The Sulfur Miners of Mount Ijen
In the summer over 4,000 people visit the Mount Ijen, a volcano mountain on the island of Java in Indonesia, during the night to see the “Blue Fire”. A fire that is the result of the highly toxic sulfur that is a rich resource in this volcano crater.
Not only night photography can be interesting to pursue there, but also the day has a lot to offer for us photographers.
I spent 5 weeks with a local family in a small village and want to share my experience of documenting the sulfur miners and share some tips if you are interested in a trip there yourself.
About Mt. Ijen
Location of Mt. Ijen
The Mt. Ijen is on the far east side of the island Java. The biggest city near the Mt. Ijen is Banyuwangi, roughly 1 1/2 hour driving distance from the city center. Java is also home to the capital Jakarta and other bigger cities like Yogyakarta and Surabaya.
There are multiple options to visit Mt Ijen depending if you come from the west or east. If You have been in Jakarta and are interested in more impressions of Java, then a road-trip might be the right choice for you to visit all the other points of interest. Coming from the west a stay in Bondowoso might be recommended, although the trip to Ijen is significantly longer.
Other options include flying to the airport of Banyuwangi from Jakarta, or if you are in Bali, using the ferry to reach Banyuwangi. Bali is only a few hours away from Mount Ijen, so if you want to have a short change in perspective, leaving Bali for a day or two to visit Mount Ijen can be an option for you.
Nearby is also the Mountain Raung, which might be more interesting if you are looking for interesting hiking tracks.
Staying near Mt. Ijen
The City of Banyuwangi is roughly a 1 1/2 hours car drive away from the base camp of Mount Ijen. Personally, I found that distance to be too long and preferred a rather short drive.
Instead of staying in the city, there are a lot of homestays or smaller Inns that also have great services for people visiting the mountain. I had the lovely opportunity to stay with a local family for 5 weeks so that I could visit the mountain multiple times.
The advantage is, that you are staying with a local family that can provide the best service for visiting the mountain. Tourism is a big economic driver nowadays and a lot of families that were sulfur miners themselves, working every day in the crater of the mountain, now serve as tourist guides.
Of course staying in a small village in the Indonesian jungle doesn’t offer the luxury of a 5-star hotel, but you can experience the local life and the people are more than welcome to any foreigners.
So my tip would be to search for a homestay near the city Licin and take a tour to the mountain from there – check out a few options here.
Attraction of Ijen during the Day
I’d say 90% of tourists come during the night because they want to see the “Blue Fire”. Which is fair, it is a really beautiful attraction, but I believe that the Mount Ijen also has its attractive side during the day.
You are able to oversee the crater and all its surroundings, spectating the workers and the sea. The nature is on the one hand very beautiful, but also very surreal at this volcano. Looking at the sea it looks like one of those interesting places where you just want to jump right in and cooldown after a long walk to the crater.
In reality, you wouldn’t survive swimming there for very long. The sulfur also made the water highly toxic and swimming obviously wouldn’t be a great idea. Same applies to the “fog” which is often highly toxic sulfur smoke as well. Gas masks are mandatory for this trip, but at least the sulfur is noticeable due to its strong smell and less likely to be confused with harmless fog.
Hiking to the Top
From the “Basecamp” it is about a 1 1/2 hours hike to the top of the crater. Be aware though, that there are some very steep passages that require some basic physical fitness. By no means, is it a hike that you should take if you are injured, ill, or simply don’t feel like in the physical constitution for this effort.
On the other hand, there is no age restriction and basically, anyone can make it to the top. There are places you can rest on the way and after around an hour, there is also a Warung that sells soft drinks, sweets or water. Be aware though, that the opening hours can be very sporadic, so it is recommended to carry some food and water yourself.
In any case, I would recommend taking a local tour guide that leads you to the top. Often times gas masks are needed, which the guides can provide. Their level of English is very basic but communication shouldn’t be an issue.
After you have arrived at the top of the crater, you have the choice of going down to the ground level and witness the sulfur yourself. This is where the fun for me begins, but also the more exhausting part.
Going down the crater requires even more physical attention. If you think that the hike was already too tiring, then I would refrain from going inside the crater. There are no handrails, no clear path, and one simple misstep can cause a very serious accident.
It is no joke that there is this sign at the top, trying to prevent any tourist from going any further.
Photographing the Sulfur Miners
My goal as a photographer was to document one of the hardest jobs on this planet. The miners, working in the crater carry around 70kg of sulfur from the bottom of the crater to the top.
They don’t do this ascent to the top once, but up to 4 times a day, bringing home more than 200kg of sulfur. They can make up to 500$ a month with this straining job, which might not sound a lot for a job that is very dangerous to their health, but in Indonesia, this is already a good amount of money to support a family.
Photographing the Sulfur miners itself is pretty easy. They are hard-working people but in general also very open to the tourists. Keep in mind though, that you are in their working space. Therefore you should respect their work and not get in their way while descending yourself.
This can be a difficult task at times because the path is so narrow that there isn’t any space for two people. Then it is just better for you to back off and let the miners pass.
Of course, with 70kg resting on your shoulder, you wouldn’t want to wait for some tourist either, so they always should have the right of way.
While they also don’t request any money for the photos, some of them sell goods made out of sulfur. If you want to support them, you might consider taking home a sulfur souvenir.
The descent takes around 30 to 45 minutes depending on how busy the path is and in which direction the wind blows the sulfur smoke. It is advisable to test the gas mask beforehand to make sure you are ready to handle it correctly when needed.
On your way down, You can find different places that just invite you to rest for a minute and take some pictures of the scenery.
Once you are on the ground level of the crater, you can either go to the left, where the sulfur pipes are, blowing the smoke into the air, or you can go to the right side to get close to were the miners actually get the sulfur. Make sure to talk with your guide beforehand where you want to go.
Getting close to the actual mining should be very carefully considered. My guide didn’t want me to go there because of the dangers involved. The smoke burns your eyes and the gas-mask doesn’t protect you 100% from the harm of the smoke.
At the mining ground, the worker will also ask for a small fee if you want to photograph there for the team. It is a fair game since they try to get you as close as possible and show you how they work, so I didn’t mind paying some little extra.
Once you captured your images, you can begin the ascent again and have a look at your photographs and this surreal place from the safety of your home.
I didn’t mind too much about my gear as I see it as working equipment. But be aware that there is a lot of smoke. I wouldn’t advise changing any lens when being near the crater because the smoke and dust will only harm your sensor.
Therefore take one lens with you that you want to use and don’t change lenses.
A UV-filter will protect your lens from the dust and minor rubble or scratches. Keep a cleaning tissue with you, just in case you want to clean the LCD-screen or just the camera itself.
After going to the Mount Ijen, all my clothes were covered in sulfur dust and so was my camera. The FujiX100F that I used was very fine with it though and didn’t make any trouble. If you are afraid of your super expensive gear, consider going there with a smaller camera first and evaluate yourself if your gear can withstand the smoke.
All in all, it was a memory for life to be there and photograph and if you are in Bali or Indonesia, you should see that impressive crater yourself. Meet local people and dive into a whole other world, that you would never see otherwise.