colorful views of the crater and the caldera beyond became even more incredible.

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Happy to be out of the smoke.

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View across the caldera.

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Yellow sulfur and aquamarine acid lake.

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The view from the crater rim was impressive.

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One last look into the crater before departing.

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Sulfuric smoke drifting drifting down the outer edge of the mountain.

Taking the trip into this volcano definitely left us in awe of nature once again, and certainly made us appreciate our relatively privileged position in life. Being able to travel and see so many interesting places is not something we are taking for granted.

At the base of the mountain we were happy to breathe the clean mountain air again, and to be headed to our next volcanic destination, Mount Bromo.

2 thoughts on “Blue Fire and Brimstone – Sulfur Mining in Kawah Ijen

  1. Wow- I feel like I just looked through a National Geographic article! Those blue flames!

    And those masks didn’t do you any good (as you know)… those are for shielding particulate only, not gas.

    Seeing mining operations that are hand labor is quite a stark reminder to check one’s privilege. I feel so shielded from knowing where we get our minerals. Thanks for enlightening that view.

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  2. Safety (Wikipedia)
    Hydrogen sulfide is a highly toxic and flammable gas (flammable range: 4.3–46%). Being heavier than air, it tends to accumulate at the bottom of poorly ventilated spaces. Although very pungent at first, it quickly deadens the sense of smell, so victims may be unaware of its presence until it is too late. For safe handling procedures, a hydrogen sulfide material safety data sheet (MSDS) should be consulted.[21]
    Did the volcano come with an MSDS????? Maybe your next up close volcano should be by drone. Just sayin’.

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