• Denholm Hewlett

[Culture/Photography] The Sulphur Miners of Kawah Ijen Volcano (Indonesia)

Psychic Garden pays a visit to the legendary Kawah Ijen mountain, one of the most toxic and alien places on earth. A mystical complex of sulphuric crater volcanos where unprotected brimstone miners risk their lives harvesting crystallised sulphur, the "devil's gold". Featuring original photographs taken by resident creative Denholm Hewlett.


In the region of Banyuwangi, Eastern Java, Indonesia, resides Kawah Ijen Crater, a truly extraordinary spectacle. This mountain contains two of the most striking and unusual natural phenomenons on Earth; one of the planet's last active sulphuric volcanos and the world's largest acidic caldera lake, filled with steaming cyan-green water corrosive enough to dissolve metal.



Mount Ijen is infamous for producing electric-blue glowing lava, one of the most alien sights on our entire planet. These enchanting blue infernos are only visible during the dead of night, the unique colouration of these flames is a byproduct from the tons of burning liquid sulphur erupting from the belly of the superheated fumarole volcano, bursting out of the ground to illuminate the otherworldly landscapes of this ancient caldera in a supernatural toxic glow.



Mt. Ijen has been the base of a labour-intensive sulphur mining operation since 1968. The volatile crater relentlessly emits scolding hot, flammable sulphurous gases, which condense and solidify with our oxygen-rich atmosphere to produce renewable mineral crystal sulphur, nuclear-yellow molten rocks that the local residents painstakingly mine, transport and sell to local sugar refineries and factories that produce cosmetics.



What makes Kawah Ijen so remarkable is the way mankind has made use of this inhospitable mountain. The crystallised mineral sulphur extracted from Mt. Ijen is used to produce many products within the chemical and pharmaceutical industries; including matches, fertiliser, batteries, fireworks, detergents, vulcanised rubber, beauty products, and the bleaching of sugar.



The sulphur miners of Mt. Ijen are some of the bravest and hardest working men in the world. They are the humble lords of this inhospitable land. A hardened squadron of three-hundred miners operate inside the heart of this active sulphuric volcano, risking their lives collecting and transporting the "devil's gold" in immensely hazardous and unpredictable conditions.



Working as a sulphur miner is one of the most dangerous jobs in Asia and the whole world. Most of these sulphate officers have worked at the volcano for decades in devastating conditions. Some of the men work well into their seventies, other's retire earlier, their health broken. All of them bears the scars of their back-breaking labour with chronic knee problems, scarred and burned skin, damaged eyesight, rotten teeth and sulphuric lung disease.



The valiant miners use traditional steel poles to strike and break away at the source of the solidifying molten sulphur, to break apart and extract chunks of jagged yellow crystal. This is the most traditional and effective method of harvesting the sulphur, electronic drilling would be out of the question. The men face unpredictable and perilous conditions every day, they have to endure the relentless eruptions of noxious fumes entering their lungs and the immense stifling heat of the crater whilst working in near total darkness.



None of the workers are provided with any essential safety gear, most cannot afford protective equipment like goggles, gloves, gas masks, or even proper shoes. Most veterans prefer covering their faces with damp cloths or scarfs, but this doesn't stop them from breathing in all the noxious sulphurous gases of the crater, some workers have received gas masks as donations from alarmed tourists, but the majority of these men have zero protection from the plumes of suffocating toxic smoke that envelope and burn them everyday.



The enormous clouds of thick billowing noxious gas are the true nemesis of miners, these plumes of creamy sulphuric smoke are impossible to dodge as they dance menacingly throughout the crater. On windy days it can be truly devastating, rushing and swirling to smash the workers in an dense curtain of toxic smoke that leaves them stunned in their tracks, causing them to cough violently while ingest a deadly cocktail of chemicals that poisons their lungs, corrodes their skin, burns their chest and eyes, and also induced vomiting. Some of the miners can become lost in these clouds for a over a minute, emerging with bloodshot eyes, a savage cough and streaming acid tears.



The miner's believe that a giant god and countless spirits reside inside the volcano, something or someone who "looks after" Kawah Ijen. The spirit who resides in the acidic lake is referred to as "Mbah Ijen" by locals, who believe that the spirits who inhabit the vistas of this sulphuric mountain are acutely aware of the miner's perilous situation. Some of the miner's even sleep and live inside the volcano's crater, dividing half their time between their family homes in the valley and their makeshift campsite beside the toxic lake.


I travelled to the Kawah Ijen Volcano complex back in September, 2017, to meet some of these incredible men, learn of their challenging everyday experiences and witness their lethal working conditions first hand. The mining platoon begin their 8-hour work days with an arduous trekking mission up the mountain, they scale the steep 10,000-foot slopes of Kawah Ijen in near total darkness, heading for the volcano's summit above the clouds and the superheated fumaroles at the heart of the crater, our pathway illuminated solely by the glow of the milky way and the miner's flickering head-torches.



As we ascended, a steady stream of rugged sulphur carriers were passing by on the mountain's paths, heading for the weighting station at the base of the mountain, balancing reed-woven baskets full to the brim with chunks of renewable, nuclear-yellow, sulphuric brimstone. Upon reaching the rim of the volcano, the odour of burnt matches, fried egg and smoked garlic was hanging thick in the air. This intense nauseating odour was emanating from the clouds of toxic elemental gases spewing out of the caldera below.



I was instructed to don my gas mask and we descended another kilometre down through the treacherous stone labyrinths to reach the heart of the crater's mining operation, where the legendary blue infernos rage and electrify the air, giving rise to sulphuric gas clouds and the creation of crystallised molten sulphur, one of the most essential elements for all life.



Visiting the womb of this infamous volcanic caldera was a truly unparalleled experience, it's one the most alien-looking natural landmarks on Earth. The otherworldly landscapes, menacingly noxious atmosphere and harsh sulphuric lighting felt like we had left Earth behind and been transported to another dimension, a distant nebula or another planet deep in outer space.



The miner's built a series of ceramic pipelines leading out of vents in the side of the mountain, redirecting the yellowy hydrogen sulphur as it escapes from the earth and channeling it down to designated collection points inside the crater, the molten liquid chemical is left to drip, cool down and solidify into slabs of renewable sulphur before being harvested. This pipeline system gives the miner's a simplified way to extract and collect their toxic bounty.



The carriers load their reed-woven baskets with around 200 pound of mineral sulphur, before transporting these bone-breaking loads 15,000 miles, back up to the rim of the crater and then all the way down the steep side slopes of Mt. Ijen to the base of the mountain. Once they reach the weighting station they can cash in their bounty, earning roughly one to three dollar for each load, which the miner's spend on personal luxuries, such as cigarettes.


The Ijen miners complete this intense journey two or three times a day, transporting their own bodyweight in sulphuric rock, many wearing worn out shoes that offer little protection, ascending the stoney crater pathways give the men chronic knee and back problems, many cannot walk later in life. The miner's sometimes have to deliver the sulphur directly to the refineries several miles away. They receive between three to five dollars for every single round trip, making roughly between 10 to 15 dollars for an extensive day's work.



For extra income, miners carve small souvenirs out of the sulphur and sell them to the thousands of tourists who visit the site every year. The trinkets are typically shaped into love-hearts, sunflowers, rabbits, native fish, turtles and starfish. In recent decades, there has been growing controversy surrounding the fact that the miners have become one of the main tourist attractions at Kawah Ijen, hundreds of travellers with cameras flock to Ijen everyday, asking the miner's to pose for invasive selfies and objectifying photos in exchange for small tips, which many consider to be a form of exploitative "poverty tourism" and the commodification of human suffering.



Mining tours are a form of cultural heritage tourism that can be found all over the world, from Africa to Australia to India. The key difference with Mount Ijen is that it's still active and dangerous. Sulphur mining is one of the highest paid professions in Indonesia and many miner's pride themselves on their physical strength and their role in attracting visitors to the island of Java.



The miner's are also fearful of losing their jobs, so they don't complain about their challenging conditions, poverty and lack of work is what drives these men forward. These men earn five times as much money working at Ijen then they would at the local coffee plantations in the valleys below.



These vulnerable men work in one of the most lethal places on earth and their intense physical labour is effectively destroying their bodies in the process. Although their work is life-threatening, the miners embrace their collective fears to perform this strenuous work ritual, there is a tremendous camaraderie between all the workers and they are immensely respected people in their communities. They perform this perilous labour work with pride, skill and dignity, to ensure their families have enough income to survive.



Mount Kawah Ijen is sublime. This legendary volcano complex has captivated scientists and fascinated travellers for over two centuries, in recent years there has been an influx of tourists flocking to visit Kawah Ijen, over a thousand a day in high season, to witness the majestic electric blue flames and the awe-inspiring sulphur miners who are the valiant guardians of this mysterious and unpredictable world. I believe all these men NEED to be provided with essential protective equipment if the mining is to continue.


Check out the full gallery of Kawah Ijen photographs taken by resident creative Denholm Hewlett, (September, 2017) ~


~ To see the courageous Sulfur miners of Ijen crater in action, check the segment below, taken from the remarkable documentary film "Samsara". ~


~ Psychic Garden

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